History of Carisbrooke Castle
Carisbrooke 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, 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. Since then it has remained a symbolic centre for the island, not least as the residence of its governor.
Roman occupation in the area around Carisbrooke has been suggested but never proved. The earliest certain use was for a pagan Anglo-Saxon cemetery of the 6th century. Three graves were discovered during excavations.
In about 1000 this prominent hilltop, dominating the centre of the island, became the site of a rectangular fortification, formed of an earthen bank, later faced with a stone wall, and containing large timber buildings. This was probably an Anglo-Saxon burh (or fortress/fortified settlement), built to provide a refuge against Viking raids.
Isabella de Fortibus and Her Successors
The last of the de Redvers, Countess Isabella de Fortibus, shaped the castle interior into its present form. As well as work to the defences, she concentrated her attention on creating a residence fit for a great magnate. She built the existing, much altered great hall with her chamber at one end and her private chapel at the other, together with numerous other buildings around a central courtyard. In 1293, in the last days of her life, she sold her estates to Edward I, and the castle has remained Crown property ever since.
For the rest of the Middle Ages the castle was governed by a rapid succession of Crown-appointed lords of the island. Such work as was done focused on the defences, particularly during the wars with France. The Isle of Wight was raided five times between 1336 and 1370 and the castle was besieged in 1377. At the end of the 14th century William de Montacute (lord of the island 1386–97) remodelled the great hall and rebuilt the chamber block adjoining it.
In the early 16th century the importance of the castle declined as Henry VIII adopted a policy of coastal defences.
The Civil War and Charles I
At the outset of the Civil War in 1642 the castle passed into the hands of the Parliamentary forces. Its principal use until 1660 was as a prison for important Royalists, the most notable inmate being Charles I in 1647–8. Later it was used as a prison for his youngest son and for his daughter, Princess Elizabeth, who died here in 1650, at the age of 14.
Charles I came to the island in November 1647 after he had escaped from house arrest at Hampton Court, in the hope that he might be able to act more freely. But he quickly found that he was again a prisoner, this time in the castle. He was housed with some ceremony in the hall range, attended by members of his own household. An enclosure on the east side of the castle was converted into a bowling green for him.
Charles made two unsuccessful attempts to escape, in March and May 1648. In September he was removed to Newport for unsuccessful negotiations with Parliament, and then by stages to London and his execution in Whitehall on 30 January 1649.
Carisbrooke as Monument
The major influence on the castle’s present form, however, was Percy Stone, an architect who was also the island’s historian. He published the first study of the castle’s history and architecture in 1891. He was helped by renewed royal interest in the castle when Princess Beatrice, Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, was appointed governor in 1896 in succession to her husband, Prince Henry of Battenberg.
Stone first restored the gatehouse, replacing its roof and one upper floor, to make the first Isle of Wight Museum, opened in 1898 in memory of Prince Henry. In 1904 he restored the Chapel of St Nicholas to its present quasi-medieval form. Its internal appearance, however, results from its use as the island’s war memorial commemorating the 2,000 men from the Isle of Wight killed in both world wars.
In 1913 Princess Beatrice had the hall range and Constable’s Lodging adapted and modernised to become her summer residence, which she continued to use until 1938.
Since the Second World War, the castle has remained largely as a monument. It is used occasionally for island ceremonies but is primarily a tourist destination. It is also the home of the Isle of Wight Museum, which moved after Princess Beatrice’s death in 1944 into the more spacious accommodation of the hall range, where it remains.
About the Author
Dr Christopher Young is a heritage consultant and former Head of International Advice at English Heritage. He led excavations at Carisbrooke Castle between 1976 and 1983, and is the author of the English Heritage guidebook to the castle.