Norman Period

A Saxon town already existed to the east of the Mound when the Normans arrived. Still further east lay the abandoned site of the Roman settlement of Cunetio, whose name echoes that of the river which links all the sites along its valley, the Kennet. A Saxon ‘burh’ (fortified royal enclosure) was probably established in the late 800s AD, perhaps by a man called ‘Maerla’ who was a subject of King Alfred. It is also possible that the settlement’s name derived from ‘marl’ - a kind of chalk that is common in this area of Wiltshire. The West Saxon area used the word "Maer-leah" to mean ‘cattle boundary’; but we shall never know with certainty which was the true origin.

The Normans’ conquest of Wiltshire caused William I to transfer the royal mint from Great Bedwyn to the Mound site at Marlborough in 1068, which hints at its immediate importance to the new rulers of the area. A Norman mint would have to be housed in a secure stockade, so it seems more than likely that a motte and bailey castle was erected very soon after the Normans arrived. It would initially have been constructed in wood, later to be fortified with stone construction. By 1110, the Norman presence was well enough entrenched for Henry I to hold his court at Easter at ‘Maerlebeorge’. As the neighbouring Savernake Forest established itself as a favourite royal hunting ground, Marlborough Castle became an increasingly important royal residence.

The first documentary evidence that explicitly refers to the existence of a castle with clearly defined military importance is during the wars of King Stephen. In 1138, Empress Matilda summoned to her aid her brother Robert, Earl of Gloucester, to whom King Henry had assigned… “the very strong (munitissima) castles of Bristol and Marlebege” (sic). In 1139, John the Marshal [FitzGilbert, later known as Herbert] fortified ‘Merleberge’ and Ludgershall for the Empress to protect them against sieges led by King Stephen. The Mound commanded an important part of the east-west route from London to Bristol, and lay not far from the equally important north-south route which connected Oxford and Winchester.

As the ‘anarchy’ of the civil wars drew towards a close, John the Marshal had a legendary confrontation with King Stephen in 1152. Stephen had besieged him at nearby Newbury Castle. After John had broken an agreement to surrender, Stephen threatened to kill his son, whom John had given as a hostage. John refused, saying he could make more sons, but Stephen apparently took pity on the young boy and did not kill him. The boy grew up to be William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, a major political figure under Henry II and Richard I , who later became one of the most powerful men in England as regent during the minority of Henry III.