Tutbury Castle is best known as one of the fortifications in which Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned. The ruins that stand today have been remodelled on a number of occasions since those days, and in the middle of the 18th century the motte, long since missing its genuine tower, was embellished with a sham ruined turret called the Round Tower.
In 1751 Bishop Pococke visited the area and was ‘told’ that George Venables-Vernon (1709-1780), of neighbouring Sudbury Hall had just purchased the castle from his ‘relation Captain Vernon’. In fact Vernon was leasing the site from the Duchy of Lancaster.
Pococke described Tutbury Castle as a ‘curious piece of antiquity’, but quickly spotted that parts of the structure were built ‘in imitation of ancient ruins’. Unfortunately he didn’t elaborate, and we can’t be certain that the Round Tower was there at that date. But it was extant by 1773 when it is named as ‘the Round Tower’ on a map of Tutbury.
It also appears in a drawing dated 1777, confirming it as the work of George Venables-Vernon (1709-1780), who was created the 1st Baron Vernon of Kinderton in 1762*.
Vernon’s programme of landscaping at Sudbury in the 1750s included replacing the formal gardens with a Brownian design featuring a lake and clumps of trees. Tutbury Castle was a distant eye-catcher from within this improved park, and the sham turret on the highest point would have added to the drama of the skyline. As early as 1760 visitors to Sudbury noted the old fortification on the horizon, and a tourist in 1783 wrote of the fine view from the park to ‘Tutbury Castle on a high eminence’.
The picturesque ruins attracted the attention of artists including Paul Sandby, who painted this view in the 1790s.
Archaeologists suggest that before the tower was built the ancient motte was raised with rubble, thus ensuring that the tower would be prominent in the view from Sudbury. This poor foundation probably accounts for the later addition of buttresses to support the Round Tower.
In the 20th century the little turret had a moment of fame when it featured on an advertising poster. The petrol company Shell commissioned artists to paint follies for a series of posters entitled ‘To Visit Britain’s Landmarks’. These were pasted onto the sides of lorries, creating both a promotional tool and a travelling art gallery. Leonard Rosoman (1913-2012) chose to paint Tutbury Castle’s little sham tower, and later recalled the job as his ‘big break’.
Tutbury Castle is today a privately-run visitor attraction and wedding venue, and can be visited during the opening season. The Round Tower maintains its function as a very pretty eye-catcher on the approach from Sudbury, albeit with many modern distractions competing with it.
*The folly is usually said to have been constructed between 1780 and 1792, based on information in the first volume of Stebbing Shaw’s History and Antiquities of Staffordshire …, published in 1798. Shaw attributed the folly to the ‘present possessor’ of Tutbury Castle, which at that date was George the 2nd Lord Vernon (1735-1813). But Shaw used research conducted by an earlier Staffordshire historian, without updating the text, and the error has been perpetuated ever since.
For the full history of Tutbury Castle, which reopens at Easter, see https://tutburycastle.com
Sudbury Hall is a National Trust property and will reopen as ‘The Childrens [sic] House at Sudbury Hall’ in spring 2022 https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/the-childrens-country-house-at-sudbury
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