Sunday, 15 August 2010

Sherborne's Castles (Dorset)

Sherborne Castle

Old Sherborne Castle

Centre section completed in 1594. Four more wings were added by Sir John Digby from 1620

Landscaped by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown in 1753

Raleigh's Seat

There are two castles at Sherborne; well, one to be more accurate, the latter one, built by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1594, is actually of Tudor design but was later to become known as the New Sherborne Castle.

Old Sherborne Castle was built in the 11th century by a Norman nobleman called Osmond. Osmond later gave the castle as a gift to Roger of Caen - Bishop of Salisbury. It was during the exchange that Osmond is reputed to have placed a curse on the castle. He was heard to utter these words, ‘whosoever shall take those lands from the bishopric or diminish them in great or small, should be accused, not only in this world but also in the world to come; unless in his lifetime he make restitution thereof'. In other words, anyone other than a bishop residing in the castle better relinquish it pronto or suffer dire consequences.

The castle remained a stronghold during a turbulent time, protected, some say, by its curse. It wasn’t until the Reformation in the 16th century when the monasteries were dissolved and many bishoprics lost their wealth and office, that the curse seemed to take hold.

Osmond’s Curse

Sherborne was passed to the Protestant Edward Seymour - Duke of Somerset by King Edward VI. In 1552 Edward VI grew tired of Somersets’ irritating pursuit of power and had him promptly executed. The estate was then to pass to the young King who died of consumption one year later. The estate then passed to Catholic - Mary I, who, through recompense gave money to the church, maybe to pacify the curse. She died without child and the estate was then passed to Elizabeth I, who, in 1592 leased it for a paltry rent to probably the most famous of Sherborne’s custodians - Sir Walter Raleigh. It is said that during a trip from London to Plymouth, Raleigh came upon the old castle and immediately fell in love with it and vowed it would be his no matter what.

His enthusiasm for the old castle was to falter, for he soon discovered that restoration and modifications needed to make the castle habitable, were becoming a drain on his finances. He decided to construct a new castle in the deer park opposite, which at the time was occupied by a wooden hunting lodge. Raleigh completed the house in 1594 as mentioned earlier and called it Sherborne Lodge. A four-storey house with hexagonal cornered turrets, forms the core of the present castle. It seemed that Sir Walter had escaped the curse that had befallen his predecessors, for the time being at least. Raleigh went on to become a respected member of parliament, a celebrated explorer of the Americas, winning much acclaim for his introduction of tobacco and the humble potato to Britain.

One story surrounding Raleigh’s’ tobacco indulgence (he learned the art of pipe smoking from the Red Indians) took place whilst he was sitting smoking his pipe in what is now referred to as ‘Raleigh’s Seat’. A stone structure he had built, so he could sit and admire his gardens while at the same time keeping a watchful eye on the road below, which was the main route to Dorchester. The story goes, as Raleigh was relaxing one morning enjoying his pipe, a servant approached him from behind carrying a pitcher of ale, when to his horror he perceived his masters beard to be on fire. With much haste he threw the contents of the pitcher all over Sir walter. Luckily for the servant, Raleigh saw the funny side and let it go. I think I may have set light to the servant for wasting good ale.

One of Raleigh’s pipes, a gift from the Red Indians resides in the castle museum.

Raleigh’s good fortunes were about to take a turn for the worst, when in 1603 Queen Elizabeth died. Following Elizabeth’s death, James I was crowned king in 1603. It was James I who would be instrumental in the eventual downfall of Raleigh; the curse was about to catch up with him.

Sometime after the kings coronation, Raleigh found himself implicated in a plot instigated by Lord Cobham to replace James with his cousin, Lady Arabella Stewart. He was arrested and tried and although he managed to dodge the axe, he was to remain in the Tower of London for the next 13 years. A small portrait painted during his incarceration hangs on the wall in one of the ground floor rooms. A vision of a sad, dishevelled and broken man, which is in stark contrast to the large portrait of him hanging on the opposite wall during happier times at Sherborne. During his incarceration his beloved estates were forfeited to the crown. King James I eventually allowed the property to be purchased by Sir John Digby in 1617, who added four more wings during the 1620s in a similar style.

Raleigh eventually managed to secure his release by promising King James that he would sail to Guiana to bring back a fortune in treasure. The expedition was to end in disaster, not only did Raleigh have to contend with a mutinous crew but also the tragic loss of his son during a clash with the Spanish. Hearing of the Raleigh's confrontation, a furious King James, keen to curry favour with Spain, ordered Raleigh to return where he was promptly arrested and once more thrown into the Tower of London. From there he was tried, his punishment was read out on 28th October 1618, where he was informed that he was to be beheaded the next morning.

Raleigh went to the block on the morning of 29th September 1618 and was heard to ask of the executioner if he may examine the blade. Running a finger along its edge he remarked, ‘a sharp medicine, a cure me thinks for all diseases’. His final words before the axe fell were ’strike man strike‘. Raleigh was laid to rest in St. Margarets' Westminster where his tomb can be viewed today.

The Ghosts of Sherborne

It is Raleigh’s ghost that has been seen many times walking the grounds dressed in splendid court attire. He is said to stroll amongst the oaks until he reaches his favourite stone chair, whereupon he appears to mournfully gaze out across the estate. His ghost is reputed to be more active during the autumn months, especially around the anniversary of his death - 29th September.

One of the most current ghosts is believed to be that of Lady Charlotte Digby (the Wingfield Digby family acquired the house after Raleigh’s death) who’s sons inherited the house following the death of their father. Lady Charlotte took on the mantle of housekeeper and it is believed her frequent appearances are her way of checking up that all is in order. One such encounter was recalled to us by one of the guides during our visit. She told us of one afternoon whilst she was on guide duty and sitting in the Blue Drawing Room, she happened to noticed an elderly lady with a mop of white hair peeping around the door. She thought nothing of it at the time, assuming the lady was part of the visitors party she could hear chatting to another guide in the adjoining room. Moments later, she got up and walked through to the Green Room (the adjoining room) where she enquired of the other guide as to the whereabouts of the elderly lady. There is no elderly lady in the party replied her colleague. She was then asked to described who she thought she had seen. To her surprise, her colleague told her that what she had seen, was more than likely the ghost of Lady Charlotte Digby, who’s portrait hangs in the Green Room. Many people have mentioned an odd atmosphere when passing along the short corridor that links the two rooms, in fact some visitors wont even enter the Blue Drawing Room. I have to say on that particular day we felt nothing unusual. The guide went on to tell us that recently a medium visited the house and described many of the spirits therein, apparently having no prior knowledge of Sherborne’s ghostly history - the internet, books, word-of-mouth perhaps…oh “Doubting Thomas” me.

Another one of the guides we spoke to, this time whilst in Raleigh’s Bedroom, told us of occasions when she has been locking up at the end of the day alone. She described often feeling uneasy, as if she were being watched. She also mentioned the current custodians of the house (the Wingfield Digby family do not live in the house but reside in a modern farm house close by) who have reputedly heard footsteps hurrying along the upper floors when they have been the only people in the house. The swishing and rustle of a lady’s dress has been heard fleetingly in the Green Room . Their children have reported seeing the figure of a man on the roof dressed in dark clothing looking down at them. This was before the recent work carried out on the roof by workmen, one of which reported hearing someone behind him say “you be careful with that mind”. He turned round to discover he was alone. We were also told that some of the working party employed to do repairs in the house only work there once - can‘t imagine why.

In his book Ghosts of Dorset, Peter Underwood describes the experience of Lady Chatterton in 1878 during her stay at Sherborne. She was to sleep in Raleigh’s Bedroom with her nurse in the next bed. In the dead of night she was awoken by an intense white light dancing about the room and within the light she observed men fighting and shouting as they passed overhead. The whole spectacle appeared like ‘reflections cast by a magic lantern’. She was terrified and looked across to her nurse for help. To her horror her nurse was sat bolt upright in bed but not awake, for she seemed to be transfixed by the light and communing with the spectres by pointing at them and making gestures for them to leave. Leave they did, for the manifestations ceased as soon as they had begun and the feeling of dread ebbed away. The nurse fell back on her pillow, apparently exhausted. The following day the nurse seemed oblivious of the previous night and said nothing to Lady Chatterton, or anybody else for that matter.

The sounds of clashing swords and men shouting are still heard on the upper floors and especially in Raleigh’s Bedroom.

Sherborne Castle remains the family home of the Digby family and it would seem the curse has died with Sir Walter Raleigh. As for the Old Castle; well, that was reduced to ruins by Fairfax of the Parliamentarians in 1645.

Our visit to Sherborne's Castles proved to be a relaxing, informative and inspiring day. We very much enjoyed chatting to the guides and strolling through lovely peaceful grounds, which overlook a tranquil lake designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in 1753. Sitting in Sir Walter Raleigh’s chair, one could imagine him writing his poetry and smoking his pipe whilst enjoying his home and gardens, just as we did.

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