Castle Ward – A Most Extraordinary Mansion

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Castle Ward Classic Facade (Shared by Irishdeltaforce under CC BY-SA 3.0)
Castle Ward Classic Facade (Shared by Irishdeltaforce under CC BY-SA 3.0)


Overlooking the picturesque Strangford Lough is the impressive mansion known as Castle Ward. Constructed in the 1760’s the house contains a wealth of history. However, it is a residence with a fascinating tale to tell. Is Castle Ward an example of matrimonial compromise or matrimonial conflict?!

The Ward Family

This region of County Down was originally named Carrick na Sheannagh, meaning ‘rock of the foxes’.

In the 16th century the area was in the hands of the Earls of Kildare, a Welsh-Norman branch of the FitzGerald family. In 1570 the 820-acre estate was bought by Robert Ward, from Capesthorpe in Cheshire. Robert was the Surveyor-General of Ireland during the reign of Elizabeth I. He renamed it Castle Ward.

The Old Tower House
The Old Tower House

The Tower House

The Wards initially lived in a 50ft high defensive tower house near the shores of the Lough. This was built by Bernard’s son Nicholas Ward around 1590.

The three-storey tower was built of split stone rubble with sandstone dressings. The narrow windows or ‘loop-holes’ were designed for firing muskets while providing protection for the inhabitants. This, plus the murder-hole on the first floor and the machicolation (an opening for pouring stones or boiling water on attackers) at roof level, indicate a fear of attack from the native displaced population.

Tower House Entrance protected by narrow windows and the machicolation
Tower House Entrance protected by narrow windows and the machicolation

The ground floor level would usually be used for storage and as servants’ quarters. The second level was living accommodation for the Ward family and contained a large stone fireplace. The upper storey contained the bedrooms. However, when we visited, this floor was closed to protect nesting birds.

Plan of Castle Ward Tower House
Plan of Castle Ward Tower House
Tower House Interior
Tower House Interior

Judge Michael Ward

Michael Ward was born in 1683. His father was Bernard Ward and his mother Anne Ward, daughter of Richard Ward of Newcastle under Lyme.

Bernard Ward – The Duel

Unfortunately, Michael lost his father at an early age. Bernard was killed in Downpatrick in 1690 in a duel with Jocelyn Hamilton of Clanbrassil. Hamilton also suffered a fatal wound.

“They went straight outside and fought a duel by the ruins of the Old Abbey, which, from all accounts, was conducted in the most irregular fashion. The High Sheriff (Ward) mortally wounded his opponent with a pistol, and he himself was killed ‘by so brave a thrust’ by Hamilton’s sword that he was run through almost to the hilt”

Castle Ward and County Down National Trust publication.

Michael’s Career

Michael studied at Trinity College, Dublin and was called to the Irish Bar in 1703. Subsequently, he was appointed Justice of the Court of the King’s Bench, Ireland. Ward also served as MP for Down in 1713, 1715 and 1727.

His Marriage to Anne Catherine Hamilton

In 1709 Michael Ward married Anne Catherine Hamilton. Interestingly she was the first cousin of Jocelyn Hamilton, who had killed and was killed by his father.

The couple had three offspring – Bernard, Sophia and Anne. Daughter Anne married Sir John Parnell of Rathleague in 1745, and was a direct ancestor of the famous 19th century Irish politician Charles Stewart Parnell. Daughter Sophia wed Arthur Upton of Upton Castle in County Antrim.

Michael Ward undertook various innovations on the Castle Ward estate. He was responsible for the canal constructed at Temple Water which powered the water-wheel for the corn-mill.

He also established nearby Killough as a port “built a strong kay where the ships now lie very safe”. In addition, he had a road built to transport the lead mined on the estate, to the waiting ships for export.

He was active in promoting the linen trade and was a founding member of the Royal Dublin Society.

In 1720 a more substantial house was built on the estate by Judge Michael Ward and his wife Anne Hamilton. This was designed in the Queen Anne style. Unfortunately, this was demolished around 1850, though some of the landscaping remains including Temple Water.

“Two or three miles farther we came to the plantation of Castle Ward belonging to Judge Ward, situated very beautifully on the bay of Strangford; they are very fine not only in Groves and clumps of trees, but in quick fences to the road, adorned with flowering shrubs as well as rows of trees”.

Richard Pocoke Tour of Ireland in 1752
Castle Ward Classic Facade
Castle Ward Facade

A Most Unusual Castle

Michael’s son Bernard was born in 1719. His future wife was Lady Ann (Anne) Bligh, the daughter of John Bligh, 1st Earl of Darnley and Theodosia Hyde, Baroness Clifton. Ann married Bernard Ward, her second husband, in December 1747. Together they had 7 children, 4 daughters – Anna Catherine, Sophia, Amelia and Harriet. Their sons were Nicholas (1750), Edward (1753) and Robert (1754).

In the early 1760’s, Bernard had the present Castle Ward constructed at a substantial cost of £40,000.

The architect is unknown, but many historians believe it may have been James Bridges from Bristol. Whoever the architect, he certainly faced a challenge with this project!

Divided Opinions with an Extraordinary Resolution

Put simply, Bernard Ward, later 1st Viscount Bangor, and his wife could not agree on the style of their new home. The scale of the conflicting style preferences was substantial and neither could persuade the other to modify their stance.

Their differences of opinion were so great that eventually the house was built in two different and completely opposing styles. The front of the building is of a classical Palladian design favoured by Bernard. However, the side facing Strangford Lough is Georgian Gothic, reflecting Ann’s tastes.

This division of styles is carried on though the interior of the mansion!

Ground Floor Plan, Castle Ward
Ground Floor Plan, Castle Ward

This certainly gave the neighbours something to talk about

“Mr Ward is building a fine house, but the scene about is so uncommonly fine it is a pity it is not to be judiciously laid out, he wants taste, and Lady Anne is so whimsical that I doubt her judgement. If they do not do too much they can’t spoil the place, for it hath every advantage from nature that can be desired”

Mrs Delany (1700-1788) Autobiography and Correspondence
Castle Ward Classic Facade (Shared by Irishdeltaforce under CC BY-SA 3.0)
Castle Ward Classic Facade (Shared by Irishdeltaforce under CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Classical Castle

The front façade of Castle Ward, built to Bernard’s taste, is very stately and imposing.

Constructed of Portland stone, it has a central doorway flanked by arched windows. The rest of the elegant counter-paned windows on the three storeys are rectangular or square. Columns support a triangular pediment at upper roof level which bears the Ward coat of arms.

The interior of Bernard’s side of the house again reflects classical splendour with mahogany furnishings, marble fittings and cut-glass chandeliers. The large entrance hall also served as a music room. It was completed in 1766 although the chimneypiece was added later. The four Roman columns are of Venetian plaster and the Chinese and Japanese ceramics date from 1700.

Entrance, Castle Ward
Entrance Hall, Castle Ward

Portraits of the Ward family decorate the walls. The landscape painting above the fireplace, depicts Castle Ward and is the work of Irish artist Jonathan Fisher.

The magnificent crystal chandelier is one of a pair, its twin hangs in the Temple of the Winds at the neighbouring Mount Stewart stately home. The chairs bear the Bangor family’s arms.

Castle Ward Dining Room
Castle Ward Dining Room

The library and the dining room are again representative of Bernard’s likes. The crockery and silverware bear the Bangor insignia.

A ‘hidden’ door in the 18th century wooden panelling was for the servants to enter and leave as unobtrusively as possible. A carved panel in the dining room represents the Greek goddess Demeter, protector of harvests and agriculture. Indeed, dinner parties at the Ward’s seem to have been bounteous.

“There was an excellent dinner, stewed trout at the head, chine of beef at the foot, soup in the middle, a little pie at each side and four trifling things in the corners…..The second course of nine dishes was made out much in the same way”

Guest Sir James Caldwell in 1772
Castle Ward Hidden Door
Castle Ward Hidden Door

The library is partially lined with carved and figured mahogany bookcases with a metal mesh effect. The shelves contain around 2,000 books dating from the 16th to 19th centuries.

Castle Ward Library
Castle Ward Library

The stone staircase to the upper levels was decorated with a frieze of Vitruvian scroll ornaments and intricate cast iron balusters. Over the doorway are seven oval portraits of Elizabeth, 1st Viscountess Mordaunt and 6 of her children. Elizabeth’s granddaughter was Anne Hamilton who married Michael Ward.

Lady Ann’s Gothic Alternative

There can be no doubt when the visitor crosses to Lady Ann’s half of the house!

Castle Ward Gothic View
Castle Ward Gothic View

Gothic drama is evident in the pointed window and door frames, the elaborate plaster-work ceilings, stained glass and exotic bird wallpaper.

Castle Ward Gothic Interior (© Copyright Suzanne Mischyshyn and licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 2.0)
Castle Ward Gothic Interior (© Copyright Suzanne Mischyshyn and licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Ann’s private boudoir has a certain Moroccan feel to it with fan-vaulted plasterwork ceiling. However, not everyone warmed to the décor. The distinguished poet John Betjeman described the ceiling “like sitting under a cow’s udder”.

The Gothic Saloon with Arched Doorways, Castle Ward
The Gothic Saloon with Arched Doorways, Castle Ward

The ballroom or Saloon as it was known, is distinctly Gothic, pointed windows with panels of 17th century Flemish glass, Louis XV pink sofas, gilt torchères (lamps) and large glittering mirrors to reflect the candlelight. The room is also adorned with bronze figures of Mercury and Victory and a Chinoiserie lacquered longcase clock dated 1760.

Castle Ward, Gothic Window View
Castle Ward, Gothic Window View

A large red tortoise-shell, mirrored cabinet dominates one side of the Saloon. With many delicate drawers and openings, it housed the family’s collection of trinkets, oddities and natural artefacts. It is called the ‘Cabinet of Curiosity’.

Ann had English royal ancestry and this is reflected in the ceiling of the Morning Room which is copied from the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster. Here the 19th century bookcases are made of yew. The landscape over the mantlepiece was completed by the artist William Ashford in 1785.

Boxing Squirrels and the Serving Bear
Boxing Squirrels and the Serving Bear

Some of the furnishings seem rather odd to modern tastes, for example, the large stuffed bear ‘waiting on table’. The bear was said to have been shot by a Mr Kennedy in 1880 in Russia. He offered the poor creature to the 5th Lord Bangor in exchange for his daughter’s hand in marriage. The pair did wed (possibility an interesting story in itself!).

Also, on display are the boxing squirrels, minus their tails!

Boxing Squirrels, Castle Ward
Boxing Squirrels, Castle Ward

The exterior of the Gothic side of the house is intricate and decadently decorated with pinnacles or spires. Finials at each corner and ornamental battlements at roof level add to the ‘castle’ feel. The 21 large pointed windows emphasise the Gothic theme of height and verticality.

Gothic Splendour, Castle Ward
Gothic Splendour, Castle Ward

Despite their substantial family of 7 children, and perhaps foreshadowed by their divided home, it seems that Bernard and Ann were not really compatible. Not long after Castle Ward was completed, the couple separated. Ann went to Dublin and later to live in London. She died in Bath in 1798.

The Romance with Letitia Bushe

As a young woman in 1739, Ann had met Letitia Bushe. ‘Letty’ was a “gentlewoman, but of modest means”. The pair had an intense romance that lasted around six years. In one of her letters Miss Bushe writes “two whole years of thoughts, tenderness, stuff and nonsense”.

However, Ann’s frequent long visits to her family in England placed a strain on the relationship.

Letitia explained “You make some of the sweetest moments of my life in reflection, and were it not for bitter absence I think you would do so in reality”.

We do not know the content of Ann’s replies because on one of her last visits to Letty she removed and destroyed the letters she had written to friend.

After Bernard’s Death

Bernard Ward died in Castle Ward aged 61 on 20th April 1781.

The estate was inherited by his eldest son, Nicholas. Unfortunately, this young man was said to suffer from a number of mental problems. In 1785 Nicholas was declared a ‘lunatic’. Nicholas was moved from the castle to a smaller property in Downpatrick.

It was thought that a history of what was deemed ‘a hereditary malady’ ran through Ann’s family. Her grandfather shocked society with his gender non-conformity and Ann herself was considered as having “a shade of derangement in her intellects”.

Lord Darnley, Ann’s brother, eschewed all romantic or intimate relationships, as he believed he was a teapot and it might damage his ‘spout’.

When Nicholas died (unmarried) in September 1827, Castle Ward was passed to his nephew Edward Southwell, son of his deceased younger brother Edward Ward.

Castle Ward Bedroom
Castle Ward Bedroom

The Ward family continued to reside in the castle for more than 100 years. Evidence of their lifestyle can be seen in their living rooms and sumptuous bedrooms.

However, on the death of the 6th Viscount Bangor in 1950, Castle Ward and estate were given to the Northern Ireland government in lieu of death duties. Castle Ward is now owned and maintained by the National Trust.

Castle Ward Garden Views
Castle Ward Garden Views

The Castle Ward Grounds

Castle Ward is surrounded by over 800 acres of landscaped grounds. This includes a four-tier sunken garden, lawns and Victorian-style flowerbeds. Much of the ornamental planting was the work of Mrs Anne Ward (wife of Michael).

“Time no less than the damp mild climate has favoured the growth of the giant oaks and beeches, the rarer foreign plants, and the exotic palm. The various shrubs, azaleas and rhododendrons, and the open glades carpeted with daffodils and bluebells are at their loveliest in the spring”

Castle Ward and County Down National Trust publication
View over the walls from Castle Ward Grounds
View from the walls, Castle Ward Grounds

Within the demesne are clearly marked trails for walkers, cyclists and horse-riders. These vary from the 2km Shore Trail to the 13km Boundary Trail. There are also nature walks leading to the shores of Strangford Lough and play areas for children.

“The mansion is beautifully situated in the midst of a lovely park, and commanding very fine views of the lough and the hills beyond. In the grounds there is a fine avenue of yew trees”

Robert M Young Belfast and the Province of Ulster in the 20th Century 1909
Exploring the Grounds at Castle Ward
Exploring the Grounds at Castle Ward

Buildings within the grounds include a Victorian laundry complete with a range of tubs and a copper boiler, stables and courtyard (now converted to a restaurant and gift shop), a saw mill and a working corn-mill as well as various outbuildings.

Exterior Relaxation in Castle Ward Courtyard
Exterior Relaxation in Castle Ward Courtyard

There is also a summer house known as Temple Water. This is composed of brick with Bath dressings. The man-made canal here was constructed by Judge Ward in 1728. As well as providing a lovely outdoor decoration, it covers two hectares of land and provides power for the mills. The canal has been described as the “largest ornamental feature to survive in Ireland from the early eighteenth century” (National Trust website).

The farmyard area has recently taken on a new significance for fans of the television series Game of Thrones. This was used as the location for Winterfell, home of the House of Stark.

Filming Game of Thrones at Castle Ward
Filming Game of Thrones at Castle Ward

In Conclusion

This is only a brief history of the early Ward family in County Down.

There are lots more stories to discover. The house described as “the strangest stately home you are likely to come across in Ireland” (Susan Byron, Irelands Hidden Gems), is packed full of interesting and historic items. The gardens themselves are well worth a visit. You can then decide whose side you favour, Bernard’s or Lady Ann’s ?

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