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Farleigh Hungerford Castle

In 1533 King Henry VIII's government introduced the 'Acte for the punishment of the vice of Buggerie'. It remained a capital offence until 1861. Less than ten years after the inception of the act, the owner of Farleigh Hungerford Castle, and a squire to the King, became the first man ever to be executed under the Buggery Act.

Portrait of Henry VIII
Henry VIII © Historic England Photo Library J010074

Rise to power

Walter Hungerford inherited Farleigh Hungerford Castle when he was 20 years old, in 1523. He became an attendant in Henry VIII's royal household and then went through a quick succession of marriages. He married his third wife, Elizabeth Hussey when he was about 29 years old in 1532. Elizabeth was the daughter of the powerful Lord Hussey, who recommended his new son-in-law to Henry VIII's up-and-coming minister, Thomas Cromwell.

Thomas Cromwell was instrumental in orchestrating Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and the resulting split from the Catholic Church. He rose through the ranks extremely quickly to become Henry's chief minister and was very influential in matters of state. He created the title 'Lord Hungerford of Heytesbury' for Walter in 1536.

Abusive husband

Walter had a dysfunctional upbringing and had been rumoured to be abusive to previous wives. Despite her father's assistance, Hungerford locked Elizabeth in a tower and starved her. A letter smuggled out to Cromwell detailed how she had had to resort to drinking her own urine to survive. 

….continually locked in one of my Lord’s towers of his castle in Hungerford as I have been these three or four years past without comfort of any creature, and under the custody of my lord’s chaplain… which has once or twice heretofore poisoned me… I have none other meat nor drink but such as cometh from the said priest…I have… drank… my own water, or else I should die for lack of sustenance.

Elizabeth Hussey

Elizabeth asked Cromwell to bring divorce proceedings against her husband and wrote: "I may sooner object such matters against him with many other detestable and urgent causes, than he can against me, if I would express them, as he well knoweth."

The south-west tower at Farleigh Hungerford Castle
The south-west tower or Lady Tower – the one in which tradition says Lady Elizabeth was held captive © Historic England Photo Library N060114

It seems Cromwell took no notice of this letter. Hungerford was in attendance at the baptism of Prince Edward (later to be King Edward VI), the funeral of Edward's mother, Jane Seymour, and the reception held for Henry's fourth wife, Anne of Cleeves (a marriage also arranged by Cromwell). By early 1540, his lands were worth over £1,000 in total.

Fall from grace

However, in June 1540 Thomas Cromwell had fallen foul of the King's increasingly unpredictable temper. Hungerford's association with Cromwell saw him unceremoniously fall from grace with the King as well.

Hungerford was charged with three specific crimes. The first was for employing a priest who had publicly denounced Henry as a heretic. The second was for witchcraft - employing another priest, a 'doctor' and a 'witch', to predict when the King would die. The third was for committing 'unnatural acts' outlawed by the Buggery Act. According to the court papers Hungerford was:

Replete with innumerable, detestable and abominable vices and wretchedness of living… and hath accustomably exercised, frequented, and used the abominable and detestable vice and sin of buggery with William Master, Thomas Smith and other of his servants.

Court papers

Buggery charges

He was the only man accused of the crime to be executed in the Tudor period. It has been suggested that this last charge was tacked on to the others to humiliate him and add more weight to the case against him.

However, it is more likely that there is some truth in the accusation. In addition to his wife's incriminating (albeit subtle) words in the letter to Cromwell, it seems that in the Tudor period, offences associated with sex were not a high priority. There are very few accounts of anyone being charged solely with the act of buggery. The attention of the law courts was on issues considered of higher importance such as treason and witchcraft.


Hungerford was beheaded next to Thomas Cromwell on Tower Hill on 28 July 1540. Both of their heads were mounted on spikes and displayed for all to see on London Bridge.

Old London Bridge by Claude de Jongh as it was in the early 1600s
'Old London Bridge' by Claude de Jongh as it was in the early 1600s. Heads can be seen on spikes to the right hand side of the image © Historic England Photo Library J910542
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