Plantagenet Period

Further building occurred in the 1170s at Marlborough Castle during the reign of Henry II to improve the living quarters situated in the bailey area. In September 1186, the King of England arrived with the King of Scotland and held ‘a council with a great multitude of clerics and laymen being gathered in the town of Marlborough, touching the election of an Archbishop of York and Bishops of Salisbury and Exeter’ (Gesta Regis Henrici II). In August 1189, Henry II’s son, the new King Richard I (Coeur de Lion) ‘bestowed much land and the castles of Marlborough and Ludgershall with the forests and all their appurtenances on his brother John’ (Walter of Coventry). Savernake Forest continued to attract high status visitors to the area as a favourite royal hunting ground. John spent much time in Marlborough Castle and established a Treasury there after he became king.

On 29th August 1189, John, at that time Earl of Cornwall, married Isabel of Gloucester at St. Nicholas’ Chapel within the bailey of Marlborough Castle. Her paternal grandfather, Robert, 1st Earl of Gloucester, was the illegitimate son of Henry I, King of England. Her father had died in 1183 and, as he had no male heirs, his title merged in the Crown; but a new creation was granted to Isabel in 1186 and she became Countess of Gloucester. On her marriage to John, he assumed the title in her right. Shortly before or after John's accession as King in 1199, he had the marriage annulled on the grounds of consanguinity (they were second cousins as both were descendants of King Henry I). As a result, Isabel was never recognised as Queen of England and her former title merged into the Crown’s estate.

In 1204, King John granted a charter to the Borough as part of his attempt to raise huge revenues for campaigns to reclaim Normandy, which he had lost to Philip II Augustus. The charter permitted an annual eight-day fair, commencing on 14th August, the vigil of the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, in which "all might enjoy the liberties and quittances customary in the fair at Winchester". He also established that weekly markets may be held on Wednesdays and Saturdays. These markets continue in Marlborough to the present day.

King John spent the week before Christmas in 1204 at Marlborough Castle. The constable of the Castle and chief forester of the Savernake, Hugh de Neville, one of John’s household officials and gambling companions, bought in two tuns of wine for the occasion. Among the fines recorded on the back of the Oblate Roll for this year of the reign is a fine paid by Joan de Neville, the wife of Hugh, who “gave the king two hundred hens to lie one night with the said Hugh”. Joan, possibly a mistress of the king, was perhaps using the opportunity of the king's visit to buy herself out of the king's bed and back into that of her husband. The truth of this little sideshow we shall never know. We do know that the king accepted her offer!

The Pipe Roll of 13 John records for the years 1209-11 extensive repairs at Marlborough and the construction of a ring wall around the motte at a considerable cost. Late in September of 1209, under threat of excommunication by Pope Innocent III for refusing to accept Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury, King John summoned his subjects to a number of locations to swear fealty to him. He must have feared that excommunication would otherwise release them from their allegiance to him as lord and king. Gervase of Canterbury records events at Marlborough Castle thus: Now all the men of England, rich and poor and the middling sort, aged fifteen and upwards, came together at Marlborough on the king’s orders, and there they swore fealty both to the king and to his son, Henry, a three-year old child, as the king’s heir.

Two other contemporary chroniclers also explicitly mention the oath of allegiance taken at Marlborough in this year, with one of them adding the clarification that the Marlborough session was the one to which “almost all the Londoners” were summoned. There were similar sessions run by bailiffs at Nottingham and Woodstock. As the political crisis of John’s reign intensified, a great deal of work had to be done to fortify the Castle as a royal stronghold. In addition to being strategically and politically important, the castle had also become an administrative centre. It was the site of a royal mint from early Norman times, a depository for the king’s treasure, and the forest exchequer was probably run from the Great Hall within the Castle’s bailey.

John's attempt to retake Normandy in 1214 failed. When he returned to England, John faced a rebellion by many of his barons. Although both sides agreed to the Magna Carta in 1215, neither side complied with its conditions. Civil war broke out again shortly afterwards. John died of dysentery whilst on campaign in late 1216.