After the Norman Conquest of England, the manor of Ferlege in Somerset was granted by William the Conqueror to Roger de Courcelles. Ferlege evolved from the Anglo-Saxon name faern-laega, meaning "the ferny pasture", and itself later evolved into Farleigh. William Rufus gave the manor to Hugh de Montfort, who renamed it Farleigh Montfort. The manor passed from the Montfort family to Bartholomew de Bunghersh in the early years of the reign of Edward III. Sir Thomas Hungerford bought the property from the Bunghersh family in 1369 for £733. By 1385 the manor was known as Farley Hungerford, after its new owner. Sir Thomas Hungerford was a knight and courtier, who became rich as the Chief Steward to the powerful John of Gaunt and then the first recorded Speaker of the House of Commons. Thomas decided to make Farleigh Hungerford his principal home and, between 1377 and 1383, built a castle on the site; unfortunately he did not acquire the appropriate licence to crenellate from the king before commencing building, and Thomas had to acquire a royal pardon in 1383. Thomas's new castle adapted the existing manor complex overlooking the head of the River Frome. Although the castle sat on a low spur it was overlooked by higher ground from the west and the north and was not ideally placed from a purely defensive perspective.
A park was established next to the castle; a park was highly prestigious and it enabled Thomas to engage in hunting, provided the castle with a supply of venison as well as generating income. Most of the village of Wittenham had to be destroyed to make way for the park (they were pretty authoitarian in those days) and the site eventually became a deserted village. A new parish church, St Leonard's Chapel, was built by Thomas just outside the castle, after he had demolished the earlier, simpler 12th-century church during the construction of the inner court. Sir Walter Hungerford inherited Farleigh Hungerford castle upon the death of his mother, Joan, in 1412. Walter's first political patron was John of Gaunt's son, Henry IV, and later he became a close companion of Henry's own son, Henry V; Henry V made Walter, like his father before him, the Speaker of the Commons in 1414. Walter prospered: he became known as an expert jouster, in 1415 fought at the battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years War, was made Steward of the Royal Household and was a major figure in government during the 1420s, serving as the Treasurer of England and as one of the legal guardians of the young Henry VI. Despite having to pay a ransom of £3,000 to the French after his son was captured in 1429, Walter, by now created Baron Hungerford, amassed considerable wealth from his various sources of income, which included the right to one hundred marks (£66) per year from the town of Marlborough, the wool taxes from Wells, and the ransoms gained from the taking of French prisoners. As a result, he was able to buy more land, acquiring around 110 new manors and estates over the course of his life.
Sir Edward Hungerford was a successful member of Henry VIII's court and died in 1522, leaving the castle to his second wife, Agnes. After Edward's death, however, it emerged that Agnes had been responsible for the murder of her former, first husband, John Cotell: two of her servants had strangled him at Farleigh Hungerford Castle, before burning his body in the castle oven to destroy any evidence. Agnes appears to have been motivated by a desire for the wealth that would follow her second marriage to Sir Edward, but in 1523 Agnes and the two servants were hung for murder in London. Due to this execution, Edward's son, another Walter, inherited the castle instead of Agnes. Walter became a political client of Thomas Cromwell, the powerful chief minister of Henry VIII, and operated on his behalf in the local region. Walter became dissatisfied with his third wife, Elizabeth, after her father became a political liability to him, and Walter detained her in one of the castle towers for several years. Elizabeth complained that while she was imprisoned she was starved in an attempt to kill her, and subjected to several poisoning attempts. She was probably kept in the north-west tower, although the south-west "Lady Tower" is named after her. When Cromwell fell from power in 1540, so did Walter, who was executed for treason, witchcraft and homosexuality: Elizabeth was allowed to remarry, but the castle reverted to the Crown.
From the 18th century onwards, Farleigh Hungerford Castle slipped into decline. In 1702, the castle was sold on to Hector Cooper, who lived in Trowbridge; in 1730 it was passed in turn to the Houlton family. The Houlton family broke up castle's stone walls and the internal contents for salvage. Some of the parts, such as the marble floors, were reused at Longleat or in the Houlton's new house, Farleigh House, built nearby in the 1730s; other elements were reused by local villagers. By the end of the 1730s the castle was ruinous and, although the castle chapel was repaired and brought back into use in 1779, the north-west and north-east towers had both collapsed by the end of 1797. The outer court became a farm yard, with the priest's house becoming the farm house. Antiquarian curiosity in the castle had begun as early as 1700, when Peter Le Neve visited and recorded some of the architectural details, but interest increased in the 19th century. This was partially due to the work of the local curate, the Reverend J. Jackson, who undertook the first archaeological excavations at the site during the 1840s, uncovering many of the foundations of the inner court. 17th and 18th century stained glass windows from the continent were installed in the chapel, where the 15th century wall paintings were rediscovered in 1844. The then owner, Colonel John Houlton, turned the chapel into a museum of curiosities, where for a small fee visitors could see sets of armour, what was said to be a pair of Oliver Cromwell's boots and other English Civil War artefacts, including letters from Cromwell written to the Hungerfords.
Wheelchair Access - Castle: Ruins are negotiable via steps and rough paths. Chapel: Accessible through garden and chair lift. Difficult spiral staircase to upper floor of the museum but virtual tour enables exhibit in upper level of museum and inaccessible area to be explored via touch screen. Benches and seats provided. Grounds: Accessed on impacted gravel, tarmac, paved and earth paths and fairly smooth grass. Some cobbled areas. Wheelchair access is confined to top lawns. There is a wheelchair lift into the Chapel and in the the Priest's House. Assistance dogs are welcomed. There is a handling collection available for school visits and a 3D model. Stone carvings on the tombs in the chapel and museum may be touched. Tactile model of the castle. Large PrintLarge print information sheets are available. The story of Farleigh and its owners is told in extensive displays in the Priest’s House and through an audio tour. The Priest's House also contains a number of artefacts that have been found on site and some suits of armour.The audio tour is included in the admission price.
Location : Farleigh Hungerford, Norton St Philip, Bath, Somerset BA2 7RS
Transport: Trowbridge (National Rail) then bus. Bus Routes : Libra 94 stops nearby; Frome Minibuses X96 from Trowbridge stop 1 mile away.
Opening Times : Daily 10:00 - 18:00
Tickets : Adults £5.20; Concessions £4.70; Children £3.10
Tel: 0370 333 1181