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Croft and Yarpole: Croft Castle

HER no. 6347, OS grid ref: 4490 6540

Seven kilometres north-west of Leominster, along an avenue of oaks and beeches from the main road between Mortimer's Cross and Orleton, stands Croft Castle, a mainly 15th and 16th century castle with later additions.

Description of the site today

The avenue from the main road comes to a halt in front of a Gothic-styled curtain wall most probably built in the 1790s. Through the arch in the curtain wall a driveway leads to the east of the castle.

The main buildings form a rectangular plan with a central courtyard. Each angle is finished with a cylindrical tower. The walls and towers possibly date from the 16th century - each of the towers contains 16th century windows. The walls on the west and south-west are slightly thicker than in the rest of the structure and may be earlier in date, possibly 15th century. The east range was reconstructed in the latter part of the 18th century.
 
In August 2002 Herefordshire Archaeology carried out a series of excavations in the grounds surrounding the present castle in an attempt to ascertain whether there are any earlier structures present. Approximately 25m to the west of the building stone walls were uncovered that appear to be medieval in date and could denote the presence of an earlier castle. Excavation also revealed the foundations of an undercroft (cellar), which would have most likely have been under a medieval hall, and in an outer ward of the medieval castle site an oven was found.

Between the walls of the medieval castle and the present castle was another building of brick and stone that seems to be Tudor in date and was probably part of the building that was destroyed during the Civil War.

The later castle measured 30m east to west within walls up to 1.2m thick. The south corner was at a right angle, but the east wall extends further to the north than the west wall. At each corner stands a tower, 3.3m in diameter and containing tiny rooms.

It is likely that the courtyard was originally reached through the gatehouse on the east side and that the medieval hall was on the west side, with two-storey ranges on the north and south sides of the court. No medieval features remain, and the four ranges are now three-storeyed; the corbelling on the tower marks the base of the original parapet. Dendrochronology of the timbers within Croft Castle date the earliest timber in the castle to 1662-3, which was the period when Herbert Croft was bishop of Hereford.

The 16th century north range is now the kitchen and library block. The east range was reconstructed c.1750-60 and the current porch and gable date from 1913.

The interior

To the right of the staircase is the Dining Room, which was once entered through the courtyard. The Georgian decoration of the room was carried out in 1913.

To the left of the staircase is the Oak Room. The panelling and chimney-piece date from the late 17th century and the ceiling with its vine pattern is from the mid 18th century.

The Blue Room has a ceiling dating from the 1750s. Thomas Johnes brought the Jacobean panelling to Croft from Stanage Park in Radnor. The chimney-piece dates from 1913.

The Drawing room has painted early Georgian panelling and a ceiling from the 18th century.

The Library contains copies of Johnson's Dictionary annotated by Sir Herbert Croft, as well as Bishop Croft's prayer book and manuscripts and early editions of the music of Dr. William Croft (1678-1727).

The grounds

The Spanish Chestnut avenue in the grounds of the castle is over 350 years old, stretches for over half a mile and was planted by Herbert Croft.

The grounds have escaped being "formalised" by 18th century gardeners and have been kept in a natural state. However, the Fishpool Valley with its steep banks and numerous pools was landscaped in the 18th century, but the emphasis was placed on its "rambling" state.

History of the Croft family

1086: At the time of the Domesday Survey Croft was held by Bernard under William of Écouis. The family were called de Croft for 400 years, and it is now thought that they were Normans introduced to Herefordshire before the Conquest.

1243: The earliest recognised Croft is Hugh de Croft, who helped rescue Prince Edward from Simon de Montfort and deliver him to Wigmore Castle.

1296-1727: The Crofts were also represented in Parliament, mainly for the Shire of Hereford or the Borough of Leominster.

1462: The Battle of Mortimer's Cross took place nearby on land belonging to the Croft family. This battle was decisive in putting the Yorkist King Edward IV (a Mortimer) on the throne. Sir Richard Croft, who fought at the battle, was a Knight for the Shire and Sheriff of the County of Hereford.

1471: Richard Croft captured Prince Edward at the Battle of Tewkesbury.

Under Henry VII Richard was made Receiver-General of the Earldom of March and Knight Banneret at the Battle of Stoke (1487). He was also Steward to the young Prince Arthur and Treasurer to the King's Household.

Edward IV and Richard III appointed Thomas Croft as ranger of Woodstock Park; he was deprived of this honour in 1491 because he had committed a  "detestable murder" in the Marches of Wales.

1535: In Leland's Itinerary Volume V, he describes the castle as "... the manor of the Crofts, sett on the browe of a hill, somewhat rokky, dychid and waullyd castle like".

1542: James Croft was Member of Parliament for Herefordshire.

1551: James was made Lord Deputy of Ireland by Edward VI; he retained this position for one year.

1552: James was made Deputy Constable of the Tower of London, most probably at the favour of Lady Jane Grey. Edward VI removed him from this position in 1553 because he had been foremost in demonstrations in favour of Queen Jane. In 1554 he was a prisoner at the Tower but he escaped with his life and was released on 1st January 1555. 

Queen Elizabeth appointed James Croft Governor of Berwick. At the siege of Liege he repelled the foe but in a second advance the English were worsted and James was blamed and ousted. Queen Elizabeth kept him as Privy Counsellor and Comptroller of her Household.

1558: Sir James Croft is buried in Westminster Abbey under a plain gravestone.

1643: William Croft sacrificed his life and fortune for the royal cause; he was taken prisoner at the siege of Hereford in 1643 and died two years later fighting for the King at Stokesay in Shropshire.

William's brother Herbert was dean and bishop of Hereford, and his son was granted a baronetcy as recognition of the sacrifices made by the Crofts.

1644: Croft Castle was plundered by Irish levies who had been employed by Royalists; this action was to prevent the castle being taken by the Parliamentarian enemy.

1645: King Charles I came to Leominster on 3rd September 1645, when he stayed at the Unicorn Inn in Broad Street. Williams' Guide to Leominster of 1808 states that he also visited Croft on this occasion.

1660s: Herbert Croft is Bishop of Hereford; he had earlier been chosen by Charles I to be one of his chaplains.

1746: The Civil War had a negative effect on the finances of the Croft family, and they never fully recovered from the problems it had caused. Eventually they were forced to mortgage Croft Castle to the Knight family. From them it passed by marriage to the Johnes family.

It was later sold by Thomas Johnes to Somerset Davies of Wigmore, who later became a Privy Councillor and Sheriff of Herefordshire.

1797: John Croft died and his title passed to his cousin, the Rev. Herbert Croft an 18th century author. He was succeeded by his brother Sir Richard Croft, a leading doctor. In November 1817 he attended Princess Charlotte, daughter of George IV, who sadly died after giving birth to a stillborn son.

1868-74: Sir Richard Croft's grandson, Herbert George Denman Croft, 9th Baronet, returned to Herefordshire and was elected as an MP. He lived at Lugwardine Court.

1923: The Trustees of Sir James Croft, 11th Baronet (then a minor) bought back Croft from the Kevill-Davies family. Sir James died on active service with the No.1 Commando in 1941. His grave lies in the parkland surrounding the castle.

Sir James bequeathed Croft to his cousin, the 1st Lord Croft (formerly Brigadier-General Sir Henry Page Croft), who was then the Under Secretary of State for War.

1947: Lord Croft's son Michael bought back the remaining 1,329 acres of the estate, but because of the large death duties, he later sold the castle and estate to Major Owen Croft, managing to keep it in the family.

1956: Major Owen Croft died and the future of the estate was in trouble. It was saved in partnership by the Ministry of Works, the National Trust and the Croft family. The Ministry of Works purchased the property and gave a grant for repairs, the National Trust took over the freehold, and Lord Croft and other members of the family provided an endowment needed to maintain the property.

The castle is still under the care of the National Trust and members of the Croft family still live there.

Suggested reading

O.G.S. Croft, The House of Croft, 1949
Diana Uhlman, Croft Castle, Herefordshire, National Trust guidebook, 2000