Acton Burnell Castle is a ruin of a fortified manor house built in the 13 century (1284) by Robert Burnell, a powerful landowner and friend of King Edward I.
Acton Burnell is one of Shropshire’s two fortified manor houses, the second being Stokesay Castle at Craven Arms (English Heritage).
The two manor houses are of completely different design from the materials they were constructed with to the layout on the land and their means of defence.
The village and the castle got their name from their creator, Robert Burnell. There were lots of other Actons in Shropshire, so the way people differentiated which one they were speaking of was to add an important name after it (Acton Scott, Acton Pigot, Acton Round etc.).
Acton Burnell was built of red sandstone and is considered to be one of the oldest remains of its type in the country and thus very important.
The setting is in the small village of Acton Burnell on the edge of fields which were once Burnell’s parkland and deer park.
Entry to the grounds is by an ancient yew-lined path. When you arrive at the castle, you are greeted by a statuesque Cedar of Lebanon and the inner shell of what was once a very grand building.
Despite being called a castle, Acton Burnell isn’t.
It was a rectangular structure with four towers on the corners. The ruin as it is seen today has the inner walls, some arched windows, corner towers, and evidence of some of the floor plan. You will see arches in the walls which were not original, but were added during the castle’s decline into a ruin. The manor house, now Concord College was built to replace the castle and the castle had the arches added to make it a ruin for the manor house gardens.
With the Cedar of Lebanon looming over the sandstone ruin it is a picturesque scene.
The castle’s location was important when built in the 13 century because it was near the Old Roman road (Watling Street).
Defence was never a major goal of the building. The structure started out as a manor house, then a fortified manor house and then finally because of licence became a castle.
Robert Burnell was a very powerful man and friend of King Edward I before he became king. Robert Burnell owned lots of land and when he later became Bishop of Bath and Wells he gained even more status in the community, thus enabling him to accomplish whatever he pleased.
Fortified manor houses only came into being when things were more secure and people didn’t have to defend their buildings from Welsh invasions, yet security was still an issue. These fortified houses started to appear in Burnell’s day (the 13th century). Why? King Edward I had spent a lot of time in Shrewsbury dealing with the issues between the Welsh and English round 1277. The end result was his conquest of the Welsh which culminated in the trial of the last Prince of Wales-Dafyddap Gruffydd in 1283 and his subsequent death by beheading in Shrewsbury. From that date onwards the county of Shropshire became more stable and safer.
A fortified building required a licence from the King and because Burnell was a friend and an advisor to King Edward I, this was not a problem. The timber for the structure even came from the King’s royal forests.
Next to the castle sat a very big stone barn, today only the gable ends remain.
The barn was thought to have been 157 feet x 40 feet with low walls and a high roof. In 1283, the same year Brunnel got his licence, King Edward held what some believe to have been the first English meeting of Parliament in that barn. What remains is now part of the games grounds for Concord College which is housed in the Manor House which replaced the castle.
Acton Brunell’s means of defence and status was its crenellations. To crenellate- means to have battlements. Unlike Stokesay Castle, there is no moat or gatehouse.
The building was 3 stories high, affording good views of the countryside and grounds. There was a hall, solar (private areas for the lord and family), bedrooms, offices, chapel and kitchen. To those who have studied the building, the curious thing is that studies have not uncovered evidence of a large fireplace which would have been commonplace in this type of dwelling.
Bishop Robert Burnell died in 1292 and was buried in Wells.
The castle continued to survive until it was replaced by a more homely building, Acton Burnell Hall. Built in 1814 of Classical style by the Smythe family the hall had parkland, 2 lakes (possibly medieval fish ponds), a gothic folly (Sham Castle-SJ544.016. This folly has round towers, gothic windows and dates to 1780, standing on a mound in a field surrounded by trees) and Acton Burnell Castle which became a folly on the grounds.
Robert Burnell left behind not only the castle, but was responsible for building the village up to what it is today and for St Mary’s Church (1260-1289) which sits between the castle and the hall.
Brunell also was responsible for another castle renovation, Holdgate Castle. Holdgate was a Shropshire castle with motte and bailey and was mentioned in the Domesday survey of 1086. When Robert acquired the castle in 1280 he built a new stone castle within the wooden castle. The wooden castle was built by Helgot after the Norman Conquest.
Today the tower and a mound remain at the Holdgate Farm-SO5689.