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Snape Castle

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Snape Castle - early history

In about 1250 a manor house was built in Snape by Ralph FitzRanulph of Middleham. It would most probably have been a single roomed wooden structure incorporating a great hall. Ralph’s eldest daughter, Mary “the Lady of Middleham”, married Robert de Neville of Raby Castle and Snape stayed with Neville family until the late 16th century. It is possible that the original site of the manor house was across the road from the present castle, surrounded by small houses. Snape village as it is now was probably not developed until the early 15th century when the new Snape Castle was built.
The present castle (then known as Snape Hall) was built between 1426 and 1450 as a fairly plain stone manor house. The site was unpromising as it was very boggy. Oak piles 2.5 feet in length were driven into the ground to make firm foundations; these were rediscovered at the beginning of the last century when drains were being dug. The most important surviving parts of the medieval house are the Great Hall of which only the ground floor survives, and the chapel.
In 1532 John Neville (1493-1542) the 3rd Lord Latimer, married his third wife, Catherine Parr, who resided at Snape for some years. In 1536, during the Pilgrimage of Grace (the Roman Catholic revolt against Henry VIII’s suppression of the monasteries) Snape Castle was occupied for a short time by the Catholic rebels. Neville died in 1542 and in 1543 Catherine married Henry VIII.
John Neville, the 4th Lord Latimer, led an “evil and misordered life”, brawling, debauching and constantly in debt. It was his daughter, Dorothy, who married Thomas Cecil, eldest son of William Cecil of Burghley, and succeeded to Snape on the death of her father in 1577. Thomas Cecil altered and restored Snape Hall, “transforming it into a commodious and well-lighted quadrangular house, suited to the taste of the period”. He was anxious to stress the antiquity of his line and so turned what was an unfortified manor house into an Elizabethan sham castle, with crenellated battlements and a romantic Gothic exterior. Date stones of 1586 and 1587 have been located and some additional work was done in the early 1600s.
The north range behind was probably a long gallery. The south range at the front is the only one to fully survive and contained state rooms at first floor level. Evidence shows that the interior was decorated very much in the classical style in contrast to the rather romantic Gothic exterior. A dramatic feature is the four towers creating a broken skyline much favoured in the Elizabethan era. Both surviving towers had banqueting chambers at the top with large windows, which created a room for the Cecils and their guests to retire to after dinner to eat sweetmeats.

Snape Castle - 1623-1725

Snape Castle west front by Samuel Buck in about 1720

Thomas Cecil never much liked Snape and called it “this base place where I live”. He felt it was too far away from the action in the south and would have preferred to move away. He died in 1623 and Snape Hall lay dormant for over 60 years.
In 1688 John Cecil, 5th earl of Exeter, made an effort to make Snape habitable again. Furniture was moved up from Burghley House and the artist Verrio (d.1707) was commissioned to paint the chapel ceiling with a work entitled ‘Wonder and War in Heaven”. The painting had already started to deteriorate by 1725 and in the mid 19th century the chapel was used for grain storage which completed the destruction of the work which is now barely visible. The 5th earl’s two sons, William and Charles were both to reside at Snape and were responsible for improvements to the church in Well and to the estate generally. Avenues were planted, walls built around Snape deer park and possibly some remodelling work was done on the Castle. William Cecil died in 1710 and his brother fifteen years later. So in 1725 Snape reverted to the earl of Exeter but was never again lived in by the family. There were apparently some fears that the low-lying land was malarial and had contributed to the death of the two brothers.

Snape Castle - later History

Snape Hall engraved by Sparrow in 1787
Snape passed out of Cecil hands when the 9th earl of Exeter died and left it to his daughter Elizabeth’s son, Charles Chaplin. Chaplin sold the house and parts of the village to William Milbank of Thorp Perrow in 1798. The Milbanks did much to restore the house and chapel in the 19th century. In the 1920s half of Snape Castle was given into private hands and the other half remained with the Thorp Perrow estate – a truly semi-detached castle. The Ropner family bought the estate in 1927 and the east half of Snape Castle is now owned by Sir John Ropner.

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