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Good question. You can see for yourself that there’s very little of it left. True, there’s a fine motte, traces of a few fireplaces, site of a kitchen, with an attractive gap-toothed inner curtain wall built mainly of local flint – and a well. But that’s about it – and the massive moats, which would have deterred besiegers from undermining the walls and whose reflective waters do at least enhance photographs, were silted and overgrown when I last visited. So I am even denied the joy of showing you a half-decent snap of the place. No, as ruins go, Berkhamsted Castle must be amongst the most successful around – because it is almost completely ruined.
And just to make your medieval castle experience even more perfect, trains thunder by to or from London’s Euston station every few minutes. This is because, in 1838, the London and Birmingham Railway Company opened its line through Berkhamsted, slicing through the castle’s outer wall and the main barbican gate to the south. Oh yes – and the Stanstead flightpath seems to be directly overhead too. Housing nudges unobtrusively in from the west but, beyond and to the north-east, it’s open country. Behind, to the south and the town, the Grand Union Canal runs peacefully in parallel to the railway. And the station is just a minute’s walk away. You can be there from central London in half an hour. So Berkhamsted Castle nestles comfortably on the edge of suburban commuter-land. And, you know what? Somehow, none of the noise or absence of massive towers and crenellations seems to matter much. You can do an easy circuit all the way round the castle, balancing along the humped remains of the outer curtain wall between the inner and outer moats. It’s an unassuming, yet attractive, spot, frequented by dog-walkers; the grass interior, immaculately mowed, is a good place for a picnic – or even to soak up some rays.
After his victory at the Battle of Hastings in October 1066, William of Normandy gradually made his way toward London. Probably preferring to enter the city from the west rather than risk getting trapped on a narrow crossing such as London Bridge, he crossed the Thames at Wallingford, in Oxfordshire. The Saxon leaders arranged to meet William at Berkhamsted Castle, and there they offered him the throne of England. Thus, William became ‘the Conqueror’ and rode into London to be crowned King William I at Westminster on Christmas Day 1066.
The Normans, under the direction of William’s half-brother, Robert of Mortain, established a classic motte and bailey fortification at Berkhamsted, with timber palisades, on the site of whatever had been there in Saxon times. It was in a strategic position, on the route between the English Midlands and London. In 1155, Henry II gave Berkamsted to his chum and chancellor, Thomas a Becket. When the two of them fell out, Henry took the castle back – but not before Thomas had carried out extensive alterations. Before he became Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas loved his little luxuries and, by this time, wooden buildings had given way to stone. He would probably have also enjoyed hunting in the adjacent royal deer park, and the produce of a neighbouring vineyard.
Berkhamsted was always a royal castle and Isabella, King John’s young Queen, spent a great deal of time here. However, in the last year of John’s life, 1216, and at the invitation of disaffected rebel barons, England was invaded by the French under the future King Louis VIII. As part of this campaign, the French laid siege to Berkhamsted for two weeks before the garrison surrendered. John’s timely death unified resistance in favour of John’s nine year old son, Henry, though, and the French went home in 1217.
The castle passed to King Henry III’s brother, the hugely wealthy Richard, Earl of Cornwall. Richard made Berkhamsted a luxurious palace and the administrative centre for his earldom. It was his family home; two of his wives died there – as did he, after suffering a stroke in 1272.
The royal association with Berkhamsted continues. It was a favourite residence of Edward, the Black Prince, who carried out extensive repairs (when he wasn’t fighting the French). It was a prison, briefly, for King John of France after the Battle of Poitiers. In 1361, Edward married Joan, ‘the fair maid of Kent’ – and they spent their first Christmas together at the castle. Some say that the Black Prince died within its walls in 1376, but it is generally thought he died at the Palace of Westminster.
By 1389, Berkhamsted Castle was evidently in need of repair because one Geoffrey Chaucer was appointed clerk of works. Apparently, he was a better at poetry. In any event, Henry IV lived at Berkamsted as did, probably, Henry VI and (separately) Cecily Neville, the Duchess of York. After her death in 1495, though, the castle was abandoned and, a generation later, it was reported as being unfit for royal use. Over time, many of the stones were removed and used in other buildings in the town. So we are left now with this neat moated suburban ruin, where the English formally surrendered to the Normans and where kings and queens lived, loved and died.
Something to ponder on, while you’re commuting to Euston.
Go to A Bit About Britain’s directory listing for Berkhamsted and discover more castles.