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White Queen’s Castle short-listed


Astley Castle has been short-listed for the 2013 RIBA Stirling prize for architecture.
Astley Castle, a 13th-century fortified manor house that was home to Elizabeth Woodville and two other English queens, was rescued from dereliction by the Landmark Trust in 2012 in a bold and original scheme blending old and new. The RIBA’s choice of a project in a historic building for its most prestigious prize is highly significant, and a real endorsement of an approach in which imaginative contemporary architecture has been woven into the fabric of an outstanding ruined building.

The scheme was devised by architects Witherford Watson Mann (WWM) for historic buildings charity the Landmark Trust, following an architectural competition. Thanks to the support of many individuals and institutions, including the Heritage Lottery Fund and English Heritage, the castle has been saved from ruination and can now be enjoyed by everyone, through short stays within the castle itself, and permanent public access to the site.

Dr. Anna Keay, Director of the Landmark Trust commented: “Astley Castle is a new departure, both for the Landmark Trust but also in the approach to ruined historic buildings. We are tremendously proud of a scheme which represents an original way of reviving a ruined building. Neither a traditional restoration, nor a brutal modernist juxtaposition, WWM’s approach is utterly contemporary and yet in real harmony with the medieval castle. As a result a historic building that seemed completely unsaveable and close to collapse has been given a whole new life.

We are absolutely thrilled that it has been recognised by the RIBA by its shortlisting for this most prestigious prize, and hope it will encourage others to consider imaginative solutions for important historic buildings.’

Stephen Witherford and William Mann, of Witherford Watson Mann, added: “Astley shows that working with historic buildings doesn’t just have to be about repair or reinstatement. It can be a reinvention or reimagining, making something richer and more engaging than what was there before. The house is a modernist house in an ancient shell: an upside down, inside out patio house, filled with light. Its ancient shell brings warmth and softness in place of coolness, crispness and hardness. The architecture of the new work is historically literate. It doesn’t detach or exempt the present from history. This isn’t an intellectual exercise; it’s an emotional and social one. People respond emotionally to this house. Seeing and experiencing change prompts us to reflect on the continuity and change in our individual lives, generations of family, friendships or society. It’s a pleasure -or a need – that both our fast-moving, free-for-all urbanism, and our freezing of buildings and areas, generally deny us. It’s a prototype for time, leftover matter and social capital (or soul) in our cities.”

A rich history

The site at Astley Castle has been in continuous occupation since the Saxon period. By 1420 it had passed through marriage to the Grey family and became entangled with the succession to the throne of England, thus earning its association with three queens of England.

The first Yorkist queen, Elizabeth Woodville, probably lived at Astley in the mid-15th century as Sir John Grey’s wife. Grey died fighting for the Lancastrians at the Battle of St Albans in 1461 during the Wars of the Roses. As a young widow Elizabeth caught the eye of Edward IV, the Yorkist claimant to the throne. She became his queen and bore him the ill-fated young princes who later died in the Tower. The second Astley queen was the daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, known as Elizabeth of York, who became wife of Henry VII and matriarch of the Tudor dynasty.

After the death of Edward VI in July 1553, Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk, lord of Astley, supported the initiative to put his daughter, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne. Jane’s reign lasted just nine days, before Mary I’s superior claims prevailed. Both Jane and later her father were beheaded for treason – Lord Grey rebelled a second time in January 1554 and was captured in a hollow oak tree at Astley.

An endangered site

wwm3Requisitioned during World War II for convalescing service men, a dilapidated Astley Castle was restored by in the 1950s as a hotel. The hotel was gutted by a mysterious fire in 1978, just days after its lease had expired. Vandalism, unauthorised stripping out and collapse made its plight still worse. For many years, no solution could be found to give it a future and Astley Castle became a ruin. By 2007 English Heritage had listed it as one of the sixteen most endangered sites in Britain and a solution was urgently needed.


Background to the project

In 2007, an architectural competition was held, the brief accepting that some parts of the Castle were now beyond restoration, but which sought to create good modern accommodation within the ancient ruins. The winning scheme, by architects Witherford Watson Mann, maintains the sense of life and living within the Castle, while making the most of the views both into and out of the site.