Berkhamsted Castle

This past Sunday we took a day trip up to Hertfordshire to visit Berkhamsted Castle. It’s about 30 miles northwest of central London, and is easily accessible via London Midland train service on the West Coast Main Line from Euston Station.  Berkhamsted is a fascinating castle to visit, even though it’s entirely in ruins at this point, because it is one of the oldest (if not the oldest) Norman motte-and-bailey structure in England. And now you’re asking yourself  “What the heck is a motte-and-bailey”?  Please forgive me as I geek out for a few moments and explain.

A motte is a large mound or hill, upon which was usually built a keep, or a multi-storey structure with a single entrance. This was considered the safest location in the castle, and was often used as a place of last resort against invading forces. In historical fiction books you’ll often hear about soldiers retreating up into the keep. At this point the attackers had several options: 1) they could wait and starve them out; 2) they could dig a tunnel beneath the building and wait for the stone structure to collapse; or 3) they could throw burning brands down from the top and set the building on fire. I believe it was a rule of war that if the garrison surrendered the keep peacefully they would not be harmed. But if they did not surrender and were eventually driven out, they would forfeit their lives.

The bailey was the large area surrounding the motte, but still inside the castle walls. You might think of it as a courtyard, but it probably had lots of buildings. This is where the common people lived, worked, and slaved away to provide the royal residents their daily bread and butter. Sometimes a castle had more than one bailey (an inner and an outer, for example), which would increase it’s defensive capabilities.  Both the motte and the bailey would then be surrounded by a moat (or several moats), with a drawbridge and portcullis protecting the entrance. The poorest people would live in shacks or huts surrounding the castle, and may or may not have been allowed inside if there was an attack.

Okay, so now we’ve covered the basics, here are some pictures from Berkhamsted!

We begin with the station -- the best method for setting the scene.

A view from the top of the motte, looking down on the bailey, curtain walls, and the moat (to the left). You can see that the bailey is now an open grassy area, but it used to be crowded with buildings.

These are the stairs leading up to the motte, which is 67 steps above the bailey (I know because I counted!).

This is an artesian well at the top of the motte. It would have provided fresh water to the royal residents. At this time, the well is approximately 125 feet deep.

A view of the caretaker's cottage (on the left). An employee of English Heritage lives in this house (in the middle of the bailey) and is responsible for locking the gates and maintaining the site. Talk about a great job!

Alex was fast and snapped a picture of me and the curtain wall!

This was taken from the bottom of the moat. This moat is now dry and overgrown with weeds and thatch, but the water was probably 15-20 feet deep during the height of the castle's use.

Here you can see the moat with some water. To the right you can see the overhead wires of the train line. The outer wall of the moat and the outer barbican were destroyed when the railway was constructed.

This is an artist's rendering of what historicans think the castle looked like during the reign of Edward IV. Note the double moat (triple on the northern side if you count the natural river) and the two barbicans. The motte is located at the top of the picture.

I think this picture is cute because it captures my hobby (history and castles) and Alex's (transit) in one single image! Look how close that train is to the castle wall!

This structure is called the Western Tower, but it's original use and name remains unknown.

So now that you’ve seen some pictures, I’ll give a brief history of Berkhamsted Castle.  It is believe that this site was used as a Saxon fortress before 1066, but there is no archaeological evidence to support that. (It was probably a timber structure, which doesn’t age well.) 

After the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror moved through England on his way to London. He found that he couldn’t cross the Thames into London, and so progressed westward through Hertfordshire. He finally forded the river at Wallingford, and then came into modern-day Berkhamsted. Here he prepared his troops to attack London from the north, but before he could do so the Londoners came to him and offered him the crown of England.

Most historians believed that William accepted the crown in Berkhamsted, but there is a town a few miles away that also claims that distinction (it’s known as Little Berkhamsted).  William had his coronation on Christmas Day in 1066 at Westminster Abbey in London.

After he became king, William gave a portion of land to each of his knights. He instructed each one to build a castle, both to keep the Saxons physically occupied (if you’ve spent all day toiling to build a castle you’re less likely to rebel!) and to provide a physical representation of Norman strength. The strategy worked.  The area around Berkhamsted was entrusted to William’s brother, Robert (known as the Count of Mortain).

I’m sure you’ll recognize the name of the castle’s most famous owner: Thomas Becket (Saint Thomas a Becket to some of you, of course). He lived in the castle in the 12th century, and spent considerable time and money improving the fortifications. It is believed that he installed the outer curtain wall. In fact, he spent so much money on the place that when Becket and Henry II started fighting (that’s a whole separate post!) — Henry claimed that Thomas misappropriated the money from the royal treasury, since he couldn’t possibly have financed such large building works by himself!

The castle was then held by a succession of English queens, including the long-suffering Berengaria (wife of Richard the Lionheart) and Isabelle of Angouleme (wife to King John).  Both queens spent considerable time at the castle. Berengaria is considered to have suffered because Richard never really spent any time with her, and some rumors suggest that he was homosexual, although there is no conclusive evidence.  She was also widowed while quite young.  Isabelle was considered to be extremely beautiful, and she married John at a fairly young age.

In 1216 the castle was besieged (whoo hoo!) by Prince Philip of France. The garrison held out for two weeks, and there is considerable debate as to why they surrendered to quickly. With several wells within the castle walls (one in the bailey and one on the motte, they were probably doing okay with provisions). Some suspect the castle was betrayed, others think the soldiers didn’t take Philip as a serious threat, and others believe that Philip used trebuchets or mangonels to attack the castle. There is evidence that the castle was inhabited again shortly afterwards, which suggests that if Philip did conquer it through military force, he didn’t do too much structural damage!

You might also be familiar with the castle’s other famous resident: the Black Prince. Edward was the son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. He spent his honeymoon at the castle, and hunted extensively in it’s deer park. Unfortunately he never got to be king, because he died one year before father, thus making him the first Prince of Wales to die before becoming King. No one knows why he was called the Black Prince, but several rumors suggest that it might have had to do with his famously bad Angevin temper.

The last royal resident at the castle was Cecily Neville (Duchess of York), mother of Edward IV. Her life was filled with tragedy, as she was at the heart of the War of the Roses. She watched her husband and son (Edmund) die while attempting to take the crown, then saw her son (Edward) finally become King. While popular with his barons, he was a bit of a weak king however, and when he died there was more chaos. He had two young sons, but his brother (Richard of Gloucester) took the throne because rumors arose that the two boys were illegitimate — and shortly thereafter they disappeared in the Tower of London. (Personally, I think Richard has been wrongly accused of their disappearance. I think it was the Duke of Buckingham. Seriously!) But unfortunately Richard lost the Battle of Bosworth to Henry Tudor, so Cecily Neville not only saw her children and grandchildren die, but she saw the end of the Plantagenet empire and the rise of the Tudors.

Wow. That’s a lot of history, isn’t it?  My apologies!  Just a quick note that after Cecily Neville died in 1495 there were no more residents of the tower, and it fell into disuse and ultimately the ruins you see today.  Technically the site is owned by the Duke of Cornwall — also known as the Prince of Wales — but he kindly allows it to be run by English Heritage and leaves it open to the public.

I have some more pictures and information to post about the town of Berkhamsted, which is a lovely little village, but I’m going to have to leave that for tomorrow!


Posted on 27/04/2010, in Exploring the UK and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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