Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

Plate 1.40: Melbourne Castle

Plate: View of Melbourne Castle engraved by George Vertue (1684-1756) after his own drawing, which was based on a drawing made in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. The original drawing was produced for a survey conducted by Ambrose Cave (c. 1503-1568), the Chancellor of the Duchy, of the properties of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1561. Plate 1.40 is part of a series that also includes Plates 1.39, 1.41, 1.42, 1.44, 1.46, 2.11, and 2.13.

Object: The plate shows Melbourne Castle, as it was drawn for Ambrose Cave’s 1561 survey of the properties of the Duchy of Lancaster. The two-storied wall that encompasses Melbourne Castle includes a forward-projecting entrance with a doorway. The tall castle is dominated by a great number of round, square, and polygonal towers, turrets, chimneys, and projecting balconies. The roofline of the buildings inside the castle walls is also visible, as is the cupola that marks the position of the great hall. The town of Melbourne with its church is shown in the background to the right of the castle.

Today, the only above-ground remains of Melbourne Castle are a piece of a wall and the foundations of a turret, located on a site called “Castle Farm,” which lies at the east end of the town of Melbourne on the south-eastern border of Derbyshire. The castle was preceded by a series of manor houses that date back to the first half of the eleventh century. Building began at Melbourne Castle in 1311 when Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, whose estate also included Tutbury and various other castles, granted his supporter, Sir Robert de Holland, a license to crenellate the older manor house. As part of the duchy of Lancaster, the castle was transformed into a palatial residence over the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It became the property of the Earl of Huntingdon in 1604 and was demolished for building materials in the 1630s.


MELBORN CASTLE in the County of DERBY. / Formerly a Royal Mansion, now in Ruins; where JOHN Duke of BOURBON taken Prisoner by K: Henry in the Battle of AGINCOURT (An.o 1414.) was kept Nineteen Years in Custody of Nicholas Montgomery the Younger; he was released by K: Henry This draught is made from a Survey now in the Dutchy Office of Lancaster taken in the Reign of Q: Elizabeth. / Sumptibus. Soc: Ant: Lond: 1733.

Preparatory Drawings: Click here to see the Preparatory Drawings for Plate 1.40.

Commentary by Katharina Boehm: When George Vertue started work on the duchy castles series, he began with the prints of Melbourne Castle and Tutbury Castle (Plate 1.39). Although Melbourne Castle was historically less significant than many other castles in the series, its close association with Tutbury Castle, situated just twelve miles west of Melbourne, made these two castles a natural pairing to open the series.

Melbourne appears to have been an exceptionally imposing palatial residence during its brief heyday. Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, licensed the crenellation of a manor house on the site of the later Melbourne Castle in 1311; he turned the manor house into a castle in 1313-14 in order to guard the eastern approach to Tutbury as well as the eastern part of his land holdings (Hislop et al 2011, 96). In the fifteenth century, Melbourne served for many years as prison for the Duke of Bourbon, who had been captured by Henry V at the battle of Agincourt. The history of Melbourne Castle was not often discussed in seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century chronicles and chorographies. In the rare cases in which the castle was mentioned, for instance in Edmund Gibson’s second edition of Camden’s Britannia (1722) or in Robert Morden’s The New Description and State of England (1701), it served as little more than a backdrop to accounts of the Duke’s confinement.

In the second half of the sixteenth century, Ambrose Cave’s survey of the duchy castles reached the conclusion that Melbourne was in a poor state and should not be retained. The castle was briefly considered as a potential place of confinement for Mary Queen of Scots, but she was never moved there. In the late sixteenth century, the administration of the Melbourne estates was largely managed through Tutbury (Hislop et al 2011, 107). By 1597, Melbourne was used as a cattle pound (Stroud 2002, 9) and Gibson’s edition of Camden’s Britannia notes that by 1607 the castle was “decaying apace” (1722, 1.587). What remained of the ruin of the castle was demolished and taken away as building material in the 1630s (Emery 2000, 422).

The preparatory drawing for the engraving of Melbourne Castle, based on the Elizabethan original, was the first piece of work related to the series that Vertue finished. His exhibition of this drawing at a meeting of the SAL on 18 May 1732 was evidently a success, because he was afterwards “desired to proceed in drawing of the rest for the Society” (SAL Minutes I.293). Vertue brought a proof of the plate to the meeting on 12 April 1733 (II.17) and delivered prints of the castles of Tutbury and Melbourne to members on 14 June 1733 (II.21).

Of the whole duchy castles series, Vertue’s print of Melbourne Castle introduced the fewest alterations to the original drawing, which measures 42 x 86cm and is today held by The National Archives (TNA MPC 1/95). Perhaps, this was due to the fact that Vertue was only just beginning the series and was still developing an approach to adapting his sixteenth-century source material. The castle plates on which he subsequently worked differ from the original drawings both in their incorporation of picturesque elements—such as pastures with grazing sheep or cows, shrubbery and winding paths—and in their featuring of staffage figures, some of which are fairly conventional while others are drawn as traveling, modern-day antiquaries who inspect the castles (cf. Plate 1.41 and 1.46). By contrast, Vertue’s print of Melbourne Castle makes no attempt to embed the castle in a picturesque landscape and offers no proxy figures that would facilitate the viewer’s imaginative self-insertion into the print.

While the other plates picture the castles at a distance, usually inserting an attractive path leading to them, this plate follows the Elizabethan drawing in bringing the castle up to the front of the picture. Vertue’s engraving also reproduces the minimal attention given to perspective by the creator of the original drawing: the multitude of turrets, chimneys, polygonal towers, and the majestic cupola, which most likely marks the location of the Great Hall (Emery 2000, 423), all appear to be stacked onto one another and seemingly inhabit the same plane. The result is a perplexing effect: the positioning of the castle in the foreground of the plate generates a sense of spatial proximity between viewer and castle, but the handling of perspective must have reminded Vertue’s immediate audience of the distance between the sixteenth-century origin of the drawings and the aesthetic conventions of their own present. Vertue’s later prints for the duchy castles series, with their attention to picturesque detail, go some way to soften this clash between the style of the sixteenth-century original drawings and the manner in which sites of antiquarian interest were drawn by artists such as Samuel Buck and antiquaries like William Stukeley and Vertue himself in the early eighteenth century.

Works Cited:

Camden, William. 1722. Britannia, or a chorographical description of Great Britain and Ireland, together with the adjacent islands. Translated by Edmund Gibson. Vol. 1. London: Mary Matthews.

Emery, Anthony. 2000. Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales, 1300-1500: Volume 2: East Anglia, Central England and Wales. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hislop, Malcolm, Mark Kincey, and Gareth Williams. 2011. Tutbury: 'A Castle Firmly Built'. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Melborne: Perspective View of Melbourne Castle. 1561. MPC 1/95. The National Archives, Kew.

Society of Antiquaries of London. 1718-. Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.

Stroud, Gill. 2002. Extensive Urban Survey: Melbourne: Archaeological Assessment Report. Derby: Derbyshire County Council.

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