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A Brief History of the Castle and Grounds

The following brief history is based on a work by Richard Lockett conducted in February 2008 for the Hereford and Worcester Gardens Trust.

Hartlebury Castle and its surrounding landscape have belonged to the See of Worcester since circa 860 A.D. and a mansion has been at the centre of this landscape from circa.1260 when the site was moated. The surviving western arm of this moat is divided by a causeway from the mill pond. Hartlebury was turned into a fortified residence for the Bishop of Worcester before the end of the 13th century and its defences were completed around 1450 with the addition of a gatehouse by the east arm of the moat. Worcestershire once had numerous moated residences and the Bishop of Worcester possessed another at Alvechurch which is no longer. Birtsmorton Court is the most relevant survivor of a moated manor house in Worcestershire as an idea of Hartlebury Castle around 1500 when it was at its zenith.  Most of the castle was destroyed or “slighted” following the surrender by the Royalist garrison during the English Civil War circa 1650 and the surviving medieval structure is hidden within the new works of the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, Hartlebury can only allude to its history as a fortification through the playful additions of castellation to the main building and principally through the crenellated walls and bastions that Bishop Maddox placed round the filled-in south arm of the moat around 1750. Hartlebury as seen from the west and south thus survives as a recognisable castle, a relative rarity in Worcestershire.

It seems likely that a deer park was established at an early date, perhaps in the 13th century. Research into the medieval, Episcopal records may reveal references to the deer park earlier than that of John Leland who described Hartlebury on the eve of the Protestant Reformation circa 1539. Apart from an interruption during the English Civil War (when the park was halved in size), Hartlebury retained a deer park through the 18th into the 19th century. The boundaries of the deer park in its reduced state are still recognizable from the 1903 Ordnance Survey and it does not take much imagination to add the deer. As in 1701, work needs to be done on the park paling!

A very detailed record exists for the management of the deer between 1699 and 1709 when the fluctuation of deer numbers (bucks, does and young) between about 80 and 150   is documented year by year. This inventory also records how many deer were killed or lost due to bad weather or disease (56 in the winter of 1700) and tells us who enjoyed the venison. Records for the deer stock from the 16th century onwards allow a much fuller picture to be painted than comes across from the basic outline given in printed maps, the earliest for Hartlebury being Robert Morden’s of 1695.

The deer park also served as a landscape park and Leland remarked on its “fair ponds”.

These probably refer to 6 pieces of water in the park to the north and east as shown on a manuscript map of 1801. These pieces of water are identical to those recently found by geophysical survey. Field names on the 1801 map show that the deer park extended to a boundary on Rectory Lane.

Changes to the planting of the park were made throughout the 18th century, Bishop Hough, for instance, planted a Holly Grove and an Elm Grove and, 20 years later, Bishop Maddox added a variety of clumps: Planes; Chestnuts; Walnuts; Hawthorns; Mountain Ash.  At present, the most dominant features in the park, apart from the Mound topped by a fine Cedar, are the 3 avenues of trees, two of them towards gates and the third which does not extend very far, aligned with the main entrance. These moments of planting were steps towards a more picturesque nature as in the Castle viewed across the Mill Pond in Beauties of England and Wales, 1810 (illus. 3). This view reflects contemporary, Worcestershire residences such as The Rhydd which is set beside and above the river Severn. Bentley’s 1841 Directory simply describes the Hartlebury landscape as “a rather extensive park, ornamental with plenty of wood and water”.

The 18th century records tell us about a number of  buildings situated in the park such as an ice house, a deer cote, a dovecote, the Keeper’s Lodge and other buildings relevant to the management of stock, most of which survive in various states today. The island in the west moat, probably an 18th century creation, is now hidden amongst trees and reed beds.

The development of the gardens from medieval to modern cannot be followed so seamlessly and the medieval gardens within the castle area can only be guessed at. The gardens in their present state were created after the Stuart Restoration. In 1731 Bishop Hough filled in the south arm of the moat and so began the creation of a new garden area there referred to here as the Chapel Garden. Something of its formal lay-out is recorded in 18th c. drawings and prints which also show the equally formal lay out of the main entrance courtyard entered between 2 small lodges that replaced the demolished 15th century gatehouse.

A perspective view of Hartlebury Castle

As we’ve seen, Bishop Maddox, who added “a walk by the mill pool and Moat”, i.e. an informal element on the west side, also added the surviving walls and bastions as a boundary between the Chapel garden and the park. This was a miniature allusion to the Middle Ages by comparison with Vanbrugh’s curtain walls at Castle Howard in Yorkshire. One of the 2 bastions can be seen in an engraving of 1784. Engraving of castle in 1784

When George III visited Worcester and Hartlebury in 1788, he is recorded as walking on the terraces, presumably those along the west and south sides of the Castle and one can imagine the crowd cheering him from the parallel terrace on the other side of the Chapel garden (moat). The terrace running east from the Chapel itself, still known as Queen Elizabeth’s walk which, according to tradition, was laid out by Bishop Bullingham for the Queen’s visit in 1575. If so, the Queen would then have looked down into the moat rather than into the formal garden formed in the 18th century and thereafter remodelled into the 19th century and eventually recorded in photographs.

Bishop Johnston, who carried out the major re-fitting of the Castle itself around 1770 also developed and expanded the walled gardens on the north side of the Castle with hot houses and a green house. An inventory made in 1781 provides a list of all the plants then being cultivated at Hartlebury and mentions that the head gardener kept the seed press in his bedroom! That Hartlebury had some vines is recorded in 1809. There is a surviving invoice from a London nurseryman in 1820 who supplied vegetables and garden tools amongst other things. So, one way or another, there is a wealth of information about the Hartlebury gardens in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

There is too much rather than too little information for the history of the Castle and its park and gardens and many other buildings which survive within this landscape. Our knowledge can be extended much further through archaeology and archival research. All phases of a “Hartlebury Revived” and interpreted will provide a range of opportunities for community involvement by children and adults of all ages. The difficulty will be to decide which of the many options for re-creation and restoration and interpretation to choose. .

This is apparently the crucial opportunity   to release the full potential of the site by reintegrating the Castle with its immediate landscape, neither of which can be fully experienced without the other. The opportunity now exists to create an intelligible visitor experience of the principal rooms by making some more rooms accessible and linking them together with a straightforward visitor route. The gardens can be opened up and the jig-saw that it represents pieced together by recovering its terraces and walks and paths as designed and modified into the 19th century. There are some suggestions made here as to how the park landscape beyond the gardens could be given much more visual interest through planting and water. View across pool

Garden and Park should be experienced one from the other, the Castle seen once more from the other side of the lake and the lake from the west terrace or from the windows above. Such opportunities are taken for granted by visitors to stately homes and National Trust properties of which, incidentally, there are relatively few in Worcestershire. A momentum has been created at Hartlebury by the recently achieved enhancement of the County Museum and the “Old Moat Coppice” might be seen as a first step in the reintegration of Castle and grounds, a journey with huge potential.


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