By Nancy Bilyeau
The protagonist of my trilogy The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry, Joanna Stafford, is fictional but the family was quite real. The Staffords played an important part in the War of the Roses, fighting on the side of Lancaster. But through a royal marriage and aggressive acquiring of land and titles, the Staffords had became too rich and powerful as far as the reigning monarchs were concerned.
|Edward Stafford, 3rd duke of Buckingham|
The family's rise and fall is inextricably linked to Stafford Castle, in Staffordshire, the west midlands. All that is left is remains of this once proud medieval castle, which stands tall against the sky on the edge of a ridge.
In the 1070s a Norman lord raised a wooden building on the hill, worried about the rebellious Saxon population. In 1347, Ralph de Stafford, a supporter of Edward III and founding member of the Order of the Garter, built a stone castle on the same site. Ralph was a tough, ambitious and ruthless soldier, still leading troops when he was 60 years old. After his first wife had died, he abducted a wealthy young heiress and married her, ignoring the outrage of her parents. When the girl's family turned to Edward III for justice, he refused to order Stafford to give up his bride. Instead, he gave the girl's parents more titles.
The great-grandson of this roughly made union was Humphrey Stafford, first duke of Buckingham. Stafford Castle's heyday was during the life of Duke Humphrey, who built a massive rectangular stone keep, a tower in each corner.
|The castle's "interior," today|
Carole Rawcliffe, in the book The Staffords, wrote:
"The first Duke of Buckingham's household was an itinerant body which accompanied him from one lordship to another as he toured his estates or executed official business....The oldest and in many ways the most impressive was Stafford Castle, where Duke Humphrey kept a large stable with a resident staff of over forty yeomen and grooms. The castle, dominating the town and its environs, provided an ideal recruitment centre and assembly point for his retainers in Cheshire, Staffordshire and the Welsh March."Duke Humphrey died in the Battle of Northampton, leading the Lancastrian army at the age of 58. Before the battle in support of King Henry VI he had informed the Yorkist side via messenger: "The Earl of Warwick shall not come to the king's presence and if he comes he shall die." The duke was not able to keep that promise; he was slain by Yorkist soldiers outside Henry VI's tent, defending his king to his last breath.
The second Duke of Buckingham also exhibited the family's taste for bravado. He helped Richard, Duke of Gloucester, take possession of the teenage Edward V, conveying him to the Tower of London. But then he turned against Richard once he became king, led a rebellion and was beheaded for his betrayal.
As for the third duke, a man of "harsh and acquisitive disposition," he was an early victim of Henry VIII's paranoia about relatives who could try to take his throne. There was little proof of treason introduced at Edward Stafford's trial except for testimony that he'd met with a monk who prophesied the future of Henry VIII--how long would he live and whether he'd have a son. To the Tudors, this was more than enough.
The family never recovered from the execution of Buckingham in 1521. Although Stafford Castle was the family seat, the duke had lived most of the time in such grand homes as Thornbury Castle. But all of this property was seized by the crown after Buckingham's death and his widow and children were left with nothing at first. After a couple of years, Henry VIII returned one home--Stafford Castle--to the devastated clan. It was all that remained of their vast holdings across the kingdom.
The oldest son, Henry, Lord Stafford, lived at the castle with his wife, Ursula, and their 14 children for the rest of his life. Fearful of drawing attention, he played no part in politics and rarely attended court. He spent pleasurable hours in his private library, which included at least 300 books, translating works from Latin and dabbling in writing himself. He was in some ways the anti-Stafford.
But he had a problem: he owned almost no land beyond the immediate vicinity of the castle, and his need for money was intense.
That is why on April 27, 1536, Lord Stafford wrote this craven letter to Thomas Cromwell, chief minister of Henry VIII:
"Though I am least able to serve you, yet the comfort you gave me makes me bold to write to you. I beg you will use means with the King that I may have the farm of the abbey of Rantone, if it be dissolved. It is within four miles of my house and reaches my park pale, and I will give as much for it as any man. I heard that the Queen had moved the King to have me in remembrance for it, and he was content, saying it was alms to help me, having so many children on my hands. I heard that Geo. Blunt endeavours to obstruct my suit. By the last act of the Lords Marchers my income will be 20l. a year less. In the matter which I showed you of my lord of Wiltshire's motion, pray make my humble submission to the King."
The queen in question was Anne Boleyn and the "lord of Wiltshire" her father. Apart from the fact that it was unlikely that the Reform-minded queen would support the cause of an old Catholic disenfranchised aristocratic family, there was a sensational scandal at court that put Stafford's request at the bottom of any list. Cromwell was interrogating suspected lovers of the queen at the end of April. Anne Boleyn would be arrested and beheaded in May. Poor Henry Stafford had made his desperate plea for patronage of the wrong faction at the wrong time.
Henry Stafford had better luck when Catholic Mary Tudor succeeded to the throne. He petitioned the queen for financial assistance in 1554 and was made a chamberlain of the exchequer, a position that brought him 50 pounds a year.
Lord Stafford died in his bed at the age of 62. With little income to draw on, the castle continued to crumble, and his grandson referred to it as "my rotten castle of Stafford" in 1603.
Which brings us to Lady Isabel Stafford. When the Civil War broke out, the family still held the castle, though how is hard to imagine. They had the dusty prestige of the name "Stafford," but the dukedom of Buckingham had been given away to favorites of the Stuart monarchy long ago.
Nonetheless, Lady Isabel showed the same fire as the first Staffords. The town near the castle sided with the forces trying to topple Charles I. But Isabel, being a determined Royalist, held the castle as a siege against Parliamentarian forces in May of 1643.
A Colonel Brereton approached the castle with his men and called on her to surrender. Isabel refused. The men set fire to some of the wooden buildings outlying the castle "to work their spirits to any relenting." Far from relenting, it led the Stafford force within to fire shots from the castle. The fires started in earnest then, "to provoke a serious revenge." But they could not damage the main castle, and in frustration retreated.
A Royalist relief force arrived and Lady Isabel left. But later that summer the garrison that was left to defend Stafford Castle fled when a large Parliamentarian army approached. On December 22nd, the Parliamentarian Committee of Stafford ordered "the castle shall be forthwith demolished" so that it could never again serve as a defendable source of opposition. And so it was.
The great Stafford Castle was no more. A traveler riding by wrote "the castle is now ruinated." The glory of the family and the castle that bore its name was finally over.
In 1813, a new family tried to rebuild Stafford Castle in the Gothic Revival Style but ran out of money. The keep, however, was occupied up until the 20th century by caretaker families who offered tours and served tea. In 1961, a member of the Stafford family, worried about public safety, gave the keep to the local authorities.
This castle has an unqualified happy ending, however. Stafford Castle has a thriving visitor centre today, running many education programs and for years has served as an inspiring backdrop for Shakespearean plays. Seeing that a few Staffords have appeared as characters in the plays of the Bard, this seems fitting indeed.
|Summer Shakespeare, at Stafford Castle|
To learn more about Stafford Castle today, go here.
Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the award winning trilogy The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry. The Crown was an Oprah pick, and The Tapestry a finalist for the Daphne du Maurier Award for Best Historical Suspense.
Touchstone Books has discounted The Chalice to .99 as an ebook in the U.S. Go here.