Carisbrooke Castle

This is the second post about my Isle of Wight Trip. The first can be found here. This post focuses on my trip to Carisbrooke Castle. 

One of the most famous tales associated with Carisbrooke occurred during a siege by a French garrison in 1377. What was initially expected to be a drawn-out campaign ended prematurely when the French commander’s daily stroll to the wall was rudely interrupted by a crossbow bolt entering his head and killing him instantly –thus ending the siege. 

On another occasion two guards were likely a little surprised to find King Charles I halfway through the window of one of the castle’s bedrooms. He was wedged and stuck between the bars. But this wasn’t owed to any intended illicit midnight liaisons. It also wasn’t a slight on the hospitality. It was a failed attempt to avoid the executioner’s block.  

During another siege the castle’s commander was initially rather confident of his sturdy fortress’ imperviousness. Why wouldn’t he be? It was a formidable and daunting deterrent. That was until he looked in the well. The recent dry summer had resulted in the water level being too low to withstand a siege. As such, the weather had rendered the mighty stone walls an irrelevancy. He surrendered immediately.  

One former resident of the castle also owned the whole of the Isle of Wight. That was until King Edward I intervened. On her deathbed she granted the island, along with all of her wealth to him. Well, apparently. When she supposedly agreed to the deal the only people present were those sent by the king to secure her agreement. Suspicious. 

It was Peter de Heyno who killed the French commander with the deftly shot crossbow. He’d noticed the commander taking daily walks towards the wall at a certain time and decided to take advantage. By ending the siege he saved many lives and was rightly hailed as a local hero.   

Getting stuck in the bars of his windows wasn’t Charles’ only attempt at escape. On another occasion he was double-crossed when those he’d paid to arrange his escape failed to do so. He was initially held in luxurious accommodation, but his repeated escape attempts resulted in him being moved to more secure and more modest accommodation. He was imprisoned at the castle after being deposed and remained there until his execution, fourteen months later. His two youngest children were later confined there too. His daughter, Elizabeth, never left after sadly dying aged only fourteen.  

After his successful siege King Stephen immediately set about addressing the castle’s fatal well-related flaw. He immediately sent two of the castle’s prisoners down the well to dig it deeper. They dug down forty-nine metres in total. It was so deep that a donkey-operated wheel was required to draw the water. The castle still has resident donkeys for visitor demonstrations. They’re a little temperamental though. During the demonstration that I watched the guide appeared to do most of the work. Still, the donkeys have become a bit of an icon of the castle. As such, a cartoon donkey was used as the narrator of the castle’s introductory video. It was voiced by TV personality Phil Jupitus. I couldn’t help but wonder how flattering he found the job offer. “Hi Phil. It’s me, your agent. I’ve got an acting job for you.” “Excellent! What is it? Hamlet? King Lear? James Bond?” “Umm…let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s a donkey. They’re convinced you’re perfect for the part.” 

It was Isabella de Fortibus whose wealth was granted to Edward I. She was the richest woman in England. At that time the Isle of Wight was semi-autonomous, and she was the last owner. She was titled Lord of the Wight (although often referred to as the queen). Her great wealth made her hand one of the most highly-sought in marriage. But, she was uninterested in remarrying after her husband’s death. She skilfully managed to swerve her many suitors, maintain her independence and retain her riches, something difficult for a woman at the time. Edward was extremely jealous of her huge wealth and power. But she managed to thwart his repeated attempts to seize her fortune. Well, until her dying moments. She outlived her six children leaving her heirless. Upon hearing of her ill-health Edward immediately despatched some trusted men to convince her to sign over her riches. She didn’t sign though. We have no way of knowing whether this was through weakness or refusal. The only people present in the room were the three men sent by Edward. She reportedly touched the glove of the hand holding the proposed contract. This was interpreted as her agreeing to the deal, conveniently. The deal involved selling the island for a measly 6,000 marks and naming Edward as her heir. The meagre sum became immaterial though as naming Edward her heir meant he automatically inherited her wealth, including the 6,000 marks. So he received the island, her properties and all her wealth for nothing. Not a bad day’s work.  

It’s easy to wander around sites like Carisbrooke Castle and dismiss them as lifeless old piles of rocks. But these ancient fortresses often played central roles in our history. They’re often the stages upon which our country’s greatest dramas were set. And, as the stories above demonstrate, behind the crumbling walls and sprawling ivy often lurks some fascinating tales. And these tales often provide insightful windows upon our colourful past. Therefore, sometimes through simply understanding the twists and turns of a castle’s history, we can often uncover a great deal of our own, and Carisbrooke is certainly no exception. 

After the collapse of the Roman Empire much of Europe was thrown into turmoil. The resultant power vacuum in Britain left it defenceless. Many waves of attackers took advantage. It was one such set of attackers, the Vikings, which likely inspired Carisbrooke’s first inception. Use of the site can be traced back to 1000 when a rectangular fortification was built on the hilltop site as a likely refuge from Viking raids.  

The next great event in England’s history was the invasion of the Norman’s in 1066 led by William the Conqueror. The first castle at Carisbrooke was likely built shortly after the invasion when the island was granted to William FitzOsbern. It’s believed the intention was to aid the pacification process necessary after Williams’ turbulent route to the throne.  

Another notable period in the castle’s history occurred between 1335 and 1550. The castle’s defences were significantly upgraded and overhauled to repel French attacks. The threat was owed to the ongoing Hundred Years War. This was a period of great conflict between France and England. Ever since the Norman period the king of England had owned territories in France, but by the end of the Hundred Years War these territories had been lost. This loss of lands severed the two nations spurring the growth of strong independent national identities. It also fostered the notion of England being an island nation separate from mainland Europe. This mind set has continued ever since and still shapes our relationship with Europe today.  

The next notable chapter in the castle’s history occurred in the 1580s when Elizabeth I made her second cousin, Sir George Carey, the captain of the island. It was Carey who assumed command of the Isle’s defences when the Spanish Armada entered the Solent. The intention of the attack was to overthrow Elizabeth and return England to Catholicism as well as stop England interfering in the Spanish-owned lowland regions. The Armada’s defeat represents one of England’s greatest military successes (although poor weather played a significant role). If the invasion had succeeded then Britain, and quite likely the world, would be very different today. Elizabeth embraced England’s new island nation identity and keenly supported global exploration. This, along with England’s maritime expertise, helped sow the seeds for the eventual British Empire.  

The country’s future was in the balance once again when rising republicanism erupted into civil war. This is why the castle ended up playing the role of prison to Charles I. When the monarchy was eventually reinstated it was as a limited constitutional monarchy, meaning Parliamentary rule as opposed to monarchical rule. This curtailing of the monarch’s powers is regarded as a key reason why the UK avoided the later violent and bloody republican uprisings that swept across Europe (creating the guillotine’s famous rivers of blood on Paris’ streets). 

The civil war was the last occasion of such widespread violent upheaval. This rendered properties like castles unnecessary for defence. When Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, Beatrice, became the Isle of Wight governor in 1896 she decided to modernise the castle and make it more fit for accommodation and pleasure. With the need for defence having subsided similar changes were implemented at many such properties throughout the country. But this period was short-lived. Changes in taxes and society made running such grand properties untenable. Carisbrooke is typical in this regard in that after Beatrice’s death, in 1944, the castle was opened to the public, as it is today.  

These mighty construction are no longer needed for defence, but they serve as ready reminders of the tumultuous times when they were. 


About lanceleuven

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