William Marshal's biography the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal is the only source to mention a castle at Newbury. The writer calls it 'Neubere' in his narrative, and has this to say: I'll quote it in full in translation:
"As it is known to all, the King besieged Newbury at the head of a mighty force of men. But he did this that so much by surprise that those inside the castle were not aware at all of it until they saw the soldiers, their archers and their scouts, indeed the whole army, which dismounted and set to pitching tents. When those within the walls saw them, they knew full well that they had been taken unawares. This is a surprise attack was particularly the disagreeable since they had little in the way of provisions. The King sent a formal request by messenger, ask in the constable whether he was prepared to surrender the castle aor wished to defend it against him. No time was lost in reaching a decision:
"We are not so beleaguered that we have no wish to put up a stout defence; we have no intention of surrendering the castle. Things have now gone so far that's there will be many a blow received, many a skull, and many otherwise wounded by blade or spear or lance, and many trampled underfoot so that all that will be needed after that are the biers."
The King had directed his anger against their side, and swore by the birth of Christ. " I'll be sure to take my revenge on the low villains, they will fall into my hands. Now to arms, my valiant squires, my valient men at arms and archers! Snarl as they might, we'll capture them. To the first man to get inside I shall give such wealth that he will never be poor again in his lifetime."
You should have seen those squires start to clamber with great daring over the ditches and up the embankments. And those within the walls defended themselves courageously and furiously; they hurled down slabs of stone, sharpened stakes, and massive pieces of timber to knock them to the ground. They made them pay a horrible price for their attempt on them; if it was in their power they would thwart them. Many could be seen to topple upside down and fall headlong onto their backs; many were wounded and many knocked unconscious. Those in the castle could not be blamed for defending themselves for they expected no immediate help.
Those outside had the worst of it. Thereupon the assault was suspended, an assault that had been very dangerous. The King was greatly troubled by events, and swore that he would not let things rest there and that he would never leave that place until he had taken the tower and punished those within.
The people in the castle decided, good folk that's they were, they would ask for a truce, and in the meantime would relay to their ord and master all the information about their situation. They asked for the truce and were given it, and as fast as they could, they informed their lord that they had only one days truce (so wherever John was, it was nearby for requests and answers to come within a day). So therefore, if he could, would he come and rescue them, for inside they had nothing to live on."
Newbury itself is in West Berkshire, a short distance from the Hampshire border. The town is situation 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. It's a site of some strategic importance.
Saxon settlement there is known of from the 10th century with charters existing for nearby Speen and Thatcham. By the late 11th century a manor called Ulvritone was listed in the area by the Domesday book and it belonged to one Arnulf of Hesdin. The name of the town is first mentioned in a grant of 1080. Evidence suggests that Newbury was created as a planned town on the site of Ulvritone. 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 in 1225 was represented at assize by its own bailiff and jury. So, it was a developing townscape at this time, but the only mention of a castle comes from the Histoire.
Puzzled by this, archaeologists undertook excavations in Newbury between 1979 and 1990 in the course of which between 1988 and 1990 they searched for evidence of a castle at the site traditionally acknowledged to have been the most likely place. The evaluation of the area by the Trust for Wessex Archaeology in March 1990 concluded that the tradition of a stone built castle standing on the site and surviving into the late medieval period was unsupported by fact. 'The balance of evidence would tend to suggest a location other than at Newbury Wharf' the report concluded.
That's that one put to bed then, but what of other sites?
A big favourite with historians is the site at Hamstead Marshall in south-west Berkshire, 4.7 miles from Newbury, where a manor once owned by the Marshals, has three mounds or Mottes in the grounds, and earthworks. Here is what the Heritage Gateway for West Berkshire has to say on the matter:Motte mounds at Hamstead Marshall It's a theory but inconclusive. At least one of the mounds is Neolithic, but may have been used as part of the defensive works.
We don't know when Hamstead Marshall became a Marshal possession. It didn't gain the name 'Marshall' until the 13th century. Before that it was simply 'Hamestede' meaning 'Homestead.' At the time of Domesday it had land for 5 ploughs of which the lord was entitled to 2 ploughland's worth. It had 4 villagers and 8 smallholders with 3 ploughs. It also had 10 slaves, a mill worth 20 shillings and 6 acres of pastureland. There was sufficient woodland to fatten 10 pigs and the whole was valued at £4. How and when did it become a Marshal possession? The hard evidence according to the Victorian County history dates to the early 13th century.
'It is returned about 1241 as held de marescangia. In 1270 as held by the service of the marshal's wand. And in 1283-4 per serianciam mareschallic. In 1306, however, it is said to be held by knight service and Mr Round (historian j.H. Round) expresses a doubt as to whether the marshalship was ever really held by serjeantry in connection with the manor of Hampstead Marshall as this manor is not returned among recognised Berkshire serjeantries.
Hampstead Marshal is first found in the possession of the Marshals in the early 13th century. That William Marshal held the manor of Hampstead Marshall seems probable, for in 1218 while he was acting as protector of the young King Henry III, the latter gave five letters patent at Hampstead Marshall, four of which were witnessed by the earl.
Who know, perhaps the earthworks and mottes derive from that troubled period rather than the anarchy. I think it's just as likely.
What we know about Hamstead Marshall is that by 1218 they had a manor there, luxurious enough to support a king, albeit that that king was a child. And since times were precarious, that manor was clearly fortified. The site of Newbury Castle? Perhaps, but let's look at an interesting alternative.
A few years ago, I was invited to lunch by the then owner of North Lodge and we walked the grounds where the Marshal manor once stood. The owner had enjoyed my novels and had an archaeology qualification that had enabled her to excavate one of the Marshal stew ponds on the site. We examined the mounds and our opinion was that at least a couple of them were Neolithic. Naturally a medieval castle builder would use whatever he had to hand, and Neolithic mounds are as good as anything else.
|Bounds of the manor at Hamstead Marshall|
My own feeling on the site of the elusive Newbury Castle is that archaeologists and historians should be looking to a suburb of Shrewsbury called Speen, just 1.4 miles from Newbury - which might make more sense of the castle title. There is a site now occupied by a large house (Speen House) 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. In ancient times the site had been an iron-age hill fort and the ramparts are still there. It's also postulated that a Roman station existed there too and there have been finds. Fortifications and ramparts are regularly adapted and reused and this site would have been an utter Godsend to John Marshal. He was renowned as a cunning builder of castles and Speen would have been tailor-made for his skills, especially if he was constructing defences in a hurry.
I have been to the site and the view from the top of Speen House are commanding and spectacular. You can see everything coming at you from here. It's strategically brilliant. King Stephen would have come by here on the way to try to take down Wallingford and John Marshal would now be standing directly in his path and in a commanding position. Stephen would have no choice but to batter him into submission. And while he was doing that, Wallingford remained safe.
Did the Marshals hold lands at Speen? Yes they did. They had the Grange at Speen for the right of holding the Marshal's Rod. They also have connections with the church and William Marshal had interests there from the late 12th which are listed on the Pipe Rolls. On the role of 1199 he his pardoned half a mark on land in Speen.
On the map, I have gone over the rampart lines in red. In purple the walking distance from Newbury centre is 1.4 miles. Contrast that with the less strategic Hamstead Marshall nearly 5 miles away.
|Showing the distances between Hamstead Marshall, Speen and Newbury.|
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.
None of this proves that there was a castle at Speen, or that it was the site of the siege mentioned in the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal. At the same time there is also no proof that Hamstead Marshall was the site of the castle the author of the Histoire named as Newbury. The Speen site more than holds its ground against any other theory, and in my opinion it's the place where's John Marshal made his stand against King Stephen.
Interestingly, when my friend with the archaeology qualification spoke to the county archaeologist on the subject, he commented that he would not be at all surprised to find that the remains of Newbury Castle were indeed at Speen.