Although Berkhamsted Castle is now a ruin, it has a long and rich history stretching all the way back to the Norman conquest of England in 1066.
After William the Conqueror’s victory against the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Hastings, he marched his army across the Thames Valley and north into Hertfordshire.
William, seeing the advantages of Berkhamsted’s location along a key route into the Midlands from London, ordered the building of a castle.
The construction of the castle was overseen by William’s half-brother, Robert of Mortain, who also established a large deer park to provide hunting grounds.
The castle was confiscated when Robert’s son rebelled against King Henry I and was given to Henry’s chancellor, Ranulf. In 1123, when Ranulf and Henry were travelling to the castle together, Ranulf apparently became so overexcited by the view ahead of him that he fell off his horse, and later died from his injuries.
Henry II subsequently gave the castle to Thomas Becket when he became chancellor in 1155. Becket extended the castle and its grounds, but fell from favour in 1164 and, once again, the castle was confiscated by the crown.
Henry II decided to keep the castle for himself this time. As well as spending a lot of time there he also officially recognised the surrounding settlement of Berkhamsted as a town in 1156.
By the time the widely disliked King John came into possession of the castle, political tensions in England were beginning to rise. Many people were opposed to his rule, and before long a conflict between the King and an alliance of rebels seemed likely.
In 1215, King John ordered that Berkhamsted Castle be prepared for siege. A trusted German mercenary named Ranulph was put in charge of the castle to review and improve the castle’s defences.
Civil war broke out later the same year.
At first the rebels were hampered by a lack of equipment, particularly siege engines. In May, 1216, however, the future French King Louis VIII crossed the English Channel and joined the rebel cause. He was proclaimed king in London and brought with him the heavy siege equipment the rebels had been missing.
King John died in October and, in December, Louis besieged Berkhamsted Castle. The French soldiers attacked the castle for 20 days until the garrison within finally surrendered.
The castle remained in rebel hands until the following year, when the forces loyal to Henry III finally defeated the rebels.
Berkhamsted Castle subsequently became associated with the Earls and Dukes of Cornwall, beginning with Henry III’s brother, Richard, who became the Earl of Cornwall and inherited the castle from his mother, Isabella. Richard restored much of the castle and added a three-storey tower in 1254.
Meanwhile, the town of Berkhamsted was prospering as a result of the growing wool trade.
The castle passed down through the line of kings until Edward II gave it to his royal favourite – and probable lover – Piers Gaveston, whom he also made Earl of Cornwall. Gaveston was married there in 1307 with Edward in attendance.
Edward III later used Berkhamsted Castle as his main property and invested considerable sums in renovating it, extending the park until it covered 991 acres.
During the fifteenth century, Geoffrey Chaucer, later famous for writing The Canterbury Tales, was appointed as Clerk of Works at Berkhamsted Castle. He was eventually removed from this position, however, as he would rather focus on his poetry.
By 1580 the castle had been left abandoned for nearly 100 years and was falling into ruin. Stone from the castle was later used to build Berkhamsted Place, a local school and other buildings in the nearby town.
In the 1830s, it seemed that Berkhamsted Castle was to be completely demolished when plans to build the new London and Birmingham Railway proposed a track that ran right through the site of the castle.
However, concerns over the need to protect ancient buildings had been growing for several years. The castle was ultimately protected in the 1833 act that approved the railway, forcing the track to take another route. Berkhamsted Castle was the first building to receive statutory protection from development in this way.
The Office of Works acquired Berkhamsted Castle from the Duchy of Cornwall in 1930 and the site is now operated as a tourist attraction by English Heritage.