The town's name marks the passing of an original Danish settlement into the hands of Breton noblemen in about 1160. The Norman suffix, which distinguishes Ashby from other towns of the same name, is derived from Alain de Parrhoet la Souche, who gave to Ashby his high-sounding Norman name on becoming first lord of the manor.
Ashby Castle, now no more than a splendid ruin, led a turbulent existence and is of much historic interest. Its most illustrious owner, and the one most eager to build, was William Lord Hastings, Edward IV's protege and Lord Chamberlain, who was granted the manor in 1464, obtained licence to crenellate in1473 and was beheaded by Richard III in 1483.
The castle's two surviving brick towers mark the south boundary of the castle area. Rising up in the south courtyard is Lord Hastings's remaining tower, his other buildings being on the east-side apart from the older hall range on the northern perimeter. Without doubt the most formidable of his structures is the keep or Tower House, a building as strong and self-contained as a Norman keep and no doubt considered necessary by so prominent a man in so precarious a time. Nearly 90ft tall the tower has four stories. Of the other Hastings' buildings the most impressive is the Chapel. Its frontage has a finely moulded west doorway and a square south-west turret stands-up high. To the south of the Chapel is a 16 th century garden called the Wilderness.
The masonry of the castle Hall is 12 th century, as is that of the Buttery range immediately to its west. The Hall was remodelled in the mid-14 th century while the large windows of the Buttery, its most conspicuous feature, are late 16 th century. The 14 th century Kitchen is one of the largest known being 52ft in length, 28ft wide and 34ft high. Above the Hall is the Solar, a small sunny room with a Tudor window through which Mary, Queen of Scots would have gazed. She was being taken from Tutbury to Coventry in 1569.
The Hastings' became Earls of Huntingdon and George Hastings, first Earl of Huntingdon (grandson of Shakespeare's Lord Hastings), took part in the trials of Anne Boleyn and Sir Thomas Moore. His successor, Francis Hastings, was in high favour with Edward VI (1547-53). Both George and Francis are made more real to us, than others of their line, by virtue of their likeness being there in the Church of St Helen for all to see, garbed in the habit of their day.
Charles I, with his queen Henrietta Maria, was entertained at Ashby Castle in 1634 when the quarrel between King and Commonwealth was simmering beneath the surface. Charles came again 11 years later as a kingly guest whose kingdom was slipping from his grasp. He lingered a few days at Ashby on his way to confront Fairfax, and his destiny, at Naseby. Fleeing the field of battle with everything lost, Charles again stopped over at Ashby for a night, following in the condemned footsteps of Mary.
At this time Henry Hastings, brother of the earl, was holding the castle for his king, recognised by all as a formidable opponent throughout the duration of the Civil War (1642-49). From the castle he conducted a guerrilla war against the Parliamentarians, and when all hope of help from Charles was at an end and Ashby Castle had to be surrendered, Hastings and his men were permitted to march from the castle unmolested; an honour granted to few in this war. Part of the outworks of the town and some of the castle was then demolished, and in 1648 it was ‘slighted' and thus reduced to a harmless ruin.
The Church of St Helen is an outstanding late-15 th century structure, with additions by St Aubyn in 1878, which tend to dominate much of the exterior. The church has a beautiful setting with the castle ruins to the south and the pretty corner of brick houses in South Street, together with the Churchyard, to the north. Most of the oldest part of the church belongs to the building period of Lord Hastings, but time has changed it greatly and its antiquity resides now chiefly in its memorials. In the Hastings Chapel stands the tomb of the second Earl of Huntingdon and his wife, the finest monument in the church. Also residing in the Chapel is the sculptured head of the famous Countess of Huntingdon (Selina), wife to the ninth Earl, a convert to Methodism and a friend of John Wesley. She was the foremost woman in the religious revival of the 18 th century, died in 1791 and was brought to Ashby from London. These are the most historic monuments but there are others that command attention. The church also houses a strange and fascinating relic over 300 years old. The finger pillory was in use up to the 19 th century to punish those churchgoers foolish enough to interrupt the preaching of the sermon.
The most rewarding part of Ashby town is the Grecian or Spa quarter near Market Street. The 19 th century buildings are guarded by Gilbert Scott's tall ‘Elenor Cross'. In the broad main street there are Elizabethan half-timbered houses standing alongside bow-fronted Georgian shops. In his novel ‘Ivanhoe', Sir Walter Scott chose Ashby Castle as the setting for the tournament in which Ivanhoe and the Black Knight partake.