History of the Castle

The extensive and evocative earthworks of Wallingford Castle occupy much of the north-east quarter of the town. The Castle Meadows enable you to explore a complex array of banks, ditches and other features relating to late Saxon, medieval, post-medieval and early modern works and landscaping.

castle meadows today

    While the foundation of Wallingford castle is not documented specifically, it can be assumed with a reasonable level of certainty that the first castle was constructed in the immediate wake of the Norman Conquest, possibly as early as 1067.  The likely context for this building operation was William the Conqueror’s systematic programme of castle-building within the major pre-Conquest urban centres of southern England, designed to suppress populations and seize control of the apparatus of royal government across the shires.  The existence of a castle at Wallingford is first documented positively in 1071 when Abbot Aldred of Abingdon was imprisoned there as the result of probable complicity in the rebellion of Edwin and Morcar.  The castle was subjected to a series of sieges from 1139-53, when it acted as one of the main power bases of forces loyal to the Empress Matilda.  This succession of military actions led to construction of a number of siege castles (or ‘counter castles’) designed to blockade Wallingford and its garrison, although the precise numbers and locations of these short-term fortifications have been the subject of debate.  Following the disturbances of the Anarchy, the castle passed to Henry II; it was repaired and strengthened in the last quarter of the twelfth century, and extensive construction work, including renovations to the ditches of both castle and town is recorded in the reign of John.  The castle, honour and town were bestowed on Richard, Earl of Cornwall in 1231, and subsequently passed to his son, Edmund, before reverting to the Crown in 1300; the castle was again the subject of occasional royal investment before its general dilapidation in the late Tudor period, and was systematically demolished in 1652 following a Civil War siege.

      Given the enormous potential of Wallingford’s topography and archaeology to illuminate the Saxo-Norman transition, the evidence of Domesday Book is especially relevant.  The separate Domesday entry for Wallingford heads the entries for the rest of the shire, indicating a flourishing town with a Saturday market and mint, and also affords a tantalising glimpse of how the new Norman presence represented by the castle impacted on the town.  In 1066 the royal borough contained 276 houses (hagae) on eight virgates of land; by 1086 eight of these properties had been destroyed to make way for the castle.  This figure seems minimal in comparison to other urban centres into which castles had been inserted, such as Cambridge (where 27 dwellings were destroyed because of the castle) or Lincoln (166), and the reasons why less than 3% of properties were displaced at Wallingford remain open to speculation.   Explanations include the likelihood that the original castle took up a far smaller area than the earthworks of the motte and inner bailey suggest, or perhaps more likely, that it was imposed upon a zone where settlement was undeveloped or had contracted.   A further possibility is that part of the early castle occupied an area lying beyond the custom-paying boundaries of the borough, as at Stamford, where the Norman castle lay within a royal estate, and the number of properties displaced at Domesday (five) was similarly low.   Possible evidence of high-status antecedent occupation on the site of Wallingford castle is provided by the reference in Domesday that Miles Crispin, the Norman lord of Wallingford and probable castellan of the castle, held the land, previously in the hands of Edward the Confessor, ‘where the housecarls lived’.

surveying a large castle moat

 

   The impact of Norman lordship on the Saxon townscape was particularly conspicuous given the ‘twinned’ establishment of the Holy Trinity Benedictine Priory (founded 1077–97), the precincts of two sites, at least in their later medieval forms, taking up the entire northern part of the burh.  Yet Norman disruption of the late Saxon townscape is balanced by evidence of renewed growth: the 22 Frenchmen’s dwellings recorded in 1086 seem to indicate an immigrant presence, as at Shrewsbury and Southampton.  This perhaps suggests the attraction of new colonists to a commercial focus boosted by the castle, on the model of Northampton, Norwich and Nottingham, where new French boroughs had developed by the time of Domesday.

  

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