Wight Life

Carisbrooke Castle

By J W Roberts

Picture of Carisbrooke Castle

IN 1974, nearly a quarter of a million people visited Carisbrooke Castle. This is evidence that its attraction to tourists, dating back to the 18th century, is still being maintained. Artists were inspired to sketch and paint there; others like John Wesley in his famous Journal, to describe, for example, the donkey working at the well. John Keats, staying in Canterbury House with a view of the castle, wrote to his friend Reynolds in 1817: 'I don't think I shall ever see ruins surpassing those of Carisbrooke Castle. The Keep is one bower of ivy; a colony of jackdaws have been there for years. I daresay I have seen many a descendant of some old cawer who peeped through the bars at Charles I'. There has, indeed, for so long, hung over the castle the shadow of the King's imprisonment for nearly a year, and of the tragic death of the Princess Elizabeth two years later. Yet even without these Stuart associations, Carisbrooke has always had much to offer visitors. It is believed that there was a Celtic stronghold here and that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to it when recording the slaughter, in 530 AD, of many men by Teutonic invaders under Cerdic and Cynric. Masonry, containing herring-bone work below the Norman stonework, suggests late Roman defences. With the coming of the Normans, after 1066, the uncertainties of the 'Dark Ages' largely disappear. We discover that, as part of the manor of Alvington, the castle is mentioned in Domesday Book as standing 'on one virgate of land', and we are told, from other sources, that William I himself arrested his ambitious half-brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, at Carisbrooke. The Island, at the Conquest, had been among the many possessions given to the King's friend and kinsman, William Fitzosbert but, as he was killed in 1071, and his son soon afterwards convicted of treason, we assume that these first Norman lords built little more than a 'Motte and bailey' castle with a wooden erection upon an artificial mound and a chapel within the inner bailey.

It was with the coming of the De Redvers family, about 1100, that the castle, as we know it today, began to take shape. There is reference to a new castle 'stately built of hewn stone and strengthened by great fortifications' in what is known as the `Gesta Stephenri Regis Anglorum', and Baldwin de Redvers who, it is assumed, was responsible for building this castle, played an important part in Stephen's reign. We know that he supported the King's cousin Matilda, was forced to retire from Exeter and came to his Island stronghold, intending to hold it against Stephen's forces. Unfortunately, the well in the keep ran dry and he had to surrender. We believe that Baldwin was able to build the octagonal shell keep and the 12th century curtain walls. His younger son, William de Vernon, added a good deal to the comforts of Carisbrooke by building the great hall, within the east wall of which is the twin lancet window, surely one of the oldest in the Island. William de Vernon's great grand-daughter was the 'uncrowned Queen of the Wight', Isobella de Fortibus. In the 23 years she resided here, she made an important contribution to the growth of Carisbrooke. New domestic buildings were erected under the north wall which included 'a great Kitchen', and the new chapel of St Peter was built into the main building. When the castle passed into the hands of Edward I, in 1293, we have written evidence that there were substantial residential quarters within the curtain walls.

Picture of Carisbrooke Castle GatewayThe next stage of development at Carisbrooke was influenced by the threats from France in the 14th century. The structural changes in these years reflect the need for improved defences. The vaulted gateway at the top of the 72 steps which still lead to the keep was added about 1335 and the drum towers helped to strengthen the main entrance to the castle itself. When the French did attack in 1377, it was successfully defended by its Constable, Sir Hugh Tyrrell. At the end of that century, with invasion once again possible, the command of the Island was given to a distinguished soldier, William de Montacute, Earl of Salisbury. As a man of refined tastes he was responsible for one of the castle's chief architectural attractions, the fine building to the south of the great hall. He also added the attractive fire place hall in the haitself and, on the SW buttress of these buildings are his family coat of arms. The Wydeville coat of arms seen on the parapet of the magnificent gatehouse remind us that under Edward IV's brother-in-law, about 1470, the drum towers were raised to their present height and the machicolation introduced.

A new chapter in the history of Carisbrooke opens with the worsening of relations with Spain in the reign of Elizabeth I and the consequent threat from the Armada. The Queen's cousin, Sir George Carey, came into residence at the castle and assumed the title of governor. He first gave considerable attention to domestic improvements. A new kitchen was built under the north wall, the great hall was given two storeys, and officers' quarters were erected on the left hand side, just within the gatehouse. Despite their present ruined condition, it is easy to see this was once a fine Elizabethan building. It was, however, Carey's new defence system which was to have lasting effect on the appearance of Carisbrooke. The bowling green, as we know it today, was enclosed and, beyond the medieval walls, extended defences in depth were introduced, consisting of a stone revetted bank and ditch with five outer bastions or bulwarks. At the corners of the old curtain walls additional stonework gave increased support, particularly at the SE and SW corners where the dates 1601 and 1602 can still be seen. A new outer gateway bearing the letters ER (Elizabeth Regina) and the date 1598 was also introduced. Changes since Tudor times have not been of great significance in the architectural history of the castle. Alterations in Victorian times have been described as 'unwarrantable creations'. Two important developments in the present century, however, both largely through the inspiring influence of Princess Beatrice, have added considerably to the attraction of Carisbrooke. First, the chapel of St Nicholas was rebuilt to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the execution of Charles I with Bernini's bronze bust of the king in the vestibule and, beneath it, his last word `Remember'. There had been two former chapels on this site, one mentioned in Domesday Book and another, which replaced it in 1738, proving a very inadequate substitute. The present beautiful building was opened in 1904.

Then, too, the royal family were closely associated with the establishment in the castle of the Island museum. The old rooms over the great gatehouse were restored so that in 1898, Princess Beatrice, the newly appointed governor of the Island, was able to open the museum there. Just over half a century later, permission was given by George V for the old governors' house to house the ever-growing number of museum exhibits and, in this historical building, since April 1951 great progress has been made; under the capable guidance of its curator the Island now has a museum of which it can be proud.

Here, within the castle itself, there is much to remind the visitors of the part the place has played in local and national history. For those who make the effort to go to the top of the Norman keep, or walk round the walls, there is the additional attraction of the wonderful views of so much of the Island which can be obtained from such a central position. Perhaps it was such views that inspired Keats to write:

'A thing of beauty is a joy for ever
Its loveliness increases, it will never
Pass into nothingness'