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Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
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Wingfield Manor - Cromwell's Palace.

Posted Thursday, May 31, 2007

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Wingfield Manor - Cromwell’s Palace:

The evocative and hauntingly beautiful ruins of Wingfield Manor stand proudly atop a rocky hill above the village of South Wingfield, with the tall chimneys and gaunt towers rising resolutely to two hundred feet above the valley floor, and dominating the surrounding pastoral landscape.

`Mary Queen of Scots was held prisoner here'

This was the romantic setting for scenes from the films, `The Virgin & the Gypsy’ and Zefferelli’s adaption of `Jane Eyre’, also the ruins have been featured in the TV series, `Peak Practice’ – but most famously, Mary Queen of Scots was held prisoner here on three separate occasions during the sixteenth century.

Standing at the top of the battlemented High Tower and gazing out at the wide panorama of rich countryside whilst listening to the screeching call of the peacocks in the apple orchard far below, as Mary herself may have done almost five hundred years ago, gives one a sense of the immensity and splendour of this magnificent sprawling ruin, displayed in all its picturesque glory almost a hundred feet below.

What you can now see is only the end result of a long history of building on the site, which began soon after the Norman Conquest, when a small castle enclosed by a courtyard wall was built here early in the twelfth century. Three hundred years later in 1429 the ownership of the site and surrounding land was granted to Ralph, Lord Cromwell of Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire.

A Palace fit for the Richest Man in England!

Cromwell was a man of great power and influence, who as a young man had accompanied King Henry V on his campaigns in France. He fought at Agincourt, and when the king later died, Cromwell was one of the knights chosen to accompany his body back to England.

Henry V1 was only nine months old when he became king, and Cromwell became a member of the Regency Council appointed to rule England. He was later appointed Lord Treasurer of the Exchequer, and Master of the Royal Hounds & Falcons under King Henry V1.

Cromwell, who was also Constable of Nottingham Castle and Steward of Sherwood Forest immediately demolished the earlier buildings, levelled the site and built a structure befitting the richest and most powerful man in England at that time – not another castle, nor a manor or fortified house – but a palace!

At the time of its construction Cromwell’s palace at Wingfield was one of the largest and most lavish in the entire realm. It was a statement of power and wealth, designed and built to impress. The gatehouse alone was the size of a small castle - and larger than the homes of all but the richest in the land!

By 1439 he had built the Great Hall, kitchen, and a series of lodgings at the centre of the old enclosure, and whilst the War of the Roses was raging Cromwell spent huge sums adding a new hall and ranges of lodgings to the south and east, which, with a private garden to the north, enclosed a new double courtyard complex.

His household consisted of over a hundred attendants and servants, and there were upwards of two hundred people residing within the walls. Cromwell modified as he built, and this often involved partial demilition of work which had only just been completed, thus he added the High Tower across the south-western corner of the new ranges, and by the time of its completion the immense structure was among the very largest courtyard palaces in England.

It is estimated that there were up to seventy five masons employed in the construction, which was almost completed by the time of Cromwells death in 1456. Cromwell died in residence, and John Talbot, the second Earl of Shrewsbury, who was staying there at the time, purchased the manor and it stayed in his family for several generations.

A Prison for Mary Queen of Scots!

It was one of his descendants, the sixth Earl, husband of the famous Bess of Hardwick, who had the charge of Mary Queen of Scots here, complete with her retinue of `ten maid-servants, fifty other persons, and ten horses’ on three separate occasions – in 1569/70, 1584 and 1585 - during her long imprisonment under the orders of Queen Elizabeth 1st.

It was to here that Anthony Babington of nearby Dethick came, disguised as a gypsy, his face stained with wallnut juice, in a failed attempt to hatch a plot to assassinate Elizabeth and to put Mary on the throne of England. The ancient wallnut tree which stands in the inner courtyard is said to have grown from a kernel dropped by Babington himself – prior of course, to his execution in 1586! Mary herself was executed at Fotheringay Castle early the following year.

A Very Un-Civil War!

During the Civil War, Wingfield was held successively by the Earl of Pembroke on behalf of Parliament, and by the Earl of Newcastle for the King. In 1644 it came under tremendous bombardment from a large Parliamentary force, who only broke the seige after calling in heavy artillery, and following its capture the building was `slighted’ – (rendered defenceless by its partial demolition).

After the Civil War Wingfield Manor was sold to the Haltons who repaired the main buildings around the Great Hall, inserting floors and windows, and occupying that area for the next hundred years, with the rest slowly collapsing into ruin around them.

Dawn of A New Age!

It was here, on 23rd June 1675 that the world witnessed the dawn of a new scientific age when renowned mathematician and astronomer Immanuel Halton made his famous observations on the eclipse of the sun. His findings were greeted with great acclaim and later published by the Royal Society.

In 1774 the Haltons built a new manor house half a mile away down the valley, using stone from Cromwells now crumbling palace. They stripped lead and timbers from the roof and floors, leaving virtually the ruins that we see today – except that part of the original south wing was left to the occupation of farmers.A Rich History

The atmosphere inside the empty shell of the roofless Great Hall, with its double-tiered row of gothic arched windows, surrounded by soaring turrets and towering walls open to the sky, is redolent with the age of centuries and rich with the romance of legend and history.

Beneath the Great Hall lies the Undercroft, still completely intact, with a vaulted ceiling of multiple arches supported on stone pillars, and probably the finest example of a medieval storehouse cellar still in existence.

The former grandeur of the State Rooms can now only be imagined by standing amidst their ruined splendour, and the spiral staircases with their stone steps worn down and bowed by the passage of feet for over half a millennium, which lead to open spaces where oak-beamed floors used to be, stand in mute testament to the former opulence and glory of Cromwells magnificent fifteenth century palace.

A Rich Future?

Today a farmer, Mr. Critchlow, still occupies a working farm at the centre of the complex, and though the ruins are in the care of English Heritage, who have done a wonderful job of conservation which has enabled Wingfield Manor to be opened up again to the public, this has only been possible with Mr. Critchlow's permission and visitors are kindly requested to respect his privacy. Audio and guided tours are available at just £3-20, with concessions for children and coach parties, and a visit to this hauntingly beautiful romantic ruin makes a wonderfully historic day out.

 
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