Featured image of Berkhamsted Castle

The History of Berkhamsted Castle

LocationBerkhamsted, Hertfordshire, England (Google Maps)
Open for visitorsOpen (closed on Christmas and New Years Day)
Owned byBerkhamsted Castle Trust
Rooms availableNone

Located in the market town of Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, England, Berkhamsted Castle is a historic marvel. The Norman motte-and-bailey castle was built to capture a major route between London and the Midlands during the Norman conquest of England in the 11th century.

History Of Berkhamsted Castle

Bailey walls of Berkhamsted Castle, Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire
GOC Berkhamsted & Frithsden 118: Berkhamsted Castle”, by Peter O’Connor aka anemoneprojectors, is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Built in 1066 under the orders of William the Conqueror, Berkhamsted Castle was a building of strategic importance, as it lay on a key root into the Midlands from London through the Chiltern Hills.

William’s half-brother, Robert of Mortain, took care of the construction work. He is rumoured to have owned the castle too.

Robert’s son, William, rebelled against Henry I, resulting in the castle being confiscated. It was then granted to the king’s chancellor, Ranulf. After the latter’s tragic death, the castle was presented to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett, after he was appointed as the chancellor by Henry II. Sadly, the chancellor soon fell from the king’s favour in 1164. Subsequently, the castle was used extensively by the king himself.

In 1216, the castle was besieged during the civil war between King John and defiant aristocrats, who were supported by France. It was seized by the future Louis VIII, who attacked it with siege engines for twenty days, compelling the garrison to give up.

In the wake of being retaken by royal powers the ensuing year, it was given to Richard, Earl of Cornwall, starting its long relationship with the Earldom of Cornwall and the later duchy. Richard redeveloped the palace as a palatial home and made it the focal point of the earldom’s administration. In the fourteenth century, King Edward III further fostered the castle and gave it to his child, Edward, the Black Prince, who extended the hunting grounds. The castle was additionally used to hold royal war prisoners, including King John II of France.

In the late fifteenth century, the castle became an unfashionable location and fell into decline. By the mid-sixteenth century, it was in ruins and unacceptable for royal use. Stones were taken from the castle to construct houses and different important structures in the town, including the town’s first school. The castle was nearly eradicated during the development of the London and Birmingham Railway during the 1830s. After that, the government decided to take over its ownership. In 1930, the castle was passed from the Duchy of Cornwall to the government’s control and is henceforth protected as a national heritage building.

Architecture

Berkhamsted Castle, view over inner moat from mound
Berkhamsted Castle, view over inner moat from mound”, by Rob Farrow, is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Berkhamsted Castle was located slightly away from the main road to give additional space for the earthworks involved and was positioned to benefit from natural springs. The castle had a motte and bailey design, with a 40-foot high motte and a bailey around 500 feet by 300 feet, encompassing 0.6 acres. A double bank and ditch ran around the castle, with both ditches filled with water. The wider earthworks occupy around 11 acres.

By the mid-twelfth century, the palace had been reconstructed in stone, presumably by Beckett, with a shell keep and an outer stone wall. The bailey was then divided in two by a wall to form an inner and an outer bailey.

Berkhamsted Castle was extremely well defended, with two ditches and three sets of earthworks around the oblong bailey and a further ditch around the motte.

Albeit no worked stone remains on the curtain wall, its flint rubble core survives for almost the full circuit of the bailey. The outer defences also survive well, although the railway, built-in 1838, has sliced through the outer gate and earthwork defences.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are dogs allowed at Berkhamsted Castle?

Dogs on a leash are allowed inside the castle ruins. The castle ground is well-kept and is one of the best places to walk your dog while enjoying the castle’s historic splendour.

What is Berkhamsted Castle famous for?

Throughout its history, Berkhamsted Castle was a royal castle, a favoured residence of English monarchs and their families. It is famous for its historical richness and is a staple for history buffs.


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