Berkhamsted Castle

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Berkhamsted Castle


Berkhamsted Castle Jan 2007.jpg
Exterior walls, seen across the moat
Type: Motte and bailey
Grid reference: SP996083
Location: 51°45’48"N, 0°33’29"W
Town: Berkhamsted
Built 1066
Condition: ruined
Owned by: Duchy of Cornwall
(in the care of English Heritage)

Berkhamsted Castle is a Norman motte-and-bailey castle at Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire. The castle was built during the Norman conquest of England in the 11th century to control a key route between London and the Midlands.

The castle triggered the birth of the town of Berkhamsted, which grew up alongside it (some historians believe that the Berkhamsted of earlier chronicles may have been today's Northchurch).

The castle was built by Robert of Mortain, William the Conqueror's half brother, and latter became a royal castle and residence. Subsequent kings granted the castle to their chancellors and it was substantially extended in the mid-12th century, probably by Thomas Becket.

The castle was built slightly away from the main road, to give additional space for the earthworks involved, and was positioned as to benefit from natural springs running down from under the hill. It was built in a motte and bailey design, with a 40-foot high motte, and a bailey around 500 feet by 300 feet, enclosing 0.6 acres. A double bank and ditch ran around the whole castle, with both sets of ditches filled with water.[1] In total, the wider earthworks occupy around 11.0 acres (4.5 ha).[2] A fossarius - a specialised ditch digger - was recorded as being employed maintained at the castle in 1086.[3]


1066 to 1155

At Berkhamsted in 1066, the child king Edgar II surrendered to William the Conqueror; as yet there was no castle here, but the position of the town in the gap in the Chilterns was underlined. Chroniclers suggest that Edgar, his court and the Archbishop of York surrendered to William in Berkhamsted, and William probably ordered the construction of the castle before proceeding south into London.[4]

Robert of Mortain was probably responsible for the construction and became the subsequent owner of the fortification; it is recorded as his in the Domesday Book of 1086.[5] A motte and bailey design, the castle was surrounded by extensive protective earthworks and a deer park for hunting

A large deer park, owned by the Crown, was established around the castle to provide hunting grounds.[6] The castle was carefully positioned next to the park, which was overlooked by the motte.[7] A vineyard was also maintained alongside the castle.[8] A new settlement, the future Berkhamsted, grew up near the castle and several mills, essential for grinding flour, were present there in 1086.[9]

Robert's son, William, rebelled against Henry I and the castle was confiscated.[10] Henry granted Berkhamsted to his Chancellor, Ranulf.[11] In 1123, however, when Ranulf was travelling to the castle with Henry, the chancellor rode over the nearby hill, became overly excited at the view ahead of him and fell off his horse, dying from his injuries.[12]

1155 to 1216

The castle was subsequently given by Henry II to Thomas Becket when he became chancellor in 1155.[13] Becket extended the castle to accommodate his large household, but fell from favour in 1164 and the castle was confiscated by the king.[14]

Henry II liked Berkhamsted and subsequently used it extensively himself.[15] By mid-12th century, the castle had been rebuilt in stone, probably by Becket, with a shell keep and an outer stone wall; the bailey was divided in two by a wall to form an inner and an outer bailey.[16] A gatehouse led down into the town, meeting with Castle Street.[17]

Henry II also officially recognised the surrounding settlement of Berkhamsted as a town in 1156.

The First Barons' War, 1216 to 1217

The castle was besieged in 1216 during the First Barons' War; the civil war between King John and rebel barons, backed by France. It was successfully taken after Prince Louis, the future Louis VIII of France, attacked it with siege engines for twenty days, leading the garrison to surrender. It was reclaimed by royal forces the subsequent year and passed to Richard Earl of Cornwall, beginning a long associate with the earldom and the later duchy of Cornwall.

Under King John the castle was part of the lands forming the jointure of his second wife Isabella of Angoulême.[15] John entrusted the castle to Geoffrey Fitz Peter in 1206, who rebuilt much of the town.[18] Geoffrey died in 1213 and the castle passed to his son, John Fitzgeoffrey.[15]

In early 1215, as rebellion brewed, King John installed a trusted German mercenary called Ranulph in charge of Berkhamsted Castle and reviewed the defensive arrangements there that April.[19] The First Barons' War broke out later that year and in May 1216 Prince Louis of France (later Louis VIII) crossed the English Channel and joined the rebel cause, bringing with him heavy siege equipment.[20]

King John died in October, and in December Louis besieged Berkhamsted Castle. The prince deployed his siege engines, probably trebuchets, and attacked the castle repeatedly for twenty days, throwing what chroniclers termed innumerable "damnable stones" at the defenders.[21] During the 13th century, earthworks were built around the outside of the walls, which may have been the firing platforms for these trebuchets.[22] After a stout defence, the garrison was forced to surrender and honoured by being permitted their weapons and armour.[23] When the forces loyal to the young King Henry III defeated the rebels the following year, the castle was returned to royal hands.[15]

1217 to 1461

Castle motte

Henry III's brother, Richard Earl of Cornwall received the castle and redeveloped it as a palatial residence and the centre of his administration of the Earldom of Cornwall. Berkhamsted was Richard's favourite castle, partially because it was conveniently close to London.[24] Richard had an impressive, three-storey tower built onto the property in 1254, and restored much of the rest of the castle; the chroniclers of nearby Dunstable complained that his building works required so many carts to carry the timber that local trade in other goods was badly effected.[25] The castle was used for the central administration of the earldom and Richard's nine stewards would submit their annual financial reports there.[26] Meanwhile, the town of Berkhamsted itself became rich as a result of the growing wool trade.[27] Richard died at the castle in 1272, and it passed to his son Edmund.[15]

Edward III further developed the castle in the 14th century and gave it to his son, Edward, the Black Prince who extended the hunting grounds. It was used to hold royal prisoners, including John II of France and rival claimants to the English throne.

The castle passed on through Edward I]], who found the castle in an apparently poor condition, and his second wife, Margaret, to Edward II.[28] Edward II gave it to his royal favourite, Piers Gaveston]], whom he made Earl of Cornwall.[15] Gaveston was married there in 1307, with Edward in attendance.[29] A general rebellion arose against Edward II and Gaveston in 1327 and both were slain. John, Edward's second son, took possession as the new Earl of Cornwall.[2]

When John died, Edward III reclaimed Berkhamsted Castle; a survey showed it to be in need of substantial repairs.[2] Edward had not yet improved Windsor Castle, so used Berkhamsted as his main property, investing considerable sums in renovating it.[15] His son, Edward, the Black Prince, was created Duke of Cornwall and also made extensive use of the castle, which formed part of the new Duchy of Cornwall.[18] The Black Prince took advantage of the aftermath of the Black Death to extend the castle's park by 65 acres, including some woodland pasture stretching over the Chilterns, eventually producing a park covering 991 acres.[30]

The castle was used to hold John II of France after he was taken prisoner at the Battle of Poitiers.[15] When the Black Prince fell ill following his campaigning in France, he retired to Berkhamsted and died there in 1376.[31]

Richard II inherited Berkamsted Castle in 1377; initially the use of it was given to his favourite, Robert de Vere and, after de Vere's fall from power and exile in 1388, to John Holland.[32]

Henry IV lived in the castle after he deposed Richard in 1400, and he used the property to detain rival applicants to the throne.[33] During this period Geoffrey Chaucer, later famous for his Canterbury Tales, oversaw renovation work on the castle in his role as a clerk.[34] Both Henry V and Henry VI owned the castle, the latter making use of it until he was overthrown in 1461.[35]

From 1461

In the late-15th century, Berkhamsted Castle became increasingly unfashionable and was left to fall into decline. By the middle of the 16th century it was described as being in ruins and was unsuitable for royal use. Stone was taken from the castle to build neighbouring houses and parts of the town. The castle narrowly escaped destruction during the construction of the London and Birmingham Railway in the 1830s, becoming the first building in Britain to receive statutory protection from Parliament.

In 1930 the management of the castle was passed to the Board of Works and in the 21st century is run as a tourist attraction by English Heritage.

1462 to 1900

From the motte to the inner bailey

Berkhamsted was confiscated by Edward IV when he came to power during Wars of the Roses.[35] In the late 15th century, the castle was occupied by his mother, Cecily Nevill, the Duchess of York.[33] By now the castle had become increasingly unfashionable, however, and was abandoned after her death in 1495.[17] By the time that antiquarian John Leland visited in the mid-16th century, it was in "much ruine" and was unsuitable for royal use.[36]

In 1580, the estate, including the ruins and the park, was leased from Elizabeth I by Sir Edward Carey, for the nominal rent of one red rose each year.[37] Stone from the castle was used to build Berkhamsted Place, a local school and other buildings in the late 16th century.[38] The castle's park, which had reached 1,252 acres in size by 1627, was broken up in the next two decades, shrinking to only 376 acres.[39]

The Civil War of the 1640s largely passed Berkhamsted by, with the castle apparently playing no part in the conflict.[40]

In 1761 the wider estate and the castle were separated, the former being leased to the Duke of Bridgewater while the latter remained in the direct control of the Duchy of Cornwall.[41] In 1863, the surrounding estates and park were sold off altogether by the duchy to Earl Brownlow; Brownlow also agreed to rent the castle from the duchy for a nominal rent.[42]

19th to 21st centuries

In the 1830s, plans were drawn up to build the new London and Birmingham Railway.[43] From an engineering perspective, the ideal route for the railway ran through the site of the castle, but concerns over the need to protect ancient monuments and buildings had been growing for several years, and the local Bridgwater estate were also keen to protect the local view from their buildings.[44] The castle was ultimately specifically protected in the 1833 Act that sanctioned the railway, forcing the track to take a route across the valley floor. Berkhamsted was the first building in Britain to receive statutory protection from development in this way.[43] Nonetheless, the route still required the track to pass through the outer fortifications of the castle, a major engineering operation which was carried out in 1834, destroying the castle gatehouse in the process.[45]

Ruins of the external walls, keeper's house, castle motte in background

The Office of Works assumed the care of Berkhamsted Castle from the Duchy of Cornwall in 1930.[46] The inner ditch was subsequently drained of water in the 1950s.

In the 21st century it is operated as a tourist attraction by English Heritage, and historian Isobel Thompson considers it "one of the best surviving motte and bailey castles" in England.[17] The castle is protected by law as an ancient monument.[47]

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Berkhamsted Castle)


  1. Armitage 1912, p. 105; Brown 1989, p. 52; Pettifer 1995, p. 105; Mackenzie 1896, p. 130
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Mackenzie 1896, p. 130
  3. Williamson 2010, p. 218
  4. Pounds 1994, pp. 6–7; Thompson, Isobel (2005). "Extensive Urban Survey - Hertfordshire". English Heritage and Hertfordshire County Council. p. 6. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  5. Armitage 1912, p. 105; Brown 1989, p. 52; Pettifer 1995, p. 104
  6. Rowe 2007, p. 132; Thompson, Isobel (2005). "Extensive Urban Survey - Hertfordshire". English Heritage and Hertfordshire County Council. p. 6. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  7. Liddiard 2005, pp. 111–112
  8. Williamson 2010, p. 219
  9. Thompson, Isobel (2005). "Extensive Urban Survey - Hertfordshire". English Heritage and Hertfordshire County Council. pp. 6, 12. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  10. Pettifer 1995, p. 104
  11. Mackenzie 1896, pp. 127–128
  12. Liddiard 2005, p. 111; Mackenzie 1896, p. 128
  13. Pettifer 1995, p. 10
  14. "History and research, Berkhamsted Castle". English Heritage. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 15.5 15.6 15.7 Mackenzie 1896, p. 128
  16. Brown 1989, p. 52; Thompson, Isobel (2005). "Extensive Urban Survey - Hertfordshire". English Heritage and Hertfordshire County Council. p. 10. Retrieved 21 December 2012. ;"History and research, Berkhamsted Castle". English Heritage. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Thompson, Isobel (2005). "Extensive Urban Survey - Hertfordshire". English Heritage and Hertfordshire County Council. p. 10. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  18. 18.0 18.1 Thompson, Isobel (2005). "Extensive Urban Survey - Hertfordshire". English Heritage and Hertfordshire County Council. p. 10. Retrieved 21 December 2012. ; Mackenzie 1896, p. 128
  19. Wolstenholme 1883, p. 14
  20. Barlow 1999, p. 356
  21. Goodall 2011, p. 170; Pounds 1994, p. 109; Purton 2009, p. 325
  22. Pounds 1994, p. 109
  23. Liddiard 2005, p. 88; Pounds 1994, pp. 6–7
  24. Goodall 2011, p. 189
  25. Goodall 2011, p. 189; Wolstenholme 1883, p. 17
  26. Sherwood 2008, p. 230
  27. Thompson, Isobel (2005). "Extensive Urban Survey - Hertfordshire". English Heritage and Hertfordshire County Council. p. 9. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  28. Mackenzie 1896, p. 128; Wolstenholme 1883, p. 18
  29. Wolstenholme 1883, p. 19
  30. Rowe 2007, pp. 131, 134, 142, 144
  31. Mackenzie 1896, pp. 128–129.
  32. Goodall 2011, p. 321; Mackenzie 1896, p. 129
  33. 33.0 33.1 Mackenzie 1896, p. 129
  34. Pratt 2000, p. 41
  35. 35.0 35.1 Wolstenholme 1883, pp. 22–23
  36. Mackenzie 1896, pp. 129–130
  37. Thompson, Isobel (2005). "Extensive Urban Survey - Hertfordshire". English Heritage and Hertfordshire County Council. p. 12. Retrieved 21 December 2012. ; Mackenzie 1896, p. 130
  38. Thompson, Isobel (2005). "Extensive Urban Survey - Hertfordshire". English Heritage and Hertfordshire County Council. pp. 10, 13. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  39. Wolstenholme 1883, pp. 46–47
  40. Wolstenholme 1883, pp. 45–46
  41. Sherwood 2008, p. 245
  42. Sherwood 2008, p. 245; Wolstenholme 1883, p. 26
  43. 43.0 43.1 Richards 1995, p. 123
  44. Richards 1995, p. 123; Prince 2008, p. 179
  45. Thompson, Isobel (2005). "Extensive Urban Survey - Hertfordshire". English Heritage and Hertfordshire County Council. pp. 10, 23. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  46. Brown 1989, p. 53
  47. "Berkhamsted Castle". Gatehouse. 10 December 2012. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 


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  • Prince, Hugh C. (2008). Parks in Hertfordshire Since 1500. Hatfield, UK: Hertfordshire Publications. ISBN 9780954218997. 
  • Purton, Peter Fraser (2009). A History of the Early Medieval Siege, c.450-1220. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press. ISBN 9781843834489. 
  • Richards, Jeffrey (1995). "The Role of the Railways". in Wheeler, Michael. Ruskin and Environment: The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press. pp. 123–143. ISBN 9780719043772. 
  • Rowe, Anne (2007). "The Distribution of Parks in Hertfordshire: Landscape, Lordship and Woodland". in Liddiard, Robert. The Medieval Park: New Perspectives. Macclesfield, UK: Windgather Press. pp. 128–145. ISBN 978-1-9051-1916-5. 
  • Sherwood, Jennifer (2008). "Influences on the Growth of Medieval and Early Modern Berkhamsted". in Wheeler, Michael. A County of Small Towns: the Development of Hertfordshire's Urban Landscape to 1800. Hatfied, UK: Hertfordshire Publications. pp. 224–248. ISBN 9781905313440. 
  • Williamson, Tom (2010). The Origins of Hertfordshire. Hatfied, UK: Hertfordshire Publications. ISBN 9781905313952. 
  • Wolstenholme, John (1883). Two Lectures on the History and Antiquities of Berkhamsted (2nd ed.). London, UK: Nichols and Sons. OCLC 693003587. 

Further reading

  • Remfry, Paul Martin: Berkhamsted Castle and the Families of the Counts of Mortain, the Earls of Cornwall and the Crown pub. SCS Publishing, 2009: ISBN 9781899376483