Berkhamsted Castle

Has been described as a Certain Timber Castle (Motte), and also as a Certain Masonry Castle

There are masonry ruins/remnants remains

NameBerkhamsted Castle
Alternative NamesBerkhampstead; Berkhamstead; Great Berkhamsted; Berchamstede; Berghhamsted
Historic CountryHertfordshire
Modern AuthorityHertfordshire
1974 AuthorityHertfordshire
Civil ParishBerkhamsted

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 siege 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 siege 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)

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law

Not Listed

Historic England (PastScape) Defra or Monument number(s)
County Historic Environment Record
OS Map Grid ReferenceSP995082
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Copyright Stephen McKay and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons license.
Copyright Stephen McKay and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons license.
Copyright Stephen McKay and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons license.
Copyright Stephen McKay and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons license.
Copyright Stephen McKay and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons license.
Copyright Stephen McKay and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons license.
Copyright Stephen McKay and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons license.
Copyright Stephen McKay and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons license.
Copyright Sebastian Ballard and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons license.
Copyright Alan Simkins and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons license.

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Guide Books

  • Peers, C., 1948, Berkhamsted Castle (HMSO)
  • Peers, C., 1936, Berkhamsted Castle (HMSO)

Primary Sources

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  • Isobel Thompson, 2005, Extensive Urban Survey - Hertfordshire (English Heritage) Download copy