The Marlborough Mound and its missing castle

Within months of the Battle of Hastings, the Norman armies came to Marlborough, and – though we have no positive physical evidence to prove this, they created a rough fortification on the Mound, which later became a substantial medieval keep. We have no firm evidence about the series of structures which probably stood here as the castle developed, but records in the National Archives seem to imply that it was a circular tower with a ring wall around it, like Launceston castle, which, like the last Marlborough tower, was built in the second quarter of the thirteenth century.

Stretching to the south of the Mound was the castle bailey, where most of the main accommodation stood. What we know about this also depends on the records, and a search for all the identifiable entries relating to Marlborough in the National Archives was commissioned for this book. In terms of the physical appearance of the castle, this search largely confirms the fine reconstruction using many of the same records which was proposed by a master at the school, H. C. Brentnall, in 1938 (included in the book).

The use of the castle in the early thirteenth century has not been fully explored before, and what emerges is a much richer story. The castle was in the centre of the lands that had belonged to the great nobles of the Saxon court, and their Norman successors were also granted estates in this region. During John’s reign, the king frequently uses the castle, and at one moment of crisis, he gathered his treasure here from the monastic houses in which he had deposited it for safety. He also used it as a major local treasury, so that he could access cash more speedily than by sending for it from the exchequer at Westminster. And just before the crisis over Magna Carta in 1215, he sends his queen and their children to Marlborough for safety.

For Henry III, it was one of his most favoured residences outside London, and although it ceased to be as much of a fortress and administrative centre as it had been under John, he spent a total of about two years there in the first three decades of his reign. His love for Eleanor of Provence is reflected in the costly refurbishment of the royal chambers in the castle. She was frequently at Marlborough, and was clearly much attached to the castle, which passed to her on Henry III’s death in 1272. It was here that she retreated for several months to look after their handicapped child, Katherine, ‘mute but very beautiful in face’, who died at the age of two.

After Eleanor’s death, the castle became part of the dowry of English queens until 1548. But it had begun to decay shortly after it ceased to be part of the king’s estate. Part of the great tower collapsed before 1300, though in 1326 it was still strong enough for Edward II to imitate his great-grandfather and send his children there for safety just before the events leading to his deposition that year. By 1400 the whole castle was more or less deserted. The meagre list of royal property there in the fourteenth century is matched by accusations against the local rector who had surveyed the castle in 1371, describing how he had removed material from the site to build his own houses. By 1541, when John Leland came to Marlborough on his great journey round England recording its antiquities, only the remains of the keep were still prominent.

This is the second of three blogs about The Marlborough Mound, edited by Richard Barber, who has had a huge influence on the study of medieval history and literature, as both a writer and a publisher. The first blog can be found here.

The Marlborough Mound
Prehistoric Mound, Medieval Castle, Georgian Garden
Edited by Richard Barber
41 colour and 14 line illus.
9781783271863, Hardcover, £29.25 / $42.25

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