Berkhamsted Castle, 1066 to 1495, takes a detailed look at the beautifully moated fortress set in the Home County of Hertfordshire. The castle was possibly founded by Count Robert of Mortain, William the Conqueror's half-brother. An event which probably occurred at this strategic site after the surrender of the Saxon garrison of London and the harrying of the South which took place in the last months of 1066 after the battle of Hastings. Recent radio carbon dating by the Round Mounds Project has confirmed such a date for the motte. After his father’s death, Count William of Mortain, in disgust of King Henry I, abandoned his castles and lands in England and transferred his allegiance to Duke Robert Curthose of Normandy. King Henry therefore seized his castles of Pevensey, Launceston and Berkhamsted for himself and in September 1106 defeated both Duke Robert and Count William at the battle of Tinchenbrai. Berkhamsted castle was now in the royal gift and the king granted it to his chancellor, Ranulph, who died there after a ‘miserable’ riding accident in 1123.The castle ownership remained with King Henry I and was probably granted to successive chancellors. Subsequently during the Anarchy of the reign of King Stephen (1135-75), the ownership of the castle was disputed. When King Henry II was consecrated king of England in October 1154, he appears to have obtained Berkhamsted castle directly from King Stephen. Henry then granted the castle to his chancellor, Thomas Becket (d.1170). Thomas spent much money on the castle and the pipe rolls show that much of his work was carried out in stone and consisted of repairs to the already extant stone castle. One account suggests that a stone keep already stood upon the motte in 1157 and others show that Becket appears not to have spent enough money to account for the stone defences now seen at the castle. After Becket became archbishop of Canterbury he fell out with the king with the result that Henry seized the castle back on 1 October 1163 and celebrated that Christmas in the castle to mark his resumption of the fortress. The castle was then farmed out to royal appointees until King Richard I granted it to his queen, Berengaria. In 1204 King John gave the castle to his queen, Isabella, and in 1216 the castle succumbed to the French after a vicious December siege.
The regency government of King Henry III recovered the castle during 1217 and then granted it to its German captain for his services rendered during the previous siege. In 1227 it was thought that the ownership of the castle nearly brought England to civil war, but this can now be seen to be an error for a dispute that involved the onetime custodian of the castle and not its present owners, the Dowager Queen Isabella (d.1246) and her husband Count Hugh of La Marche (d.1249). After her death the castle was passed to the brother of King Henry III, Earl Richard of Cornwall (d.1272), as part of his Mortain inheritance. In 1264 the castle became Earl Richard’s prison after his defeat with the king at the decisive battle of Lewes. The castle later fell to Prince Edward after the battle of Evesham. Earl Richard, and later his son, Earl Edmund of Cornwall (d.1300), died in the fortress, leaving the castle to King Edward I. With this resumption the castle again became a royal residence and home of the queens of England. The fortress was heavily repaired in the mid fourteenth century and was still strong enough and palatial enough to house the captive King John of France after his defeat at the battle of Poitiers in 1356. The castle remained the nursery of the Plantagenet heirs well into the fifteenth century and was still capable of housing important meetings as late as the early seventeenth century.
Today the castle consists of traces of a 58' diameter round tower on the motte, which may have been similar to the one at Pembroke, as well as numerous fragments of extensive curtain walls and mural towers surrounded by the spectacular moats and outer earthworks which contain mysterious ‘cavaliers’ similar to the ones seen at Painscastle. These external earthworks were almost certainly constructed for King John before the castle's siege in 1216.
Berkhamsted Castle and the families of the counts of Mortain, the earls of Cornwall and the Crown, consisting of 360 pages of A4 with numerous translations of original documents and photographs is available for £39.95 through the PayPal basket below.
Paul Martin Remfry