Tucked away in the Cotswold countryside, Sudeley Castle is a restored Tudor ruin with a wonderful secret.
Katherine Parr was the sixth and last wife of King Henry VIII and she is buried in the charming little chapel on the grounds. She is the only English queen buried on private land. Her story seeps into every crack and cranny of the castle, along with the stories of some other remarkable women. One of these is Alice Keppel. Another is Queen Elizabeth I, the king’s daughter.
Alice Keppel was one of the leading society hostesses in the Edwardian era. She became mistress to the then Prince of Wales in 1898, and remained in that position when he became King Edward VII, until his death. Ironically Alice was great-grandmother of Camilla Parker-Bowles, mistress and now second wife of Charles, Prince of Wales. The Cubitt family, to which Alice belonged, were famous (and wealthy) builders responsible for many of the poshest parts of London.
Katherine was the eldest child of Sir Thomas Parr, a companion to Henry VIII. At his court, and by then a widow twice over, she joined the entourage of the Princess Mary. It was here that she came to the attention of the King, who proposed marriage, although she was enamoured of the brother of the late Jane Seymour. Sir Thomas Seymour was sent packing to an appointment in Brussels and the wedding went ahead.
Katherine also became friends with the young Princess Elizabeth and was responsible for much of her education. After Henry’s death in 1547, she renewed her romance with Thomas and married for the fourth time. Her husband was also titled 1st Baron Seymour of Sudeley.
Once she became Queen, Elizabeth visited Sudeley three times.
Outside, the castle is surrounded by a breathtaking 1,200 acre estate and 10 lovely gardens. The centrepiece is the Queens Garden, so named because four of England’s queens – Anne Boleyn, Katherine Parr, Lady Jane Grey and Elizabeth I – once walked upon the original Tudor Parterre. My own favourite is the Knot Garden, nestled in between the ruins of the great banqueting hall and Queen Elizabeth’s chambers. The complex design of clipped box hedges is based on a pattern from one of Queen Elizabeth’s dresses from a portrait that hangs in the castle.
After the castle had been abandoned and fallen into ruin, two brothers came across the estate while out riding. Wealthy local glove makers, they set about buying the property, restoring much of it and filling it with authentic Tudor furniture which they purchased in a job lot. They lived there for many years and died within a few months of each other.
Work continued on and off until Harry, Lord Ashcombe took over the property as part of his Cubitt family inheritance and improved the estate until his death in 2013. Elizabeth, Lady Ashcombe still lives on the property and with her two children, jointly own it, having decided to open it to the public come years ago.
Two brilliant exhibitions are permanent. One tells Katherine Parr’s story and contains originals of her two published books as well as other valuable artifacts. The other is a complete history of textiles over the past 400 years, based on a collection started by the glove makers. The castle has excellent and informative displays throughout, as well as several videos that flesh out the story and the family’s involvement.
Be sure to check the Sudeley Castle official website for visiting times, as it is not always open.