April 2018 - Unfortunate Exits

A medieval archer at Chirk Castle
Published : 09 Apr 2018 Last update : 17 Apr 2018

For high-profile participants in national politics, the Middle Ages were a dangerous time. Walking away from a career failure, ghost-writing an autobiography and living on the proceeds of internationally-broadcast chat shows wasn’t an available option. Life by the sword all-too-often meant sudden death by the same means!

In this month’s blog, I would like to tell you about the unpleasant final moments of a few of the earlier encumbants of the castle – it was a blood-spattered age, and such ‘exits’ were unfortunately common. Being a lord was not quite as independent and carefree a lifestyle as you may have thought.

Even for the original owner of the castle, things did not go well. Roger Mortimer, lord of the Chirklands from 1282 and builder of the castle in the late 13th century, died in the Tower of London in 1326, in agony from infected wounds sustained whilst fighting against royal authority.

The brief tenure of his successor at Chirk Castle, Edmund Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, then came to an end when he was summarily beheaded on the orders of Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, the nephew of the above Roger Mortimer of Chirk. The chronicles of the period tell us that his decapitation was finally completed after 22 blows from a blunted sword blade...!

A member of the Chirk Castle volunteer garrison in plate armour and holding a poleaxe
A member of the Chirk Castle volunteer garrison in plate armour and holding a pole axe
A member of the Chirk Castle volunteer garrison in plate armour and holding a poleaxe

Roger Mortimer of Wigmore was a nationally-hated baron, convicted by his peers of usurping royal power from Edward II (and openly flaunting his relationship with Queen Isabella). He was eventually captured by Edward III, and was the first nobleman to be hanged at Tyburn, in 1330.

The second Earl of Arundel took over Chirk Castle shortly after, and actually managed to die peacefully, in 1376. However, in 1397 his son, Richard, was beheaded. With a mind to his antecedent’s death, his last words were reportedly, “torment me not long, but strike off my head with one blow!”

Chirk Castle then reverted to being a Crown possession, and in this case the King was the ill-fated Richard II, who in 1415, tradition tells us, was smothered by gaolers who were in the pay of the future King Henry IV!

The fifth Earl of Arundel, who had sided with Henry IV, later became a lifelong friend and companion to Henry V. He died of stomach-cramping dysentery contracted at the siege of Harfleur in 1415, during that king’s French campaign. As he was heirless, Chirk Castle reverted once more to the Crown.

Over the next two generations the royal House of Lancaster was represented by Kings Henry V and VI – the former would die of severe dysentery in 1422, and the latter would be brutally clubbed to death in the Tower of London!

In 1439, Chirk Castle was purchased by Cardinal Henry Beaufort who... managed to die in his bed, of natural causes! Quite the accomplishment.

Unfortunately, his peaceful demise was not a sign of better times for the owners of Chirk Castle, as the next two generations of Beauforts (the second and third Dukes of Somerset) were killed in the Wars of the Roses: the second Duke was killed at the battle of St Albans in 1455, whilst attempting to escape from an entrapment, and the third Duke, who had just spent time at Chirk Castle, was taken prisoner after the Battle of Hexham, in 1464, and publically beheaded in front of the victorious troops.

The volunteer medieval garrison help to bring the castle's medieval history to life
A member of the Chirk Castle volunteer garrison in medieval armour holding a shield
The volunteer medieval garrison help to bring the castle's medieval history to life

The castle would now, yet again, find itself as a Crown possession, this time falling into the hands of the Duke of Gloucester – better known to history as King Richard III. His brave and yet bloody death on the field of Bosworth in 1485 is well-documented by modern archaeologists, who found traces of over 50 wounds to his skeleton when he was found, underneath a present day Leicester car park!

Richard had exchanged Chirk Castle for lands in Yorkshire with Sir William Stanley (whose treachery was to be the main reason for the King’s defeat at Bosworth). It is believed that Stanley may have been responsible for considerable building and repair at Chirk, but in 1495, he was involved in further underhanded plotting, this time against the first Tudor, King Henry VII. Stanley was found guilty of treason as part of the Perkin Warbeck rebellion, and beheaded on Tower Hill in London.

From this point, for most of the next 100 years, Chirk was in the tight grip of the Tudors, who rewarded favoured servants with posts at Chirk Castle - but even these tenures were marked by tragedy.

Henry VIII’s illegitimate and beloved son, Henry Fitzroy, who was for a while associated with Chirk Castle, died in 1536 of ‘the sweating sickness’ (which may have been tuberculosis) at the age of 17.

Lord High Admiral Thomas Seymour, another short-lived tenant, was executed for treason in 1549, but 14 years later Elizabeth I granted Chirk to her favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. He died after a seizure brought on by malaria in 1588.

Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick, died in 1591 - in agony after an operation to remove a gangrenous leg, but John, 2nd Baron St. John of Bletso, MP for Bedfordshire, did survive long enough to sell Chirk Castle to Sir Thomas Myddelton for £5,000, before he then died peacefully!

The times were bloody, we know, but this is quite a record – and the castle was only 300 years old when this blog ends, not even half the age it is today.