Carisbrooke Castle: Island Fortress and Royal Prison

English Heritage

Over 1,000 years of history

Carisbrooke Castle has been a central place of power and defence on the Isle of Wight for over 1,000 years. During that time it has been a Saxon fortress and a castle of the Norman Conquest, which was much remodelled during the Middle Ages and under Elizabeth I.

Most famously, Charles I was held prisoner here during the Civil War, shortly before his execution in 1649.

The castle has always been the most important stronghold on the Isle of Wight, off England’s south coast, thanks to its superb defensive position.

Because of the island’s location, it was also of enormous significance in the defence of the realm.

The History of Carisbrooke
Key features of the castle tell the story of its development both as a defence and as a residence.

The main entrance to Carisbrooke Castle has always been through this gateway. Medieval gatehouses were often strongly fortified, and Carisbrooke’s was no exception. The rectangular central tower dates from the late 13th century, and the two cylindrical drum towers were added in 1335–6 in response to the threat of French raids.

The Normans built a motte-and-bailey castle at Carisbrooke in about 1100. This replaced a more temporary castle put up soon after the Norman Conquest of 1066. That itself was built on the site of a Saxon fortress.

By 1136 the castle was described as being ‘strongly fortified in stone’.

For over 200 years the de Redvers family held the castle. The last of them, Countess Isabella de Fortibus, was one of the greatest heiresses in 13th-century England.

Carisbrooke was her main residence, and she built a magnificent set of apartments here.

The French raided the Isle of Wight five times between 1336 and 1370 and the castle was besieged in 1377. During the siege, an archer, Peter de Heynoe, is said to have killed the French commander with a single shot.

This arrowloop has long been identified as Heynoe’s loop in his honour.

At the end of the 14th century William de Montacute, who was lord of the island from 1386 until 1397, remodelled Carisbrooke’s great hall and rebuilt this chamber block beside it.

In 1583 Elizabeth I appointed her cousin George Carey captain of the Isle of Wight.

A self-important man, he rebuilt the domestic buildings of the castle to provide accommodation worthy of a great man. Beside the castle’s great hall he added a new range, known as Carey’s Mansion, with 17 rooms and a long gallery. This range is now in ruins.

Sir George also built this well house and treadwheel, in the castle’s inner courtyard, in 1587. The well house and treadwheel have remained in use ever since. Since at least the late 17th century the wheel has been worked by donkeys.

Because Carisbrooke’s location was important for coastal defence, it remained important militarily for much longer than most English castles.

In the 1590s, under Elizabeth I, Carisbrooke was one of the few places in England to be wholly refortified as an artillery fortress. Its star-shaped perimeter is nearly a mile long.

During the English Civil War (1642–60) between Charles I and Parliament, the Parliamentarians used Carisbrooke Castle as a prison for important Royalists, most famously the king himself.

The king arrived here in November 1647 and left in September 1648. He was eventually executed in Whitehall on 30 January 1649. This commemorative bust in the Chapel of St Nicholas is attributed to Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680).

After the Civil War Carisbrooke Castle came to have more of a ceremonial than a military role.

It became the residence of the island’s governors, including Princess Beatrice, daughter of Queen Victoria. The castle’s chapel, restored in 1904 by Percy Stone, became the Isle of Wight’s war memorial.

From 1913 the castle’s kitchen garden became the private or privy garden of Princess Beatrice, governor of the Isle of Wight and daughter of Queen Victoria.

This was the inspiration for the Princess Beatrice Garden, created in 2009 by garden designer Chris Beardshaw.

A Medieval Countess and Her Castle: Isabella de Fortibus 
Countess Isabella de Fortibus was one of the greatest heiresses in 13th-century England. Her remarkable life illustrates the power and riches that could lie in the hands of women of noble birth in medieval England.

Isabella de Fortibus, or Forz (1237–1293), was the elder daughter of Baldwin de Redvers, Earl of Devon.

By the age of 26 she had inherited not only the lands and title of her husband, Willaim de Fortibus, but much of the estate of her brother, Baldwin de Redvers, Earl of Devon, who had died childless.

Isabella’s inheritance included the lordship of the Isle of Wight, as well as lands in Devon and Hampshire. She had become one of the great landowners in England, which made her an unusually powerful woman.

Carisbrooke Castle was her main home, and she shaped the castle interior into its present form.

Under Isabella, Carisbrooke must have felt like a perpetual building site. She began by upgrading the castle’s main apartments. At one end of the great hall, she added the Chapel of St Peter.

At the northern end of the hall, Isabella added a great chamber for herself, with windows looking out across the island. Its windows were glazed – a great luxury at the time.

Later she built new apartments for the castle’s constable – its chief administrator – and a new kitchen.

Isabella also strengthened the castle’s defences. She was probably responsible, sometime after 1272, for replacing the castle’s original stone gatehouse with a rectangular tower, which still survives.

The two cylindrical drum towers on either side were added later.

Isabella never remarried, despite attempts by the king to marry her off, and determined pursuit by several suitors.

In 1293, in the last days of her life, she sold her estates to Edward I. Carisbrooke Castle has remained Crown property ever since.

A Royal Prisoner
King Charles I at Carisbrooke Castle

During the Civil War Carisbrooke Castle housed its most prestigious, if unwilling, resident: King Charles I. The king arrived at Carisbrooke Castle in November 1647, after escaping from house arrest at Hampton Court Palace in Surrey.

Charles arrived at Carisbrooke under his own steam, expecting that on the island he would have freedom to keep in touch with his supporters.

But he misjudged Colonel Robert Hammond, the Parliamentarian governor of the Isle of Wight. Rather than helping him escape, Hammond became his gaoler.

Initially, Charles was given a degree of freedom, driving around the island in his coach. While he was a prisoner, he developed a passion for bowls.

This bowling green at Carisbrooke was created especially for his entertainment, within a 16th-century earthwork.

However, as mistrust between the king and Parliament grew and negotiations over his future stalled, Charles’s imprisonment became stricter.

Escape began to seem like a good option. But his first attempt, on 20 March 1648, failed when he became stuck between the bars of his bedroom window in the Constable’s Lodging. This window replaced it in 1856.

Undeterred, the king made another attempt two months later. He’d been moved to another, more secure bedchamber next to the north curtain wall.

This time he had loosened the window bars in advance with nitric acid. But two of the guards betrayed the plot, and seeing sentries posted below his window, Charles gave up.

When the king finally left Carisbrooke, on 6 September 1648, it was with the approval of Parliament to join negotiations on the island in Newport. When they failed he was eventually taken to London, and charged with high treason.

He was tried, found guilty, and executed in Whitehall at the Banqueting House on 30 January 1649.

After the Civil War, Carisbrooke Castle’s importance declined as the island’s defences moved to the coast.

However, it still serves a ceremonial role, so preserving part of the function for which it was first built over nine centuries ago.

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