In northeast Somerset near the border with Wiltshire, Farleigh Hungerford Castle occupies a slightly elevated position on a ridge above the west banks of the River Frome beside a small tributary stream (Devil's Dyke brook), and it has good views up and down the valley, though is overlooked by higher ground to the west and south. Like another picturesque castle in the county (Nunney), the structure had no real military use but instead was the fortified residence of a local family, the Hungerfords, and was constructed towards the end of the 14th century, initially as a square-shaped compound, with towers at each corner, before being augmented in the mid-15th century by addition of an outer court to the south, incorporating the local church which then became the castle's chapel.
The place became ruined following its sale and later abandonment at the start of the 18th century; only low foundation walls remain from the majority of the original castle buildings, though two towers rise nearly to their original height, and most of the walls of the outer court are also complete, as is one of the two gatehouses, following its restoration in the 1920s. Two other buildings are complete and undamaged - the priest's house (now containing a museum), built around 1430 and, perhaps the best part of the whole site, the chapel, which contains wall paintings, stained glass windows and ornate tombs of the Hungerford family, and is set above a crypt holding a valuable collection of lead coffins. Hence, although the remains of the castle are limited, the site as a whole has much to see, and is definitely one of the historic highlights of Somerset.
The village of Farleigh Hungerford is reached by the A366, between Trowbridge and Norton St Philip, and the castle at the centre is situated in a partly wooded area mostly surrounded by low hills, with the river flowing past on the east side. The approach road enters through the restored east gatehouse, then crosses the outer court, past the ruins of the west gatehouse, to a parking area on the far side. The site is managed by English Heritage who run a small gift shop in a building beside the chapel, and although visitors are free to visit all areas without any checks, they are meant to pay the entrance fee in the shop. The main, original section of the castle is to the north, while the chapel, crypt and priest's house are on the east side of the outer court.
A manor house had existed at Farleigh since before Norman times, and was purchased in 1369 by Sir Thomas Hungerford (died 1397), an early Speaker of the English parliament, and also a favourite baron of John of Gaunt, son of Edward III. He soon replaced the old house with a quadrangular castle; four circular corner towers linked by battlemented curtain walls 200 feet long, with a gatehouse and drawbridge at the front, rooms along the east and west sides and across the centre, and two courtyards - a somewhat antiquated layout as by this stage most newly established castles were based around a tall central keep. Also constructed around the same time was the chapel just outside the entrance, replacing an earlier parish church that had to be demolished in order to build the castle. The fortification was expanded by Thomas's son Sir Walter Hungerford (died 1443), including addition of the outer court and acquisition of the chapel; a further replacement church, for the village, was built a few hundred yards away. The castle passed through several more generations of the Hungerford family over the next two centuries, though was temporarily seized by the crown during the Wars of the Roses, while not undergoing any other major structural changes, and although briefly involved in the English Civil War (in 1643) was neither damaged nor subsequently slighted. The last Hungerford owner was Edward (died 1711), who was forced to sell the property in 1686 because of financial problems; later owners dismantled most of the walls and sold the materials, and the place soon became ruined and overgrown, though the chapel was maintained. Excavations and restorations occurred in several phases, principally between 1915 and 1924.
The eastern gatehouse, now the main entrance, is the most intact section of the castle, due in part to 19th-century rebuilding, a process which included addition of battlements on top of the tower. The front features a carved coat of arms and the initials of Edward Hungerford (died 1522), who modified the structure. Walls connect the gatehouse to the priest's house to the north, and run westwards, along the edge of the outer court to the west gatehouse, which is much less complete. The walls incorporate the south tower, plus the foundations of the smaller, southwest turret, and are guarded by a ditch to the south, originally part of a moat that continued round most of the west side of the castle to a dam, beyond which the land fell away quite steeply, affording natural protection. The moat also had a branch along the front of the castle of which half of the ditch remains, the other section, further east, having been filled in. On the north side of the outer court is the early castle entrance; a barbican (fortified outer enclosure, added in the 1430s), leading to the inner gatehouse, a narrow passage between two slender, D-shaped towers, which, like nearly all of the interior, survive only as low walls, uncovered during 19th century excavations.
The Inner Castle
Two of the four corner towers survive to approximately the original height; most complete is that to the southeast. The southwest tower (or lady tower) is missing about a third of its walls all the way to ground level, following a partial collapse in 1842, though the remaining masonry is crisp and new-looking in appearance, a result of later renovations. Traces of red-painted plasterwork can still be seen in the interior, above some of the windows. The northeast and northwest towers fell around the end of the 18th century, and most of the outer curtain walls are also just foundations, similar to all the interior. Rooms here included east and west ranges, plus a bakehouse and kitchen (and well) to the northwest, and a hall and chamber in the centre. Most buildings had two floors, some above cellars, but the towers held up to five stories.
The two floor priest's house forms part of the eastern wall of the outer enclosure, and the oldest section dates from the mid 14th century, when the building provided accommodation for the cleric at the chapel; contained within are various exhibits about the castle, the church and the Hungerford family, including artifacts unearthed during excavations. The chapel is opposite; the main section (Chapel of St Leonard) was built around 1380, while the annex on the north side - Chapel of Saint Anne - was added a few decades later. Beneath this is a small crypt containing eight human-shaped lead coffins, six adult and two child, holding the remains of 17th-century members of the Hungerford family. They may not be so exciting to look at, but are rare and historically important, as the high price of lead meant that very few people could afford such tombs. The interior of the chapel is relatively simple, architecturally, but embellished by colourful wall paintings, the earliest dating from around 1440, depicting St George slaying the dragon. Most of the other paintings, which include mottos, shields and figurines, are from the mid 1600s. There are six tombs, all ornately carved, two with original colouration and two that include effigies of the occupants. The tombs are from Sir Thomas Hungerford (died 1397) and wife Joan, Sir Walter Hungerford (died 1596) and son Edward, Sir Edward Hungerford (died 1607) and wife Jane, Mary Shaa nee Hungerford (died 1613), Sir Edward Hungerford (died 1648) and wife Margaret, and an early priest named Walter. The tomb of Sir Thomas Hungerford and wife is enclosed by black, wrought-iron railings, a little later in construction. The chapel has four stained-glass windows, not original though the glass fragments are medieval, having been reclaimed from other sites. The chapel also contains a lead font from the 14th century.