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The first mention of a castle at Dudley comes with the arrival of "a great and powerful prince of the Kingdom of Mercia" called Dudd, Dodo or Dudo circa 700 A.D. "who raised a strong fortress here, which remained until the Conquest." Add the suffix "ley" or "lea" (which means land) to the man's name and you get the likely origin of the area's name. There is also a claim that someone called Athelstan (not the king of that name) might have been responsible for the castle, but the weight of preference lies with Dudd.
When William the Conqueror crossed the English Channel and defeated Harold in 1066, he distributed the spoils of victory among those who had supported him. One of these was Ansculf from a village near Amiens, who was assigned a barony of more than 80 manors scattered across several counties. This fragmentation was William's deliberate policy to prevent his gifts being turned into mini-states to continue the pattern of feuding then found in France. In his collection, Ansculf was awarded Dudley and recognised that its hilltop site was ideal for Norman-style fortifications. At that point the Saxon fortress was held by Edwin, possibly a grandson of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, but the Conquest meant that Ansculf could simply dispossess him.
Earthworks were constructed for the eventual castle in the form of a vast mote (basically a big dome-shaped heap of soil). But until they had settled and compacted, only wooden fortifications could be built on them. Even so, he set the character for the castle, for he arranged for a much larger bailey (a courtyard behind the mote, protected by an earth bank with an outside ditch) than was normally the practice, and later building would maintain its large, open oval.
Ansculf was succeeded by Falk Paganel, and he or his son (from 1138 onwards) erected the stone buildings on the east side of the bailey. By then, the fortifications had grown strong enough for the castle to be held for the Empress Matilda in her war against her cousin King Stephen.
Next came Ralph's son, Gervase Paganel (after whom two streets were named when they were built nearby during the 1930s). Gervase founded the nearby Priory circa 1160 - but he also supported Prince Harry's rebellion against his father, King Henry II in 1173-4, and for this error Gervase saw his castle demolished by the King, though the Priory was left untouched.
The remnants passed into the hands of the de Somery family - walls gone but earthworks still present - and they built an undefended manor house on the site. Mindful of history, King Henry III refused to allow fortification until Roger de Somery (2nd) fought for his king against the barons in 1265 and won the king's trust and a licence to crenellate.
As it was now a century since the original earthworks had been constructed, they had settled and firmed sufficiently to carry heavy masonry. In ensuing years, the castle curtain walls were built, running up to a great donjon (keep) at the summit of the mote. But the family had difficulty financing it, despite leaning heavily on all those beholden to them, and the castle hence lacks the great towers that buttress Welsh castles from the same period. The donjon was a residence, but the quarters were very restricted in size. As its lowest storey (as in other castles) was often used to hold prisoners, the word donjon mutated into dungeon, and is one reason why the more modern word keep supplanted it.
After another period of inactivity, the castle had new owners in the shape of the Sutton family. The Suttons took on Dudley as an additional surname, and as it was common for those who worked for the local lord to use his name for themselves, the spread of Dudley as a surname commences from this period. The Suttons rebuilt the large block of chambers ruined by Henry II, adjacent to the east curtain wall, and added a chapel. The barbican - the outer defence of the great gate - was probably built around 1335. The three separate but close-set gates in this part of the castle were each portcullised, making them a formidable obstruction to invaders, and the arrangement was sometimes referred to as the triple gateway.
Above, another of David Clare's postcards illustrates the castle courtyard, with the older buildings (circa 1340) closest: the chapel at the right and the great chamber alongside it, both on the second floor. The section set back is the hall, built as part of the new residential section by the Duke of Northumberland in the 1540s onward. Below, the triple gateway, stripped of its three portcullises.
Almost no building work was done on the castle during the 1400s, and it possibly wasnít much occupied for substantial periods. In the early 1500s, the castle was in the hands of John Lord Dudley, a weak man of limited intellect. John Dudley (another member of the family who was keen to have the castle himself) connived to assist his downfall and had succeeded by the 1530s. John Dudley - eventually to be John Dudley Duke of Northumberland - then set about rebuilding the residential block on a grand scale, but leaving the great chamber and the chapel much as they were.
Below, another postcard view of the courtyard, this time concentrating on the newer buildings. At left is the postern (north) gate, with the pantry to the right of the round tower. The twin peaked section had bedrooms over the kitchen, and the bow windows fronted the buttery and pantry.
In that he was successful, but his conniving ways remained. Henry VIII had willed that Lady Jane Grey's future sons were next in succession after his own children, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth. Though he became Edward VI on Henry's death (at 9 years old), Edward had always been a sickly child, not least because he inherited syphilis from his father.
Northumberland foresaw that the boy King would soon die and had his own son Guildford Dudley married to Lady Jane Grey against her will at the age of 15 on 21st May 1553 in a bid to secure the succession for his own family. Three days after Edwardís death, on July 9th that year, she was informed that the late king had declared his sisters Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate and named her as his successor. By the 19th, however, Mary Tudor had her in the Tower of London. In due course Northumberland thus went to the axe for treason, taking an innocent Lady Jane Grey with him, and her own less innocent father as well (Lady Jane might have survived but for her father's misdeeds and her own unremitting Protestantism in the face of Mary's determination to re-establish Catholicism in England). The castle was forfeited to Mary Tudor, but Edward Dudley, son of the usurped and just-deceased John Lord Dudley earned sufficient favour with Mary to have the castle restored to his family.
In 1585, at Queen Elizabethís behest, the castle was inspected as a possible prison for Mary, Queen of Scots. Although it had a few spacious rooms, it was found to be miserably poor in furnishing and other facilities - possibly because the family was making more use of Himley as a residence. Furthermore, the inspector described Dudley itself as "one of the poorest towns I have seen in my life". The Queen of Scots went to Fotheringay instead (and was executed two years afterwards).
The last Sutton lord, Edward Dudley (3rd), was a wastrel among other faults, and the estate went downhill in his hands. After his son died only a granddaughter, Frances (born 1611), remained. Providence provided an extremely successful goldsmith, William Ward, when the estate was heavily in debt, and Williamís son Humble married Frances in the 1630s in exchange for the estate and taking over its debts, and would soon be made Baron Ward as well.
This, of course was on the eve of the Civil War, and while the castle saw little action, it didnít miss it altogether. While the town of Dudley may not have staunchly espoused one side or the other, the new Earl had given King Charles I considerable support and the castle itself was held by royalists. So when Lord Denbigh besieged it on behalf of Parliament, the King sent a relieving force from his base at Worcester. This encountered a parliamentary force from Tipton and was repulsed, but the castle survived and the seige was lifted.
In 1646, the Royalist force decided that the Church of St Edmund provided too much cover for a possible attack, and had the church (and the tombs of Frances Suttonís ancestors) demolished. This probably left Baron Ward with no liking for either side, but compelled to seek an accommodation with Parliament when the war went to them. Baron Ward made a petition to Cromwell that may have got him off the hook personally, but it didnít save the castle. Parliament decreed as part of the castle's surrender that it should be sleighted (de-fortified), and while the residential side was left unharmed, the castle walls, turrets and gate were fairly comprehensively destroyed, leaving a wreck not greatly different from the one we see today.
There was, however, one last new building in or around the 1680s. But there was also one last blow to strike the castle: a major fire on 24th July 1750, apparently caused by coin counterfeiters working in the dungeons and somehow setting the building on fire. The fire continued for two further days, complicated by two factors - the belief that there was gunpowder stored in the burning building, and the fact that the building had a lead roof which melted and ran red hot down the hill, setting fire to the long grass, and hence to the hillside itself. Although that finished the castle as a residence, the family mainly lived at Himley Hall anyway, so this merely made that arrangement permanent.
Some reconstruction of a partly demolished tower was done by William, 3rd Viscount Dudley to restore some dignity to the ruin; and clearance of rubble, recrenellation of the Keep and other such work were undertaken. In 1805 there were more discoveries, first in the shape of a tunnel linking the two towers in the gateway, and second of the old garrison well, whose rotted timber cover nearly sent a horse to its death when it gave way. After the Crimean War, two cannon captured at Sebastopol were brought to the castle, and these are the ones now to be seen in the Keep.
With its end as a fortification and then as a residence, the castle survived as venue for events and recreation - the Whitsuntide 3-day fetes being of particular note in the 19th and early 20th centuries (and well-served by that large oval courtyard) - and of course the zoo introduced there in 1937.
The story itself isn't complete, though, for work has been done on the castle history in recent times, and some of the above may already be due for revision.
Please note: this plan is still evolving as a small anomaly and other minor points are being clarified.
The artist Richard Rayner, with his sister Louise Rayner (who painted the well-known 1870 picture of Dudley market) visited Dudley in 1865, looking for things to sketch and paint, and we have a set of pages covering them and other members of the family. Click here for Richard's sketches of the castle and here for the main Rayner page and comment on the market painting.
Above notes by Harry Drummond
based on Chandler, G.I and Hannah, I.C., Dudley as it was and as it is today, published London: Batsford, 1947,
with additions from Ruston, James H., Castle Dudley, The Blackcountryman, Summer 1969, vol.2, no.3.
A very engaging description of the last ball at the castle (circa 1707) appears in another article in The Blackcountryman.
For that, see Benbow, Richard, A glimpse of life at Dudley Castle, The Blackcountryman, Winter 1980, vol.13 no.1.
Photos copyright © 2002 Harry Drummond.