Hopton Castle

The ghosts of the Hopton Castle massacre

The site of a notorious Civil War battle

Amy Boucher investigates the haunted history of Hopton Castle, the site of a notorious battle and massacre during the English Civil War. Parliamentary soldiers were slain by Royalists and their ghosts are said to haunt the ruins.

Shropshire is truly a bloodstained place. If we take a brief look at our history, we can see a land marred by conflict.

From the battle of Maserfield in 641 (which resulted in the death of Oswald of Northumbria, who would later be sanctified as St Oswald) to the Battle of Shrewsbury and the cruelty of the Civil war, warfare has left its scars on the county. You just have to know where to look.

Certainly, warfare has shaped Shropshire into the place we know today. As both a Shropshire Lass and a history teacher, it often surprises me how underrepresented Shropshire’s place in history is, as its importance as a county is demonstrated by its often-prominent place in British History.

Through the development of the Earldom of Shrewsbury after the Norman conquest, Shropshire became a centre of power and control, key to maintaining peace in the area known as the Welsh Marches. The power of the Marcher lords was in some respects independent to the king, fundamental in supressing the Welsh threat, and thus indicative to the safety of the country as a whole.

Being geographically so close to Wales, it was prone to invasion and for much of its history was a frontier society, the evidence of which still litters the countryside in its castles, once great assertions of power, now a shadow of their former glory. Shropshire’s history is one of warfare, bloodshed and understandably, the memories of such still stain the land.  

Indeed, if we turn to the folklore of the county, there is a wealth of paranormal phenomena concerning phantom armies, soldiers and souls lost to the battlefield. Such spirits exist for a reason, and I believe they can provide us with an intimate insight into the history of the county.

They serve as conduits for the loss and trauma and provide us a window into the uncertainty which characterised such periods of violence. By exploring these ghosts and their stories, we can gain greater insight into the past, and also remember the human cost of warfare. I want to focus on one haunting in particular today, the spirits that haunt Hopton Castle, who serve as a reminder to an awful period of its history.  

Hopton castle may have its origins in the 12th century and was originally a motte and bailey, with the stone keep coming sometime later. It sits in the village of Hopton, which is halfway between Knighton and Craven Arms.

It has a rich and interesting history which is worthy of exploration in its own right, even appearing on a Time Team episode in 2010. Throughout the medieval period the castle belonged to various Shropshire families, including the Hopton’s and Corbet’s before passing into the hands of Robert Wallop, an English politician and parliamentarian who was one of the regicides of King Charles I.

This is important, as it is the English Civil war we are to turn to for the remainder of this article, as our haunting has its origins here.  

The English Civil war was a period of great unrest and social change, ripping through the nation and affecting everything that came in its path. Shropshire played a prominent role in the conflict from the earliest days of the war.

Predominantly Royalist from the start of the war, of the county’s twelve members of the Long parliament called in 1640, eight fought on the Royalist side and only four for Parliament.

Control of the area proved important to the king, as it was the gateway to predominantly Royalist Wales, and to areas beyond, such as the North West and port links to Ireland.

A week after raising his standard, Charles I was in Shropshire, inspecting his troops below the Wrekin, and marching to Shrewsbury, where he established his army further, meeting with his sons and other nobles. Our ghost dates from 1644, when the civil war would come to Hopton Castle.

History states that on 13th of March 1644, Hopton Castle was captured by the Royalists after a long siege. The Parliamentary commander who was held up in the castle didn’t surrender until the last moments of the final assault.

It was an awful, sustained siege which would have been difficult to have been part of. Here history and folklore diverge, to create a David and Goliath style narrative, suggesting 31 brave Parliamentarians held the castle for 3 weeks against a Royalist force of 500, before Colonel Samuel More surrendered, unable to defeat the onslaught.  

The Royalist commander Sir Michael Woodhouse was known for his cruelty and spared no mercy to the Parliamentarians. He ordered his men to bind the soldiers and shoot them whilst they were on their knees. This act denied the surrender turns that the Parliamentary side believed to be in place, which stipulated that the garrison’s lives would be sparred.

As for Colonel Samuel More, folklore suggests that he was clapped in irons and taken to Ludlow to await his trial. The war itself continued with the siege a footnote in its history, weaving its way across the Shropshire landscape, to Lilleshall Abbey, Tong Castle, Appley House, and battlefield’s beyond the county’s borders.

In many ways the story of Hopton castle is atypical to Shropshire’s involvement in the Civil war, with its sympathies lying with the Parliamentarians, which perhaps suggests that it is never as simple as what is first perceived.  

The 31 murdered garrison do not rest easy. Disembodied cries and shouts have been heard throughout the site, as well as sounds of distant cannons or musket shots. People have reported general feelings of sadness and confusion or nausea when wandering the grounds, and singular apparitions of Civil war era soldiers have been seen.

Furthermore, there have been a number of reports of a group of 31 soldiers, still dressed in 17th Century attire, marching from the castle slowly, to their sad fate. Curiously these apparitions disappear as they walk, until only their heads remain floating in the air. Its sad to think they have to enact their final moments. 
Though we do not know these soldiers names, or who they were before death, I believe this is an important apparition. The ghosts of the 31 soldiers demonstrate the complexity and brutality of warfare.

Though I am no civil war expert, the period can be characterised as a confusing and tumultuous one for those who lived to witness it. The Hopton castle story allows the civil war to play out in a microcosm, helping us understand a period where Englishmen killed Englishmen (just as they’d done at the Battle of Shrewsbury two centuries earlier) to tell such a story as this is to try and understand a world where your political affiliations dictated your future, and you could never really know who to trust.

This provides us with a window to the past, and those 31 unfortunate souls become representative of the conflict as a whole, and I believe deserve our sympathy.

If you ever visit Hopton Castle, keep an eye out for them, but also bear in mind the gravitas of the history which once played out where you stood. The past is never that far away really, and ghost stories such as this help demonstrate this.  

Cover Photo: Wessex Archaeology (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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