The story of Berkhamsted Castle begins with the landing of Duke William of Normandy on the Sussex coast and King Harold’s defeat at the battle of Hastings. After Harold’s defeat William marched with his army through southern England, pillaging as he went. Crossing the Thames at Wallingford, he reached Berkhamsted, where he was met by the bishops of Worcester and Hereford, Earls Edwin and Morcar and the chief men of London, who swore allegiance to him and offered him the crown. William was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066.
He granted the Manor and Honour of Berkhamsted to his half-brother Robert, Count of Mortain, who set about building a typical motte and bailey castle, with a tower or keep set on an earthen mound surrounded by a defensive enclosure and two moats. This first castle was a timber structure. The castle was built, as one of the defensive castles guarding the route to London, at the bottom of a dry valley where there were springs to fill the moats.
Stone and flint replaced the timber structure in the 12th century when Thomas à Becket was Chancellor (1155-1164) The stone would have come from Totternhoe, near Dunstable, where a lime and stone works still exists today. In its heyday the castle had two complete moats and a ditch on the west side. On the top of the substantial motte are the foundations of the circular keep, 18m in diameter, within which is a well. The flint rubble core of the curtain wall survives for almost the entire circuit of the bailey. Some of the outer defences have also survived.
Throughout its history Berkhamsted Castle was a royal castle, a favoured residence of English monarchs and their families. Princes and princesses were born here and queens and earls died here and many of national importance resided here. Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine kept Court here in 1163 and Henry visited on other occasions too. The castle was one of his more comfortable residences.
King John spent some time here in 1216 shortly before his death, strengthening the defences against threatened revolts of the barons. His widowed queen was here when the castle surrendered to Prince Louis of France in December 1216 after two weeks’ siege. In 1226 Richard, Earl of Cornwall, was granted the honour and Manor of Berkhamsted and made the castle the administrative centre of the entire earldom of Cornwall. His son, Edmund, later founder of the College of the Bonhommes at Ashridge, was born here. The Black Prince hunted regularly in the deer park and he and his wife, Joan, the fair Maid of Kent, honeymooned at the castle. Later, after the battle of Poitiers in 1356 King John of France was imprisoned at the castle. The Black Prince was created Duke of Cornwall and Berkhamsted Castle has remained part of the Duchy of Cornwall to this day.
In 1389 Geoffrey Chaucer was appointed Clerk of the Works atBerkhamsted Castle and other royal properties. It is not known how much time he spent at Berkhamsted but he certainly knew John of Gaddesden, who lived in nearby Little Gaddesden, the model for his Doctor of Phisick in The Canterbury Tales.
In 1469 Edward IV granted the castle to his mother, Cicely, Duchess of York. After her death in 1495 the castle was no longer inhabited and gradually fell into ruins. It passed in turn to three of Henry VIII’s queens, Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, until Edward VI granted it to his sister, Elizabeth. In 1580 she leased the Manor to Sir Edward Carey, Keeper of the Queen’s Jewels, who built himself Berkhamsted Place on the hill above the castle.
The Castle Visitor Room has an exhibition depicting the history of the castle organised by the Berkhamsted Local History and Museum Society. This is open at Easter and for the summer from May to the end of September 10.00-16.00 and by special arrangement during the week for school and other groups. For further details see the Berkhamsted Castle website
The castle is located immediately east of Berkhamsted Railway Station, on Brownlow Road.
The castle is an unmanned English Heritage site, open daily from 10.00-16.00 in the winter and 10.00-18.00 in the summer. Admission is free.
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