Last Updated on 4th October 2022 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
I don’t really know why we went to Clun. It was there, of course, which I suppose is some sort of a reason to go anywhere at least once. Was the name vaguely familiar? It has a ruined castle, anyway, which might have been the deciding factor and, indeed, that became our target. Whatever the motivation to visit, I’m very glad we did. Clun itself is a very small, and clearly very old, Shropshire town straddling the river of the same name. This is, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Place Names, “an ancient pre-English river name of uncertain meaning”. We took a wrong turn, got tangled up in some roadworks, crossed the river by means of a wonderful medieval-looking bridge (15th century, it turns out) and found a space in one of the world’s smallest car parks. From there it was a short walk back over the river via a footbridge in the direction of the castle.
Clun is distinctly in two parts. The south side of the river, where we left the car, was the older, Saxon, settlement. I’m only guessing that the survival of the name suggests there were people in the area long before that. The other, northern, side of the river was a planned Norman town that developed in the shelter of the castle and grew plump on wool. The medieval street grid is still there.
The original castle, a wooden motte-and-bailey affair, was probably built by the Norman Picot de Say, a vassal of Roger de Montgomery, who had been granted the estate of nearby Stokesay as well as that of Clun. The castle occupies a rocky mound in a loop of the river, a naturally good defensive position. And it needed to be – from a Norman point of view – because this was border territory with Wales. As the Welsh hadn’t allowed the Saxons to conquer them in five centuries or more, they would hardly roll over for a new set of boisterous invaders, however ambitious.
In 1155, the barony of Clun passed by marriage to the Fitzalan family, who held it for the next 400 years. In 1292, Richard Fitzalan succeeded to the title of Earl of Arundel and inherited large estates in Sussex. Eventually, the Fitzalans made Arundel Castle their main home and by the mid-14th century Clun Castle had been downgraded to the status of a country retreat. Over the years, it was used less and less, fell into disrepair and, by 1539 it was reported to be in a ruinous state. It continued its administrative function, however, and at some point a courthouse was built on the site. The Fitzalans went on to become the Dukes of Norfolk. The current, 18th Duke, Edward William Fitzalan-Howard, also holds the hereditary title of Lord Marshal, responsible for organising large state occasions – including the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II on 19 September 2022 and the coronation of King Charles III. In September 2022, the 18th Duke received a driving ban and fine for using his mobile ‘phone while driving through a red light in front of a police car the previous April. This titbit has no relevance whatsoever to Clun, but the tenuous link amuses me as much as the idea that the Lord Marshal managed to coordinate the event so perfectly.
Clun Castle’s history has been far more predictable – though no less momentous if you were there at the time. It was burned down by the Welsh in 1196, attacked by King John’s troops in 1215 and besieged by Llywelyn the Great, Llywelyn Fawr, Prince of the Welsh, in 1233. The castle’s fate was then probably sealed in the early 15th century, when the Welsh leader Owain Glyndŵr wrecked the entire Clun area.
Now, one of the reasons I’m so glad we paid a visit to Clun is that the ruined castle is particularly atmospheric. It helps that it is enveloped by stunning, heart-tuggingly beautiful, countryside. Very little, in terms of castle structures, is visible above ground, but there is more to the place than meets the eye. The slope of the large and extensive earthworks meant that we could see nothing until, coming over the crest of a mound, the ruins of the massive, 80-foot, tower-keep loomed into view. Unusually, this was built into the slope of the mound, rather than on top of the motte. Experts suggest this would have made it vulnerable to undermining, but I haven’t come across any references to anyone trying that at Clun. It is 13th or 14th century and had a communal hall on the first floor, with luxury accommodation above. It was from here that the barony of Clun was administered. Nor was the eventual castle at Clun a classic single motte-and-bailey layout. The tower formed part of one walled fortification, connected to a second on an adjoining mound, which would have housed the garrison, stores, stables and the like. Below was the walled castle farm which, from what I can make out, was where the modern bowling green is. Across the river lay the castle pleasure gardens, which included some kind of water management and an orchard. The whole thing is a complex site, which once had considerable time and money spent on it. Imagine the activity there would have been all around, in peace and war. Only the ghosts remain. Buffeted by the breeze, I soaked up the view across the Shropshire countryside in the direction of Wales, a few miles away, while overhead a red kite dipped and glided in search of prey.
Afterwards, we dropped in to the unusual and delightful Post Card Café. There being an interesting-looking church at the edge of town, it then seemed rude not to drop by while we there. Besides, I find it hard to pass a medieval church without going in. The parish church of St George’s, Clun, probably built on a Saxon site, dates from the 12th century, has some impressive Norman-style arches, and a very interesting looking tower. Some believe it had a defensive purpose. In the churchyard is the resting place of the playwright John Osborne (1929 – 1994). Had I read that somewhere? It was when researching this piece that I realised that my familiarity with the name ‘Clun’ more probably came from the children’s adventure stories of author Malcolm Saville (1901-81), set in Shropshire. I once enjoyed those so much and they would be far more at my intellectual level. Anyway, I look back in pleasure on Clun.
Finally, the poet and scholar A E Houseman (1859-1936) had a thing to say about Clun too:
“Clunton and Clunbury,
Clungunford and Clun,
Are the quietest places
Under the sun.”
PS I should add that Clun hosts an annual Green Man Festival on or around 1 May.