Ashby de la Zouch is a fine example of a late medieval castle but is perhaps best known for its association with Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Ivanhoe. Before taking you on a tour of the castle, I will begin with a brief overview of its history.
Ashby de la Zouch began its existence as a manor house, which was later converted into the castle. This was due to the ambitions of its wealthy owner, William, Lord Hastings (c. 1431-83). Hastings was a prominent Yorkist during the Wars of the Roses and a close supporter of Edward IV. The latter rewarded him for his services by granting him many estates and offices, and raised him to the rank of the baronage. This elevation in status prompted Hastings to embark on a series of construction projects to demonstrate his wealth and power. In late 1472, work began on transforming his manor of Ashby de la Zouch into a grand castle. The building was conceived as a rectangular shaped enclosure flanked by four towers, which incorporated older structures. However, Hastings did not live to see the work finished.
The unexpected death of Edward IV led to his sudden downfall. In June 1483, he was summoned to a meeting of the royal council by Richard, duke of Gloucester, acting as Protector of the Realm for his nephew, the teenaged Edward V. After arriving in the council chamber at the Tower of London, Hastings was arrested and executed without trial. Despite this, his son was allowed to inherit Ashby de la Zouch and his other estates. The castle thereafter remained in the family’s ownership for many years. Ashby de la Zouch was held for the king during the English Civil War in the seventeenth century. It was eventually surrendered to the Parliamentarians in 1646, who slighted its defences.
The ruins later became a popular visitor attraction in the nineteenth century. This was due in large part because it featured in Sir Walter Scott’s hugely successful historical novel, Ivanhoe. The (fictional) story of a native English nobleman set during the time of the Third Crusade in the twelfth century. In an early scene, a tournament takes place in the vicinity of the castle with the hero competing in disguise (Scott was clearly not that familiar with the history of the site!). Ashby de la Zouch later passed into public ownership in the twentieth century.
Let us now begin our tour of the castle. After exiting the visitor centre, we approach its most impressive structure: the Great Tower. This building has four storeys and is 23 metres tall, which is adjoined by a seven-storey high turret. It was entered at ground floor level via a small doorway decorated with (rather worn) lions, with the kitchen on the first floor, whereas the upper floors contained a great chamber and withdrawing rooms. The tower was topped by machicolation and corner turrets, and was clearly intended to impress, being built out of expensive cut stone and decorated throughout with the coat of arms of the Hastings family
After exiting the Great Tower we move over towards its shorter neighbour, the Kitchen Tower, which is only two storeys high. This building, as its name suggests, was intended as a place for cooking and preparing food, which incorporate a large kitchen (but was closed during my visit)
Next to the Kitchen Tower can be found the ruins of the Buttery and Pantry, where food and drink was stored.
We will now move over to the Great Hall. This was originally served by a central hearth (now covered over), but it was rearranged in the seventeenth century, with the addition of new windows and fireplace, plus the raising in height of the walls
The Great Chamber is at the far end of the Great Hall, which contains a splendid fifteenth century fireplace with figures of angels and shields, as well as a large sixteenth century window
It is adjoined in turn by a large chapel, once richly decorated and furnished, where members of the Hastings family are buried.
On the other side of the chapel can be found the buildings of the inner courtyard.
The outline of gardens dating from the sixteenth century can also be seen in front of the Great Tower, together with the remains of two brick towers
Ashby de la Zouch was besieged during the First English Civil War, with an underground tunnel dug by the royalist defenders to link the Kitchen Tower and Great Tower. This tunnel is fairly short (and damp!) but is still an interesting feature.
This concludes my tour of Ashby de la Zouch, if you have any feedback or suggestions for future tours then feel free to leave a comment!
The site is managed by English Heritage and there is an entrance fee.
John Goodall, Ashby de la Zouch and Kirby Muxloe Castles (London: English Heritage, 2011)
All photographs taken by Dan Spencer ©