How to build a Castle

Speaker: Peter Liddle

17 January 2023

Fans of TV’s Grand Designs would have enjoyed our January meeting, which was approximately the 15th century equivalent!  Taking the Kevin McCloud role was our old friend Peter Liddle, who used a rare set of surviving accounts to lead us through the process of building of Kirby Muxloe Castle.  Though Kevin has reported on plenty of setbacks over the years, they have never included the execution of the building’s owner…

After tracing the history of castles and brick buildings in Leicestershire, Peter explained the rise of the Hastings family, who acquired land at Kirby through marriage in the early 14th century.  William Hastings supported the Yorkist cause during the Wars of the Roses.  He was knighted, married well and became a great friend and ally of Edward IV, who appointed him as Lord Chamberlain and gave him many estates and positions of power in the Midlands.  By 1474, the Lancastrian threat seemed to be over and Hastings was granted a licence to “crenellate and empark” at three places in Leicestershire.  He began with the large stone castle at Ashby that survives in ruined form today.  We don’t know whether he ever built anything at Baggrave but by 1480 work was under way at Kirby Muxloe.  Roger Bowlott from New Parks was appointed to oversee the project.

The 1480 accounts begin with making carts and buying oxen to pull them.  (Nothing came “off the shelf” in those days!)  Wood was purchased to fuel the kilns, which would eventually produce over 1.3 million bricks.  A team of “ditchers”, nearly all with Welsh names, spent a year digging the moat.  Meanwhile, slaters were repairing the existing manor house on the site – which might have been William Hastings’ birthplace – so presumably he planned to incorporate it in the new castle.

In 1481, foundations were dug and work began on the gatehouse and flanking towers.  A master mason oversaw the stonework around the windows and doors, while a team of Flemish bricklayers and “hewers” were employed for the main walls – building in brick having been practised for much longer in the Low Countries than in England.  The hewers’ brick-cutting skills can be seen in the curving vaults of the spiral staircases.  The accounts reveal the names of many of the other workers, which quite often relate to their trades, such as Smyth, Turner and Plummer.  We also learn where all the raw materials came from and, of course, their cost. 

At the end of the first year, the incomplete walls were protected with straw over the winter.  Work continued through 1482, by which time the structure was high enough for a “jenne” or hoist to be needed.  However, 1483 brought the unexpected death of Edward IV while his son Edward V was still a child.  This led to a power struggle between the family of Edward’s queen (Elizabeth Woodville of Groby) and his brother (the future Richard III).  William Hastings supported Richard until the latter seized the throne for himself, whereupon Richard had William summarily executed.  As you might expect, this caused the building at Kirby Muxloe to be stopped for a time.  However, William was given an honourable burial at Windsor and his lands were not confiscated so, after a delay, his widow resumed work on the project.

The final year of the accounts is 1484.  Masons, carpenters and plumbers were still on site and we are told that the gatehouse was thatched – an unconventional material for a castle!  Peter’s conclusion is that, contrary to the traditional view that the building was never finished, in fact the plans were scaled back to create a functional manor house, which members of the Hastings family were able to occupy until about the year 1700.  I wonder whether they were able to move in before Christmas!