Bramber castle was founded as
caput of the rape of William Braose (d.1094) on the Sussex Downs, 5
miles inland from the coast at the new Saxon port of Shoreham.
Although the 5 rapes (Hastings, Pevensey, Lewes, Bramber (not named in Domesday) and Arundel
(later divided to make Chichester rape) may have existed before the
Norman Conquest, most appear to date to immediately after that event
and were formed to guarantee communications between Normandy and
London. Initially the rape appears to have been known as Steyning
and only became known as the castelry of Bramber in the early twelfth
century. Certainly in 1073 it was the land of Steyning and
Bramber castle, then sometime between 1080 and 1108 it was known as the
castelry of Steyning (Staningensi) which included the church of St Nicholas of Bramber castle. In 1122 Bramber had appeared in a papal charter as Brembra and in a Braose charter of about 1126 as Brenlia. The name Bremle
was still in use in 1234. Regardless of the name, Bramber is
liable to have been founded as a new centre at an early date after the
Norman Conquest of 1066, probably as a guardian to the old port of
estuarine Steyning. The fortress also commanded the bridge
crossing of the River Adur roughly half way between the other rape
castles of Lewes and Arundel and was situated between the ancient Saxon centres of Beeding and Steyning. In 1086 it was recorded that Bramber castle (castellum Brebre)
was built in one of the hides of Washington vill. From the end of
the twelfth century Bramber castle became associated with the nearby
Braose castle of Knepp which seems to have
been caput for the northern half of the lordship. Certainly both
lordships were claimed by Reginald Braose (d.1228) as heir to his
father, William (d.1211), on 7 August 1218.
Bramber castle remained the caput of the Braoses for many
generations. After the anarchy (1136-54) William
Braose (d.1180), as the grandson of Judhael Fitz Alfred (d.bef.1129), added Barnstaple and Totnes to the family domains which had included Radnor and Buellt since the 1090s. In the late 1160s he added the lordships of Brecon and Abergavenny to the family holdings. Surprisingly it is only as late as 1188 that a mention is made of the rape of Bramber (rappo de Brembla).
In 1146 the pope recorded St Florent's priory as holding the chapel of
St Peter of the old bridge (ie the church of Beeding) and the church of
St Peter of Brembra (Sele in
1186) with the chapel of St Nicholas of the castle. This suggests
that the original east to west road over the River Adur ran here, right
underneath the castle sitting on the river bluff. It has also
been suggested that the long bridge had a Roman origin and was the main
route along the coast from east to west.
Disaster came to the Braose family in the reign of King John
(1199-1216). At first William Braose (d.1211) prospered, adding
Gower, the Trilateral of Skenfrith, Grosmont and White Castle, to his domains, the castle and lordship of Kington and finally Limerick in
Ireland. However, in 1208 he and his family rebelled and as a
result King John eventually seized all his castles until 1215.
Under John's custody £68 13s 11d was spent on making a ditch,
presumably this was the great ditch around the castle. £10
10d was spent on repairing the castle walls and whitewashing the castle
houses, while £2 1s 9d was expended on repairing the hall and a
chamber within the fortress. The work was overseen by Philip
Castle and Durand, while a constable was appointed with a clerk and a
horse for a year at a cost to the Crown of £18 5s.
Then the barony was given to William's eldest surviving son, Bishop
Giles Braose and on his death to his younger brother, Reginald
(d.1228). In 1218 Reginald surrendered the barony to his son,
William (d.1230), apparently in an attempt to head off the claims of
John Braose (d.1232) and his mother, Matilda Clare (d.1246+).
Finally in 1226, William sold Bramber to his cousin, John
(d.1232). Despite this, Reginald Braose (d.1228), kept in his own
hands the castles of Brecon, Abergavenny and Totnes. John Braose became the son in law of Prince Llywelyn ab Iorwerth
(d.1240) in 1219 and seized Gower with his help. Eventually John
was killed at Bramber by being dragged to his death after falling off
his horse in 1232. In 1272 his son, William Braose (d.1291), who
had finally come of age in 1245, was in the habit of seizing what he
desired coming through his port of Shoreham and then paying the
dispossessed merchants what he thought fit. This had the
consequence that few would come to trade at his port. William's
son, the last William Braose (d.1326) of the line, probably entertained
King Edward I at the castle in 1299 when he was hunting there.
When the Braose family of Bramber died out in 1326, Bramber (Brembre)
passed to the heirs of William's daughters, Advisa Mowbray (d.1329+)
and Joan Bohun (d.1324). In 1398 the lord of the castle, Thomas
Mowbray (d.1399), was created duke of Norfolk. The castle seems
to have been remodelled in the fourteenth century, but the defences
along the river estuary collapsed in the fifteenth century bringing the
castle's occupation to an end, although the loss of its lordly Braose
family in 1326 would probably have started the rot.
The castle forms an irregular rectangle, roughly 500' north to south by
300' east to west, overlooking the River Adur and its silted flood
plain to the east. Roughly centrally in the enclosure are the
remnants of a great motte which it has been claimed was some 30' high
and about 130' in basal diameter. It this were true and it seems
rather unlikely, then the castle would fit into the largest size of motte. The summit appears to have
roughly been 55' in diameter, but is now much slumped. The mound
was built by digging the marl out of the ditch as well as probably from
the scarp of the outer castle defences. If the motte was once as
large as claimed, it would seem that it was made with royal aid as
mottes this large are unusual and seem mainly to have been built by the
king or his favoured lieutenant.
The motte as it currently stands is some 15' high, while excavation has
shown that some 10' of the ditch's original 14' depth was partially
filled in. This possibly happened in the twelfth century when the
castle was refurbished with the gatehouse being made into a keep.
Similar gatetower conversions happened at Hay on Wye, Ludlow and Richmond where rectangular gatetowers were converted into keeps.
It would seem probable that the great rectangular gatetower was built
with the foundation of the castle. The construction style of the
masonry is herringbone, as too was that of the mostly destroyed curtain
wall that surrounded the plateau. Herringbone masonry is often
seen as being a sign of Roman or Anglo-Saxon construction. The
hall at Corfe castle is also built of
herringbone, but more often this was reserved for churches, viz.
Wigmore. Bramber church, as it lies only 75' directly in front of
the original castle entrance, is in a most unusual position. This
may explain William Braose, probably in the late 1070s, describing the
church of St Nicholas as lying within his castle of Bramber.
Certainly it lies close to the impressive castle ditch who's surface is
littered with fallen fragments of the gatetower. This, early in
its occupation, had been blocked and converted into a keep with a new
entrance built just west of it in the curtain wall, directly opposite a
causeway. The new keep was 3 storeys tall, but largely collapsed
in the eighteenth century. Old prints show the north wall still
standing with a fine, blocked Romanesque gate arch. Above this in
the first chamber was a tall Romanesque window, which was probably just
a broken through embrasure. The second floor had a smaller
embrasure and the top floor 2 small loops. The east wall's
southern portion had gone, but some of the curtain still stood
nearby. The west wall looks similar to the remains today, but the
apertures in it were not recorded. These consist of a wall
passageway at first floor level which appears to have led to the
curtain wallwalk. The scar of what appears to have been the
curtain can still be made out beneath the ruin of the external
doorway. On the floor above a fine Romanesque embrasure remains
with the ruin of a Romanesque limestone jambed window to the
exterior. Three corbels for roof supports remain in the top
floor, while traces of battlements grace the summit.
The main castle ward was surrounded by a ditch which scarped around a
possible rampart around the hillside. In places the ditch bottom
was 80' below the rampart summit. The ditch is well preserved to
the south-east between the church and gatetower where there are traces
of a stone causeway crossing it. This is reckoned to be the same
age as the gatetower, but the masonry looks different and is probably
younger. The enceinte curtain which probably replaced the rampart
was again flint built and looks similar to that of the gatetower,
though the excavators dated the enceinte as fourteenth century.
Ground penetrating radar suggested that the northern section of the
ward, north of the motte, was chockablock with rectangular buildings,
laid out in a higgledy-piggledy manner.
The enceinte wall is generally in poor condition, but survives best in
the northern half of the circuit. The eastern side, along the
River Adur flood plain is straight, as too appears the shortest south
wall, although both corners were rounded. The remains of the
enceinte begin with a rectangular tower a little over half way along
the east face of the site. This tower projects strongly down the
scarp beyond the curtain and is about 50' east to west by 40' north to
south with walls between 5' and 8' thick. The internal corners
retain fine quoins and there was once a fine doorway with steps down
into the basement from the west. The powerful drawbar slot
suggests this was defensive. The doorway had a chamfered
threshold and quoins. As such it was probably fourteenth century,
although it could have been added to an early tower. Behind the
building was a further north-south orientated rectangular building with
much narrower walls.
The north-west corner of the enceinte is heavily chamfered off.
The 7' thick curtain still stands to its full height in this position,
being 6' tall internally and over 15' high externally. Its
wallwalk is still readily apparent as are some drains that emptied
under the battlements. The wall slumps dramatically in several
places and has also sheared where the underlying marl has irregularly
radio carbon dating by the Round
Mounds Project has confirmed a
building date for the motte from the early Norman
Paul Martin Remfry