Bickleigh Castle in Devon
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Whitnage is 8.1miles from Bickleigh Castle
Bickleigh Castle stands on the banks of the River Exe, with wooded slopes behind it, the stone front of the 14th century Gatehouse contrasting with the cob and thatch of the farmhouse. These buildings, together with the early Norman Chapel, the Coach House and barns, combine to form a home where successive dwellings have existed since Saxon times.
Mentioned in Domesday Book as belonging to Alward the Englishman, the manor then appears to have passed into Norman hands-the de Bickleighs first, followed by William de Balfago, and then the Pointingtons. About 1410 the Castle became the property of the Courtenays, Earls of Devon, who, already owning Powderham and Tiverton Castles, besides other estates, regarded Bickleigh Castle as the portion of the younger sons.
One of these sons died, leaving an orphaned daughter, Elizabeth. Her grandfather, Sir Philip Courtenay, asked his cousin William Carew and his wife to live in the Castle and look after her. When Elizabeth grew up, William Carew's younger brother, Thomas, fell in love with her making a runaway marriage against her grandfather's wishes. To escape the wrath of Elizabeth's family Thomas Carew "being young and lusty, of an active body, and a courageous mind . . . resolved for the wars" and, after distinguishing himself at the battle of Flodden Field when he saved the life of his commander-in-chief Lord Howard, he returned home full of honour and with the assured friendship of Lord Howard-who espoused his cause with Elizabeth's family. As a result Sir Philip Courtenay gave the Castle to Elizabeth as her marriage portion.
So for over two centuries the Castle became the home of the Carew family. It thus last saw service as a Castle during the Civil War when Sir Henry Carew supported the Royalist cause and Fairfax, the Parliamentarian general, established his headquarters at Cadbury Camp - but a few miles away. Fairfax 'slighted' the Castle and demolished the fortified wings on the west and north sides of the Courtyard. The Chapel escaped, as did the Gatehouse which nevertheless was badly damaged. Sir Henry Carew restored the Gatehouse to some extent and added the typical Devon farmhouse of cob and thatch as all attempts to rebuild a fortified manor house were thwarted by Cromwell.
Sir Henry lived there until his death in 1681 in adjoining "Old Court", originally part of the Castle. He died broken-hearted, partly because of the devastation wrought by the Cromwellians, and partly because he left no male heir owing to the tragic deaths on the same day of both his son and his nephew, at the early ages of 11 and 13 years. The buildings subsequently fell into disrepair, and became a farm store and cottage, until restored early in the present century.
The visitor to the Castle, after crossing the little bridge over the Moat, enters a gravelled Courtyard surrounded by small thatched Cottages of great charm, and by barns which once formed the farm buildings. These farm buildings, including the "Moat Cottage" are 'listed' as being of special historic and architectural interest. On the roof of the main barn is a little thatched Clock Turret: the Clock itself is mid 17th century and the original movement still functions perfectly and keeps accurate time; only the bronze hour wheel has recently had to be replaced.
Because of the long history of the house, stretching across almost nine centuries, the buildings themselves show much of interest and variety. They are unique in that they form an epitome of architecture throughout the years from early Norman times.
While there is a trace of early Norman work in the arch of the Gateway, the gem of this period is the Chapel, with its little cob-walled enclosure giving an air of peace and tranquility.
Built between 1090 and 1110 this is thought to be the oldest complete building in Devon. The entire masonry of the nave and chancel is the original Norman work, as also are two of the windows and the arch of the doorway. It is thatched, and probably has always been so.
Apart from the Chapel, the Gatehouse is the oldest remaining part of the house itself. The original Norman Castle was rebuilt by the Courtenays late in the 14th century and parts, including the windows in the Great Hall of the Gatehouse, were reconstructed by the Carews in the 16th century.
The Gatehouse consists of a vaulted entry with Norman bases of the imposts, and two rooms either side opening into the arch. Originally these rooms were used - one as an Armoury and the other as the Guard Room. The plaster has been stripped off the walls of the Armoury thus exposing the original rugged stonework.
Here can be seen many items of interest including a Cromwellian part suit of armour, a German half suit, Cannons dated 1840, halberds, pikes, breast and back plates, pistols, and an 'Armada' chest with a typical 'secret' key hole. The 16th century "Morgenstern" or Morning Star was well- known and much used in Germany and Switzerland; it received its name from the ominous jest of wishing the enemy good-morning with the Morning Star when surprised in camp or city.
A plaque such as that over the fireplace was given to those families who
supplied a ship in the time of Edward III to sail on the Crusades. Not only had
the ship to be provided but the soldiers and sailors to man it, as well as their
arms and victuals. The arms of Dartmouth are a modification of those appearing
on this plaque, probably because the ships from the West Country normally sailed
from Dartmouth. The half-length portrait over the fireplace, in the fine carved
oak Caroline frame, is said to be of Queen Henrietta Maria. The Queen had a
child at Bedford House in Exeter just three years before Charles I was beheaded.
The portrait of an Abbess hung originally in a fortified manor in Northumberland which like Bickleigh Castle, was attacked by Cromwell's soldiers. It is therefore of particular interest in its present setting. When the soldiers saw the picture they expressed their disapproval by firing at it in anger. The picture has recently been restored but the marks where the bullet holes pierced the canvas have been preserved.
The Great Hall
Above the Armoury and Guard Room, and stretching over the arch, is one large room over 50 feet in length. This is known as the Great Hall and is the most imposing room in the Castle. It has two stone fireplaces, and the pewter above the larger fireplace is mostly early 18th century. At one end is a Minstrel's Gallery - added in recent times but of Tudor panelling. There are six windows five of which have embrasures about five feet deep.
The leather screen depicts the "Surrender of Breda" when the
Dutch surrendered to the Spaniards, and is a copy of the famous picture by Diego
Velasquez 1599-1660. The original picture, painted by Velasquez for the Buen
Retire Palace in Madrid, is remarkable for the realism and atmosphere of the
scene: the conqueror receives his vanquished enemy with a magnanimity which only
so deeply sensitive an artist as Velasquez could portray. Much of this
sensitivity has been recaptured on this screen, and is apparent in spite of
considerable flaking and deterioration of the leather over the years.
The visitor next pauses in the main Entrance Hall, which also forms part of the Gatehouse range, and houses the rugged oak staircase of pre-Tudor origin - thought to date from about 1450.
The Farmhouse wing, dating from the Stuart period, was built to replace the medieval fortified part which was destroyed by Fairfax in the Civil War. It consists of three rooms on the ground floor and a small vestibule. The first small room has an exposed beam supported by two pillars thought to have originated from the state-room of a man-of-war. There is a large open hearth with a bread oven at the side, and a fireback which is dated 1588.
The next room is now the family Dining Room. It also has an open hearth with an early Victorian metal oven interposed, and more beams. The fireplace is surrounded by copper cooking utensils. The refectory table and carved oak dower chest are both mid 17th century. The Yorkshire dresser is circa 1780. On the buffet is an 'automated' doll some 160 years old: when a concealed handle under her skirt is depressed she nods her head and darns a sock
In front of the Gatehouse the original moat has been transformed into a water garden with pink and white water lilies and irises. The Moat probably extended originally right across the front of the Gatehouse, with a drawbridge, and was continuous with that part of the Moat remaining behind the house which is now dry.
Through the arch, above which are the arms of Sir Thomas Carew and Elizabeth Courtenay, is a glimpse of the old Castle courtyard - now a smooth green lawn at the west end of which have been found traces of the foundations of the Great Hall of the Castle, and other living quarters.
At the rear south corner of the Gatehouse are the remains of a circular tower and the lower steps of the newel staircase, which formerly led to the passage connecting the Gatehouse with "Old Court", are clearly visible. The main Gates are said to be late 17th century and of Italian origin.
The arms of Sir Henry, the last of the Bickleigh Carews, appear impaling those of his wife above the arch on the Courtyard side. Beyond rises a huge mound which must have formed some part of the fortifications. It is now covered in rhododendrons which, in early summer, form a colourful background to the building. A climb up the 57 steps of the circular stone staircase to the top of one of the flanking towers of the Gatehouse is also worthwhile, and enhances the atmosphere of this fortified dwelling.
Inevitably there are many stories about Bickleigh Castle, some true, some legendary. A true tale is the extraordinary story of Bamfylde Carew who ran away from Blundell's School, after an unfortunate hunting escapade, and became king of the local gypsies. Some say that he led them into all kinds of dishonourable incidents, others that he was a good leader who did much to better their lot. Bamfylde was born at Bickleigh Castle and is buried in an unmarked grave in the Churchyard.
There is also the record in Prince's "Worthies of Devon" of the fight between Sir Alexander Cruwys and a Carew - who was run through with a sword. His ghost in armour, with his head under his arm, is said to ride a charger across Bickleigh Bridge at midnight but, the village folk tell, only on midsummer's night.
Visiting Bickleigh Castle it is pleasant to reflect on its long history, yet the rippling sound of the river and the bird-song, make it difficult to visualise the turbulent times and scenes of violence which have been enacted in this very place where all is now quietude and peace. The Castle's history and the lives of those who have dwelt there, are a thread in the skein of England's proud story through the ages. Very little within sight or sound can have changed since the days when Carews rode fully armed from the Gatehouse, and it is this feeling of timelessness, the blending of the centuries, which gives Bickleigh Castle its particular charm. Here it lies, in the beauty of the Exe valley, with an atmosphere and interest all its own.
or Phone: 01884 829211
Address: Brambles Bed and Breakfast, Whitnage Cottage, Whitnage, Tiverton, Devon EX16 7DS.
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