Christchurch Castle & Hall
Christchurch priory and Christchurch Castle date from within fifty years of one another, but very different fates have befallen them, as Hugh Starkey discovers
Published in October ’14
Dorset has a rather sketchy record when it comes to its castles… albeit this is often the result of external forces – be it Parliamentarian forces in the case of Corfe, or of the encroachment of the sea, as in Sandsfoot. Those which have survived tend not to be the medieval ones of crenelated childhood drawings, but the reproduction ones created as mansions.
The two castles in the borough of Christchurch reflect this: Highcliffe, which flirted with its own fungibility through years of neglect, has arisen like the phoenix; the castle in the town, however, has had an altogether less successful middle and third age. Its history – and that of the building variously named over the years as the Constable’s House, Constable’s Lodge, Constable’s Hall, Lord’s House and Norman House – is a rather more exciting one, though.
What had been an earthen mound and wooden fort had been part of a circuit of strategic defended places established by the Saxon King Alfred, to prevent Viking raiders with their shallow-drafted boats from gaining access to the riches of Winchester.
Much of the bailey is now a bowling green, although there would originally have been stable blocks and various other outbuildings, many of which would have been wooden.
The Constable’s Lodge was built by Baldwin de Redvers in 1160-2. As the de Redvers family were rarely there, the castle was usually occupied by a bailiff or constable rather than the lord of the castle. Rather than the austere and defensive keep, it was more comfortable to stay in the Constable’s Lodge, which was a well-equipped hall complete with a garderobe tower – a latrine over the river that emptied into the millstream – a rare luxury in those days. Most of the lodge consists of a rectangular hall, 67 feet by 23 feet. The east walls, which faced the outside of the castle and the stream, were thicker than the other walls to aid defence. The eastern half of the lodge was used as a solar and private chamber, with a doorway to the latrine tower. The western side was used as the castle’s Great Hall, which still has a splendid Norman chimney and double round-headed window arches.
The stone walls date to the early 1300s, and were three storeys high. Two walls remain of the original stone oblong keep and are almost ten feet thick. Unusually, the corners are chamfered off. Most of the facing stone for the castle was quarried in Quarr on the Isle of Wight, although some came from Purbeck; the walls also contain ironstone cobblers from Hengistbury Head.
In King John’s seventeen-year reign between 1199-1216, he visited Christchurch Castle seven times, more than any other monarch. He stayed in the Constable’s House, and held two courts at the castle. King John’s fondness for Christchurch Castle is believed to be because of its close proximity to the New Forest: hunting there was one of the king’s favourite activities. Christchurch Castle itself was vulnerable to attack, but there was an advantage to staying there. Corfe Castle, one of the country’s strongest, was only a short distance away, and so provided secure protection nearby. Christchurch Castle, being located between Winchester and Corfe Castle, was a natural stopping point.
Baldwin de Redvers, the 8th Earl of Devon, died childless in 1269. His sister, the widow Isabella de Fortibus, inherited much of her brother’s estate at the age of 23. Baldwin’s widow, Margaret of Savoy, inherited Christchurch Castle until her death in 1292, when the castle was inherited by Isabella, along with the Lordship of the Isle of Wight as well as vast tracts of land in Devon, Dorset and Hampshire, including the land she had inherited from her husband on his death. Isabella took great interest in Christchurch even when it was still owned by Margaret of Savoy, and gave the priory at Christchurch vast swathes of land, both on the mainland and on the Isle of Wight.
King Edward I is believed to have repeatedly attempted to buy the lordship of the Isle of Wight from her, but Isabella de Fortibus refused. When Edward heard that Isabella was on her deathbed, he rushed to Carisbrooke Castle and arrived just in time to hear her grant the lordship of the Isle of Wight and all her other lands to … King Edward I, a propitious statement witnessed, no doubt coincidentally, but certainly conveniently according to some accounts, only by Edward himself. Other historical records have Isabella de Fortibus being visited by the bishops of Durham, Coventry and Lichfield and getting her to agree to sell the Isle of Wight for 6000 marks and also naming Edward as her heir, so he got his money back. The ‘agreement’ is described as being sealed by her having touched the bishop of Durham’s glove while he was holding the deed of sale.
Six years later, Edward gave Christchurch Castle to his second wife, Margaret, the daughter of King Philip III of France. In 1307 Edward II ordered that the castle should be kept secure when he left on his trip to France to marry Isabella, daughter of Philip IV of France.
Like a bottle of cheap bottle of Asti Spumante left unmolested at successive dinner parties, the castle continued to be given hither and yon. In 1330 Edward III gave it to William Montagu, later the Earl of Salisbury. The castle was inherited on the death of each successive earl until the Fourth Earl of Salisbury, one of Henry V’s generals at the Battle of Agincourt, died at the Siege of Orleans in 1428; his only son had died in a jousting accident.
The title and castle passed through the female line and were inherited by George Duke of Clarence’s wife, Isabel Neville, daughter of the Earl of Warwick. On the death of Isabel their son Edward, Earl of Lincoln and Warwick, inherited. His cousin King Henry VII executed Edward for treason in 1499; the grounds for treason were pretty much that, as a Plantagenet, Edward actually had a greater claim to the throne than did Henry.
On Edward’s death, Christchurch was inherited by Edward’s sister and last of the Plantagenet line, Lady Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury. Henry married her off to Sir Richard Pole, a man who though wealthy was not noble; Henry hoped that marrying beneath her would prevent Margaret, the last royal Plantagenet, and any children she would have, from being a threat to his throne.
Despite this, after Henry VIII appointed her as godmother and governess to his daughter Mary, later Queen Mary I, although the Plantagenet lucky streak continued as Margaret was executed for treason by Henry VIII in 1541.
By this stage, Christchurch Castle was described as being in poor state and was actually being used as a pound for cattle. As the property of the Crown once again, it was quietly kept and allowed to fall gradually into decay, until in 1601, the castle, such as it was, was granted to the Arundel family.
In the English Civil War, Christchurch Castle , like Corfe, was held for the King. Colonel Sir John Mills, Governor of Christchurch, held out against the Parliamentarians. Initially it was possible to keep Christchurch supplied by sea from Portsmouth, where George Goring, Governor of Portsmouth, was a strong Royalist supporter. Christchurch Castle itself was of little importance, being in poor repair and having only a small number of cannon and it was captured without a fight by Parliamentary troops under Sir William Waller, who led a surprise raid and captured 400 prisoners. Christchurch was still a Royalist stronghold, and there were two attempts to recapture the castle for the Royalist cause. In early January 1645, Lord Goring led a force of Cavalier cavalry to Christchurch, and the Parliamentarian leader, Major Lower, evacuated his men and escaped.
Goring did not then have enough men or equipment to hold it, but ,on 15 January, 1645, he returned with 1000 men, enough to defeat the 200 Parliament troops who had been building up a strong defensive position in the meantime. Soon, though, the castle was besieged by Royalists, but as larger Parliamentarian forces nearby were thought to be on their way, after a fierce three-day battle the Royalist forces again retreated.
In 1646 the Civil War was over, and the castle still held its cannon. Yet, in May 1650, fearing the possibility of Royalist supporters again capturing Christchurch, Oliver Cromwell ordered the castle to be slighted, or demolished. In 1652 the castle was demolished, leaving the keep – the ruin we see today. The keep’s north and south walls were pulled down, the walls of the bailey demolished and the defensive ditch filled in. The Constable’s Hall became used as a source of stone for other buildings in the area, but is still one of only five houses with Norman chimneys remaining in the country. ◗