Tamworth Castle is fun-sized Norman castle at the heart of Tamworth, Staffordshire.
The town of Tamworth is a stone’s throw from Birmingham (England’s second city, depending on who you listen to) and it’s a pleasant little place.
Although the castle is definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area, it’s not a huge tourist attraction of its on right.
That said, Tamworth is an excellent example of an enduring motte-and-bailey fortress. It’s made all the more interesting from extensive adaptations over the years.
I spent a happy afternoon in the castle one chilly day in December 2013. I didn’t spot any ghosts, though….!
Here’s a run-down of the history of this interesting fortress which has changed and developed through the ages.
The Early Years: Tamworth in the Dark Ages
Back in AD757, Anglo-Saxon King Offa reigned over the Mercia – the middle-lands of England. Tamworth was the capital of his reign – an auspicious start to the area’s heritage, although we don’t know exactly where the King held court.
Legend has it that Tamworth Castle itself was founded by the daughter of a later monarch – Aethelflaed, the Lady of the Mercians.
She build a ‘burgh’ – basically a fortified mound of earth – around Tamworth in about AD913.
The reason she built it? Aethelflaed was a vigorous fighter, and was trying to save her land from the advances of the vicious Vikings. Unhappily, she died at Tamworth in AD918, although the lands were recaptured from the Vikings in about AD937.
The stories say that Tamworth Castle was built on the mound made by good lady Aethelflaed.
Whether that’s true or not, we do know one thing for certain: that the Normans saw the potential of Tamworth, and started building a Motte and Bailey castle here in about 1080.
The Norman Invasion
After the Norman invasion (in, of course, 1066!), the conquerors steadily advanced through England, capturing what they could, and moving forwards. In about 1080, they reached Tamworth and built one of their characteristic Motte and Bailey castles.
They probably selected this spot for strategic reasons. Two rivers – the Tame and the Anker – run nearby. The rivers would have helped defend the fortress – and would have been a trade route, too.
The Normans were responsible for the traditional Motte and Bailey structure of Tamworth. However, they had to make some notable concessions and adaptations to the local environment.
Firstly, the motte, or the mound on which the castle stands, may well have been the previous handiwork of Lady Aethelflaed, rather than the Norman troops. They probably just added a bit more earth, to make it a tad taller.
The Normans did build a bailey – although this round tower had decayed by the time of the Tudors, and only the foundations can be seen today.
They also enclosed the castle with a shell-shaped Keep, which remains until today. It has a 106ft internal diameter – but note that the buildings that fill it are more modern.
The Normans also built a thick, stone causeway – crossing the moat and leading to the castle. Archeologists get excited about this causeway due to its herringbone appearance – it’s a design that’s really quite rare in England.
The stones which form the causeway were laid at a 45 degree angle, and look rather like interwoven fish bones.
The castle was surrounded with a deep, dry moat, which would have made it even tricker to attack the place.
The Norman’s final piece of handiwork was the grand stone tower – a thick rectangular construction, adjacent to the gatehouse entrance. This tower spans three storeys, and the bottom may have been a cellar – or even used as a dungeon.
Narrowly Escaping Destruction in Late Medieval Times
Tamworth Castle was an auspicious spot from the fore. King Henry I visited it in 1100; King Kenry II stopped over in 1158.
However, in 1215, Tamworth Castle narrowly survived total destruction.
The then-owner of the castle, Robert Marmion IV, was appointed as a justice in England, and travelled to France as part of his his role. When in France, he made the terrible error of forming allegiance with French King Phillip II.
The tyrannical King John of England flew into a rage at his siding with the enemy, and ordered an immediate assault onto Tamworth Castle – to seize Marmion’s lands, imprison his brother, and destroy the castle.
Luckily, the castle only suffered damage at the hands of John’s troops. Why? John had a characteristic last minute change-of-heart – although he still chose to confiscate the Marmion’s lands.
It was one of John’s last antagonisms, however – he died less than a year later, in 1216.
Tudor Mansions and Maisonettes
One of the prettiest things about Tamworth Castle is, when entering the shell keep, you’ll be instantly amazed at the plethora of beautiful sandstone buildings all crammed into a tiny little space.
The shell is just 33 metres (106 feet) in diameter.
Whereas, usually, the homes of the noble owners would have been built outside the main Keep (perhaps adjacent upon the bailey), in Tamworth, they’re built within the Keep itself.
It was the Ferrers Family who built the majority of these old buildings, back between 1423 to 1688. The castle had passed to them from its original owner, Norman Robert le Dispenser (brilliantly named, huh!), through the Marmion family, and on to them.
The Ferrers family were responsible for many of the inner buildings, including the proud c15th hall, which was later transformed into the grand Jacobean house you can see today.
Other residents over time heightened the walls of the keep, and added those rather exaggerated mock-crenellations (battlements). Lodgings and residences were also built into the castle walls.
Because of Tamworth’s status as a noble’s residence, it was painted by Turner in c.1830 – I’ve reproduced the image above.
Tamworth’s lucky to have remained in such good nick – the vast majority of Britain’s other castles fell into significant disrepair after the c17th, generally after the end of the civil war.
However, Tamworth Castle has always been inhabited – which helps explain why it’s been cared for over time. The fact that the residential buildings were held safe inside the Keep made it an attractive place for nobles to live – even during Victorian times.
Under siege in the Civil War
Tamworth’s second lucky escape from total destruction was during the English Civil War.
During the Civil War, the castle was garrisoned for defence by the Royalist forces. However, during 1646, after just a few days siege, it fell to the Parliamentarians.
Although its owners never regained the castle, curiously, the Parliamentarians never chose to slight (intentionally destroy) Tamworth.
It was a lucky escape, and we don’t know why it happened – it’s hypothesized that the Parliamentarians were keen to preserve the mansion buildings inside for their own use.
Ghostly Tales: The Black Woman and the White Woman: The Phantoms of Tamworth Castle
Tamworth Castle is complete with not one, but two supposed ghosts. In fact, the castle has been featured on UK television’s most famous ghost-hunting programme: Britain’s Most Haunted.
The legend of the Black Lady is the eerier of two the ghost stories. The legend goes that, in 1139, Lord Marmion (who was present owner of the castle) was planning to evict nearby nuns from their convent.
It’s said that the ghost of Editha, the nun who founded the convent hundreds of years before, came to him in his sleep.
Dressed in her full black habit, she struck him a huge blow to punish him for his intentions. She vowed that the pain would not desist until Lord Marmion abandoned his plans to destroy the convent.
Unsurprisingly, Lord Marmion heeded her words pretty quickly!
Apparently, the spectre of the Black Woman lives on in the castle. In 1949, a team of ghost hunters photographed Editha’s shadow on the castle stairwell.
It’s said that – on dark nights – the Black Lady descends from the Lady’s Chamber, which lies upon the second floor of the castle, down the creaky wooden staircase to the floors below.
As for the White Woman? Well, she stalks the battlements of Tamworth Castle, and wails at the loss of her lover, cruelly killed by the tyrannical Lord Tarquin who has captured her in his castle.
Wailing white ladies are the most common form of reported hauntings in castles – so could this White Lady be a ‘twin’ of the spooks in other old buildings?
A mysterious mural of Sir Lancelot and Lord Tarquin was once painted onto the wall of the Great Hall. However – tragically, in my opinion! – it was whitewashed over in 1783.
Some say that this mural held the key to the White Lady’s identity…
Visting Tamworth Castle Today
Tamworth Castle is owned by the local council, rather than a national organisation like English Heritage.
The council really seem to care about the place, though, and most of the exhibitions are quite modern and recently developed.
The entry prices might be little costly for a family – and I did lose a little bit of attention in the upper floors of the castle, where rooms are dressed as in Victorian times. (Guess that’s just not my period of history!)
Even so I’d highly recommend a visit if you’re in the area.
If you’ve enjoyed this piece on Tamworth Castle, I think you might also enjoy reading about the hidden treasure of Beeston Castle. Alternatively, you could read more about other castles in England.