Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, Part II

Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire

Part II:  Berkhamsted Castle

This is the second of three parts dealing with Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire.

Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, Part II

Castle Ruins

When I visited Berkhamsted, rather than the town itself, my first stop were the ruins of the castle. As the reason for my visit was to pay my respects to Cecily Neville, the mother of Richard III, it was only polite to go to where she had resided.

The castle is located a bit away from the town, on higher ground, instead of the marshy river area.  Berkhamsted was an important strategic location, as it was on one of the main routes between London and the Midlands, approx. 30 miles (= 48 km) from the capital.

Don’t be confused by today’s entrance to the castle area.  You will pass the Keeper’s House, but this is only from the 19th century.

11th century

The site is regarded as the most impressive motte and bailey castle in the UK.  Its origins go back to the Norman conquest.  After the surrender of the English, William granted the manor and honour of Berkhamsted to his half-brother, Robert of Mortain.  Robert began with building the castle as a new manorial centre soon afterwards, probably between 1068 and 1070.  Initially, the castle buildings were a timber structure.

The Domesday Book,[i] completed by 1086, records a fossarius.  This means a ditch builder, who in this context would have been someone involved in the building and maintenance of the defence works.

However, right from the beginning, Berkhamsted Castle had been a high-status residence and the administrative centre for the people who held it.

12th century

By the beginning of the 12th century, the castle was in the king’s control.  Henry II gave it to Thomas Becket, when he made him chancellor in 1155.  Becket spent much time at the castle and began rebuilding the timber castle in masonry.  Part of this process was the huge stone curtain wall.  When Becket and Henry fell out, the king took the castle back and stayed there frequently.

The castle was designed as a fortress with earthwork defences, a high motte and two moats.  The water-filled moats would prevent tunnelling under the wall.

Henry’s sons started a tradition of granting Berkhamsted Castle to their queens.  Richard I gave it to Berengaria and John to Isabella.

13th century

The fortifications were tested in 1216, during the war between the barons and King John.  Prince Louis of France (later King Louis VIII)[ii], had been invited to fight on the side of the barons.  He was a direct descendant of William of Normandy and had been offered the English throne.  He laid siege to Berkhamsted Castle for 2 weeks in December 1216.  His men fired continuously destructive missiles from all sides.   The castle’s forces were commanded by Waleran, who “manfully resist[ed] with his companions in arms, and sen[t] to Hell the souls of many excommunicate Frenchmen”[iii].

However, King John had died in October and been succeeded by his nine-year-old son Henry III.   The enthusiasm towards the king from France dwindled and the barons rather supported Henry.  Henry (or probably rather his council) instructed the constable to surrender Berkhamsted on humanitarian grounds.

The constable Waleran was a German by birth and seems to have come to England in the early 13th century, possibly from Westfalen, together with two brothers.  He served both John and Henry III.[iv]

In the second half of the 13th century Berkhamsted was the favourite residence of Richard of Cornwall, younger brother of Henry III.  Goodall regards him as “The outstanding castle builder of the 1250s”[v].  He had the good luck to be very wealthy.   He built a three-storey tower in 1254, of which unfortunately very little survives.   He transformed the castle into a palatial home, with King’s and Queen’s chambers, a Queen’s chapel and a nurse’s chamber.  Richard died at the castle in 1272.

His only surviving son Edmund, who was born at the castle, inherited it as well as his father’s wealth.  He made Berkhamsted the administrative centre of his earldom and established a deer park by 1280.

14th century

In 1337, Edward III gave the manor to his son Edward, the Black Prince, whom he created Duke of Cornwall. The castle has remained part of the estate of the Duchy of Cornwall to this day. Edward was only 7 years old at the time.  An extensive programme of repairs was carried out.  While Edward was still a minor, the castle became one of the favourite residences of the royal family.

Later it was one of the principal residences of the Black Prince.  He is said to have been very fond of hunting in the park and it was probably him, who expanded it by 180 acres.  He ordered the park to be enclosed with paling.  Rabbit warrens in the park were to be enclosed with hedges.  In its heyday, the park “must have been one of the county’s most beautiful and spectacular medieval parks”.[vi]

In the context of Berkhamsted one of the prince’s retinue, Henry of Berkhamsted, is worth a mention.  As his name indicates he probably was a local and he certainly had strong ties to the town. He seems to have initially been in the service of Bartholomew Burghersh the elder, who was a close adviser to the Black Prince.

Henry is mentioned in 1351 as a porter of the castle, when he was “granted the keeping of all litter found in the chambers of the castle whenever they are cleaned”.  He was made porter for life in 1353.

After fighting with the prince at Poitiers (1356), he was promoted to constable of the castle, a position he seems to have held until 1381.  He was also compensated £ 6 for the loss of his horse, presumably during the battle. He received land free of rent from the prince, to which he added land he leased locally.

He continued in the prince’s service and accompanied him to Aquitaine in 1363.  He seems to have come back regularly, possibly to oversee the prince’s interests in Berkhamsted.  He now had the title of marshal of the hall.[vii]  In the local parish church is a tomb of a knight and his wife, which is thought to be that of Henry. (see Part III)

Castle precinct

Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, Part II


The castle had a steep-sided earthen mount, the motte, surrounded by an oval courtyard, the bailey.  The mound is around 14 metres high and 55 metres in diameter at the base.  On top are the foundations of a keep, about 18 metres in diameter, containing its own well.[viii]

Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, Part II

Mound with a well

The large bailey measures approx. 130 metres from north to south and 100 metres from east to west.  It is enclosed by a flint-built curtain wall, which included three half-round towers and a large rectangular tower.

On the west side of the bailey, there are remains of a rectangular building, which might have been a chapel.  If that was the case, it is likely that the hall and high-status living quarters were also on this side.  Considering the status of those who lived here, it won’t come as a surprise that the living quarters were very luxurious and comfortable.  There were also other buildings in the bailey.

Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, Part II

View over the bailey to the remains of the chapel and main well (right-hand side)

At the southern end was the main gateway, the South Gate.  It opened to a wooden bridge, with a barbican at the bridgehead.  At the northern end was another small gate, the Dernegate, with another wooden bridge across the moat.  The main well of the castle was also located in the bailey, to the north of the hall.

Personally, I found the remnants of the kitchens, hearths in the thick walls, particularly poignant.  These are situated on the eastern side of the bailey, well away from the hall to minimise the risk of fire to the high-status living quarters.

Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, Part II

Remains of hearths

For a regular supply of food and drink, the castle had a brewhouse within the bailey, and outside the walls the already mentioned deer park for a supply of venison, a fishpond and vineyard.  There was also a mill, Upper Mill or Castle Mill, in what is now Mill Street, which supplied the kitchens with flour. This was one of the two mills mentioned in Doomsday, both powered by the Bulbourne River.  The Castle Mill survived until 1926.[ix]

15th century

Margaret of Anjou was granted the castle in 1448.  11 years later, she gave it to her son Edward.  During their time, parts of the park were leased to others.

For Ricardians the most interesting owner was Cecily, duchess of York.  In 1469, Edward IV granted Berkhamsted to his mother, who lived here until her death in 1495.  He visited her a few times between 1474 and 1479.[x]

Richard III confirmed his brother’s grant early in his reign.  He came to see his mother at the castle on 17 May 1485, just three months before his death at the battle of Bosworth.[xi]  Probably neither anticipated that this would be the last time they saw each other.

Initially, she resided only part-time at Berkhamsted.  However, by and by this became her principal home.  It has sometimes been claimed that she lived here as a recluse.  Although religious services and prayer dominated her daily routine, Berkhamsted was also the very active centre of her administration with an extensive household staff.  A role the castle had fulfilled since the beginning.  This in turn had an enormous influence on the local economy and food production.

For the administrative side of her life, an hour was set aside each day after dinner (i.e. in the early afternoon) for “all such as hath any matter to shewe unto her”.  Her rules made clear it that her servants had to pay the appropriate price and were not allowed to run up personal debts.  To check up on this, proclamations were made in the surrounding market towns four times each year.  If anyone had any money owed to them by her staff, they were to come forward.

It is known that she had a large staff, including a dean of the chapel, an almoner, gentlemen ushers, carvers, cupbearers, a cofferer, a clerk of the kitchen, a marshal and “all the gentlemen within the house”.   Although the source only mentions the male staff, but if you add all the female servants this shows how large her retinue was.  For all this staff some sort of welfare system was in place.  If anyone was sick, they were to have “all such thinges as may be to their ease”.  If someone’s ability to work was reduced, they should still continue to receive their full wages, at least during Cecily’s lifetime.[xii]

Unsurprisingly, a number of local Berkhamsted men were in her service.  One of them was Robert Incent, her secretary, who is buried with his wife in the local church.  More on him later (see Part III).

16th century and later

After Cecily’s death, the castle and manor were granted to her granddaughter, Henry VII’s queen Elizabeth of York. Later it was given consecutively to three of Henry VIII’s wives, Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour.  However, none of them ever visited the castle and the domestic staff was dismissed.  Losing its royal connection led to an economic decline of the town.  In 1086, Berkhamsted’s wealth had ranked third after Hertford and St Albans, but now it was overtaken by other principal towns in the county, for example nearby Hemel Hempstead.

The castle itself fell into disrepair.  The park, however, survived.  It was leased to John Verney during the reign of Henry VIII.  Elizabeth I graned it in 1580 to Sir Edward Carey.  Carey built a grand mansion in the park, Berkhamsted Place, approx. 400 metres north of the old castle.  Some of the building material was reused material from the castle.

In 1620 and 1640, it came to riots about the enclosure of parts of the common land, The Frith, adjacent to the park.  Eventually, the villagers were successful in saving “the common not only for their own community but also for posterity”.[xiii]

Unfortunately, today only ruins remain of what must have been a very substantial and comfortable castle in its prime.  After all the hustle and bustle of the past, it is now a quiet place, where a visitor can walk around at leisure, trying to imagine what the castle was like in its heyday.  A walk along the top of the ramparts is recommended, as from here you have spectacular views of the castle’s extent and surviving flint rubble walls.


[i] You can see the relevant page of the Domesday Book here: [last accessed 24 Nov. 2018]

[ii] Hanley, C., ‘The Forgotten King of England:  Louis VIII’, Yale Books (2 June 2016).  URL: [last accessed 10 Dec. 2018]

[iii] Roger of Wendover, Flores Historiarum (Rolls Ser.), ii, 200, quoted in ‘Berkhampstead St Peter: Introduction, honour, manor and castle’

[iv] Ray, M., ‘A Tale of the Teutons: German knights in the service of three English kings in the thirteenth century -the Teutonicus (Tyes) family’.  Available at [last accessed 26 Nov. 2018]

[v] Goodall, p. 188

[vi] Rowe, p. 62

[vii] Green, D.S., ‘The household and military retinue of Edward the Black Prince’, PhD thesis, University of Nottingham (1998), p. 73 + Appendix, pp. 15-16;  Rickard, J., The Castle Community: The Personnel of English and Welsh Castles, 1272-1422.  Boydell, 2002, pp. 43 + 254; Tout, T.F., Chapters in the Administrative History of Mediaeval England, vol. V.  Manchester University Press, 1930, p. 321

[viii] On the Berkhamsted Castle website you can find an overview map of the precinct, which helps with visualising what was where,

[ix] ‘Rich history of site that gave daily bread’, The Dacorum Heritage Trust Ltd (5 May 2010).  URL: [last accessed 5 Dec. 2018]

[x] Ashdown-Hill, J., The Full Itinerary of Edward IV.  Published online by Amberley Publishing.  URL:

[xi] Edwards, R., The Itinerary of King Richard III 1483-1485.  Richard III Society, 1983, p. 36

[xii] Ward, J., Women in England in the Middle Ages.  Hambledon Continuum, 2006, p. 78 + 104; ‘Cicely Duchess of York’, Berkhamsted Castle.  URL: [last accessed 18 Oct. 2018]

[xiii] Falvey, p. 150

Part I:  Historical background & References

Part III:  A look around town

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