Cowdray Castle Muskets being fired
Cowdray Castle (Cowdray House), Midhurst, West Sussex. Picture by David Farquhar

by Bridget Howard, Midhurst Society

Cowdray House aka Cowdray Castle, a short walk from Midhurst's North Street free car park, is now open to the public.

Editor's Note
"A Medieval re-enactment video by Dragophelion on Youtube is here , also Cowdray House from the Battlements. There is a glimpse of the hugely popular Tudor Walled Garden adjoining the Castle - a popular venue for weddings and other special events. Read revues of Cowdray Castle in Trip Advisor Midhurst, and please add your own when you visit".

For Cowdray Castle Weddings ring Heather Ongley on 01730 814347 Email:

It was the most magnificent 16th century house in Sussex , built by noblemen who were related to the Tudor monarchs and held great offices of state during their reigns. Cowdray Castle was visited by Henry VIII (three times) and many of its splendours were designed to do him honour. The boy King Edward VI came here and complained that the food was too rich for him. Queen Elizabeth I (see South Pond History) was entertained for a week with great ceremony, despite fears that she might be assassinated.

Although devastated by fire in 1793, Cowdray Castle today is a magical evocation of past glories.


Academics and historians continue to 'argue the toss' over whether Cowdray should be called a castle. Its official name is Cowdray or Cowdray House. A castle is defined as a fortified house, palace or mansion. It didn't refer to just a fortress; it implied command over and ownership of territory. Cowdray was originally planned as a fortified mansion or palace for noblemen and the King issued a license to crenellate - as it so happens the very last one - in 1533. However, a license to crenellate didn't define the term castle as you could build one without a licence if you wanted to chance your arm and risk the displeasure of the King. (Pictures by David Farquhar)

When the time came to build Cowdray the owners decided to forego the 'real thing' and had 'falsies' or mock battlements instead, just for show.

Castles as fortresses became obsolete with all the new Tudor Weaponry. England didn't have a standing army but relied on 'Trayned Bands' More.....

In the 21st century, an age of celebrity, when 'show' is the 'new reality' I think most people would be quite happy for Cowdray to be called a castle. It was planned as a castle, licensed as a castle looks like a castle and called a castle by its then owner Lord Weatman Pearson. Ergo, it is a castle!

'Cowdray Castle' has been in common parlance for centuries. The earliest record so far is a painting in the Mitford (Sherwin Collection) at The County Record Office in Chichester. It is titled 'In the Park of Cowdray Castle 1793'.

In 1834 C.R.Leslie who visited Cowdray with Constable, made this note: 'Lord Egremont.... ordered one of his carriages to be ready every day to enable Constable to see as much of the neighbourhood as posible... among the beautiful ruins of Cowdry Castle (sic), of which he made several fine sketches'.

Interestingly, Sir Weatman Pearson (later Lord Cowdray) - 1856 to 1927 - in a book by John Spender (1977) is reported as saying 'He speaks of the future export trade in Mexican oil as "The trade that I am - in my dreams - hoping will build the new Cowdray Castle and furnish it with one year's three or four years we shall be justified in beginning to build the new castle"

The Builders

 Cowdray Castle's history begins in 1284 when Sir John Bohun finished building a house across the river from the old town of Midhurst . He called it Codreye, the Norman word for the nearby hazel thickets. Two hundred years later it was inherited by Sir David Owen, uncle to King Henry VII.

Sir David began to replace Codreye with a larger home for himself on the same site. This was only half finished in 1529 when he sold it to Sir William Fitzwilliam, Treasurer of Henry VIII's household. Fitzwilliam completed the house, and most of what we see today (and what we know about from drawings) was the work of his masons.

As the years passed, Fitzwilliam became the Lord High Admiral of England and the Lord Privy Seal. As part of the celebrations of the birth of the future Edward VI, he was ennobled as the Earl of Southampton. Until his death in 1542 he was one of the most powerful men in the kingdom.

Later owners made cosmetic changes, altering some of the windows and the internal arrangements, but Cowdray Castle remains as it was built. For us it is a remarkable survival of an early Tudor nobleman's mansion, an example of 16th century architecture at its best, understated and dignified.

The Perils of Catholicism

 Cowdray Castle passed to Fitzwilliam's half-brother, Sir Anthony Browne, and from him to his eldest son, also Anthony Browne, who was created Viscount Montague.This was an old family name and his coat of arms on the Cowdray gatehouse shows his line of descent reaching back (like that of the Tudors) to John of Gaunt, son of Edward III.

The Curse of Fire & Water
"Through the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII between 1536-3, Easebourne Priory was disbanded and the Prioress and her nuns ordered to leave. At the time of eviction, the Sub-Prioress pronounced “a curse of fire and water on the male children and their heirs” of “he who takes these lands and it shall come upon him and his name shall die out.” The Priory and its lands were granted to Sir William FitzWilliam, Earl of Southampton, who was at that time building Cowdray" More from N.Sadler.

The house was a Catholic stronghold when this was a forbidden form of religion. During the reign of the Protestant Elizabeth I, the devout 1st Viscount was suspected of being a traitor, but he escaped persecution. A few years later the 2nd Viscount was heavily fined and imprisoned for his faith and for alleged involvement with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, Guy Fawkes having been employed at Cowdray.

During the Civil War of the 1640s the 3rd Viscount supported the Royalist cause; in retaliation Parliamentary troops occupied Cowdray for seven years. Although the house was plundered, it escaped demolition. The estates were sequestrated and the owners were once again heavily fined.

Georgian Revival

 It was not until the succession of the 6th Viscount in 1717 that Cowdray began to recover from the depredations of the previous century. Internal changes were made in accordance with Georgian taste. The family, when on its own, now lived privately, but entertained ostentatiously. What had been their first floor dining room became a grand salon for social gatherings with distinguished neighbours and visitors.

The approach route to Cowdray Castle was changed. The old causeway across the water meadows was fenced off. A new carriage road from Easebourne was built and, instead of the house being visible from afar, it now appeared to be secluded among the rolling acres of a landscape that had been redesigned in the new fashionable style.

Georgian polite society was meeting at Cowdray, but the family had over-spent. The young 8th Viscount proposed marriage to the eldest daughter of the wealthy banker Sir Thomas Coutts.


 While the house was being refurbished for his wedding he went on holiday to the Continent and his mother and sister visited the elegant resort of Brighton . Very few staff remained at Cowdray. At midnight on 24 September 1793 a spark from a coal basket left burning by the decorators set fire to the woodshavings and paper rubbish in their workroom. Before long it was all ablaze and the flames were spreading fast. Nothing much was done. Fire buckets and the water tanks were in an outside building, the keys to which could not be found and the door could not be forced. Crowds gathered and some treasures were rescued, but many more were stolen. The house smouldered for a fortnight.

Meanwhile in Switzerland , unaware of the tragedy, the Viscount and his future brother-in-law decided, against local advice, to take their boat down the falls of the River Rhine at Laufenburg. Their craft over-turned and both men were drowned.

The next heir to the Montague title died four years later, before he had fathered a child. The viscountancy died with him and Cowdray was uninhabitable.

Gothic Romance

The ruins became an epitome of the Romantic Movement that was popularised by the poetry of William Wordsworth and by the Gothic-horror novels ridiculed in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. Cowdray was painted by JMW Turner, John Constable and a score of lesser artists. It was widely written about, was visited by antiquarians and became a popular attraction with the coming of railways that brought people from the London suburbs on cheap excursion tickets.

The property was sold to an Irish peer, Lord Egmont, in 1843, and the prestige of the ruins as ruins saved them from rebuilding.They escaped Victorianisation.


 In 1909 Sir Weetman Pearson, later the 1st Viscount Cowdray, bought the estate. He employed the foremost expert on historic buildings, Sir William Hope, to advise him. Some restoration was done, but increasing dilapidation made the walls unsafe.

Various proposals were made, but it was not until the creation of the Cowdray Heritage Trust in 1997 that the house was subject to a major conservation programme, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and other generous donors.

Today Cowdray Castle is a major visitor attraction - Tel: 01730 810781


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