Malcolm Rigby investigates Nunney Castle one of Somerset's most attractive but less well-known castl

PUBLISHED: 13:04 26 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:41 20 February 2013

The missing north wall

The missing north wall

Malcolm Rigby investigates Nunney Castle, one of Somerset's most attractive but less well-known castles and a fascinating part of our county's heritage

Malcolm Rigby investigates Nunney Castle, one of Somerset's most attractive but less well-known castles and a fascinating part of our county's heritage

Nunney Castle is a castle and a half. Well actually, to be mathematically precise, it's a castle minus a quarter, due to a momentary thud of a Parliamentarian canon ball and hundreds of years of progressive ivy attack... and it's also lacking any kind of interior or roof. Yet it is still brilliant. Perfectly proportioned, coloured with age and boasting a running moat, it is a little gem set in the centre of a pretty village.

English Heritage, which maintains the property, describes it as a 'French-style' castle and certainly in the spirit of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you can imagine John Cleese leaning over the battlements and shouting in a funny French accent, "I spit on you from a high distance, you English pig dogs!"

For 12 years the building has held both the affection and curiosity of local historian Duncan Steward, who explains what draws him to Nunney. "It's based on pure fascination. When I came across the castle for the first time I thought, why is it here, who built it, and why did they do it so well? Basic questions."

He would be the first to admit that his studies have unearthed more questions than answers - it really is a most mysterious castle. Take, for example, its origin. People say that it was constructed for Sir John de la Mare in 1373, but in fact that was just the date when he obtained a licence to 'crenellate' his house; it may well have been actually built before or afterwards. There are suppositions that Sir John created his wealth in France during the Hundred Years War and that was also when he gained inspiration for a 'French-style' castle. Again there is no evidence.

During its time as a residence, it passed from the de la Mares to the Paulets to the Praters, but not through any sieges, skirmishes or battles, simply through marriage. As Duncan says: "Its only fame really was through the Civil War period. It had a pretty uneventful life because strategically it didn't really have much use."

However, he gets a little sensitive when historians dismiss it as simply a rather glorified manor house or as being indefensible because of its low-lying position. He says you have to understand its functions. A moat on top of a hill would have been pretty impractical, whereas water lapping up against the walls of a tall imposing building, as it was then, would have been both visually spectacular and also rather effective at keeping any rogues or riff-raff out.

The comparison with nearby Farleigh Hungerford Castle is inevitable. "When you look at the quality of the work at Nunney, it's top notch, it's way beyond Farleigh Hungerford Castle, which was built effectively at the same time. The quality of building at Nunney is far superior, and the Hungerford family were extremely powerful and rich people."

Duncan's conclusion is that the de la Mares were, in modern-day terms, 'new money' and wanted to show off a little, whereas the Hungerfords were 'old money' and wanted to look just that.

According to Duncan there is also physical evidence of a major interior redesign at Nunney, presumably to keep up with fashion. "They took out all the floors and raised them by 18 inches, and the stair arrangements were also altered. They probably re-roofed it, re-windowed it, changed the drawbridge, the moat, all the doors... Extensive, nearly a rebuild, quite a makeover." Exactly when this took place is not known.

So to the defining moment in the life of Nunney Castle, the Civil War. As Duncan explains: "The Praters were on the Royalist side, they were Catholics, and Somerset itself was a Royalist stronghold, especially at the beginning, so they probably felt fairly secure. But towards the end of the war Cromwell's forces got the upper hand."

Having survived the early years, you would have thought the castle's inhabitants would have kept their heads down, but for some unknown reason they raised the Catholic flag. The Parliamentary forces were down in Yeovil on their way to carry out the siege of Bristol, and Fairfax sent two detachments off to Nunney. "They fired the canon up from the hill, blew a hole in the wall, and that was the end of that. They gave up very quickly. The inhabitants weren't murdered or hung or thrown off the battlements or anything like that, but the castle was molested. It was ransacked and stripped of anything of value," said Duncan. That was the end of the castle's days as a place of residency.

In 1910, the hole produced by Cromwell's canon, coupled with years of neglect, brought the greater part of the north wall down. Nunney Castle became one of the very first historic monuments to be taken into the care of the State in the form of the then Ministry of Works.

Since the Second World War there have been three major preservation projects carried out, and the last one included putting spikes on the ledges in order to discourage the troublesome pigeons. The work is carried out by English Heritage but the castle itself is owned by the Walker family, as in the whisky and the Formula One enthusiasts.

For such a significant structure, there is surprisingly very little primary evidence or hard factual information about the building. For this reason research into the castle's history has not been easy and Duncan confesses that nine out of ten investigative paths turn out to be blind alleys that lead to a stone wall. But sometimes he comes across the odd intriguing tale. "One is that there is a tunnel from the castle to the church at Whatley, which is quite a distance. During the Civil War the women supposedly escaped with the children through the tunnel and horses were waiting at the other end so they could ride off into the night. It's an elaborate story but there's no evidence that it occurred and no one's found a tunnel."

At first glance, there might not seem much to Nunney Castle, but for mystery, intrigue and simple beauty, it truly has it all.

Nunnery Castle is located near the A361 between Frome and Shepton Mallet and is open year-round with free admission.

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