Everything you’d expect of a traditional chateau is here, but among crenellated walls, turrets and loopholes are ornate bay windows in plush apartments topped with 12-foot red-brick fireplaces.
It was the last castle in England to be licensed by the King. Henry VIII had granted Edward Stafford, the third Duke of Buckingham, the right to fortify his existing grand mansion in 1510.
Stafford has really gone to town, carving its emblem, the Stafford knot, into ornate arched doorways and huge chimneys.
His claims to greatness – and probably the throne – did not escape the king, who ordered Stafford’s execution in 1521 and then seized the mansion-turned-castle.
Although Henry only visited once (with Boleyn in 1535, months before his execution), his daughter, Mary Tudor, spent part of her childhood here.
Fast forward to today and Thornbury has just undergone a multi-million dollar makeover under new owners, UAE-based investment firm Khamas Group, who bought it in 2019.
And everything looks rather grand. “Those Victorian tiles in reception were revealed when the carpets were peeled off,” says general manager Simone Arcucci. “The woodwork has been restored. They had been added by the Victorian architect, Anthony Salvin.
Now the ceilings are dripping with chandeliers, tasteful frescoes adorn the walls, and acres of crimson and gold curtains hang in the double-height living room with its huge open fireplace. It’s a particularly atmospheric spot for canapes and evening cocktails.
Later, in the wood-panelled restaurant, history embedded in the four-foot (1.2 meter) thick castle walls is within easy reach; my table is next to a loophole. I’m sure Henry himself would have approved of the six-course feast that is brought to my table, accompanied by a flight of wines.
He would also have enjoyed royal pursuits in the field, with both falconry and archery, the longbow giving off a satisfying sound when it hits the target. More anachronistic but much more fun is ax throwing.
“I find it works best if you imagine someone you don’t like standing in front of you,” suggests my kind trainer, Simon Liu. He’s right: not only do I bury my ax deep into the tree trunk target, but I progress by throwing two axes at once.
I regain my decorum as I stroll through the picturesque, walled gardens, bordered by an ancient yew hedge, and with sections for roses and herbs. The creeper-covered walls were once topped by a wooden gallery which enabled Stafford to walk from his chambers to the ducal pew of the adjacent St Mary’s Church, thus avoiding commoners.
The church is my starting point for a visit to the small village of Thornbury which grew up around the castle, before taking the car for a Tudor wandering. An hour’s drive away is Sudeley Castle, also visited by Henry and Anne in 1535, which later became the home and burial place of Henry’s last wife, Catherine Parr.
Closer still is Berkeley Castle, which also belonged to Henry VIII. There’s plenty of Tudor trappings here, including the bedspread Elizabeth I left after leaving in anger, the wooden chest used by Sir Francis Drake on a visit to find wood for his ships, and wall hangings that may have adorned the interiors of the tent. of the Champ du Cloth d’Or, when Henry VIII met Francis I of France. Most famously, Berkeley is home to the cell where legend has it that Edward II met his grisly end with a red poker in 1327.
Back in Thornbury, life is sweeter, with afternoon tea under the minstrel’s gallery, where it’s easy to imagine the rustle of courtiers’ skirts down the stairs, the whisper of secrets shared in the stone corridors.
There is also a pampering massage to enjoy. Although there is no castle spa, there is a treatment room up a flight of stairs, which turns out to be the perfect place to relax while the therapist irons my back. It’s definitely the most atmospheric massage room I’ve been to, with its wood-panelled walls and leaded windows.
“It’s a nice place to work,” agrees the masseuse. “But you know this room is supposed to be haunted, right?”
The writer was a guest at Thornbury Castle.
Rooms at Thornbury Castle from £249 ($448) a night bed and breakfast. To book see thornburycastle.co.uk
Tickets to Sudeley Castle is £19.50 and admission to Berkeley Castle is £14.
Thornbury is a historic market town in South Gloucestershire. St Mary’s Church dates back to the 12th century and is the oldest surviving building.