The manor of Scotney was in existence no later than the early twelfth century and took its name from the family who owned it. Records confirm that they had a high status house on the site and this passed into the hands of the Ashburnham family in 1358. It was around twenty years later, when the Hundred Years War had turned against the English resulting in the South Coast becoming increasingly vulnerable to French raiding, that the family looked to fortify the site. It was probably the attacks on nearby Rye and Folkestone in 1377 that prompted the then owner, Roger Ashburnham, to commence construction of Scotney Castle. Work started in 1378 and continued until 1380. A further French attack in 1380, this time on Winchelsea, doubtless led Roger to feel justified in his expenditure.
Scotney Castle occupied two islands surrounded by a wide moat and lake fed from diverting the adjacent River Bewl. The Outer Ward was built upon the western island and was broadly rectangular with its purpose being to host the numerous ancillary buildings such as stables. It has been mooted this was the site of the original house. Immediately to the east was a further island which was occupied by the Inner Ward. This was an irregularly shaped enclosure surrounded by a curtain wall with four round towers, each standing two storeys tall, on each corner. A hall range occupied the central portion of the Inner Ward.
Like other contemporary fortifications - perhaps most notably Bodium Castle - debate rages as to the effectiveness of the defences at Scotney Castle. The weak gatehouses, low towers and complete lack of gunports would have rendered the castle an easy target for a well-equipped attacking force. Furthermore the surrounding water features, although seemingly impressive, would have been easily drained by creating a channel between the south lake and the River Bewl. Accordingly it must be assumed that Scotney Castle was first and foremost designed to serve as a status symbol rather than a substantive fortification. Whilst its defences would have deterred low level marauders, it certainly wouldn't have withstood a concerted French attack and it is not even certain whether the defensive features of the castle were ever fully completed.
Scotney Castle was not involved in any military action during the medieval period but continued to be occupied. In 1580 the Hall Range was rebuilt in the latest Elizabethan style and adjoined to the South Tower on the curtain wall. At this time the then owners - the Darrell family - were staunch Catholics despite the legal restrictions placed on that faith by the Protestant Government in England. As part of the upgrades they secretly added a Priest hole, a concealed room, which was used by Jesuit Father Richard Blount between 1591 and 1598. He narrowly escaped capture during a Government raid.
With the exception of the South Tower, which was incorporated into the Elizabethan mansion, the defences of the castle were largely demolished in 1630 to enable the masonry to be reused to create a brand new Hall Range. The castle was purchased by Edward Hussey in 1778 but a series of family tragedies meant they moved away soon after. However, the family retained ownership and Edward's grandson (another Edward) moved back and built the mansion house seen today. Construction started in February 1837 and, as part of the surrounding landscaping, the remains of Scotney Castle were deliberately slighted to make it an attractive garden feature.
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Scotney Castle is owned by the National Trust. The estate is centred around the nineteenth century mansion house (which has taken the name Scotney Castle) but the remains of the medieval fortification, now known as the "old castle", can be found within the gardens. One of the four towers of the original fortification survives alongside the ruins of the sixteenth and seventeenth century additions.
Scotney Castle Layout. The castle was surrounded by a moat which was expanded on the south-east into a Lake which provided defensive and economic benefits. The fortification itself was built upon two islands connected by a drawbridge.
South Tower and Elizabethan House. An Elizabethan house was built in the south-east corner of the Inner Ward around 1580. It incorporated the South Tower into its design. The ruins to the right are those of the later 1630 range that was partially demolished in the nineteenth century.
South Tower (Ashburnham Tower). The two-storey circular tower is the only survivor from four corner turrets that originally formed part of the castle. It was heavily modified in 1720 when the pyramidal tiled roof was added by George Darell.
Water Features. Like other nearby sites - such as Bodium Castle and Leeds Castle - Scotney was surrounded by extensive water features. These looked hugely impressive and would have greatly added to the status conveyed by the castle. The water would also have been used as a fishpond, an important source of food in the medieval household, and would have served a domestic function namely the removal of waste. However, from a defensive perspective the water could have been easily drained had the castle been attacked by a well equipped force.
Inner Ward. The entrance to the Inner Ward.
Location. From a defensive perspective the castle was poorly sited. This was inevitably a consequence of re-using the site of the earlier manorial house.
Scotney Castle was a manorial site that was converted into a minor fortification in the late fourteenth century as the Hundred Years War turned against the English. It was extensively modified during the Elizabethan era and, along with these upgrades, its Catholic owners incorporated a priest hole to secretly shelter Father Richard Blount from the Protestant commissioners of Elizabeth I.
Scotney Castle is a major National Trust tourist attraction and accordingly well sign-posted. The site is accessed via the B2169 and includes a dedicated car park.