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. WigmoreBramber 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 compressed.

Recent radio carbon dating by the Round Mounds Project has
 confirmed a building date for the motte from the early Norman period. 


Copyright©2019 Paul Martin Remfry