The King in the Car Park

Perhaps better described as “the burial place of our most married English Queen”: Sudeley Castle not only has the distinction of having been owned by Richard III not once but twice (during the Wars of the Roses wealthy estates changed hands faster than a mews cottage in Chelsea) but has a history stretching back to the timeĀ before the Norman conquest.

But on this occasion it was the recently disinterred Plantagenet King who drew me to this Gloucestershire manor house, set in ravishing gardens and overlooked by the Cotswold Hills. A travelling exhibition meant that his reconstructed features, so painstakingly assembled after the discovery of his skeleton last year in a Leicestershire car park, would be on display. They were indeed remarkably lifelike (unfortunately I failed to get them into focus) but there wasn’t much further information for those of us who had followed the story of the excavation so keenly.

Everyone has a position on Richard, don’t they? Was he the magnificent “Boo, hiss!” pantomime villain created for the Tudors by William Shakespeare or was he the just a misunderstood philanthropist? Neither, of course: he was a product of his time, hardly much worse (or better) than so many of his contemporaries. Did he arrange the murder of his little nephews? Probably: but getting rid of unwanted challenges to the throne could be an everyday occurrence in those days. We may never know for certain about the Princes in the Tower, but Richard’s bones do tell us some rather interesting things. Indisputably, he was man of slight build who had significant curvature of the spine but he led his troops into the thick of a ferocious battle and died in the midst of the fighting. And he was a looker. Hmm, brave and handsome: how reputations can be won or lost on fortune’s wheel.

There was so much else to see and appreciate at Sudeley that I cannot possibly do justice to it all. Unusually for such an estate, the parish church of St Mary sits within the castle grounds and here, in lovely, peaceful surroundings, lies Catherine Parr, last of Henry VIII’s unfortunate string of wives. Like many, I was under the impression that she had survived Henry to live out her years in peace but in fact her story is no happier than that of the others.

The thirty-one year old Catherine was already twice widowed when she was persuaded into a political union with the by now ailing King in 1543. She seems to have become used to being handed around marriage market to further other people’s ambitions despite the fact that she had a keen intelligence and strong religious faith. Tragically, her fourth and final marriage (and only love match) to Thomas Seymour shortly after the King’s death did not end happily. She died in childbirth during the following year but not before it had become abundantly clear that her new spouse was getting up to mischief with various younger women including the future Elizabeth I.

In contrast to Madresfield, this house and grounds have changed hands many times throughout their thousand year history and, following a long period of decay after the Civil War, came into the possession of some serious money in the early nineteenth century. The Dent (glove making) money married into the Brocklehurst (silk) money and went on to employ some of the finest architects, decorators and gardeners of their day to bring it to its present condition. As with most such great houses that have managed to remain in private hands, a visit to Sudeley is not cheap but it is all gorgeously maintained and fragrant with history.

 

Categories: Britain, West of England

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