The early historian of Staffordshire Robert Plot cited the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (104) for evidence that Æthelflæd, the Saxon warrior-princess and ruler of the Mercians, built a castle at Stafford in the year 913, along with an adjacent burg (meaning a fortified town). However, the exact site of this first castle, probably made of wood, is now unknown. Shortly before the castle was built the Saxon Eadric the Wild had led a failed rebellion against the Normans which culminated in the defeat of the Saxons at the battle of Stafford in 1069. A wooden castle was originally built on the site at some time in the 1070s by the Norman lord Robert de Tosny who had been given a large amount of land in the area by William of Normandy in order to control and extract taxes from the native Anglo-Saxon community. The castle was originally a timber and earth fortification, built on modified glacial deposit. The artificial horizon of the motte or mound is still well defined, as are many of the ditches. The earthworks cover over ten acres, while the site backs onto woodland (sixteen acres), which may once have been cleared for housing livestock. Beyond these earthworks once lay three medieval deer parks.
The first castle was built in the classic motte and bailey style, although it incorporated two baileys and a village beyond. Ralph de Stafford sealed a contract with a master mason in 1347, ordering a castle to be built on the castle mound. The rectangular stone Keep originally had a tower in each corner, but was later adapted, with a fifth tower being added on in the middle of the North Wall (actually facing west). Some three years later, Ralph, who had been one of the King's leading commanders in the first phases of the Hundred Years' War, was created first Earl of Stafford, a signal honour. In 1444, Humphrey Stafford was created Duke of Buckingham and the stone castle reached its heyday. Humphrey's grandson, Henry, had become a ward of the Yorkists following his death at the battle of Northampton in 1460. Henry was initially a supporter of Richard III, but later rebelled in favour of the aborted invasion of Henry Tudor (Henry VII) in 1483. Henry Stafford, second Duke of Buckingham paid with his life, but his son, Edward Stafford, escaped and was later restored to his lands by a grateful Henry VII. Edward Stafford's royal blood made him a threat to Henry VIII, who had him executed in 1521. The Stafford's Estate, which included the castle and its deer parks, was seized by the Crown.
Stafford Castle, along with a small parcel of land, was restored to the Staffords, but they never regained the wealth or status of earlier years. Through lack of maintenance, the Keep fell into disrepair and in 1603, Edward Stafford wrote a letter in which he referred to 'My rotten castle of Stafford.' During the early phases of the Civil War it was defended by Lady Isobel, a staunch Roman Catholic and Royalist. The Parliamentarians had captured Stafford on 15 May 1643, following a brief siege, but some of its garrison escaped and held Stafford Castle, with the hope of using it as a bridgehead to recapture the town. Colonel Brereton rode up to the castle with some of his men and called upon Lady Stafford to surrender, which she refused. In response 'some of the poor outhouses were set on fire to try whether these would work their spirits to any relenting. All in vain, for from the castle they shot some of our men and horses which did much enrage and provoke the rest to a fierce revenge. Almost all the dwelling houses and outhouses were burnt to the ground.' The siege was raised when Colonel Hastings led a relief column which arrived on 5 June. Lady Isobel was eventually persuaded to leave, a small garrison remaining to defend the castle against a renewed siege. Finally, in late June, the Royalist garrison fled, having heard of information that a large Parliamentarian army was approaching, complete with a number of siege cannons capable of easily overwhelming the small garrison that remained. The castle then fell into Parliamentarian control in which it stayed until its demolition. On 22 December, not many months after its capture, the Parliamentarian Committee of Stafford, ordered: "the Castle shall be forthwith demolished." The order was carried out with the loss of a crowbar!
The castle was partly rebuilt in the Gothic Revival Style from 1813. Yet this work was soon discontinued partly through the lack of funds, and also because the Jerningham family were elevated to the peerage (one of their motives for the restoration project). Dubbed by some as a 'folly', this was never the case, as the Keep was always intended to be lived in, and was occupied well into the 20th century. The site itself extends to over 26 acres and consists of Keep, inner bailey, outer bailey, woodland, herb garden, visitor centre and car park. The Keep is open to the public during Visitor Centre opening hours. The Visitor Centre has an audio visual display which tells the history of the castle; hands on items including arms, armour and costumes; a timeline to put the history of the castle into a national context; a display area with a changing programme of exhibitions and exhibits; and the opportunity to try your hand at coin minting and brass rubbing. The Visitor Centre is wheelchair accessible and there is a disabled toilet on site. Access to the grounds and the Keep is extremely difficult for people with severe mobility impairment. However guides are always willing to give any assistance possible. Assistance dogs are welcome.
Location : Newport Road, Stafford, ST16 1DJ
Transport: Stafford (National Rail) then bus. Bus Routes : 5, 877 and 878 stop near by.
Opening Times : Wednesday to Sunday + Bank Holidays 11:00 to 16:00
Tickets : Free
Tel: 01785 257698