Britannia Castles: Taunton Castle, Somerset

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History of Taunton Castle in Somerset
By Charles Oman


Winchester's Stronghold in the West

Reconstruction of Taunton Castle in Medieval Times

The history of Taunton as a fortified place starts early, for here King Ine of Wessex, in or about the year 710, "timbered him a burgh," which his consort, Ethelburga, as an odd entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates, destroyed twelve years later. This was not, apparently, a gratuitous "breaking up of a happy home" but a recapture by the Royal Lady, who was on the best terms with her husband. The stronghold had fallen into the hands of rebels, for the Aetheling, Ealdbert, was, at that time, vexing Ine with insurrections. An ecclesiastical minster is traditionally said to have been founded at Taunton, only a few years later, by Queen Frithogyth, wife of King Aethelheard of Wessex, and the Bishops of Wessex appear to have built a manor house, adjoining it, from which to survey their great estates. Both stood on the site of the present castle where the minster graveyard has been excavated.

The town is found in Domesday Book as a moderate-sized borough with 64 burgesses, belonging not (as might have been expected) to the King, nor to the Bishop of Bath and Wells, but to the Bishop of Winchester, heir of the Bishops of Wessex. The minster was upgraded to an Augustinian Priory by Bishop William Gifford, the Chancellor of King Henry I, in about 1120. It was his successor, Henry of Blois, who transformed the manor-house here into a mighty castle in 1138, during the Civil War that raged during the reign of his brother, King Stephen. We have, at Taunton, here a typical Norman keep of the first half of the twelfth century, not one of the lofty sort, but squarely built, 50 feet long by 40 wide, in three stories, with walls some 13 feet thick. No doubt, this was let into the walls of an inner ward with a stone enceinte and, no doubt also, there was an outer bailey represented by the modern "Castle Green". Wet ditches around it would be supplied from the Potwater Stream - they were only filled up in the end of the eighteenth century. The priory was removed to an alternative site in 1158 and the castle was expanded. Its present aspect is Edwardian, rather than Norman, and shows traces everywhere of the work of Bishop Langton, a great builder in the time of Henry VII.

The outer ward is mostly spoilt - it has been invaded by two hotels, which have crenellated themselves, in order to be in keeping with the genuine battlements of the inner ward. But the great gate, opening into the enclosure, where they stand, is in part a genuine antique, having the arches of an "Early Decorated " gate-house of about the time of Edward I, though the super-structure is a restoration of 1816. The almost triangular inner ward is complete and would be a very fine example of its type, if so many of its windows were not still eighteenth century insertions in the original masonry. The Somerset Archaeological Society, who purchased the place in 1874, have replaced many of these eyesores with more appropriate openings, but some still survive.

The apex of the triangle, if we may use the word of a rather blunted figure, is formed by the Norman keep and a round tower separated from the keep by a narrow entry only. The north side of the triangle is formed by the immense Great Hall. The south side contains the gate-house with chambers in two stories on each side of it. The base (with a round tower at its south-east corner) was occupied by the minor offices. If there was another tower at the north-east angle of the base, it has vanished.

The gate-house of the inner ward was probably of Edward I's date, but it was pulled about by Bishop Langton in 1496. He inserted a large two-lighted Tudor window and placed a tablet bearing his own arms, supported by angels, above it and the Royal Coat of King Henry VII below. The Great Hall, which stands just opposite the gateway, is 120 feet by 31 feet, with walls apparently, in part, Norman, but much pulled about by later generations. Bishop Langton inserted Tudor windows but all of them, save two in the north front, have been replaced by less satisfactory seventeenth or eighteenth century substitutes.

It was in this hall that Judge Jeffries, in 1685, held the "Bloody Assize" and condemned more than 200 of the misguided rebels who had followed "King Monmouth" to the gallows and many more to servitude in the plantations or whipping at the stocks. A later generation cut up the great chamber by a partition across the middle into two courts. By 1780, it, and many other potions of the castle, had fallen into a bad condition and were handed over to the tender mercies of an energetic Georgian repairer, Sir Benjamin Hammet. He put on a new roof, inserted many windows and recast many other details all round the castle. It is presumably to him that we owe the large inappropriate windows which disfigure the round towers at the angles of the ward. But, apparently, he must not be over- censured, for the castle was getting quite out of hand - its south-east cor-ner had been turned into a private school-house and the encroachments in the outer ward seemed likely to invade the inner. Taunton Castle changed hands several times during the great Civil War of 1642-45 but only along with the town. It had no separate history and the famous defence by Blake, from July 1644 to July 1645, was that of the whole place, not merely that of the castle. It was a most creditable achievement, considering that many of the fortifications were only extemporized earthworks.

Edited from Charles Oman's "Castles" (1926).  (T) 302.234.8904    (F) 302.234.9154    Copyright ©2000, LLC