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Whittington Castle

Romancing the Stone

There’s something romantic about the ruins of a castle. Never mind that it’s been through a century of bitter feuds and border wars or that a dungeon lies dormant in its bowels. It's the once-upon-a-time romance that shines through, especially when setting eyes on Whittington Castle, an English fortress that sits along the Welsh border. I first learned about the castle when my Aunt Dianne came across the Whittington Castle website shortly before Dan and I moved to England in 2001. She and mom are Whittingtons, and since their brother's name is Dick, our family has always been fascinated with the folktale, Dick Whittington And His Cat. Come to find out, this legendary 14th century orphan is mentioned in our family history. Our earliest “written” family records, dated 1500, began at a church in Nottingham, England, but anything traced prior to that time, though documented, is speculation. 

Books from childhood
After Dan and I had settled in Langtoft (Lincolnshire), England, I was eager to visit this fortress which bears our family name. Like most castles, Whittington Castle comes with its own legends and myths. Some historians believe that Fulke FitzWarin, castle lord in the early 1200s, was actually Robin Hood. And according to a 13th century ballad, the Holy Grail was once kept in the castle chapel. However, my quest wasn’t to find the Holy Grail, but to see if there was a Dick Whittington, or any Whittington, connection to the castle.

A few weeks before my visit, Alec Hayward, castle trustee, assured me that no Whittington family had ties to the castle. Its name was taken from the village of Whittington, not a family that once lived there. The news burst my enthusiasm a bit, but I still wanted to make the trip and learn more about the castle’s history. So I was surprised to find not only a possible family connection to the castle, but also the old cottage where Dick Whittington was born!

History Comes to Life

My friend Connie joined me on the long journey. The early miles were filled with monotonous motorways, but the final leg took us through the unmarred, fairytale beauty of rural Shropshire. We entered Whittington, a charming village, in the midst of a downpour, but it turned to a spitting drizzle by the time we reached the castle. My eyes finally caught sight of the ruins set against the brooding sky. With the day's peaceful setting, and the winsome swans swimming in the moat, it was hard to imagine the castle’s turmoil in earlier years. I sensed only the romance its history surely holds.

Knights once crossed a drawbridge over the moat.
Upon our arriveal, Alec offered to show us around. He said the castle’s history prior to the 13th century is sketchy, but there’s evidence that primitive castles have existed at the site since 843. Except for the long-gone drawbridge, the site has all the remains of a medieval castle. The gatehouse, connected by two splendid towers, is still intact, and a large portion of the shell-keep stands, though it looks like it has lost a few battles. Much of the moat has been filled in and the remaining portion is home to swans and other waterfowl.

A stone bridge took us to the gatehouse entrance where Alec pointed out the FitzWarin coat of arms above the archway. He talked about the family as if they were old neighbors. “Fulke FitzWarin had lordship of the castle in 1200. Since then, 15 generations of his descendants won and lost the fortress, until the last in the male lineage died in 1420,” he said.

The castle is one of many that was fortified along the border in the 13th century as a defence against Welsh raiders. In 1220, King Henry III granted Fulke permission to secure the shell-keep with stone and build a gatehouse, surrounded by a wall, in return for his loyalty to the crown.

Arrow slits in the tower protected archers.
Alec pointed out the arrow slits in the towers, and told us how the narrow openings helped protect the archers. Stones at the gatehouse entrance still bear the long, thin scars where swords were sharpened before battle.

Over the years, a series of monarchs claimed the castle back to the crown and granted its lordship to men willing to defend the throne. In the 16th century, an Elizabethan dwelling was built onto the north tower. The addition was occupied by various families and businesses until the 1950s.

Elizabethan dwelling
During World War I, it served as a laundry where women washed the lice-ridden uniforms that came in from France. The grounds were then turned into a “Dig For Victory” garden during World War II.

Ruins Rscued by Trust

The castle has been slowly falling into ruin since the 17th century. In 1998, the village formed the Whittington Castle Preservation Trust. The family that has maintained lordship of the castle since the 1600s recently offered the trust a 99-year lease to manage and preserve it. Archeologists recently discovered the layout of a sophisticated medieval garden under turf at the castle, which makes its preservation even more important, according to Alec, who said the finding could change garden history.

The castle ruins
Connie and I climbed a large mound to view the grounds, then made our way up a spiral iron stairway to reach the remains of the shell-keep which once served as the great hall. This is where the lord, his family, servants and defending soldiers lived. It had a kitchen, sleeping quarters, central hearth, chapel and cloister, according to Alec.  From that height, the surrounding grounds evoked an eerie medieval atmosphere, and the dismal clouds overhead mimicked the turmoil of earlier years.

Alec offered to meet us for dinner at Ye Olde Boote, an inn across from the castle where Connie and I were spending the night. Sylvia Ray, trustee/historian, and Colin Robinson, trust chairman, joined us. During dinner, we heard fascinating tales of the castle and learned that its glory days come to life in “Lords of the White Castle,” a romantic, fact-based novel by Elizabeth Chadwick.

Book tells of romance and feuds.
Sylvia assured me that I’m not the only Whittington-blooded American who’s been curious about the castle. “Americans have taken a real interest in it. We’ve had over 15,000 hits on the Internet. Some Whittingtons are adamant that their families lived in the castle at one time. I could write a book! We had a peculiar request from a little man who offered to pay a lot of money just for permission to use the castle as his address,” she said.    

Whittington families in America often learn about the castle while researching their ancestors on the Internet, according to Colin. “The idea of being linked to the castle is quite romantic and they latch on to it before finding a genuine connection. Although there may be no connection, it’s conceivable that their ancestors could have come from Whittington, since people (in earlier times) often took their names from the village,” he explained.

The castle had been ignored for a century before the trust began preserving it from further deterioration. Colin said, “We want to retain its charm and at the same time make a viable income for its upkeep without over commercializing it. We’re appealing to Whittingtons worldwide to help, either by donating money or subscribing to the quarterly newsletter, The Friends of Whittington Castle. They may like the association through a common name and want to support our project.”

What about Robin Hood and the Holy Grail? “It’s a lot of twattle,” according to Sylvia. “Researching the castle for the past eight years has been one of the most exciting and exasperating things I’ve ever done in life. Many legends are interwoven in its history, like the Holy Grail, but historians haven’t embraced them. I suppose there’s a grain of truth in everything. Robin Hood’s life certainly mirrors Fulke who lived as an outlaw after he was banished from the castle for a time during King John’s reign,” she said.

Embracing the Family Connection

And Dick Whittington? Sylvia said the legendary orphan was born in a nearby cottage in 1350. His father was a blacksmith, and he took the village’s name. In 1368, Dick set off on his famous journey to London and became the city’s mayor three times between 1397-1420. He married Alice, daughter of  Sir John (Ivo) FitzWarin, a descendant of Fulke, and incorporated the FitzWarin coat of arms into his own. At last, the connection I was looking for! It's quite likely that Dick and Alice spent time at the castle. By the time Connie and I climbed the wooden steps to Bedfordshire, our heads were spinning in the day’s whirlwind history lesson.

Dick Whittington's Cottage

Sylvia didn’t know the exact location of Dick Whittington’s cottage, but she said it was in Newnes, a hamlet just a few miles away. The next morning Connie and I set out early to find the cottage – no easy task. The rain had continued through the night, so the tiny roads winding through the rolling hills were nothing but muddy ruts. With each twisty bend, it became increasingly clear that the roads weren’t meant for tourists. Finally, we noticed a charming, thatched-roof cottage tucked in the shires and a gentleman walking his dogs. “Do you know the way to Whittington cottage?” I asked. “It’s right here,” he said with a warm smile, and invited us in for tea.

Tony Good at the legendary cottage
Tony Good put the kettle on and told us about the cottage he bought 15 years ago. “The previous occupants were pigs and sheep. Other than that, it hadn’t been lived in since 1956,” he said. While renovating the cottage, he carefully retained its original charm, such as the timber-ribbed beams throughout. A wee door in the loft hides a “priest’s room” where Catholics once found safety when Protestants were at the thrown.

Dick Whittington, the picture-book orphan who left the humble cottage with a tiny bundle of belongings tied to a stick, came to life that morning at the cottage. It was certainly a high watermark of emotion for me. I couldn’t wait to share the adventure with my grandchildren, Nathan and Natalie.

Being the romantic that I am, I imagine them reading “Dick Whittington And His Cat” to their children someday. I see them reaching for my old photo album, finding pictures of the cottage, and sharing their grandma's long ago adventure. “Once upon a time,” they’ll say ...    For more information about the Whittington Castle, visit www.whittingtoncastle.co.uk

This feature first appeared in The Daily Journal (Accent on Travel) Kankakee, IL

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