Should you be touring Britain and find yourself in Gloucestershire, you might want to sleep and eat in a genuine Tudor castle at Thornbury, though it is only half-built because its inspirer and builder, 3rd Duke of Buckingham in the Stafford line, was executed before he could finish it; he had intended it to be the finest palace in England.
Edward Stafford, like the Tudors, descended from Edward III through the Beauforts, as well as Plantagenet prince Thomas of Woodstock. One year after getting his licence to fortify his manor house and enclose a park of around 1000 acres, he evidently wished to build himself a near-regal castle-cum-palace there himself.
There was a portcullis at the main gate, and the outer of two courtyards is windowless except for arrow slits. The northerly part of the outer court resembled a barracks where Buckingham could house his private army and horses, and a high crenulated wall surrounded the inner court. Perhaps Edward Stafford intended Thornbury Castle to become a defendable fortress in case his unruly and usually angry Welsh tenants should have one of their recurrent uprisings. There was also the question of the King, Henry VIII, the worst serial killer in history until Josef Stalin; but in 1518 relations between royal Stafford and King Henry seemed to be all right. Henry said of him, ‘he is my right trusty and entirely beloved cousin.’
The main part of the castle, now ruined, was meant to embrace four great towers, but only one of them is now complete. Here the Duke and his Duchess lived, to the right side of the inner court. There are elaborate oriel windows overlooking a private garden, and the ornate chimneystacks are built of brick, and could rival anything Hampton Court Palace can offer.
On the left side are the enormous kitchens where a staff of more than a hundred servants worked or ate. There was even a private kitchen for cooking the senior staff’s meals. Opposite the gatehouse was Buckingham’s great hall, sadly knocked down in the 18th century. If only it had been completed, Thornbury would have been one the grandest and finest Tudor palaces in the country, in company with Hampton Court, Hever and Leeds Castles, Sherborne, Montacute, Hardwick, Burghley and Hatfield Old Palace.
This grandeur was fit for a man who it must be admitted over-valued his noble status to an extent that any king might regard him with suspicion. Edward’s first appearance in public had been at Henry VII’s coronation (1485); Edward was eight years old. In 1501, he wore a gown valued today at around three quarters of a million pounds (then a still staggering £1,500) at the wedding of Prince Arthur to Katherine of Aragon. Arthur died young, and poor Katherine became the first of Henry VIII’s six wives (q.v.). Edward did his bit for the king too, supplying men-at-arms for a war with the French in 1514, and playing host to the king at Penshurst (another palace). He also accompanied Henry to the famous Field of the Cloth of Gold circus in France.
Being a true Stafford, he was not deferential enough to those with real power: he criticised Cardinal Wolsey, and the king’s pro-French policy, and stole away one of Henry’s favourite servants, one Bulmer. Then he asked for Henry’s permission to raise an armed bodyguard in order to suppress revolutions among his Welsh tenants. Henry had, as we have seen in other posts, a long memory, and this time he remembered that Edward’s father, the 2nd Stafford Duke of Buckingham, had also gathered together a large armed force under the same pretext, before using it to rebel against Richard III.
The result was a summons to come and explain himself to the king, but he was met as he approached London by armed men and whisked off to the Tower. He had gone too far. He was indicted on charges of high treason (as was always the case when Henry wished to kill someone). He had often ill-treated his own servants, and now paid for this fault, when three of them stood witness against him. He had actually sued eleven of them when they did not come up to his expectations. Henry also knew that the Venetian Ambassador had written in 1519 that Stafford was ‘very popular’ and ‘might easily obtain the crown if the king died without male heirs’. It was all too much for Henry, who assumed Buckingham was a high and mighty subject vaunting his royal blood (he had plenty of it). Historian Edward Hall remarked, ‘alas the while that ever ambition should be the loss of so noble a man.’ On 17 May, 1521 the 44-year old 3rd Duke of Buckingham was beheaded on Tower Hill. Of course his lands and property were confiscated by the Crown, and what had been built and furnished at Thornbury became another royal demesne. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn stayed there, and the future Mary Tudor stopped there briefly as a child. Building activities ceased abruptly after Edward’s death. Please examine the contrast between the superb completed apartments, and the abandoned and incomplete northern part.
Today Thornbury has been reborn as a not-very-cheap-boutique-hotel, and you can even stay in the very same bedroom once occupied by the monster king and Anne Boleyn for ten days. There are arrow loops in the thick walls and entry to the bathroom is not easy, as you must step over beams.
I am indebted, again, to Suzannah Lipscomb’s splendid guide and text book A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England, which provides essential details.