During the dark ages the Anglo-Saxon settlements appeared to have been taken over rather than destroyed by the Danish invaders. Ashby was situated in the sparsely populated lands between Anglo-Saxon Wessex and the territories held by the Danes to the North East. By the time of the Norman Conquest this part of the North Midlands had regular changes of overlord as the Anglo-Saxons and the Norsemen alternated occupation. The Danes however left us with the suffix -by.
After the conquest William the Conqueror granted the manor of Ashby, along with about 70 others, to a Norman knight Hugh de Grantmesnil. Listed in the Domesday Book (1086) Ashby was a small hamlet clustered round the Church Streets and Wood Street. Further tiny local hamlets included Kilwardby, Littlethorpe and Woodcote all within half a mile. The Domesday Book also records a priest so a church might be assumed to have existed. Both the church and the manor house would probably have been wooden structures.
In 1160 the manor passed by marriage to the Zouch family who were originally from Brittany. It is the Zouch family we have to thank for the market and Market Street, annual fairs, the gradual enhancement of the manor house and the town's distinctive name. In 1219 Roger la Zouch applied for and was granted a weekly market and an annual fair. It is reasonable to argue that the property divisions between Market Street and North and South Streets were laid down around the middle of the 13th century.
The Zouch family were responsible for this planned town surrounding Market Street and the subsequent prosperity of Ashby as a successful trading centre. Within the manor house the Zouch family are credited with first rebuilding the hall and adding a buttery and later erecting the solar and the kitchen tower. The last of the Zouch family died in 1399 and the manor eventually passed to James Butler, the Earl of Ormond, who lost his life at the battle of Towton in the wars of the Roses.
The manor then reverted to the king who granted it to William Hastings in friendship and for services rendered. William was both powerful and wealthy. He substantially remodelled the kitchen tower, built the chapel and accommodation within the inner courtyard and built and fortified the Great Tower that we can see today. The manor house had changed to become a stronghold. In addition Hastings rebuilt St Helens Church and was also given permission to enclose land and woodland to form three parks.
After the death of Edward the 4th Hastings became an early victim of Gloucester's ruthless campaign to become Richard the 3rd . He was arrested on a trumped up charge and beheaded in 1483.
William's son George inherited the title, avenged his father at Bosworth Field and returned to Ashby. The next Lord Hastings became a favourite of Henry the 8th and was created Earl of Huntingdon. Francis, the 2nd Earl, succeeded his father in 1544 and proved to be both a courtier and a diplomat. He survived the period of religious uncertainty occasioned by the Protestant Edward the 6th and the Catholic Mary in spite of a period of imprisonment in the Tower of London. After Francis his son Henry, known as the Puritan Earl, encouraged the promotion of Puritan values and invited Protestant divines to the town.
The following three Earls of Huntingdon alternately restored the family fortunes only to be bankrupted by the next. This pattern continued until the 19th century.
From 1569 to 1643 the castle was visited four times by monarchs: Mary in custody, James the 1st in splendour, Charles the 1st in 1634, and Charles again on the run after the battle of Naseby.
Ferdinando the 6th Earl removed himself to the recently acquired Donington Park and remained neutral during the Civil War. His lack of activity was more than counterbalanced by the activities of his second son Henry who turned the castle into a Royalist stronghold. After taking part in the battle of Edgehill Henry became a thorn in the parliamentary flesh, attacking convoys and enjoying minor skirmishes. For his support of the Monarch he was created Lord Loughborough and continued his pillaging. His activities were aggravated by his hatred of Thomas Grey of Bradgate, the leading Parliamentarian of Leicestershire.
Eventually the King's cause became hopeless. Ashby castle was placed under siege for more than a year and forced to surrender . Henry was allowed the freedom to go abroad and the castle was made uninhabitable by blowing up parts of each building leaving the ruin as we see it today.
The town's prosperity was at a very low ebb. Not only had the noble family gone to Donington but it has suffered the privations and stress of 7 years of civil war. The golden extravagance of 1590 to 1635 was never to return. The town throughout the 1700s became more successful gaining a reputation for horse and wool sales, its leather tanning, shoe & glove making and its cloth making and dying industries
A period of speculation and investment occurred in the early 1800s brought about substantial rebuilding.
Many buildings in Market Street were re-fronted in the Georgian style - sometimes hiding timber framed structures still visible behind.
In the 1820s money was raised by public subscription to build a spa.
The Baths were completed in 1823 and, although never competing with Harrogate or Buxton, lingered on until about 1900, finally being demolished in 1962. However, this venture coinciding as it did with the publication of Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, left a considerable legacy to the town not least the grounds in which the Baths stood. Many large buildings and terraces were built to house, the albeit temporary, influx of visitors coming to take the waters and to see Ivanhoe's tournament field.