We journeyed across to the Isle of Wight to visit a striking Norman castle atop a high hill above the town of Newport. It was here that Charles I was imprisoned in 1647 before his final journey to London and his death. The king’s bedchamber has been preserved, as has the window through which he attempted to escape. Join us today as we discover a long and fascinating history here at Carisbrooke Castle.
Roman and Anglo-Saxon strongholds had occupied the site for centuries and a strong wall, built around the year 1000, was used to stop Viking raids. From then onwards the castle was expanded, fortified and improved several times . After the Norman Conquest William Fitz Osborn, who was the Earl of Hereford, established a new castle here on the traditional Norman motte and bailey plan, with a pair of bailey enclosures leading to a tall motte surmounted by a fortified keep. The castle later passed to the Redvers family. It was more than likely Baldwin de Redvers, the Earl of Devon, who built the strong curtain wall to enhance the earlier Norman defences.
It was not long before the castle began to play a part in national affairs and in 1136 Redvers sided with Queen Maud in her bid for the throne. The Earl was defeated by King Stephen and fled here from his mainland base. He thought the Carisbrooke defences would enable him to withstand the king’s forces, but the water supply ran out and he was forced to surrender.
Carisbrooke owes much to one powerful woman, Countess Isabella de Fortebus. The Countess was one of the richest and most powerful 13th-century landholders in England, with estates stretching from Wight to Yorkshire. She inherited the castle and during her reign, extensive upgrades were made at the site and In 1262 she chose to make her home at Carisbrooke. She transformed the stark castle defences to create a comfortable suite of rooms including a great hall, private chambers, and the chapel of St Peter. The chapel is now incorporated inside the museum area.
In 1377 the castle revolted an invasion by the French, this was largely due to the castles position which had significant strategic importance due to the control it offered over the Solent and was attacked on multiple occasions. The gatehouse was then upgraded and heightened with gun loops added after this assault to strengthen defences.
Beginning in 1597 the castle defences were extended yet again with a series of bastions and earthworks designed by an Italian engineer. The Tudor earthworks completely enclose the Norman baileys and are reinforced with stone and scattered 5 bastions shaped like arrowheads to counter the threat of artillery fire, but by the Tudor period, the major threat was from a Spanish invasion.
The castle is most famous for its association with Charles I. Charles was imprisoned at Carisbrooke in 1647 after his armies were defeated by Parliament in the Civil War. The king was lodged comfortably in the Constable’s Lodging, a Tudor building that touches the medieval Great Hall. Set close against the north-west wall of the castle are a suite of rooms that formed part of the accommodation. High on the outer wall is a small, barred window. In 1648 Charles I attempted to escape through this window and climb down a rope to supporters waiting at the base of the castle wall. He had bribed a pair of guards to look the other way during his attempt. The guards took his money but then notified the castle authorities, and the attempt was obstructed. Charles had earlier tried a similar escape from his bedroom, but that time he misjudged the gap between the window bars and became wedged between them, caught like a rat in a trap until his keepers found him. He could not stop plotting to renew hostilities with Parliament and then because of his actions he was taken into much more uncomfortable living quarters and then was eventually taken from Carisbrooke to London for execution.
The classic view of Carisbrooke Castle is of the imposing, dominant twin-towered bulk of the gatehouse. This began as a simple gateway in the 13th century, but in 1336 Edward III extended it to create a central passage between round-turreted towers. Within the gatehouse passage are grooves for three portcullises.
The gatehouse gives access to the western bailey, which stands on the site of the original Roman fort. The gatehouse almost immediately proved its worth, helping defend the castle from the French invasion of 1377.
This skilfully detailed chapel stands beside the Guardhouse. The chapel dates to the 13th century but it was completely rebuilt in 1899 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Charles I’s death in 1649. It later became a memorial to those who died in WWI, including Princess Beatrice’s son Maurice, who died at Ypres in 1914. One end of the chapel is dominated by a large bust of King Charles and a monument to the dead soldiers.
In 1896 Princess Beatrice, youngest daughter of Queen Victoria, was made Governor of the Isle of Wight. The Princess made the castle her summer home after 1914.
It was fantastic to be able to to visit The princess Beatrice garden where the EH and Chris Beardshaw created and transformed the garden into an oasis, its geometric layout takes inspiration from its former privy garden, whilst also paying homage to Princess Beatrice. This time of year the garden needs to rest before spring pops up and burst life into the garden with daffodils and primroses but its lovely to walk around and admire the hard work and upkeep they have here, they also have a bronze statue that was placed to commemorate the anniversary of the Great War, this shows General Jack Seely on top of his war horse Warrior, who Jack rode during the battle between 1914-18.
A visit to Carisbrooke wouldn’t be right without seeing the resident donkeys who for centuries have been drawing up water for the castle in the well house, they normally give short demonstrations each day of how the well house operated, and spend the rest grazing on the 5-acre field behind the castle – but sadly on our visit they were being groomed and fed so we left them to get pampered! The well house is inside the inner bailey courtyard and was required after the one in the keep ran dry in 1136. Built by Sir George Carey it’s incredible to see the tread wheel today.
By the 19th century, Carisbrooke Castle was in a poor state of repair. It was not until 1896 that a local historian and architect began to restore the castle under the patronage of Princess Beatrice, youngest daughter of Queen Victoria, when she was Governor of the Island. Princess Beatrice was also responsible for the creation of the Carisbrooke Castle Museum. This fascinating museum occupies the Great Hall and governor’s quarters. Within are objects related to the castle’s history and local history of the area. One of the highlights is a recreation of Charles I’s bedroom.
Other items on show include a painting of Carisbrooke by JMW Turner, a medieval jug, and Charles I’s sword and nightcap. These are just a few of over 27,000 objects, only some of which are on regular display. We had a fantastic chat with a lady who runs the museum and she told us so many different stories and showed us how the building would have looked back in the day as well as showing us the oldest working chamber organ in Britain and being able to stand in the very room of Charles I’s footsteps.
Nearby is a window embrasure known as Isabella’s Window, in honour of Countess Isabella. This window once gave light into the Countess’s private quarters. It was glazed with coloured glass – a rare luxury, and built into the window were stone seats so the countess could enjoy views across her estates to the sea.
One of the earliest parts of the castle and still one of the most impressive; this tall stone keep, or fortified tower, sits atop a high conical mound, or motte. The keep was intended as the final, desperate refuge for defenders in case of attack, and is reached only by a steep set of 71 steps. There are very few intact features within the keep safe, but you can walk inside a Garderobe chamber but truly your reward for climbing to the top of the keep is a wonderful view over the castle and the bowling green to the north.
Today the castle is run brilliantly by the English heritage and is open for visitors to explore, learn and wander, it’s a well preserved stronghold with incredible views up the Norman keep and a interesting wall walk which provides more beautiful panoramic views over the site, where you can just stand back and imagine life back then. There is just so much to discover here at Carisbrooke and it’s a day well spent with or without the family it’s one of those places that should be on everyone’s bucket list.