words by Sandra Noon
The History of Astley goes back to the 11th century and was described as a clearing in the Forest of Arden called Eastlea, which was owned by the Saxon Lord Alsi. His rule however came to an abrupt end in 1066 when Eastlea fell into the hands of the Normans, who then granted the land to the Earl of Leicester. The Land later came into the possession of Philip de Astley, who commissioned the Castle to be built in 1170. Below is a painting of the castle, which dates back to its earlier days.
In the 13th century due to the death of Thomas de Astley the family lost possession of the castle, it was however regained about 20 years later. In 1343 the nephew of Thomas’ grandson, Sir Thomas de Astley commissioned St Mary the Virgin church to be built on the site of an earlier church in the grounds of the castle, and during the early 15th century, Joanna Asltey, who was the last in line, married Lord Reginald Grey, which brought the Astley’s ownership of the castle and church to an end, and began the next faze with ownership passing to the Grey’s.
The Queens of Astley
Astley was lost once again in 1461 with the death of John Grey, but regained when his widow agreed to marry King Edward IV. Elizabeth’s two sons John and Edward Astley then resided at the castle, and Edward commissioned the Lady Chapel to be built at St Mary’s. In 1553 Henry Grey and Fellow consipitor’s succeeded in persuading Edward VI to proclaim Henry’s daughter Jane queen, however by the 23rd February all, including Lady Jane, who was only 16, were executed for treason against the rightful Queen Mary. It is believed that Henry Grey’s spirit still resides at the castle today. As a result of Henry Grey’s death Astley was then stripped of its fortifications, and rebuilt into a manor house.
Although it was now a manor house it retained its name, and frontage, as the photo on the next page shows, this was taken in the 1920’s, and gives an idea of what the manor house looked like. The proximity of the church can also be seen in the back ground, and the moat is still in evidence.
Henry Grey’s widow Frances later married one of her staff, Adrian Stokes, who misappropriated the church funds, and also removed lead from the church spire, the spire used to have a light that provided a beckon for people lost in the forest. As a result of the damage the spire later collapse onto the church roof during a storm, and the church was later restored by Sir Richard Chamberlayne, who the church and castle had been bestowed to by Henry’s Widow. Sir Richard was later buried in the chancel.
It was during the 17th century that Astley castle and church were purchased by the Newdigates of Arbury. By 1752 Sir Roger Newdigate’s mother Elizabeth was residing at Astley Castle and Sir Roger’s architectural influence could be seen with the redesigning of the stable block in the Gothic Style, as this more recent picture shows.
Lady Elizabeth embroidery work, which includes a Chippendale suite in the Gothic style along with a fire screen, can be seen on display at Arbury Hall today. After Lady Elizabeth’s death Astley Castle fell into disrepair, until Sir John Astley took up residence as a tenant in 1766. After the departure of Sir John Astley, 21 years later, the new resident was Sir Roger Newdigate’s sister-in-law, from his first marriage, Mary Congers. She was later buried in Astley church yard, close to her sister Harriet, and by 1832 Colonel Francis Newdigate, son of Francis Parker Newdigate, the owner of the two estates at that time, was resident at the castle.
Mary Ann Evans, known to many as George Eliot, whose parents were married at Astley Church, was born at Southwold Farm on the Arbury Estate. In the mid 1850’s, she wrote about Astley Castle and church, and referred to as them as Knebley Abbey and Knebley church.
1875 saw the start of a three year restoration at Astley church, with the creation of a magnificent oak- panelled ceiling with elaborate bosses, displaying 21 coats of arms, these were from families who had links with the church, one of which was the founder Sir Thomas Astley, and a further 6 belonged to the Newdigate’s. The architect involved was Mr Penrose, who had previously been commissioned to work on St Paul’s Cathedral.
In 1891 an oak tree, which stood in the grounds of the castle, blew down during a storm. It was reputed to be the tree that Sir Henry Grey was hiding at the time of his arrest for treason; he was betrayed by his gamekeeper Underwood for the sum of £200. The table and chair he used whilst in the tree can be seen on display at Arbury Hall today, and a stone mound marks the spot where the tree once stood.
During the 2nd world war Astley Castle was occupied by the army, and used as a reception camp and recuperation centre for soldiers. Much damage was done during that time, and an inspection of Astley Castle after the war revealed that taps had been left on resulting in 4 feet of water. The contents were removed to Arbury Hall and the castle abandoned, and forgotten in the battle to save Arbury Hall from a similar fate.
However this was not the end of this historic building, as the Provey Harpers took up residence in the 1950’s.
In 1952 the Reverend Ivo Car-Gregg, incumbent of Astley Church at that time, succeeded in his battle to save the church from collapse during the mining of coal under the church. Work was carried out to reinforce the church with a raft of concrete and steel at the base, an idea of the extent of this work can be seen in the photograph below.
During 1958 Astley Castle became a hotel; the first people to lease it were Mr and Mrs Tunnicliffe, and later the Challinors. It was used regularly basis for local events such Weddings. This modern day revival was short lived however, because in 1978 a fire at the castle shook not only the Newdigate’s, who still owned the castle, but also the local residents, who held the castle’s history in high regard. The photograph below shows the extent of the fire.
Astley Castle was once again abandoned, and left to decline into the ruin we see today. However there is hope on the horizon for what remains, in the form of a grant from English Heritage of £1.47 million, work has now begun to underpin to save what is left of the structure, as the photograph below take recently shows.
Whilst this is taking place further funding is being sort to allow a building to be constructed within the excising walls, to provide a place for people to visit and stay in these historic surroundings. It is hoped that the income generated from the four bedrooms and casual visitors will help maintain this project once the plans are carried out. The photograph on the next page shows the extent of the deterioration, it also shows the absence of the moat.
There are also plans to refurbish the Gothic stable block to form an interpretation centre.
The following photographs show St Mary the virgin church as it is today, unlike the castle the church is still used by the people of Astley today, and I remember being invited along with the other members of the Edward Street mission church back in 1972, I was overwhelmed by the magnificent interior, and was amazed by the elegance of such a small church, now I realise that it is all due to the dedication of its owners over the years.
The church however is also in need of restoration at a cost of £90,000, £48,000 of which has been offered by English Heritage, and £15,000 has been raised by the church, however they still need a further £27,000 before work can begin.