Tuesday, 22nd September 2021 – Rockingham Castle
Tuesday morning we made a late, slowish start (A had stayed overnight so we had breakfast together before heading off in our respective directions, she to visit a friend further north, us eastward towards Corby). Today’s destination was Rockingham Castle, another on the “we really should go there some day” list. We had passed by it on numerous occasions, en route to the now defunct Rockingham Motor Speedway for F3 races, but had needless to say never had time to stop. Well, now, we were doing just that. As with all of our planned trips for our staycation, I had booked tickets in advance, to ensure we’d get the time we wanted for entry. It took some spontaneity out of the experience, but at least we had an itinerary, which makes Lynne happy, and we knew we’d be able to get in.
From the road, you would have no idea what you were going to get. There’s a small gatehouse and an expanse of grounds, but nothing to suggest that actually there is a very substantial castle wall and towers ahead of you. It’s only as you pull up to park beside the old dairy block that you get your first view of the entrance to the castle and house itself. We were early of our timed entry (and in fact of the house actually opening, but that was no problem.
We headed around to the other point of interest, the parish church, which is right next to the castle, stopping on the way to admire the sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. Humans have been here since at least the Iron Age, with success waves of settlement in the Roman period, followed by the Saxons, the Danes, and the Normans. The elevated position of the site overlooking the Welland Valley made it easily defendable. Which is presumably the primary reason for William the Conqueror ordering the construction of a wooden motte and bailey shortly after the Norman Invasion. A wooden structure was quite rapidly replaced with a stone keep, and a curtain wall was constructed, just in case the locals hadn’t got the message about the change of management.
St Leonard’s Church, perhaps not surprisingly, contains a memorial chapel to the Watson family who own the castle. It’s built on a site that has been used for religious purposes since at least 1095, when William Rufus summoned a council (known as the Council of Rockingham), of nobles, bishops and clergy to settle a dispute between himself and Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury). It then seems to vanish from the record – apart from a brief mention in 1217 – until the Civil War, when Cromwell’s soldiers occupied Rockingham Castle and demolished the chapel.
Later, it would be replaced with a building described in 1720 as “a low irregular fabric … the body and chancel, on the south side, extending further than the body of the Church, both covered with lead. The Church is forty-six feet long, and twenty-four feet broad. The Chancel, in length twenty-nine feet six inches and in breadth eighteen feet. The north Chancel, twenty-seven feet and a half in length, and twelve feet six inches broad. In this are two pieces of timber laid across the beams, on which hangs a small bell”.
In 1776, Lady Sondes, had a wooden tower added, though it was taken down in 1838 and replaced with a small bell-tower, with an octagonal pyramid roof, and the windows in the nave were replaced by four in Gothic decorated style, and an east window of three lights. Lady Sondes is also the subject of an epitaph that must have taken some beating. When she died, in 1777, a memorial was added to the church describing her as “the best of wives, the best of mothers, the best of women”. Given she was Lord Sondes first wife, one wonders what her successor felt about being expected to live up to that billing!
From the church, we headed back to the castle, entering between the two massive towers, mindful of the exhortation to be on time for our tour of the house. Actually, once inside, you can take a long as you like, moving from room to room. Sadly, what you can’t do, is take photos inside the house, given it is still a private home. Stances on this seem to vary. Later in the week, at Waddesdon, we were positively encouraged to take photos. Not so at Rockingham, so I’ll give you one of their own photos of the interior instead.
As we learned, the castle soon became a favourite retreat for royals wanting to hunt in the surrounding forest, a practice that continued through several centuries. These visitors included Richard the Lionheart, his brother John (who was a frequent visitor and left behind an iron chest), Henry III who added the twin-towered gatehouse, and finally Edward III, the last monarch to visit the castle while it belonged to the Crown. By the middle of the 15th century, however, the court was becoming less peripatetic, and thus Rockingham slowly declined in importance.
By the late 15th century the place was in disrepair, when Henry VIII granted the lease of the estate to Sir Edward Watson, a local landowner. He converted parts of the castle into a Tudor house and added gardens, and the former royal castle became a hunting lodge for the nobility. Watson’s grandson Lewis Watson acquired the freehold of the castle and lands from the crown, and it seems to have quietly faded from history for a while.
It reappears during the Civil War, when it started out as a Royalist stronghold, but was then captured by Cromwell’s men. It was in turn besieged by the King’s troops and although the defences proved equal to the task, Lewis Watson, the owner at the time, was left impoverished. The remaining castle walls were slighted in 1646, and it ceased to be a garrison, returning to being a civil residence for another Lewis Watson, who was created Earl of Rockingham in 1714. When the barony was extinguished with the death of the 3rd baron in 1746, the estate then passed to his cousin Thomas Watson-Wentworth, 1st Marquess Rockingham. When his son Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, died in 1782, the estate passed to William Fitzwilliam, 4th Earl Fitzwilliam, Charles’ nephew.
After restoration in the late 19th century things seem to have settled down, with the Saunders-Watson family still in residence, opening the castle to visitors, running events and hiring the place out for weddings and such like. You can see why it would be popular (it was apparently a £4M per annum business prior to lockdown). The place seemed popular even on a September weekday, and the house is delightful, stuffed full of historic interest. We were particularly taken with some memorabilia around Charles Dickens, who apparently visited often, staging plays in the actually quite short Long Gallery, and generally being an entertaining guest. I could sympathise with the letter he wrote to Richard and Lavinia Watson where he bemoaned the chaos being visited upon him by building works in his own home. The guidebook suggests that the castle may have been the inspiration for Chesney Wold in “Bleak House”, but as I find Dickens unreadable, I cannot confirm.
After we completed our tour of the house, it was clearly time for a coffee break. There is a very pleasant café in the courtyard of the castle, so we decided to treat ourselves to a cream tea, sitting out in the sun. This I have to say with hindsight was probably the second-best cream tea of the week!
Afterwards we nosed around the extensive gardens. Although the rose garden on the site of the old keep was just edging past its best, there was still much to see with a wild garden in the ravine that contains over 200 species of trees and shrubs, a cricket pitch (!) and lots of nooks and crannies of a horticultural nature. The weather was still clement, and it was a positive pleasure to be out in the sun, making the most of the Indian Summer.
Finally, after we’d exhausted all the avenues (literally) we retreated to the car and headed for home. Rockingham Castle had proven itself to be very rewarding.