The United Kingdom and its western neighbor of Ireland is home to countless historic castles, some that lie in ruin, leaving one to imagine what might have been, while others have been impeccably preserved and include magnificent furnishings, some of which date back 500 years are more.
Many ancient castles have even been transformed into grand castle hotels that offer the chance to step into a lost era for an authentic glimpse of what it might have been like to live like royalty, like the Thornbury Castle Hotel in South Gloucestershire which sits at the edge of England’s, especially enticing Cotswolds region. The only Tudor castle hotel in England, guests can stay in the very place Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn honeymooned during the Middle Ages, It was also the site of one of the most ill-fated ancient love triangles.
It was a last-minute cancellation of a London city tour during a two-day layover that led me to book a room at the castle. Though nearly a three-hour drive west, as I traveled the serene, winding roads framed by the golden yellows, brilliant oranges and fiery reds of autumn in postcard-perfect Thornbury, I felt the journey would be worth it. And it was.
GPS took me through a residential neighborhood, and for a moment, I thought it was sending me on a goose chase, that is until I reached the stone gate marked with two small signs on either side of the entrance that read Thornbury Castle. The castle itself remained hidden behind towering trees and the market town’s oldest surviving building, St. Mary’s Church, which dates to the 12th-century. My eyes widened as I traveled down the long driveway as the Thornbury Castle Hotel and its vast grounds quickly revealed itself. I nearly had to pinch myself just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
London city tour? Long forgotten. This was far better than anything I could have ever imagined – the history alone gave me goosebumps as I lugged my far-too-large suitcase across the courtyard, making my way to the reception.
An Ancient Love Triangle
To understand the jaw-dropping response Thornbury Castle often evokes, you need to understand its fascinating history.
The castle’s history begins in 1066 when it was recorded as the manor owned by Brictric, who served as an ambassador to the Count of Flanders. He was the son of Aelfgar. Earl of Mercia, perhaps most famous for his mother, Lady Godiva. She’s not a myth, but a legend famous for riding around town naked on a horse with her long hair covering her body, in protest of her husband’s high taxes. The earliest surviving source for this account was written in the Chronica of Roger of Wendover in 1057, where he wrote that she pleaded with her husband Leofric, the “grim” Earl of Mercer and Lord of Coventry, to relieve the heavy burden of taxes he’d imposed on the citizens of Coventry. Weary of her persistence, he finally acquiesced but agreed only to grant the request if she’d ride naked through town. Her compassion for the people overcame the horror of the act, though she ordered them to remain indoors with doors barred and windows closed, riding the silent streets unseen.
When Lady Godiva’s son Brictric rejected the advances of the daughter of the Count of Flanders, Matilda of Flanders, known to have been very beautiful and highly intelligent, he ultimately lost possession of the manor. While there is no certainty to the exact details, Matilda married William I of Normandy, the future William the Conqueror around 1051 AD. At first, she didn’t want him as her husband at all, as he was a bastard and she considered herself too high-born to even consider such a thing, even though he was a Duke.
But William wasn’t one to give up easily. He’d fallen in love with Matilda from the very first time he laid eyes on her at the French court and was said to be so passionately enamored, that he’d do anything to make her his wife, even if it meant using force. While Matilda and her ladies were riding their horses on the way home from church, William stopped them. She remained calm and was adamant that she’d never marry a bastard, but he continued to insist, dragging her off the horse by pulling her long braids before throwing her down in the mud-covered street, while her attendants stood flabbergasted. Rather than abducting her, he left her there in the mud, riding away. After the Count of Flanders learned about what happened he began to prepare for an attack, but Matilda, perhaps having a taste for “bad boys,” changed her mind, finding the behavior rather likable. She agreed to marry him, telling her father that his request for his hand “pleases me well,” adding he “must be a man of great courage and high daring who could venture to come and beat me in my father’s place.”
When William seized Thornbury, he awarded it to his new bride just before imprisoning Britctric. It was one of the most disastrous love triangles in ancient history.
The Birth of the Thornbury Castle
While the manor dates to the 10th-century, the castle that stands today was built during the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547). It was in July of 1510 that the proud and arrogant Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, obtained a royal license to undertake work at the manor which had been in the Stafford family for generations by now. While he was a descendant of Plantagenet kings of England with an impeccable bloodline, he’d been effectively exiled from holding any power at court as he wasn’t one of the king’s favorites. Still, with great wealth and egotistical desire, the ambitious duke sought to transform the retreat into the grandest, palatial home in the kingdom.
Stafford may have had money to burn but he wasn’t the brightest – attempting to upstage the king was not the best idea. More than a decade after work had commenced, in 1521, the arrest of the duck caused construction to halt. His crime had been to arouse suspicion of treason in the mind of Henry VIII, who had become increasingly paranoid. The king had just celebrated his 30th birthday but had yet to produce a legitimate male heir. Talk allegedly had begun that the Duke of Buckingham may have a greater claim to the throne than Henry VIII, and he obviously had substantial wealth, displayed by the transformation of Thornbury. It was Stafford’s greatest wish, but after being betrayed to the king by a disgruntled servant, he was arrested for high treason and executed on Tower Hill. Henry then claimed the Thornbury Castle for himself which was then occasionally used by his daughter Mary during her teenage years as a student of the Bishop of Exeter.
King Henry VIII and his new queen Anne Boleyn secretly wed on November 14, 1532, and were formally married the following January. They spent 10 days in the Thornbury Castle as part of their honeymoon tour during the summer of 1535. During their stay, Henry was visited by a delegation from nearby Bristol. They brought him 40 sheep and 10 oxen, while Anne was presented with a gilt cup that contained 100 marks of gold. Of course, as most everyone knows, the marriage did not end well. The queen was blamed for the tyranny of her husband’s government and was sometimes referred to by her subjects as “the king’s whore.” When she failed to produce a son, opinion turned even further against her. On a Friday morning, May 19, 1536, at the Tower of London, Anne was beheaded.
The Lost Years
The castle remained royal property until the death of Henry’s daughter Mary I, Queen of England and Ireland, in 1558, when it was returned to the Duke of Bellingham’s descendants, though the Stafford family never managed to regain their former position. It ultimately proved to be far too expensive for them to maintain. The Howard family, ironically kin to Anne Boleyn, took over in 1637, but by the 19th-century, the once majestic structure sat in ruin after having been virtually abandoned for two centuries. In the 1850s, it was saved and transformed into a family home. Some of the occupants since the Howards have included the Clifford family, Kenneth Bell MBE and the Baron and Baroness of Portlethen.
It wasn’t until recently that the Thornbury Castle was opened as a hotel, about a half-century ago in the 1960s.
Walking the Very Same Steps and Sleeping in the Honeymoon Bedchamber of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn
Today, in this extraordinary Tudor castle hotel with its spectacularly beautiful grounds that include England’s oldest Tudor gardens and 28 very regal chambers, you can stay in the very room the royals slept while they were still, by many accounts, very much in love. Recognized as one of the finest examples of Tudor domestic architecture in Britain, the Thornbury Castle Hotel still possesses many of the features that the legendary pair would recognize today. The main surviving wing was the heart of the Duke of Buckingham’s project, while the rooms that make up the library, lounge and dining areas, were once a core part of the Duchess’ drawing rooms and bedchamber. The elaborate five-bay window in the middle of the lounge, which floods the room with natural light, would have served the same purpose centuries ago. The massive fireplace here today would have also been essential back then for warmth. As a whole, the rooms that would have hosted Anne back in August of 1535, are now used for wining and dining in an upscale, authentic medieval atmosphere.
It is in the Duke’s bedchamber that Henry and Anne slept in, which boasts an open fireplace as well as picturesque views over the River Severe into Gloucestershire and Wales. Accessible via the original spiral stone staircase, those who walk these Thornbury Castle Hotel stairs are walking in the very steps the honeymooners did nearly 500 years ago.
Thornbury Castle Hotel’s Continuing Celebrity Status
While Thornbury may be best-known as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s chosen honeymoon spot, it’s continued to remain fit for royalty, including the Hollywood type. It’s hosted some rather glamorous parties over more recent decades, with guests that have included Sir Laurence Olivier and actress Sophia Loren. If it looks familiar, that may because the exterior was used in the BBC sitcom “Whites” as the Thaxted Manor Hotel, home to The White House Restaurant.
In the 1970s, the Thornbury Castle Hotel’s restaurant was highly-regarded for its Michelin-starred reputation, and head chef Andy Chan, continues that trend today. Dishes served in the octagonal Tower Dining Room utilize fresh seasonal produce and home-grown herbs, pulled from the kitchen garden. One can even buy a bottle of house wine that’s made with grapes from the castle’s on-site vineyard. In fact, white wine has been produced here for some 500 years.
Checking In at the Thornbury Castle Hotel
Some hotels with a storied, historic pedigree have a difficult time living up to such an illustrious reputation, combining those credentials with the types of luxury people are looking for today. The chills I felt as I stepped through the doorway and into the Entrance Hall, greeted by a full suit of armor, heraldic images and crests, told me that this one would not disappoint. It was like walking into the 16th-century, but at the same time, I felt as if I could run into Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, or any one of today’s famous couples, at any moment.
A bit worn from the drive and wet from the rain, fortunately, there was no need to drag my luggage up those steep flights of winding stairs, thanks to the assistance of the welcoming reception staff. Turning the skeleton key to the door marked “de Clare” felt like turning the pages of a fairytale. It opened to a stunning canopy bed surrounded by aged tapestries and stone walls. While it was hard to resist tucking myself in for a nap, I mustered up enough energy to descend the stairs and do some more exploring. With the sun breaking through the clouds, I took a stroll through the traditional Tudor gardens, laid out just as they have been for centuries. Returning to the Thornbury Castle Hotel grand drawing room with its original Tudor fireplace, I sat in one of the comfy armchairs enjoying its warmth and a glass of wine as I gazed out at the lush greenery and the perfectly-manicured lawn. The grass was still glistening from the recent rain while ivy-covered castle walls lie beyond. I imagined that it was over 480 years earlier when Henry and Anne were guests. It wasn’t hard to do.