A brief history of Kirby Muxloe Castle

The following is based on details provided in the English Heritage booklet on Ashby and Kirby castles, 2011, supplemented by our knowledge of the castle and its archaeological finds.

Castle design

Kirby Muxloe Castle

It was in 1474 that William, Lord Hastings, the Chamberlain of England, was granted a licence from Edward IV to fortify four manor houses in Leicestershire. One of these was at his family seat in Kirby Muxloe, which he started to build in 1480 on the site of a previous manor house built by the Pakeman family. This building was to be a moated courtyard residence, entered through a great gatehouse and fortified with towers and battlements, a sign of Lord Hastings’ wealth and power.

Much of what we know about the building of Kirby Castle is derived from the fortunate survival of the building accounts from October 1480 when the castle was begun until December 1484 when all building work ceased and remained unfinished, the reasons for which will become clear.

The building was designed around a courtyard within the existing moated site and was planned to have four towers, one at each corner. Only one tower, still standing at its full height, remains today. Connecting the towers would have been a double circuit of walls to form impressive battlements. Within the walls in the courtyard, there would have been a great hall and residential and domestic buildings.

The castle was approached via a medieval wooden bridge, the remains of which were discovered during restoration work by the Department of the Environment (now English Heritage) in 1911 to 1913. This was replaced during more recent restoration work in 2006. Entrance to the inner courtyard was through an impressive gatehouse, much of which still stands today. The mechanism for the drawbridge was located on the first floor of the gatehouse and one can still see the holes for the ropes or chains which raised it. It is likely that the dimensions of this gatehouse intended it to be around 30m or 100 feet tall and it would have been a significant landmark in the landscape of the area. The turrets to the rear of the gatehouse incorporate spiral staircases.

The building process

Brickwork Patterns

Kirby Muxloe Castle is one of the first buildings in England to have been built of brick and these were manufactured locally. The work was overseen by the Master Mason, John Cowper, who had been an apprentice at Eton College, where building in brick was established. Stone was used for edging windows and doors. A distinctive feature of the brickwork at Kirby Castle is the elaborate pattern of dark bricks used to decorate the walls. The initials WH can be seen, as well as pictures of a ship and a jug. Much of the brickwork was restored by English Heritage in 2006 using handmade bricks similar to the original ones used by the medieval masons.

Of the six towers intended to have been built, only one – the West Tower - remains as a complete structure. It comprises three floors, the lower one of which has six gun loops. These are small circular openings designed to take the muzzle of a gun. Within the tower is a spiral staircase and several latrines and it is thought that the rooms within it were intended for members of Lord Hastings’ household.

Archaeological finds

Many artefacts were recovered from the moat during restoration of the castle – pottery, a candlestick, many deer antlers and some floor tiles. These are now part of Leicestershire County Council’s Archaeological Collection.

In 2017, a high-status medieval brooch was discovered by a metal detectorist, operating near the moat. There was speculation in the press that it may have belonged to Lady Hastings.

Why wasn't it finished?

Sadly, work on the castle came to an end before it was finished – Lord Hastings met an untimely end when he was executed on 13th July 1483 by the future king Richard 111 in the Tower of London. It is not known why Richard came to this hasty decision to be rid of his friend and advisor. It appears that Richard thought that Hastings was plotting against him, but Hastings was never given the opportunity of a trial in which to refute any allegations.

Work on the castle ceased immediately the news came to Kirby of Lord Hastings’ demise and although the widow of Lord Hastings was later issued with a special grant, restoring the family’s inheritance, the castle was eventually abandoned and gradually fell into decay, until it was subsequently restored in 1911/13.

It has been speculated that Richard's benevolence to Widow Hastings was an indication of his regret over his hasty actions. We will never know for certain.