Spectacular and substantial ruins of a fortified house, with an unusual, French-style, hexagonal layout; built at the end of the 14th century, modified in the 16th and partly destroyed after the Civil War
Like several other large medieval buildings known as castles, such as those at Berry Pomeroy, Candleston, Oxwich and Weobley, Old Wardour Castle in Wiltshire is a fortified mansion, or manor house, designed as a luxurious residence rather than a defensive structure. The mansion was built at the end of the 14th century by John, 4th Baron Lovell, and it has an unusual, French-influenced design with a central, hexagonal courtyard ringed by rooms on all sides, rising to four stories. Entry was from the northeast, and this section was enlarged by the addition of two impressive towers, extending a little way above roof level, and incorporating a high-ceilinged great hall. The castle was modified in the 16th century but then partly destroyed during the Civil War, after which the ruins were abandoned, and left to become a picturesque, romantic feature in the gardens of a replacement mansion, Wardour New Castle, 0.8 miles northwest.
The site today is still substantial, and although all of the western aspect is missing, having collapsed as a result of bombardment during the war, part still survives up to the fourth floor level, and around a dozen rooms are accessible, via staircases and corridors. The building lies at the centre of a grassy outer protected area, the bailey, still partly enclosed by the original curtain walls, ringed by ancient trees and bordered by woodland to the east. Access is along narrow country lanes, and the place has a particularly isolated and peaceful setting, overlooked by steep slopes on three sides. The castle is one of the most popular historic attractions in Wiltshire, despite its rather out-of-the-way location, and forms part of an extensive estate that also includes an artificial lake, several 18th and 19th century outbuildings, and the surrounding woods, which are crossed by several paths. The castle is open daily between April and October, and on weekends at other times of the year.
After the Norman conquest the settlement of Wardour was part of the estate of Wilton Abbey, extending over the modern-day parishes of Tinsbury and Donhead St Andrew. The manor was held for a time by the de St Martin family, then descended, probably by marriage, to John Lovell, third Baron (died 1408), who was granted a license to crenellated by Richard II. The castle was large from the start, and its hexagonal-layout is unique in the country, based on similar properties in France, in particular the Château de Concressault. The residential rather than military use is emphasised by the poor defensive position, being overlooked by a ridge of high ground, which curves round the site to the east and south. The Lovell family held the house until 1461, during the Wars of the Roses, when it was confiscated by the Crown, and subsequently occupied by as many as ten different families before passing, in 1572, to Matthew Arundell, at this time still largely unchanged from the 14th century. Matthew began a series of modifications, including installation of more elaborate doorways and windows, replacing the originals, and reconfiguring some of the rooms. By the time of the Civil War, the manor was held by his grandson Thomas Arundell, 2nd Baron Wardour, who was a strong Royalist and held out for a time against the Parliamentarians, until the place was captured in 1643 after a brief siege. Though soon reclaimed by Henry, the third Baron, the structure was by then greatly damaged and was never again inhabited, nor subject to any significant restoration. The family, having remained relatively prosperous, had by the end of the 18th century amassed sufficient funds to construct a replacement manor, the new castle, while the old ruin became a feature in the grounds, accompanied by several subsidiary buildings plus a limestone grotto, a mock stone circle and a sizeable fishpond, or lake.
Old Wardour Castle lies 8 miles northeast of Shaftesbury, below the edge of the high ground of Ansty Down, and although approached by tracks from various directions, the only vehicular access is from the northwest, along Nightingale Lane from Wardour. This narrow road skirts several patches of woodland and leads to the good-sized carpark just north of the castle, beside a lawn that adjoins part of the original bailey wall. The track continues a short distance to a residence, alongside the fishpond, which is lined by trees and lily pads, while several paths enter the woods to the east. The bailey wall comprises five sides of a regular hexagon, with two parallel extensions to the northeast, leading to earthworks along the base of the hill, in front of which are the grotto (constructed in 1792 by Josiah Lane), and the stone circle, both facing the main castle entrance.
Entry to the castle is through the round-headed arched doorway in the northeast face, between the two corner towers. The door is flanked by two pairs of recessed alcove seats with scalloped ornamentation, and set beneath the coat-of-arms of the Arundell family. The entrance was originally guarded by a portcullis and drawbridge over a ditch, leading to a barbican on the far side, though no trace of these structures remain, after the surrounding land was raised in the 16th century. Doorways off the entrance passageway are to two small rooms on the right, a store and porter's lodge, and a larger enclosure to the left, at one corner of which is a narrow, secondary stairway. The 35 foot passage opens to the hexagonal courtyard, centred on a deep well, with surviving rooms on another three of the six sides - largest is a rectangular antechamber to the north, with blind arches on two of the walls and remnants of a vaulted ceiling above. The main stairway curves up to the largest of the first floor rooms, the great hall, which occupies all the space above the entrance section and most of the north tower, adjoining the buttery and a service room to one side and (probably) the chapel to the other, this entered through a fine arched doorway. A short passage links to the kitchen, while other rooms on this level were chambers of various sizes, equipped with garderobes. The second and third floor survives only in the east tower, accessed by a stairway that continues up to roof level, a vantage point that gives the best overall view of the structure, including of the great hall directly below, which extended three floors to the roof and was illuminated by a pair of tall windows, above the entrance.