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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.