Situated in the small village of Boarstall in Buckinghamshire, close to the Oxfordshire border, Boarstall Tower is a superb medieval moated gatehouse that has a fascinating history. Now a Grade 1 listed building it is owned by the National Trust and is open to the public during the summer months.
On 12th September 1312, Edward II granted John de Haudlo, the lord of Boarstall Manor, a licence to crenellate (fortify) his mansion house with a wall of lime and stone. Dendrochronology tests on internal beams using tree ring data show that these were felled in 1312 so construction must have started almost immediately. Although designed as a defensive building, the gatehouse was very grand for its time and de Haudlo probably built it largely as a status symbol. Whilst not a true castle, it copied the style of recently built castles such as Caernarfon Castle in Wales and features include arrow slits, gargoyles and battlements.
The Tower was originally approached by a drawbridge over the moat but this was replaced by a wooden bridge in 1615 at the same time as new windows were inserted and the roof raised. With any perceived threat of attack long since passed, it was probably the intention to convert the tower into a hunting lodge. However less than 30 years later, Boarstall was the centre of heavy fighting in the English Civil War between the Royalists who had their stronghold at Oxford and the Parliamentarians who had a base at Aylesbury. In 1643 the Royalists built a garrison at Boarstall, but it was abandoned the following year and the Parliamentarians took possession. Realising it presented a threat to their Oxford base, the Royalists recaptured it in June 1644 having ‘battered the house with cannon’. A year later on 1st June 1645 the Parliamentarians New Model Army attacked Boarstall with 1200 men and used 120 scaling ladders but the Royalists fired ‘so thicke upon them’ that they withdrew leaving all their ladders behind. Contemporary reports suggest that the Parliamentarians lost between 120 and 300 men whereas the garrison only lost just one out of 100 men.
The Royalists subsequently demolished the church and all the houses in Boarstall village to prevent the Parliamentarians using them for cover, leaving just Boarstall House, the Tower and the adjacent farmhouse. In the spring of 1646 the Parliamentarians besieged the garrison for nearly 10 weeks. The garrison commander Sir William Campion only surrendered on 10th June having heard that the King was about to surrender at Oxford. There are still signs of cannon damage above the entrance to the Tower but overall there is little visible evidence of the fighting.
Boarstall House, the medieval mansion behind the Tower, was demolished in 1778 by Sir John and Lady Aubrey, a year after their only child, a son aged 6, died from ‘eating contaminated gruel’. This was most probably ergotism, a disease caused by eating infected rye grain which causes convulsions and hallucinations and which it is now believed explains certain ‘bewitchments’. Fear of witchcraft was prevalent in this period and the Aubreys evidently thought the house was cursed and must be demolished. They subsequently moved to Dorton House in Dorton, now Ashfold School.
The Tower remained unused until 1925 when it was converted into a house and the gardens reconstructed. In 1943 it was sold to the National Trust who restored it in 1998/9. It is now tenanted and open to the public on selected dates. For opening hours visit: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/boarstall-tower/
Thanks to Rob Dixon for providing information and photos.