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Berkhamsted Castle

Also known as, or recorded in historical documents as;
Berkhampstead; Berkhamstead; Great Berkhamsted; Berchamstede; Berghhamsted

In the civil parish of Berkhamsted.
In the historic county of Hertfordshire.
Modern Authority of Hertfordshire.
1974 county of Hertfordshire.

OS Map Grid Reference: SP99520824
Latitude 51.76394° Longitude -0.55916°

Berkhamsted Castle has been described as a certain Timber Castle, and also as a certain Masonry Castle.

There are masonry ruins/remnants remains.

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law.


Berkhamsted Castle is a well-documented example of a Norman castle with historical records dating from the 12th to the 15th century. It has important associations with the family of William the Conqueror and, later, with Thomas a Becket. The motte and bailey and its defences survive in extremely good condition and will retain considerable potential for the preservation of archaeological and environmental evidence relating to the various stages of development of the castle.
Berkhamsted Castle is situated north of the town on the Akeman Street gap through the Chilterns and comprises a motte standing at the north-east corner of an oblong bailey. The motte mound is c.14m high and c.55m in diameter at the base. On the motte are the foundations of a shell keep, about 18m in diameter and containing a well. The bailey, which covers an area of about 1.3 hectares, measures c.130m north-south by c.100m east-west. Enclosing the bailey is a flint-built curtain wall with half-round towers at intervals of about 55m. A wall runs across the northern end of the bailey from east to west forming a forecourt to the motte. Two wing-walls run up the south side of the motte from the north-east corner of the bailey to the keep. At the point of intersection between the walls and the edge of the keep are traces of a building, the function of which is unclear. On the west side of the bailey the remains of a rectangular building are thought to represent a chapel while it is probable that the hall and living quarters were also on this side. A wide ditch surrounds the bailey and the motte and an outer bank and ditch surrounds these earthworks. The outer defences have been altered by the construction of the railway and road to the south. The ground level falls from the north to the south and on the higher ground north and east of the castle there is another bank. This bank is unusual in that it has eight, possibly nine, earthen bastions set against its outer face which are considered to be the remains of seige platforms. Access to the interior was provided by the main gateway on the south of the bailey which would originally have had a wooden bridge. The castle is believed to have been erected by Robert, Count of Mortain and half brother of William the Conqueror. Between 1155 and 1165 the castle was owned by Thomas a Becket, the Chancellor, when considerable sums were spent on building. Henry II spent Christmas 1163 at Berkhamsted Castle. In December 1216 it withstood a fortnight's seige by Louis of France while Richard Earl of Cornwall was responsible for the construction of a three storey tower in 1254. It was given to the Black Prince by Edward III in 1337 and in 1360 repairs were undertaken to make the castle habitable for King John of France. The castle has been unoccupied since 1495. Partial excavations were carried out in 1962 and 1967 in the south-eastern area of the curtain wall at the location of one of the half-round towers. Finds included an iron arrowhead and pottery from the 13th century, a floor tile from the mid 14th century and a horseshoe from the 17th century. (Scheduling Report)

There is no reason to suppose that there was any defensive work at Berkhampstead in 1066, but the place was given by the Conqueror to his half-brother Robert, Count of Mortain, and it is likely that the nucleus of the mount and bailey earthworks dates from Roberts tenure. From 1155 to 1165 the castle was farmed by Thomas Becket, as Chancellor, and it seems likely that the oldest masonry to be seen may date from his time. Evidence of building in the latter part of the 12th cent can be gained from the Pipe Rolls from 1155 to 1186. Work in masonry was proceeding in 1160 and the King's houses on the motte and a chamber in the bailey are mentioned. After 1186 the entries cease and it is assumed that the curtain walls and the keep were by this time in existence. In 1225 Richard, Earl of Cornwall received a grant of castle and honour and he is recorded to have built a tower of 3 storeys in 1254. The motte is 45ft high with a dia. of 60ft. and at base 180ft. It stands at the NE corner of the oblong bailey, 450ft by 300ft. There was a wide wet ditch round the bailey and round the motte, and a second bank and ditch surrounds the inner earthworks, but the outer defences have been disfigured and obliterated by the making of the railway and road to the south. The levels of the ground fall from north to south and on the higher ground north and east a third bank remains, having the peculiar feature of a number of earthen bastions set against its outer face. These have been explained as siege-platforms thrown up in 1216, but the assertion lacks proof. As far as masonry is concerned there is nothing to show there were defensive works outside the main ditch, except the southern barbican; the other earthworks can have had no other protection than wooden palisades. Such walls as now remain are almost featureless and consists of little more than flint rubble. On the motte are the remains of a circular keep, 60ft in dia, containing a well. Little detail is left. Two wing-walls run up the south side of the motte to the keep, and at the point of its junction with the Keep there are traces of a fore-building. The bailey was enclosed by curtain walls with half-round towers and was divided into 2 by a wall running across its northern end from east to west, making a forecourt to the motte. On the N. side of this court was a small gate, known as the Dernegate from which a wooden bridge crossed the moat. The remains of a rect. building on the W. side of the bailey may belong to a chapel, and it is prob. that the Hall and living rooms were on this side. The main gateway was on the south opening to a wooden bridge, with a barbican at the bridgehead (Peers 1948).
Excavations in 1962 and 1967 revealed 13th cent pottery and an iron arrow head (Curnow 1970).
Berkhampstead Castle. Concise description and detailed plan and sections of the remains as they existed c1884. The plan shows three concentric lines of defence, the third consisting of five bastions flanking the defences on the NW with a further three on the NE described as tower and less well defined. Immediately outside the W edge of the defences a small rectangular earthwork is shown with a ditch connected to the outer moat, interpreted by Clark as a ravelin plus a mill pond and fish stew (these earthworks are not shown on later plans and are now cut by Brownslow road) (Clark 1884). (PastScape)
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Sources of information, references and further reading
  • Websites (Gatehouse is not responsible for the content of external websites.)
  • Books
    • Goodall, John, 2011, The English Castle 1066-1650 (Yale University Press) passim
      Purton, P.F., 2009, A History of the Early Medieval Siege c. 450-1220 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press) p. 325
      Remfry, Paul, 2009 (rev edn), Berkhamsted Castle and the families of the counts of Mortain, the earls of Cornwall and the Crown (SCS Publications)
      Salter, Mike, 2002, The Castles of The Thames Valley and The Chilterns (Malvern: Folly Publications) p. 40-2
      Pettifer, A., 1995, English Castles, A guide by counties (Woodbridge: Boydell Press) p. 104-5
      Remfry, Paul, 1995, Berkhamsted Castle 1066 to 1495 (SCS Publications)
      Brown, R.Allen, 1989, Castles from the Air (Cambridge University Press) p. 52-3
      Furtado, Peter et al (eds), 1988, Ordnance Survey guide to castles in Britain (London) p. 152
      King, D.J.C., 1983, Castellarium Anglicanum (London: Kraus) Vol. 1 p. 219
      Fry, P.S., 1980, Castles of the British Isles (David and Charles) p. 187-8
      Renn, D.F., 1973 (2 edn.), Norman Castles of Britain (London: John Baker) p. 108-9
      Renn, D.F., 1971, Medieval Castles in Hertfordshire (Chichester: Phillimore) p. 14-16
      Colvin, H.M., Brown, R.Allen and Taylor, A.J., 1963, The history of the King's Works Vol. 2: the Middle Ages (London: HMSO) p. 561-563
      Toy, Sidney, 1953, The Castles of Great Britain (Heinemann) p. 53-4
      Page, Wm (ed), 1914, VCH Hertfordshire Vol. 4 p. 150 online copy
      Thompson, A. Hamilton, 1912, Military architecture in England during the Middle Ages (OUP) p. 42 online copy
      Armitage, Ella, 1912, The Early Norman Castles of the British Isles (London: John Murray) p. 105-7 online copy
      Harvey, Alfred, 1911, Castles and Walled Towns of England (London: Methuen and Co)
      RCHME, 1910, An inventory of the historical monuments in Hertfordshire (London: HMSO) p. 97-9 online transcription (plan)
      Page, Wm (ed), 1908, VCH Hertfordshire Vol. 2 p. 168-70 online transcription
      Montgomerie, 1908, Page, Wm (ed), VCH Hertfordshire Vol. 2 p. 112-13
      Walde, E.H. Stewart, 1905, in Standing, Memorials of Old Hertfordshire (London) p. 92-101 online copy
      Mackenzie, J.D., 1896, Castles of England; their story and structure (New York: Macmillan) Vol. 1 p. 127-31 online copy
      Clark, G.T., 1884, Mediaeval Military Architecture in England (Wyman and Sons) Vol. 1 p. 223-8 online copy
      Cobb, 1883, Two Lectures on the History and Antiquities of Berkhamsted (London) p. 9-30 (history)
      Timbs, J. and Gunn, A., 1872, Abbeys, Castles and Ancient Halls of England and Wales Vol. 2 (London) p. 126-9 online copy
      Grose, Francis, 1787, Antiquities of England and Wales (London) Vol. 8 p. 92-6 online copy
  • Periodical Articles
    • Renn, D.F., 1970, 'A Bowstave from Berkhamsted Castle' Hertfordshire Archaeology Vol. 2 p. 72-74
      Curnow, P.E., 1970, 'Berkhamsted Castle: Excavations at the South-East Tower, 1962 and 1967' Hertfordshire Archaeology Vol. 2 p. 66-71 (excavation report)
      Brown, R, Allen, 1959, 'A List of Castles, 1154–1216' English Historical Review Vol. 74 p. 249-280 (Reprinted in Brown, R. Allen, 1989, Castles, conquest and charters: collected papers (Woodbridge: Boydell Press) p. 90-121) view online copy (subscription required)
      Brown, R. Allen, 1955, 'Royal Castle-building in England 1154-1216' English Historical Review Vol. 70 (Reprinted in Brown, R. Allen, 1989, Castles, conquest and charters: collected papers (Woodbridge: Boydell Press)) p. 19-64
      Braun, Hugh, 1938, 'Hertfordshire Castle' St Albans and Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society Transactions Vol. 5 p. 198-200
      Kendall, J.M., 1923, 'The Siege of Berkhampstead Castle in 1216' Antiquaries Journal Vol. 3 p. 37-48
      Montgomerie, 1905-7, Hertfordshire Natural History Society Vol. 13 p. 195-8
      Fowler, H., 1890-1, 'Berkhampstead Castle' Transactions of the St Albans Archittectural and Archaeological Society p. 18-28 online copy
      Clark, G.T., 1889, 'Contribution towards a complete list of moated mounds or burhs' The Archaeological Journal Vol. 46 p. 197-217 esp. 205 online copy
      (Clark), 1868, The Builder Vol. 26 p. 529 (reprinted MMA)
      C (Clark), 1843 July, 'Description of Berkhamstead Castle' The Gentleman's Magazine Vol. 174 p. 36-8 online copy
  • Guidebooks
    • Peers, C., 1948, Berkhamsted Castle (HMSO)
      Peers, C., 1936, Berkhamsted Castle (HMSO)
  • Primary (Medieval documents or transcriptions of such documents - This section is far from complete and the secondary sources should be consulted for full references.)
    • Rickard, John, 2002, The Castle Community. The Personnel of English and Welsh Castles, 1272-1422 (Boydell Press) (lists sources for 1272-1422) p. 253-4
      Hewlett, H.G., 1886-89, Rogeri de Wendover. Liber qui dictiur Flores Historiarum ab anno Domini MCLIV annoque Henrici Anglorum regis Secundi primo (Rolls Series 84) Vol. 2 p. 200
      Luard, H.R (ed), 1866, 'Annales Prioratus de Dunstaplia' in Annales Monastici (Rolls Series 36) Vol. 3 p. 191 online copy
      Hardy, T.D. (ed), 1833, Rotuli litterarum clausarum in turri Londinensi asservati (Record Commission) Vol. 1 p. 195
      Maxwell Lyte, H.C. (ed), 1895, Calendar of Patent Rolls Edward III (1334-38) Vol. 3 p. 366 view online copy
      Pipe Rolls 1155-1180, 1200-1, 1213-14 (see Pipe Roll Society for published references)
      C145/134(6) (Survey of 1337) The National Archives reference (calendared in Maxwell Lyte, H.C., 1916, Calendar of Inquisitions Miscellaneous (Chancery), preserved in the Public Record Office (H.M.S.O.) Vol. 2 p. 388 No. 1586 online copy)
      E101/465/15 (Survey of 1 Edward III) The National Archives reference
  • Antiquarian (Histories and accounts from late medieval and early modern writers)
    • Camden, Wm, 1607, Britannia hypertext critical edition by Dana F. Sutton (2004)
      Chandler, John, 1993, John Leland's Itinerary: travels in Tudor England  (Sutton Publishing) p. 233
      Toulmin-Smith, Lucy (ed), 1907, The itinerary of John Leland in or about the years 1535-1543 (London: Bell and Sons) Vol. 1 p. 104 online copy
  • Other sources: Theses; 'grey' literature; in-house reports; unpublished works; etc.
    • Isobel Thompson, 2005, Extensive Urban Survey - Hertfordshire (English Heritage) Download copy
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This record last updated on Saturday, November 15, 2014

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