Those of you who have a read A Place Beyond Courage, or who have followed my blog for some time, will know about the Marshal links to Newbury and its castle – a structure that has now disappeared so thoroughly, that no one knows where it is – although I have very strong suspicions myself as to where it once stood.
Newbury is in west Berkshire a short distance from the Hampshire border. The town is situated in the flood plain of the River kennet near the junction of the River Lambourn at a point where the Oxford to Southampton road crosses the river and the London to Bath road passes to the north. So its situation is of strategic importance.
Saxon settlements are known from the 10th century with charters existing at very nearby Speen and Thatcham. By the late 11th century a manor called Ulvritone was listed in the area by the Domesday Book, belonging to one Arnulf de Hesdin. The name of the town itself is first mentioned in a grant of 1080. Evidence suggests that it was created as a planned town on the site of Ulvritone. It had a castle by 1152 (more on that in a moment). The town seems to have developed steadily during the 12th and 13th centuries. By 1204 it had a market as well as town bailiffs, and why you 1225 it was represented at assize by its own baliff and jury.
Excavations were undertaken in Newbury between 1979 and 1990 in the course of which the search for a castle at the traditionally acknowledged site of the Wharf was pursued from 1988 -1990. The area was called ‘The Castle’ by the locals. The evaluation of the area by theTrust for Wessex Archaeology in March 1990 suggested that the tradition of a stone built castle standing on the side and surviving into the later medieval period was unsupported by fact. It was highly likely to have been a temporary earth and timber structure, short-lived and purely defensive as were many castles hastily thrown up in the period of the war between Stephen and Matilda. ‘The balance of evidence would tend to suggest a location other than at Newbury Wharf.’
My own feeling on the subject of Newbury Castle is that the archaeologists should have been looking to the outskirts, to Speen, where the Marshals and the Bishop of Salisbury had interests. There is a fine big house at Speen built on the site of a dwelling that once belonged to the Bishop of Salisbury. The site is the highest point on a ridge overlooking the River Lambourn to the north and the Kennet to the South. The Roman road- Ermine Street coming from Cirencester to Speen must have been very close by. The place in ancient times had been an iron age hill fort and the ramparts can still be seen on the spot. There have been Roman finds nearby too. Fortifications and ramparts are regularly adapted and reused down the centuries. John marshal was renowned as a cunning builder of Castles and the Speen site would have been tailor made for his skills, especially if he was throwing up defences in a hurry and this place was a strategically important site.
On the map, I have gone over the rampart lines in red. The walking distance from Newbury centre is 1.4 miles. Click to enlarge.
The church for Speen is that of St Mary The Virgin.http://www.achurchnearyou.com/st-mary-speen/ On its own website it says:
'It is a medieval church built on Saxon Foundations, and was the mother church of Newbury. In 1086 it was recorded in the Domesday Book. The church stands about 200 yards from where I purport the castle site to be and I found it interesting that the church is claimed to be the 'mother church' of Newbury. Built before the others were built. The Marshals have a connection with this church. There are several charters listed in the cartulary of Sandford Priory.
For example from 1206:
Uniuersis etc Willelmus Marescallus comes Penbr salutem Nouerit uniuersitas uestra me concessisse etc deo et beate Marie et fratribus militie Templi Salomonis intuitu caritatis et pro salute anime mee et Isabelle uxoris mee et puerorum meorum et antecessorum omnium et successorum meorum in liberam et puram et perpetuam elemosinam ecclesiam de Spenes cum omnibus ad eam pertinentibus et omnibus libertatibus suis habend et tenend et in usus proprios perpetuo possidendam Et ut etc Hiis testibus Edwardo abbate de Nottel
My Latin is pretty terrible, but basically it's a salutation from William Marshal giving the proceeds of the church at Speen to the Templars for his soul, for the soul of his wife, Isabelle and for the souls of their ancestors and their heirs. There is also a mention in the Pipe roll of 1199 referencing William Marshal and Speen. 'Et in perdonis Willelmo Marescallo dim.m. de wasto qod exigebatur ex eo in terra sua deSpienes per breve R. Which concerns a fine for waste land in William’s lands at Speen.
None of this proves that there was a castle at Speen, but it does add to the circumstantial evidence. The Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal tells us that John Marshal built a castle at Newbury. But no one knows where it is. Speen, on the outskirts, with its commanding views over the landscape and strategic roads would have been an ideal place. The church, within short walking distance has been there since Saxon times. The Marshal presence at Speen from the late 12th century is confirmed by pipe roll evidence and then charters. It's a slow, laborious process, but nothing turned up so far detracts from the idea that Newbury Castle was at Speen, and indeed, in a peripheral manner, supports the argument. Perhaps one day we’ll know for sure.