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Helmdon Historical Articles

Astwell Castle





The structure now known as Astwell Castle is understood to be the manor house of the lost village of Astwell.

The tenurial history of Helmdon is complex and it is not clear how this extension of the village of Helmdon originated or functioned. There is some evidence of a settlement here in both Neolithic and Roman times.

In 1086, both Helmdon and Astwell are listed in the Domesday Book as single manors with the Astwell settlement being larger than that of Helmdon There is documented evidence that Astwell manor remained in existence until some time after 1837.

Contemporary maps indicate the presence of two medieval fish ponds to the north of the manor which may have been associated with Astwell village or the manor house. A 10 metre diameter mound to the east of the manor is thought to have been the site of a windmill. If so, this is likely to have been a separate mill to that known to have existed in Helmdon village.

The De Wauncey family were among the earliest owners of the manor after 1066 and it then descended to the Brooke family. In 1471 Thomas Lovett acquired Astwell in exchange for his hereditary estates by a family arrangement with William Brooke and the manor house rebuild was begun around this time. This included the construction of an embattled gate tower.

In the Middle Ages, all but the humblest of houses needed some form of defence. A whole spectrum existed between a stout bolted door to a moated castle. A common form of defence was a simple tower house – a stone house built high enough with a stout raised door and barred high windows to make attack difficult without mounting a full siege.

The embattled tower at Astwell has a basement with porter’s lodge on the right of the entrance. The floors of the two internal levels are not well preserved and unsuitable for access. The room on the first floor has shields of arms on the walls and there is a blocked-up doorway which possibly opened onto an external gallery. Both this room and that above have garderobes. There is an excellent view from the roof.

A small deer park was created in the manor grounds in 1547.

The possession of the manor passed to Sir George Shirley and it is believed some modifications may have been made to the manor house during the 17th century.

Selina, his granddaughter, born at Astwell in 1707, became Countess of Huntingdon by marriage and after early widowhood she is said to have spent over £100,000 in acts of public and private charity. This included having part of Astwell Manor demolished with the stone used to build houses for the poor between Astwell and Helmdon. Traces of the foundations of these houses have been found.

By 1874, the manor house had been largely dismantled the remainder becoming a farmhouse. The embattled tower remained.

The house was remodelled in 1957 and is now the farmhouse of Astwell Castle Farm.

John Coatsworth



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