The Royal Castle

Even if Marlborough was not actually demolished, Henry III virtually rebuilt it entirely. Again, nothing remains above ground. A section of the foundation of the castle wall was recently excavated but is now covered over to preserve it. 

If Marlborough had not been a royal castle, we would know very little about it. But the royal accounts for Henry III’s reign survive in the National Archives, and there is a huge amount of detail about the work on the castle which can be found there. We learn about minute items like the locks fitted to the windows in the Queen’s bedroom and about the workmen, from the highly paid master masons to the women who carried water and sand for the builders working on the castle walls.  

By fitting scraps of information about the position of the buildings – ‘next to the King’s bedchamber’, ‘near the moat’ and so forth – we can draw up a possible map. H. C. Brentnall, a Master at the College, did this in 1938 and it is still the best plan that we have. It shows that, at its fullest extent, the outer part of the castle reached out to Leaf Block to the east and beyond the Ellis Theatre to the south. 

All we can do to recover the castle’s actual appearance is to look at other contemporary buildings which do survive. For instance, the massive gatehouse at Chepstow gives some idea of how the castle would have looked from the town side; the tower at the left would have been smaller, and of course the keep and the Mound would have been to the right. The keep was probably a single large tower, replacing the earlier tower and surrounding wall; it contained a chapel and, if we take Clifford’s Tower at York as a comparison, a prison and the royal treasury. 

At the foot of the Mound, stretching towards the river, there was a large open area within a powerful wall with towers. This was the outer bailey, and here were the royal lodgings, including a great hall, another chapel and the private rooms of the King and Queen. Henry III brought his wife, Eleanor of Provence, here in 1236, after their marriage. Eleanor was only twelve; she has been described by Henry’s biographer as having ‘a beauty informed by poise, grace and good manners, and he was deeply in love with her. On this first visit to Marlborough, which was practically Henry’s favourite castle, Eleanor stayed in the rooms which Henry’s mother had occupied.  

After the couple left, Henry gave detailed instructions as to the work that should be done and the royal accommodation became more and more luxurious. Nine years later, a new chamber was built for her, and in 1256, the walls between the King’s and Queen’s chambers were pulled down. Fireplaces, privies and larger windows were installed, perhaps with a view over the Kennet. Elaborate decorations were specified by Henry. Alas, none of this survives, though elsewhere we can see the kind of wall paintings that might once have been here. 

After Henry’s death, Eleanor was given the castle, and for the next three centuries it was the property of Queens of England, including all six of Henry VIII’s wives in turn. By the time that Edward VI granted the castle to his uncle, Jane Seymour’s brother, in 1548 it was a ruin. Decay had set in within a decade of Eleanor’s death, with the collapse of part of the keep, and it was more or less abandoned by 1371, when a jury reported that most of the defences ‘can hardly be repaired without a complete rebuilding’. Even the rector of St Peter’s, surveyor for the castle, had helped himself to materials sufficient to build two houses in the town. 

Photo right – Chepstow Castle, built around the same time as Marlborough: this gives us some idea of what Marlborough Castle might have looked like.