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Shirburn Castle
Shirburn Castle and Gardens-adj
Shirburn Castle - more detailed view of the frontage from the surrounding gardens
Shirburn Castle and Gardens-detail
Detail of the west front in 2014, showing construction materials revealed by loss of the external render, and the early nineteenth century drawbridge in raised position
Shirburn Castle 1677
Shirburn ("Sherbourne") Castle on Robert Plot's 1677 "Map of Oxfordshire"
Bodiam Castle in Sussex, showing a possible analogue for the appearance of some aspects of Shirburn (such as windows and other openings) prior to the latter's 18th-century remodelling

Shirburn Castle is a Grade I listed, moated castle located at the village of Shirburn, near Watlington, Oxfordshire. Originally constructed in the fourteenth century, it was renovated and remodelled in the Georgian era by the first Earl of Macclesfield who made it his family seat, and altered further in the early nineteenth century. The Earls of Macclesfield remained in residence until 2004, and the castle is still (2020) owned by the Macclesfield family company. It formerly contained an important, early eighteenth century library which, along with several valuable paintings, remained in the ownership of the 9th Earl and were largely dispersed at auction following his departure from the property; notable among these items were George Stubbs's 1768 painting "Brood Mares and Foals", a record setter for the artist at auction in 2010, the Macclesfield Psalter, and personal correspondence of Sir Isaac Newton.

Description and history

1377-1716 (de Lisle/Quatremain/Fowler/Chamberlain/Gage era)

The castle was constructed around 1378 on the site of a previous moated grange. The present, still moated, three storey building has a quadrangular form with four rounded corner towers. Rendered on the exterior (although the covering has now disappeared in places), it has been stated as being the earliest brick building in Oxfordshire, although Emery, cited below, believes that the original construction was more likely built entirely in limestone, with the brick "casing" added only when the castle was remodelled in 1720 in the Georgian style.

Records state that the first licence to build the castle was granted to Warin de Lisle in 1377. After his death five years later, the castle passed to his daughter, who married Lord Berkeley, and then to her daughter who married Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, whose principal residence was Warwick Castle. Later it was owned or occupied by successive families including the Talbots, Quartremayes [Quatremains] and Fowlers and eventually sold to the Chamberlain family, commencing with Edward Chamberlain, whose mother took out a lease on the Shirburn estate from her brother in 1505 and who died there in 1543. The castle's next owner was Sir Leonard Chamberlain (or Chamberlayne), d.1561, who was also the Governor of Guernsey from 1553. An account survives from 1559 documenting something of the internal layout of the rooms at that time, specifically: "the wardrobe, the entry, the great chamber at the lower end of the hall, the inner chamber, 'the brusshynge howse', the hall and the chamber over the parlour, and an inner chamber there; there was also a cellar, buttery, chambers each for the butler, priest, horse-keeper, cook, and chamberlains, an additional chamber, a low parlour, a kitchen larder, boulting house, fish-house, garner, brew-house, and other outhouses". During the 1642–1651 English Civil War Shirburn was held by Richard Chamberlain for the King, but was surrendered to Sir Thomas Fairfax for the Parliamentarian cause in 1646, apparently without damage.

After the end of the Civil War, the castle remained in (or was returned to) the Chamberlain family. The last male of the line, John Chamberlain, died in 1651, leaving no sons but two co-heirs, his daughters Elizabeth, wife of John Neville, Lord [A]bergavenny, and Mary, who was married first to Sir Thomas Gage of Firle, Sussex, and later to Sir Henry Goring. Elizabeth and Lord Abergavenny (d. 1662) possessed the manorial rights there until Elizabeth's death (date not known); by 1682 both Elizabeth and Mary had died and the castle passed to Joseph Gage (1652–1700), Mary's fourth son by her first husband, Thomas Gage. The castle then continued as the seat of that branch of the Gage family until 1714, when the eldest son Thomas Gage succeeded his wife Elizabeth's late father to the estate of High Meadow, a property in Gloucestershire, and associated "considerable fortune". He then decided to sell Shirburn.

1716-c.1800 (Parker era, first part)

Neale(1818) p3.292 - Sherbourn Castle, Oxfordshire
The Castle (as "Sherbourn Castle") as illustrated in John Neale's "Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. L.P", volume 3 (1818)

In 1716 the castle was acquired by Thomas Parker (1666–1732), Baron (later to be the first Earl) of Macclesfield and subsequently Lord Chancellor of England from 1718 to 1725, the purchase price (for Shirburn plus another property, Clare manor) being £25,696 8s. 5d. (more than £2 million in recent money), and the castle became the seat of the Earls of Macclesfield (and/or their associated family company), until the present time. The then very wealthy, soon-to-be first Earl was responsible for extensive renovations to the castle (considered by most authors to be a substantial rebuild, see below), costing a further £5000, and also started to accumulate the castle's extensive and important library, which survived intact for almost 300 years until its dispersal. The appearance of the castle prior to Parker's refashioning/rebuild is not known in detail from contemporary accounts or illustrations; it does appear (as a small icon) on Robert Plot's 1677 "Map of Oxfordshire" (relevant portion reproduced at right), similar to the castle of today, although whether this is intended to be a "stock" castle representation or an actual likeness is unclear. Emery, 2006, suggests that many features of its original external and likely internal appearance probably would have resembled its near-contemporary at Bodiam in Sussex; unlike Bodiam and many other castles of the era, Shirburn appears to have survived the Civil War relatively unscathed, remaining a habitable home to the Chamberlain and Gage families for the next 70 years until its purchase by Thomas Parker, only then to be refashioned—in particular, internally—as an elegant 18th-century baronial seat.

The Earls of Macclesfield are (or at least were) protective of their privacy, allowing few visitors to see the inside of the castle and denying requests for access for an examination to scholars of medieval architecture, with the result that Anthony Emery wrote in 2006: "Shirburn Castle has a well deserved reputation for being barred to all students of architecture ...Consequently, the castle has never been studied in detail ...The list [of persons denied entry] extends from Lord Torrington in 1775 to Nikolaus Pevsner, the architectural staff of Country Life, and the Department of the Environment recorders 200 years later. ...Not surprisingly, Shirburn has been ignored by all writers on castles except for the summaries of ownership by Sir James Mackenzie, The Castles of England, 1 (1897) 163-5 and Sir Charles Oman, Castles (1926) 46-9". (It should also be noted that the list of excluded persons also included Emery himself, who was unable to report further on the interior.) The medieval entrance hall, a surviving room from the pre-eighteenth century castle, was previously illustrated by J. Skelton "after F. Mackenzie" and published in Skelton's Antiquities of Oxfordshire in 1824 (see "external links"). An early 20th-century photograph showing the interior of the South Library while it still contained its complement of books is reproduced in Mark Purcell's 2019 book, "The Country House Library", which also covers the content of the library in some more detail.

J.P. Neale, in his 1847 "Mansions of England" work, had to rely for his description of the interior on an account by J.N. Brewer from 1813, who wrote:

The interior of Shirbourn Castle is disposed in a style of modern elegance and comfort, that contains no allusion to the external castellated character of the structure, with an exception of one long room fitted up as an armoury. On the sides of this apartment are hung various pieces of mail, together with shields, tilting-spears, and offensive arms, of modern as well as ancient date. In a due situation is placed the chair of baronial dignity. The rooms are in general well proportioned, but not of very large dimensions. There are two capacious libraries, well furnished with books, and tastefully adorned with paintings and sculpture. Among the portraits are several of Lord Chancellor Macclesfield, and an original of Catherine Parr, queen to Henry VIII. ... Within the castle are constructed both warm and cold baths, a luxury which too tardily creeps on the notice of this country, but which is one of the most desirable in which rank and affluence can indulge.

One other record of a successful 19th century visit survives, in the form of Walter Money's report "A Walk to Shirburn Castle", from the Journal of the British Archaeological Association for December 1895, which describes the interior in some detail from p. 290 onwards, especially with regard to some particular items of interest in the armoury, plus an extensive list of the more important portraits and other pictures to be seen in various rooms, together with a description and illustration of a Roman sarcophagus originally found in the garden, being used as a pedestal. A more recent, detailed account is contained in the 2003 litigation of Macclesfield v. Parker, and is included in full below.

Emery postulates that after Thomas Parker purchased the castle in 1716, the latter's renovations probably affected more than three-quarters of the building, with the result that what stands at Shirburn today is "essentially an eighteenth-century interpretation of the medieval castle, following its original plan", although he allows that survivals from the original fourteenth-century structure include a "reasonable amount of the west range" (which would include the bulk of the main gate tower), the lower stages of two corner towers, and "possibly some ground-level walling internally", although he was unable to inspect the latter in person. The Victoria County History also suggests that: "The present south range may represent the medieval south range, with new windows inserted and with another range of rooms added to the south, outside the original outer wall." In a 1981 paper discussing the architecture of the present castle, authors Timothy Mowl and Brian Earnshaw suggest that the eighteenth-century rebuild intentionally incorporated round-arched, or neo-Norman, expressions of medievalism, "probably to assert a link with a supposed Norman foundation." The same authors also point to Vanbrugh Castle, a London house designed and built by John Vanbrugh in 1719 for his own family, as a similar expression of neo-medievalism of around the same date, again with rounded windows, in contrast to the more pointed windows associated with the mid-18th century "Gothick" style of a few decades later. The rounded window style appears to have been used consistently in the Parker-era rebuild or renovation, including in all of the surviving inward-facing walls surrounding the courtyard, although from 1830, the effect was masked by the incorporation of more "standard" segmental-headed sash windows in the new external additions along several frontages. Considering all of the accounts presently available, it would seem to be the case that, at a time when his contemporaries had most recently been constructing their new country houses in the English Baroque style (or even neo-medieval, in the case of Vanbrugh Castle), Parker decided to purchase an actual, habitable 14th-century castle and construct his new residence entirely within it, at the same time adding new windows to the surviving medieval walls and towers in the Georgian style.

Among the household of Thomas Parker, the 1st Earl, was his friend, the Welsh mathematician William Jones (1675–1749), close friend of Sir Isaac Newton and Sir Edmund Halley, who acted as tutor to Parker's son George, the future second Earl. Jones had earlier acquired the extensive library and archive of the mathematician John Collins (1625–1683), which contained several of Newton's letters and papers written in the 1670s, and later edited and published many of Newton's manuscripts. His collection of books and papers eventually passed into the Earl's library and was passed down through the Parker family until the 2000s; the Newton-associated items were eventually sold to the Cambridge University Library (see below).

George Parker, the 2nd Earl of Macclesfield (c.1695–1764) resided at Shirburn and inherited the earldom and the castle upon his father's death in 1732. He was celebrated as an astronomer and spent much time conducting astronomical observations at Shirburn, where he built an observatory and a chemical laboratory. The observatory was "equipped with the finest existing instruments" and the 2nd Earl used it from 1740. In 1761 the astronomer Thomas Hornsby observed the transit of Venus from the castle grounds. A 1778 mezzotint by James Watson, a copy of which is now in the National Maritime Museum, shows the 2nd Earl's two astronomical assistants, Thomas Phelps and John Bartlett, at work in the observatory.

c.1800-current (Parker era, second part)

Shirburn Castle, coloured engraving, 1880
Shirburn Castle, coloured engraving from Morris, 1880, "A Series of Picturesque Views of Seats of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland", vol. 3. Additional extensions can be seen to the exterior of the original north wall (left side in this view) as compared with the 1818 view reproduced above.
Shirburn Castle - - 93436
Shirburn Castle: the 19th-century Gatehouse, viewed from Castle Road

In the early years of the 19th century, additional works were carried out, among them the (re)construction of the west access stairway and addition of the fine Regency drawbridge, (visible by 1818 in the engraving by J. Neale) and the roofing over of the courtyard at a low level, providing additional internal ground floor and basement space. The Victoria County History entry for the castle states: "In 1830 a fairly extensive modernization was undertaken—a drawing-room and library over it were added on the north side; the old north library over the hall was converted into a billiard room; the former drawing-room which had been over the dining-room on the east side was converted into a larger bedroom and a dressing-room; and the baths on the ground floor on the north side were removed. In 1870 the red-brick water tower adjoining the laundry was built and in 1873 the warder's room in the north-west tower and the low entresol above it were thrown into one to make a smoking-room." Some further alterations, not otherwise documented, are apparent when comparing the appearance of the exterior of the castle in 19th century engravings with its present state in more recent photographs. The external gatehouse, providing access to the castle from Castle Road, is also stated as being a nineteenth century creation, in the gothic style, and is Grade II listed.

With the exception of the 5th Earl, who was blind and chose to remain at his early home at Eynsham Hall, subsequent earls all resided at the castle, including Thomas Parker, the 3rd Earl (1723–1795), a Fellow of the Royal Society; George Parker, the 4th Earl (1755–1842), Comptroller of the Royal Household, Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard and a Fellow of the Royal Society; Thomas Augustus Parker, the 6th Earl (1811–1896), George Loveden Parker, the 7th Earl (1888–1975) and George Roger Parker, the 8th Earl (1914–1992), culminating with his son Richard Timothy George Mansfield Parker, 9th Earl of Macclesfield (b. 1943).

Ownership and occupancy issues and dispute, and sale of contents

The Macclesfield Psalter, one of the treasures of the collection of the Earls of Macclesfield at Shirburn Castle, sold at auction for £1.7 million in 2004 and now in the collection of the Cambridge University Fitzwilliam Museum

To reduce future tax liabilities, in 1922 ownership of the castle was transferred from the Seventh Earl, George Loveden Parker to the Beechwood Estates Company, the Macclesfield family estate management company, with equity divided among the family members. Unfortunately for the succession, however, this had the result of decoupling ownership and the automatic right to occupy the castle from inheritance of the title, and in the early 21st century, following a long-running and acrimonious court battle, Richard Timothy George Mansfield Parker, the 9th Earl of Macclesfield and last member of the family to reside at the castle, was evicted from the family seat by the other family members, departing in 2005. The 9th Earl lost the occupancy of the house, but retained ownership of the contents (gifted to him in 1967 by his grandfather, the Seventh Earl) including three libraries containing many rarities among their more than 30,000 volumes, largely assembled by the first two Earls of Macclesfield in the first part of the 18th century.

Following his departure from the castle, the 9th Earl made the decision to sell the contents of the libraries, as well as some other items from the castle's holdings. The library items were prepared for a series of auctions, and were catalogued for the first time by staff from Sotheby's in 2004; among the most notable items discovered were a first edition of Copernicus's 1543 landmark work "On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres", annotated by the celebrated 17th-century Oxford mathematician John Greaves, which sold at auction for £666,400, and a unique and superbly illustrated 252-page 14th-century illuminated manuscript, the Macclesfield Psalter, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Other items originally forming part of the library were a collection of Welsh material which went to form part of the foundation collections of the National Library of Wales, correspondence of Sir Isaac Newton and other scientific papers which were sold to Cambridge University Library, and manuscripts including the original of the "Shirburn Ballads" (previously transcribed and published in 1907) and the Macclesfield Alphabet Book, now in the British Library. The breaking up and dispersal by auction of the library was lamented by some, including Roger Gaskell and Patricia Fara, who in 2005 wrote: "Now, without any public discussion, the Macclesfield Library is being broken up. Far more than simply a collection of old books belonging to one man, it is a fabulous treasure trove containing many of the most significant books, owned and annotated by several leading British figures in the history of European science... Formed in the 17th and 18th centuries, this is a coherent collection that was the working library of an intellectual and scientific powerhouse." On completion of the initial round of 6 sales of the scientific portion of the collection, Sotheby's issued a 2005 press release indicating that the sale process had thus far realised in excess of £14 million (not including The Macclesfield Psalter, which sold separately for £1,685,600), representing "the highest total ever for any sale of scientific books and manuscripts". Additional parts of the library sold by Sotheby's between 2006 and 2008, under the general heading "The Library of the Earls of Macclesfield, Removed from Shirburn Castle", comprised "Bibles 1477-1739" (part 7), "Theology, Philosophy, Law, and Economics" (part 8, which realised £1.3 million), "Voyages Travel and Atlases" (part 9), "Applied Arts and Sciences, including Military and Naval Books" (part 10), "English Books and Manuscripts" (part 11) and "Continental Books and Manuscripts" (part 12, which realised £1.8 million). Further selections from the library were offered at auction by Maggs Brothers, U.K. in 2010 and 2012. A set of 328 bound theology volumes acquired from the Macclesfield collection sale now forms part of the Kinlaw Library at Asbury University, a private Christian university in Wilmore, Kentucky, U.S.A.

The castle contents also included a number of fine paintings, one of which, George Stubbs's 1768 masterpiece "Brood Mares and Foals", subsequently sold at auction in 2010 for £10,121,250, a record price for the British artist. This painting was visible, in passing, on the wall in a room at the castle used for filming in the 1992 episode "Happy families" of the Inspector Morse TV series (see below). Previously, a 1740 William Hogarth portrait of the second Earl's tutor and mathematician William Jones, was sold at auction in 1984 for £280,000, and is now in the National Portrait Gallery. Earlier in 1998, an extremely fine Georgian silver wine set, the only known complete example of its era to survive, had been sold by Christies and is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, its purchase assisted by a £750,000 grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

Since the departure of the 9th Earl, the castle appears to have been largely vacant (for a set of photographs published in 2012, see "external links") and in need of substantial repairs (estimated as "some £2.6 million" in 2003). Since that time, the owners have started to address this, commissioning replacement of a number of sections of the roof and treatment of associated timbers, as documented by the contractors concerned.

The park

The castle sits within extensive grounds (Shirburn Park, itself Grade II listed), which is described in more detail at the relevant "Historic England" listing, with the brief description "Later C18 and early C19 garden and pleasure grounds around a late C14 castle, remodelled 1720s and early C19, set in a landscape park incorporating the remains of an early to mid C18 formal layout." It incorporates a rotunda and a former orangery, the latter now derelict. Mowl and Earnshaw note that the development of the gardens was probably unfinished on account of Thomas Parker's well known downfall and financial troubles from 1725 onwards, and that further developments were likely undertaken by the second Earl in a classical style, forming a stylistic contrast with what they characterise as the neo-Medieval nature of the first Earl's renovated castle.

Use as film location

On account of its "fairytale" appearance, romantic setting, and near-original condition Georgian/Victorian interior, the castle has been used as a film location on a number of occasions, including external, and some internal shots as the Balcombe family home in the 1992 episode "Happy families" of the Inspector Morse TV series, internal rooms, the gatehouse entrance and the church as Midsomer Priory for a 2011 episode "A Sacred Trust" of the Midsomer Murders TV series (although exterior shots of the "priory" house feature Greys Court, another Oxfordshire location), as well as an exterior shot of Mycroft Holmes's country estate for the 2011 film Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. The location has also been used in 2 episodes of Poirot, namely "Third Girl" (2008) and "Curtain: Poirot's Last Case" (2013); in Annie: A Royal Adventure! (1995 TV movie), Philomena (2013), in the TV serial London Spy (2015) and in The Old Guard (2020). A 2016 Burberry commercial, "The Tale of Thomas Burberry" was also mainly filmed at Shirburn Castle. In the 2011 Midsomer Murders Episode "A Sacred Trust", the coat of arms of the fictitious Vertue family, Lords of the Manor and as represented in the supposedly local pub "The Vertue Arms", is constructed almost identically to that of the (real) Parker family, Earls of Macclesfield and owners of the film location for the fictitious priory at Shirburn Castle.

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