Wandering off the grammatical point at Berkhamsted Castle

As several of my blogging friends are aware, I’m currently up to my ears in revision for my impending OU Latin exam in a couple of weeks’ time. However, after hours of work yesterday, I was in desperate need of a medieval break, so I escaped to a place I’ve only been to a couple of times before. And it was a good choice, because although little remains of its medieval stone structures, Berkhamsted Castle is a hugely important site, not just for its string of famous owners, but because it witnessed first-hand the single biggest change in England’s history.

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Taking time out from the hard work to relax on the castle walls

There has been a castle here since the late 11th Century, but our story begins before it was even built; in fact we have to travel back to Hastings in 1066 and the aftermath of the iconic battle. After William the Conqueror had defeated the Saxon king Harold Godwinson, he hung around for two weeks waiting for the Saxon nobles to come and offer him the crown. But they never came. Although the news of Harold’s demise had reached London within hours, they’d decided instead to crown the only remaining blood relative of Edward the Confessor, Edgar the Atheling. Edgar was the teenage, ineffectual great nephew of the old king, but the surviving English nobles believed he had a greater right to the throne than some invading illegitimate French duke. This was a mistake.

When William got fed up of waiting for his regal reward in Hastings, he decided that if the mountain wasn’t going to come to Muhammad, he’d have to go to it. He rallied his forces again and marched across southern England, pillaging all the way. Prevented from crossing the Thames at Southwark, he headed west until he reached a bridging point at Wallingford in Oxfordshire, where his army successfully crossed over before turning back towards London. Meanwhile, hearing of William’s determined advance towards the capital, the council of nobles realised that resistance was going to be useless, and that perhaps the young, militarily-challenged Edgar was the wrong man for the job after all. And so a delegation of leading bishops and nobles, accompanied by Edgar himself, set out from London to meet William. They found him here at Berkhamsted, where his army had set up a camp, and it was here that they humbly asked the mighty Conqueror if he would please be their king.

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The outside of the castle wall looking towards the motte


The remains of fireplaces in the walls signify this may have been the castle’s kitchens

After his coronation, William granted the manor and honour of Berkhamsted to his half brother, Count Robert of Mortain, and it was he who built a substantial timber motte and bailey castle here in the late 11th Century. The castle remained in royal hands from then on, and was occupied at various times by some of the most prominent figures of the Middle Ages. In the middle of the 12th century, King Henry II awarded the castle to his close friend and chancellor, Thomas Becket, who replaced the timber buildings with flint and stone constructions. Becket enjoyed a lavish lifestyle and all the perks of being a king’s best buddy, until the two fell out after Henry made him Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, and in October 1163 the king revoked his former friend’s privileges at Berkhamsted following a blazing row at Westminster. Just to make sure Becket had got the message that he’d truly fallen from grace, the king beetled off to spend Christmas at the castle himself. The two never fully resolved their differences over the legal rights of the clergy, and this eventually led to Becket’s infamous murder in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. But Berkhamsted Castle wasn’t finished with its dramas and action yet.

In December 1216, the year after King John’s death, the castle came under siege from the army of Prince Louis of France, whom the English nobles had previously invited to come and get rid of John for them and then rule in his place. Louis had made a promising start to his invasion but he hadn’t done so well in taking castles, failing first at Dover and then Windsor. Undeterred, Louis’ next stop was a more successful attack on Hertford Castle before marching on to Berkhamsted where John’s widowed queen, Isabella, was in residence. After two weeks, the French forces secured the surrender of the garrison within, but according to the 13th Century chronicler, Roger of Wendover, it wasn’t before the defenders put up a good fight, “sending to Hell the souls of many Frenchmen”.

View from top of motte.jpg

The view from the top of the motte across the expansive bailey and the castle’s outer defences


The well in the bailey

The next king, Henry III, awarded the castle to his brother, the diplomatically gifted Richard, Earl of Cornwall in 1225. The wealthiest man in England, Richard was also famous for constructing Tintagel, the legendary birthplace of King Arthur. At Berkhamsted he built an extensive luxury palace complex and a three-storey stone tower, and the refurbished castle became the administrative centre for his earldom of Cornwall. Richard’s coat of arms featured a series of golden bezants, or coins, a motif that became incorporated into the town’s official seal.

coat of arms

The coat of arms of Richard, Earl of Cornwall, featuring the golden bezants

The royal connection was to remain at Berkhamsted throughout the Middle Ages, with successive kings awarding the castle to their queens, families and favourites. The last known resident was Cicely, Duchess of York and mother of Richard III, when her eldest son, King Edward IV granted it to her in 1469. After Cicely’s death the castle appears to have been abandoned and it began its sad decline into ruin.


The outer defences and moat from the motte

outside castle.JPG

The castle walls from the outer defences

We spent a very pleasant few hours wandering around the remnants of the castle, with its impressive mound that once sported an equally impressive keep, the remains of its flint rubble walls and its extensive outer defences that originally held a moat. And I appreciated every minute spent once again immersed in a medieval castle and all the stories it has to tell. So the clock struck six and I reluctantly tore myself away from Berkhamsted to return to my revision. But now I feel a bit better about slogging through all the translations and mind-bending grammar, because my brief contact with the Middle Ages has reminded me of why I’m doing it. Hopefully, one day I’ll be able to hold the chronicles of Roger of Wendover and his contemporaries who wrote these wonderful stories, and I’ll actually be able to read them.




73 thoughts on “Wandering off the grammatical point at Berkhamsted Castle

  1. What a great post – superbly written as always. I have a brilliant mental image of Henry beetling off to pinch the castle for Christmas – I wonder if he stole all Becket’s tree chocolates?
    I’ve very proud of you for all the hard work you’re putting into your revision, and if it gets hard – remember what you wrote here. How cool would it be to pick a medieval manuscript and be able to read it yourself!

    Oh – and great pictures by the way ❤

    Liked by 3 people

  2. The movie “Becket” is among my favorites. I mean, how wrong can you go with Peter O’Toole in his first role as Henry II and Richard Burton as anything at all.

    Where exactly IS the castle? It looks like something I saw and spent time wandering through it, but there were so many castles, earthworks, stone circles, tors … it can be difficult to remember exactly where each one was, so far back in memory.

    Thank you for reopening those memories! Recently, I was reading a multi volume history of the Tudors and I actually quit because I got tired of the family. I did love the story of Owain, though and named my son after him.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Marilyn, both for your comments and for the reblog! The castle is about 30 miles northwest of London, in the county of Hertfordshire if that’s any help. It’s right next to the railway station these days, and it’s a pretty big site reflecting what an important castle it was. The walls are mainly the flint rubble remains and there’s a little house on site where the English Heritage caretaker lives. Does that help at all?

      I’m only to happy to have reopened some fond memories. That’s great news. 🙂 I’m completely with you on the Tudors, I can’t stand them. But it’s true, Owain is a cool welsh name, so I don’t blame you for using that… Thanks again. 🙂


  3. For me at least, it was worth you giving up your revision for a few hours. You’ve written a fascinating insight into the history of a castle I knew nothing about. The trouble is, that blogs like this make me want to know more.

    Your statement about wanting to hold manuscripts that mean so much to you has to make all the hard work worth it. I’ve already got everything crossed 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your lovely comments, Malc, and I’m glad you benefitted from my break too! Berkhamsted is a very important site and it does have a great history. 🙂

      I’ve missed a day today owing to various interruptions and a missing cat (now found, thank goodness), but I’ll be making up for it for the rest of the week. I’m still trying to cram in everything that’s fallen out of my head since October, and I’m starting to get study fatigue. So roll on 14th, and please keep everything crossed for me until then… In the meantime, thanks for reading and I’ll be in touch when I’ve got a few moments to look at that glitch we were talking about. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Martha, that’s very kind, and I’m glad you enjoyed reading about Berkhamsted. I agree it would have been better if we’d never stopped using Latin, not least because it’s hellishly hard to learn from scratch! 😉 Still, I’m sure it’ll be worth it. Thanks for reading and for commenting. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for this lovely walk; I lived in Berkhamsted for four years in the early 1990s, and loved walking through the old castle grounds. I am ashamed to say, I was t much interested in it’s history (apart from knowing there was some connection tomChaucer), so I am grateful for the lesson, and rather impressed by how important the castle (and Berkhamsted) has been.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading, Su, and for your lovely comments. While we’re admitting things, I may as well say that many moons ago when I was young and daft and hadn’t discovered the magic of the Middle Ages, I worked just around the corner from the castle in Lower Kings Road, and I never even went there! Of course that’s all different now I’m a devoted medievalist. 🙂 You’re right, there is a connection with Geoffrey Chaucer. he was made Clerk of the Works at Berkhamsted. So it’s a very well connected site. Glad you enjoyed the wander around your old familiar ground, and thanks for visiting, and for commenting. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • We were eager Kiwis, exploring our new home. I think it’s common for visitors to end up seeing more of a place than the locals.
        We used to love the Italian restaurant in Lower Kings Road, and my engagement ring came from the jeweller there.
        Hope your revision is going well.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh that’s amazing, Su! So you used to dine in the Italian, and your engagement ring came from the very same road I used to work in! It never ceases to amaze me how small the world can be. 😊 I agree that it’s often visitors who appreciate and explore a place more than the residents. Shouldn’t be that way though. But it’s nice to know you remember the area so fondly 😊

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yep. The “small world” thing happens to me so often, and I do wonder if part of it is that I’m both Scots, and a Kiwi, and both nationalities tend to be travellers. When I was a kid in Auckland, my family kept bumping into people my parents had known “back home”, and when I lived in the UK as an adult, every pub seemed to have at least one kiwi behind the bar who’d gone to school with my brother, or whose auntie worked with my mum … you get the picture.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ah yes, I do get the picture! 🙂 I know a lot of Scots emigrate to your part of the world because they say the scenery is just as beautiful but the weather is better! So ‘a small world’ must be a way of life for you. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Absolutely no pressure for anything this end Alli. Just do what you have to do for the next couple of weeks. We’re all right behind you, but if you want a break for a few minutes you know how to contact me now. By the way, if I post anything in the meantime I’ll quite understand if you don’t want to comment. Like I said, absolutely no pressure.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Malc, your support means a lot. This week has got off to an amusing start – I took Maddie to school this morning and Stuart took Nathan to his school only to discover he has an inset day! So he’s had to bring him home and now I’ve got him all day, so not great for revision. I’m going out for a few hours so we can both get some fresh air, then I’ll have to catch up later.
      If I do miss anything on your site before the exam, rest assured I’ll be back straight away afterwards to catch up. Mind you, I enjoy your posts so much it’ll be hard not to comment! Many thanks again. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you Albert, and I’m glad you enjoyed my break at Berkhamsted. 😊 It’s going to be a tough couple of weeks, but hopefully I’ll get through it in one piece. Looking forward to getting it all over with. Walking round North Wales will seem like a breeze afterwards! Thanks for joining me at Berkhamsted. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Having been to Berkhamsted many times whilst living near Hemel Hempstead I never got to visit the castle remains so thanks for your first class description and great pictures.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a bit of a hidden gem, and it also hides a great story. Thanks for reading and I’m glad you enjoyed it. 🙂


  7. Well, all the very best with the revision and the exams, Alli. Good for you! I did a bit of medieval Latin and paleography at university – huge mistake – I was far too lazy – I have bad memories of the experience and am pleased to say I have forgotten pretty much all of it. You’ll be fine, though! However, I have very happy memories of Berkhamsted Castle – used to visit a favourite uncle and aunt nearby when I was very young and remember a) rushing around among the ruins b) picnics and c) walking along the canal nearby. It still astonishes me that they ran a railway line through part of it. You’ve given it a lovely write-up – so informative, as usual. And just the place to switch off and relax for awhile, soaking up some rays and history. Once again – all the very best!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for all your good wishes, Mike. It’s very much appreciated. I’ll be doing palaeography too at some point, and I’m looking forward to that as I know it’ll help me as a medievalist. Sorry you didn’t get on with it though – I think you either love it or hate it. I do love it, but it drives me round the twist at the same time! Nice to know you have fond memories of Berkhamsted Castle – yes it was quite a tonic the other day. And it does have some great stories to tell. 🙂 I’m now officially banning myself from blogging until after 14th (exam day), because I enjoy reading everyone’s posts and the social interaction so much that it gets too big a distraction. So please excuse me for a short while, but rest assured I’ll be back straight afterwards to catch up and to plan for my Welsh castle wander in July. After all this Latin study, walking around North Wales will seem like a breeze! In the meantime, thanks again for your kind comments, as always, Mike, and for the good wishes. 🙂


  8. Erat quidem Anglice punctum flexus contrarii in historia MLXVI ( I had the misfortune to take Latin as one of my BA subjects!).
    I do believe it was a turn for the worse, and set England into a pattern far worse than the Saxon one had been, particularly from an ecological viewpoint.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh excellent! Someone who understands how brain-melting Latin can be!
      An interesting time, and ecologically I agree that we’ve gone downhill since then, although it’s got worse a lot quicker as time has gone on. At least we didn’t have plastic and man-made chemicals in the Middle Ages. 🙂 Thanks for reading, and for commenting – in Latin! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. As I’m reading this, my teenager wanders by and I’m all, “you’ve heard of Berkhamsted Castle?” About ten minutes later, she’s still talking. That counts as revision for her GCSE’s right? “That was actually part of my homework,” she tells me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh my goodness Amy, what a coincidence! Any talking about history counts towards revision without doubt, as it helps to consolidate and embed information in the mind. There’s nothing like a conversation to make thing stick. But how weird is that? Fantastic! Please wish her all the best from me for her GCSE. 🙂

      I was talking with another of my new blogging friends over this post, and it turns out she is from New Zealand but also knows Berkhamsted well from the 1990s when she was over here. And I used to work around the corner from the castle many moons ago. I said to her and I’ll say it again, I love how small our world can be sometimes. Thanks for reading, Amy, and I’m glad it was of use… 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I had looked over her assignment, but I often encourage her to tell me about things as well, I think of it as essay prep 🙂 So, she will sit her exams next year, so hard at work this year with the revision. When will you have your Latin exam?
        I agree, the world can be quite small sometimes. I also really like the community here at WordPress, I’ve “met” some nice folks here.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I agree about the community of WordPress. I’ve met some new friends through it too. 🙂
        Great idea to get your daughter to tell you about things. Guess what? My daughter is taking her GCSEs next year too. She wants to follow me into history but I’m really proud she’s found her own niche – she wants to be a maritime historian and she loves the tall ships and pirates… we have a pirate ancestor and she’s very proud of him. 🙂
        Dreaded Latin exam is next Friday (14th), and I’m already feeling queasy… 😦

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh neat, also that’s kind of cool that she has an idea of what she would like to do. This particular daughter isn’t sure. I tell her that’s fine, plenty of people reinvent themselves many times over.
        Good luck on your exam, maybe you can write a blog post about it when it is all over 🙂
        Cheers, Amy

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Amy. I have to admit I’m looking forward to getting it over with now so I can relax for a bit and plan for Wales. Not long now, a week today…
        I think it’s perfectly normal for kids their age not to know what they want to do, and people do reinvent themselves a lot – especially these days. And why not?
        Thanks again, Amy, and have a great weekend. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Those damned ‘froggies’!

    I used to have to take all my study work on my Scottish trips and, after a long day’s Munroing, when the others went to the pub, I had to stay in and study every night! I went out on my last night though to celebrate my bagging ‘bag’ 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, they were a bit bothersome to us in the Middle Ages… Mind you, I daresay they’d say the same of us – always invading them… 😉
      I know how you felt in Scotland, always having to study and missing out on fun. That’s just what life’s like for me at the moment. It’s horrible – and I hate exams so much. I’m already feeling queasy and it’s not until 14th! Glad you got to go out and celebrate your bagging on the last night though, and I’m impressed that you conquered any Munros in the first place! 🙂


      • At least they look to have moved the study year around a bit – we had to study all summer and take our exams late Autumn I think – then we had winter off which I wasn’t bothered about. To me, the time to study, is when it’s cold and the weather’s bad!

        Liked by 1 person

      • They must have done then. Just as well as I couldn’t study all summer anyway. We start in October and apart from (supposedly) two weeks at Christmas and one at Easter, which never works out in practice as there’s too much to do, its one long intense slog to the exam. At least this is the last dreaded exam I’ll have to do, the last two are an extended essay and dissertation. I’d much rather that. 🙂


    • Thanks Wendy! It’s always great to meet another castle fan… 🙂 I’m looking at a university module next year on Scottish Medieval history, so I fully expect there’ll be some gems to come from that too. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Likewise. 😊 Looking forward to some good chats. As a lover of Scotland you’d probably like Wales too as it’s also beautiful and riddled with gorgeous castles, so I hope you enjoy my big Welsh Castle Wrander – a quest I’m embarking on next month. Lots of castle stories there. 😊

        Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, that’s right, Wendy. 🙂 Wales is often referred to as ‘the castle capital of the world’, boasting over 600 of them… Four of them – the one’s I’ll be taking in on my castle wander next month – make up a World Heritage Site and they’re outstanding examples. And Wales has got some gorgeous mountains and scenery too. So if you’re a castle fan and you like lovely scenery and great stories and legends, I’d highly recommend a visit there one day. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Kevin, yes it was a few hours of joy amid the stress. I could do with some more castle therapy now – my exam is on Friday! Thanks for reading, and I’m glad you enjoyed it. 🙂


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