Sizergh Castle isn’t really a castle at all. Although it has a large defensive tower dating from the 13th century, a potent symbol of the power of the Strickland family throughout the Medieval period, it is really just a grand country house. Prominent parts of the house date from the Elizabethan, including the dark wood panelled interiors, and Georgian-eras.
The house is set in a large country park, the first, dramatic, sight of the building comes as you walk across the park from the south. The long walk through the grounds, passing some lovely old trees, gives you some idea of the former wealth of the family that lived here.
Much history is bound up in Sizergh Castle, including the political and religious turmoil of the 17th and 18th centuries. Until the end of the 18th century, the Strickland family were deeply involved in the events of English history. Despite having a central role in this turmoil, they managed to retain ownership of Sizergh Castle until the 20th century. The family ‘gave’ the house to the National Trust in 1950, but negotiated a pretty good deal. They continue to live there and public access is restricted to four hours per day, five days per week.
The Strickland family arrived in England as part of the Norman Conquest, and were granted land in Cumbria. Sizergh Castle came into their hands through marriage. Thomas Strickland came to prominence during the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, carrying the flag of St. George (a great honour apparently). More importantly, Strickland brought with him a complement of archers. The Bowmen of Kendal were instrumental in the English victory against overwhelming French odds.
The Strickland family chose the wrong side in the 15th century War of the Roses, but it didn’t harm their standing. More damaging for the family was their religion. Staunch Catholic supporters of the Stuart monarchy, in the 1640s Sir Robert Strickland backed Charles I against Parliament. Sir Robert’s son, Thomas, fought at the Battle of Edgehill in 1642 and was finally captured by Parliamentarians in 1644. While suffering financial penalties for their Royalist sympathies, Sizergh Castle remained in their possession.
It was inevitable that the Strickland’s would be drawn into further conflict when, in 1685, James II inherited the English throne from his brother Charles II. James was suspected (rightly) of being a secret Catholic, and was frequently at odds with the Protestant Parliament. His attempts to create religious freedoms for Catholics, and the birth of a Catholic heir in 1688, caused Parliament to act.
James II was replaced by the Protestant, William of Orange. James went into exile in France, all-the-while plotting to return and reclaim the throne. The Strickland family fled abroad to join him.
James’ invasion of Ireland in 1688 ended in defeat at the Battle of the Boyne, something still celebrated by Northern Ireland’s Protestant fundamentalists. This finished his ambitions to reclaim the English throne, and condemned him and his supporters to permanent exile. While remaining loyal to the Jacobite Stuarts, some members of the Strickland family returned to England, and Sizergh Castle, in 1699 – others continued to live in France as part of the exiled Stuart court.
The final Stuart or Jacobite Rebellion in 1745 saw Prince Charles Edward Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie, invade England with an army of Scots Highlanders. Francis Strickland was one of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s seven companions when he sailed from France in 1745 to raise support in Scotland. This group is known as The Seven Men of Moidart.
Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army passed Sizergh Castle on their triumphant march south, and again on their disastrous retreat north towards final defeat at the Battle of Culloden. There is no evidence that Bonnie Prince Charlie or Francis Strickland visited Sizergh but the castle’s inhabitants must have been following events anxiously. Jacobite ambitions were crushed by the defeat at Culloden, although the Strickland family remained Jacobite supporters throughout the rest of the 18th century. There are portraits of the Stuarts dotted around the building.
Once you’ve tired of Sizergh Castle’s history, the gardens offer a welcome break from being patronised by the National Trust staff working in the building. I was told three times that I needed to be careful not to damage anything with my very small bag. Three times seems a little excessive, especially when delivered in a tone that would have been offensive had it been used on a dog.
Luckily I didn’t encounter any further Trust staff in the gardens and could enjoy them unmolested…and, to be fair, the gardens are quite lovely.