Historic Royal Castle
Four thousand years ago Marlborough became a special place when the construction of the great Neolithic mound began. This mysterious structure became an obvious place for the Normans to build a castle. The invaders realised the mound was the perfect size for a castle motte, and the unusually steep sides of the site would have made it easy to defend. The first structure they built was probably wooden, but no sign of this or indeed of the first stone castle remain. Although much has been lost, more is being discovered about substantial later structures and the castle’s history is rich with royal associations.
During King Stephen’s reign there was civil war between him and Empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I. At this time, Marlborough Castle was held by John Marshall, who supported Matilda, and he resisted a siege in 1139.
Henry II was at Marlborough for his Christmas court in 1164 when his quarrel with Thomas Becket began. His last visit was in September 1186 when he came with William the Lion of Scotland, who had become an ally. In his son Richard I’s reign, there was another civil war when his brother John rebelled while Richard was crusading, but Hubert Walter, the Archbishop of Canterbury gained control of the castle after a few days of siege.
John, who succeeded his brother, had married his first wife at Marlborough Castle in 1189. It became an important provincial treasury and John visited Marlborough frequently. King John spent 135 nights at Marlborough Castle though he never stayed for a whole week at any time. Only Winchester and London saw more of him. He granted the town its charter in 1204 and in 1209, when England was placed under an interdict by the pope because John refused to accept the candidate for the Archbishopric of Canterbury, a great gathering was held. The ‘Oath of Marlborough’ is important because on no other known occasion in medieval England was there a comparable mass assembly, apart from arms musters, when a king appeared in person before a multitude of his ordinary subjects.
In the final days of John’s reign, the French attempted to invade England and the Castellan of Marlborough supported the cause of Louis IX. William Marshall, the son of John Marshall and Regent of England for the young Henry III, gained control of the castle. Henry brought his wife Eleanor of Provence here in 1236, and in the wake of this visit substantial additions were made to the castle.
Although this structure has disappeared, recent excavations have revealed much about it, and royal records have left us plenty of details about the fixtures and fittings and the wages paid to those who built it, from expensive master masons to those who undertook menial tasks. After Henry’s death, Eleanor inherited the castle and for the next three centuries it was the property of the Queens of England, although soon after Eleanor’s death the property started to decay. By the reign of Edward VI, the castle was in ruins and the site was granted to the Seymour family.
The 1204 Marlborough Charter
By this charter, King John confirmed the Borough of Marlborough’s right to authorise a summer fair starting on the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. By the 20th century this had evolved into a sheep fair on the common, a custom that lasted until the 1960s. John granted rights to the town’s merchant class and permitted the twice-weekly markets which exist today. The charter has never been repealed and it has been suggested that a legal case could possibly be made to allow the town’s people to park for free under the ‘quit and free of all toll arising from “passage”’.
The charter covered rights regarding buying, selling and jurisdiction for crimes and property disputes. The people of Marlborough were given the southern part of the Common in exchange for land near the castle, and this helped to give the town the shape that it has today.
Statute of Marlborough
On one of the entrance pillars by the Porters’ Lodge, there is a plaque recalling the importance of the Statute of Marlborough, drawn up at the Castle in 1267. King John’s problems with the barons resulted in the Magna Carta in 1215 and his son, Henry III, also had difficulties with them. Simon de Montfort brought the country to civil war in the 1260s and Henry had to redress their grievances in the Statute of Marlborough in the presence of his two sons and the Papal Legate.
This was the last important episode in the history of the Medieval castle of Marlborough. The statute declared that it would end ‘the many tribulations and unprofitable dissensions’ of the past and guarantee the ‘peace and tranquillity of the people’. It confirmed the Magna Carta, regulated wardship and protected persons outside the lord’s jurisdiction being forced to attend his court. When Henry died in 1272, the written, enacted law of England consisted of four documents: the Magna Carta, the sister charter which defined Forest Law, the Statute of Merton and the Statute of Marlborough.
In the 1930s, some excavation work took place to try and locate the exact position of the castle and important scholarship was undertaken by Harold Brentnall (CR 1903–44). In 2017, ground-penetrating radar investigations resumed the work of plotting its form, and parts of the castle, including medieval floor tiles, have been found at the south-west corner of the Leaf Block. In 2019, pupils engaged in the excavation of the bailey wall near this site under the supervision of A.J. Roberts of Archeoscan. The footings of this wall average 2.6m in width and are made of flint nodules tightly mortared and larger sarsen stones. Further excavations during 2021 and 2022 have explored the area close to the conjectured south-eastern corner tower of the castle bailey. These works have now concluded and the site covered over.