Malcolm Twigg visits Jonathan Lewis at Devizes Castle, Wiltshire.
PUBLISHED: 15:45 20 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:02 20 February 2013
Devizes Castle played a huge part in the history of the town until it was demolished during the Civil War. It was subsequently rebuilt as a private residence in Victorian times and exactly what lay behind those imposing gates has remained a secret...
Malcolm Twigg visits Jonathan Lewis at Devizes Castle, Wiltshire.
Like anyone who lives in Devizes, I've often passed the forbidden gate to Devizes Castle and felt tempted to peer inside, so you can imagine how excited I was when I was asked if I fancied a tour round. The castle has been in private ownership since 1830, the major part of it within one family but with two of the turrets on the north side now being owned by somebody else. It was the principal part of the superb Victorian Gothic confection, now on the market for some lucky buyer, that I had been invited to see and I couldn't wait. Jonathan Lewis, the current owner, is reluctantly selling his beautiful and amazing home - the principal part of this fine Grade I Listed castle - because work commitments in London mean he's not able to spend enough time in it. I met Lucy, the estate agent from Knight Frank, at the Gate House. When I arrived she was standing on the other side of the portcullis like a latter-day bailiff, but quickly opened the gate and in I stepped. The very first thing that struck me was the moat. A proper castle moat, huge and deep but, alas, with no water.
This fantastic castle looks like those in fairy tales. "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair," I heard myself saying as we walked up the steep circular driveway that leads to the entrance, looking up at the magnificent stone walls and towers. There are ramparts and arrow-slit windows everywhere. The grand, arched, heavy wooden door is opened. Inside, everything has been beautifully refurbished to create a fascinating five- bedroom, six-reception-room country home. The scent of an enormous vase of pink lilies wafting through the air accompanies us as we explore the castle's spacious arrangement over five floors. Look through the arrow-slit windows and you can see far-reaching views across the town.
Devizes castle is described as 'an outstanding example of a Grade I Listed property predominantly built of stone. There is a wealth of period features throughout: generous stone-mullioned windows, beautifully detailed stone archways, impressive feature fireplaces. Oak-strip floors, working shutters, charming smaller stone spiral staircases and, in the drawing room and study, ceilings richly decorated with carved and gilded bosses'. Fine though it may be, the description hardly prepares you for the reality. According to Jonathan Lewis, the castle is very easy to live in. "We use the place as the Victorians would have used it," he says. "We follow the sun around and use different parts of the castle at different times of the day and year."
One of his favourite rooms is the 25ft by 20ft dining room on the first floor, with its 25-seater table and grand fireplace, its walls hung with tapestries and portraits from the 17th-century school of Peter Lely, and with carved thrones serving as 'his 'n' hers' chairs for the hosts. Some of the reception rooms have gilded and bracketed ceilings. Others, such as the dark-green library, bear evidence of partying Victorian forebears, with the footprints of a snooker table embedded in the wooden floor. The 33ft beamed 'long gallery' is lined with antique trunks, chests, sideboards and paintings, picked up at auction by the current owners. There are pillars, cellars, an orangery, magnificent stone fireplaces, bathrooms in towers, loos in turrets. Devizes Castle in 2009 is great fun and I'm not surprised to hear the owners say, "We've had some great parties at the castle" and that "It's the most wonderful place for Christmas."
So what is the history of Devizes Castle? Today's castle was rebuilt in 1830 by HE Goodridge (who also built Lansdowne Tower, Bath) on the site of the ruined medieval structure and has been used as a beautiful private dwelling ever since.
The castle took its name from the Latin castrum ad divsas, meaning the castle at the boundaries, since it stood at the central point of three manors. In a sense Devizes is Devizes Castle - its existence having prompted the Bishop of Salisbury to establish the satellite town on the castle's eastern boundary. The town owes its present medieval street pattern to the overpowering presence of the fortress, which probably dates back to just after the Norman Conquest. It is likely that Devizes became church property from AD 909 and a motte and bailey castle could have been built in about 1080. The earthwork itself, on which the castle is built, is believed to be pre-Norman, and the outer bailey with its stockade, ramparts and drawbridge was in what later became the town.
By 1113 the original wooden castle had burned to the ground. It was rapidly rebuilt in stone by the Viceroy Bishop Roger of Salisbury - at great expense - and it was said of the new structure that 'there was not a more splendid fortress in Europe and one of the most gorgeous in Christendom'.
Devizes Castle has played a large role in English history, playing host to many royal and political figures. In the 12th century King John was based at the castle and built luxurious accommodation. Today, small remains can be seen in the rear garden, where you can see a section of stone wall about 15ft high, including a window. It was owned by the Crown for many years and became the property of numerous Queens of England, including all six of Henry VIII's wives.
What you see now is the inner bailey, surrounded by the moat, with the old keep of the castle now just a flat area on the west of the castle. It was besieged during the Civil War in 1645 when Cromwell set up a battery of ten cannons and mortars in the Market Place. He demanded the surrender of the castle 'for the use of King and Parliament'. In reply, the then Governor, Sir Charles Lloyd, declared his intention of holding the castle ''til the death of the last man'. Cromwell continued his bombardment all day and night. Finally, a shell fell into the Keep, which housed the powder magazine, killing several men and causing the garrison to capitulate. On 4 May 1646 it was resolved by Parliament that the castle be demolished.
For nearly 200 years the site lay waste and the local people, builders and masons used the castle as a convenient quarry. So much stone was removed that it can be seen throughout Devizes and nearby local towns. In the 17th century two windmills were erected for the crushing of rape seed and later grinding snuff, a product for which Devizes was becoming noted. The remains of one windmill now forms the structure for the north tower. Around 1840 the south windmill was demolished to clear the site for today's south tower, thus starting the creation of the castellated mansion that is now Devizes Castle.
Today, the castle could not have a more different atmosphere than its predecessor. Although we are bang smack in the middle of Devizes, there is silence. Historical memories, the birds and the breeze in the trees are all you can hear. I felt privileged to be here... at last.
The principal part of Devizes Castle is for sale at 2.5m. For particulars contact Knight Frank (01488) 682726 (www.knight.frank.com) or Savills 020 701 63718 (www.savills.com).