Northampton Castle (centred on SP 74856055) lies at the W. end of Northampton on a small eminence about 7.5 m. above the River Nene, which was immediately to the W., on Northampton Sands at about 68 m. above OD. Only a small part of the castle still survives.
According to the 'Vita et passio Waldevi comitis' Simon de Senlis I constructed the castle (Giles 1854, 18) but some earlier work dating from soon after the Norman Conquest is possible. Waltheof, the Saxon Earl of Northampton, married King William's niece, the Countess Judith, but was subsequently executed for treason in 1076. Simon de Senlis I married Maud, the daughter of Waltheof and Judith, and was probably granted the earldom and the town of Northampton by William Rufus in 1089. Simon died sometime between 1111 and 1113 but the family remained important until the latter part of the 12th century.
In 1130 the king paid the monks of St. Andrew's 3s. 8d. for land taken into 'his castle', indicating that the castle was then in royal hands but the first building works noted occurred in 11734 when the houses of the keep and other buildings were repaired for £32 17s. An additional £107 was spent on the keep in 11813 and further work was undertaken in 11923.
John's recorded expenditure on the castle amounted to approximately £300 and a similar sum was spent in 121719 of which more than half related to the tower. Further constructional and decorative work continued to the middle of the century. In 1248 the king ordered the palisade round the great outer bailey to be repaired and in 1251 the sheriff was authorised to repair the castle and bailey wall adjacent to the Nene. In 1258/9 repairs to the gaol and other work were undertaken. In 1266 the king ordered the wall on the W. side of the castle to be repaired and the palisade outside the castle on the same side to be replaced by a stone wall and in 1266/7 £200 was spent on repairs. Approximately £100 was spent on repairs to the castle in 12801 and £150 in 12878.
By the 14th century the castle seems to have been in a poor state. In 1329 the great hall was repaired for the justices itinerant and a new prison was built in 13856. The castle was now militarily unimportant and functioned mainly as a county hall and a gaol. The keep was still standing during the reign of Henry VIII but by 1593 the castle was in a 'ruynous' state although Speed's map of 1610 shows the castle walls reasonably intact. The castle was partly demolished after the Restoration (Serjeantson 1908 and Brown et al 1963, 750f give full accounts of the history of the castle).
In 1879 the greater part of the castle was quarried away by the London and North Western Railway Company to enlarge the station and to erect a large goods shed. No detailed plan of the castle as it was exists. Speed's map of 1610 shows an inner and outer bailey enclosed by stone walls with four large towers positioned along the curtain of the inner bailey. A further stone building lay in the S.W. quarter of the inner bailey.
A survey of the castle in 1322/3 indicates that the castle contained a great hall with a long chamber adjacent to the hall to the E. and the great chamber next to the hall to the W. There was also a lower chapel. Besides a new tower there were six small towers. A keep is mentioned and a further chapel; one of the chapels was dedicated to St. George. A plan of 1743 indicates that the inner bailey of the castle contained 3 acres (1.4 ha.) with the outer bailey a similar size and that the total area of the castle, including defences, amounted to about 15 acres (6.1 ha.) (Serjeantson 1908).
A survey of the castle in 1863 showed the inner bailey enclosed by a ditch with the remains of a substantial wall on the W. and S. sides. Two massive buttresses supported the wall on the W. side and the remains of a projecting circular bastion were visible in the S. wall. In front of the main gate of the castle, which was on the N. side, was a triple rampart of earth. Various other walls formed fragments of buildings in the S.W. quadrant of the enclosed area. A substantial mound about 30 m. across, in the N.W. quarter, possibly formed the base of the keep but only a single wall was recorded in this area (Law 187980).
Excavations were carried out by by J. Alexander in 19614 on the N.E. side of the inner bailey (SP 74926054; Medieval Archaeol 67 (19623), 3223; 8 (1964), 2578). A full report of the excavations is presently being prepared. A ditch running E.-W. and partly sealed by layers of the extreme inner edge of the bailey bank was interpreted by the excavator as evidence of a motte predating the main castle. This ditch, of shallow U-profile, was approximately 7 m. wide and 2 m. to 2.5 m. deep. Pottery from the infill suggests that it was levelled probably no earlier than the mid 12th century. Evidence from the bailey bank itself which appears to have succeeded this ditch is consistent with construction of the bank in the early 12th century, although a later date is possible. The bailey bank at the point sectioned by Alexander was 13 m. wide and up to 3.7 m. high although the outer face had been cut back during the 19th century. Originally it must have measured about 18 m. wide and 6 m. high. The ditch was c. 27 m. wide and 9 m. deep.
The limited archaeological evidence is consistent with an earth and timber castle dating to the time of Waltheof or Simon de Senlis I with commencement of work on the great medieval castle probably sometime after the death of Simon de Senlis I and before the accession of Simon de Senlis II to the earldom of Northampton, during which time the castle appeared to be in royal hands.
In the N.E. corner of the bailey were two large buildings set against the inner face of the rampart. The northern range contained a succession of hearths and ovens and was presumably a kitchen block. East of this and at right angles to it was a domestic suite with undercroft. Both were probably constructed during the later 12th century and underwent more than one subsequent alteration. The eastern range in particular appears to have been extensively and elaborately remodelled in the 13th century. It appears to have been destroyed by fire, perhaps early in the 14th century and the northern building may also have gone out of use in this period.
Further investigations were carried out between 1975 and 1978 on the site of the inner bailey bank to the S. of Alexander's excavations (SP 74926049) mainly to examine pre-castle levels. Early to middle Saxon occupation was represented by two sunken-featured buildings and a large scatter of pottery and in the late Saxon period there was a complex comprising building, yard area, pits and cultivated ground (Northampton (38)). Two sections cut across the line of the outer bailey ditch (SP 74946046) suggested it was approximately 14 m. wide and 5.5 m. deep (Williams and Shaw 1981, 106f).
The remains of the castle surviving above ground comprise a small section of inner bailey bank (at SP 74936053) together with some of the walls uncovered in the 19614 excavations. Extensive collections of finds from the 19th century onwards are deposited in Northampton Museum (NDC M18, 138, 139, 173, 202, 329). (RCHME)
Northampton castle is supposed to have been first built by Earl Simon (1090-1100). It became the King's property before 1130 and afterwards was used as a Royal residence and stronghold, and County Government Office and prison; dismantled in 1962 and in ruins, it was deserted after the town fire in 1685; the greater part of the site was levelled in 1880 for the erection of the Railway station and Goods yard (VCH 1930).
During excavations in c 1866 prior to the construction of a Railway station a 'great part of the antiquities found below the original surface' were undoubtedly Saxon and a Saxon coin was found in a well which had afterwards been sealed by the south rampart (Law and Scriven 1879-80).
So there was Saxon occupation of the area before the ramparts were built. In 1962-3 some excavation in the small remaining part of the interior (possibly therefore on SP 7492 6056) revealed traces of Saxon and Danish occupation beneath the 12th c ramparts (Med. Arch. 1962-3).
The history of the site was therefore probably -
(i) An open Saxon Settlement in the Castle Area (though Scriven thinks this earthwork was a Saxon Burh),
(ii) Earl Simon's Motte on Castle Hill,
(iii) Abandonment of the motte and construction of the Castle by Earl Simon, his successors or the King. The VCH's view that Castle Hill was the Motte of the Castle area and bailey seems improbable (oral information).
Mr Childs said the excavation of 1962-3 was carried out at SP 7493 6054. Now waste ground, the grid is still visible but the only recognisable feature is a crumbling portion of wall-see photo.
The topographical situation of the castle is - St Andrew's Road and to the west, river plain; the east boundary of the road is a river terrace and the ground beyond is generally much higher. Here was probably the site of the early castle uncovered by the excavations.
The slopes about the Dancing School, Castle Hill are modern and came about through the re-alignment and re-levelling of Castle Terrace. (F1 BHS 28-MAR-69)
In the 12th and 13th centuries, Northampton Castle was one of the principle fortesses of the Kingdom. Although built by the earl of Northampton, it passed to Royal control after his death in 1111. The second earl took possession on Henry's death in 1130, retaining it until his death in 1153, after which it passed to Royal hands for the remainder of its history. The great keep contained the principle chambers, including the hall and chapel. A gaol is also documented. In the early 13th century the outer wooden palisade was partly replaced by a stone wall. Simon de Montfort made the castle his headquarters in 1264, but Henry IIIs forces were able to enter and secure the town. No attempt was made to hold the castle which was probably not capable of serious defence.
There is evidence of continued sporadic expenditure into the 14th century, but a survey of 1323 estimated that £702 would be needed to rebuild the hall, lower chapel and long chamber which had been burnt down in 1318, and a further £395 was needed to repair the walls, towers and other buildings. The expenditure was not authorised, although the great hall was repaired for the sessions of the justices itinerant. A new prison was built in 1385-6 and from then onwards, this was the main function the castle area.
Having sided with the Parliamentarians in the Civil War, the town walls were pulled down after the Restoration and the castle partly demolished (HKW). (PastScape)