The Island’s fabulous Carisbrooke Castle.
WIGHT LIVING CARISBROOKE Castle is the closest the Island has to the history of England in one building.
The first historic record of the Island recalls that in 530AD Cerdic, the warlord who founded the English monarchy, conquered the Island with a 'great slaughter’ at a place named as Wihtgarasburgh.
Wihtgar was the first recorded king of the Island from 534 to 544. Evidence of this is found in the fact inside the castle archaeologists have found a sixth century Saxon cemetery with high status grave goods.
The site of the castle above the steep-sided slopes on the south and western sides of the Lukely River provided an excellent defensive position between the obvious invasion route down the Medina valley and the agricultural and population heartlands south of the central chalk uplands.
The great rectangular earthworks that define the castle’s footprint date from the Saxon period (686-1066).
These centuries witnessed repeated Scandinavian attacks and the earthwork and stone built enclosure was large enough for the local population to flee inside with their livestock.
But then after the Norman Conquest of 1066, the castle was redesigned to keep the local population out.
Stout wooden walls and more earthworks were erected above and within the Saxon ramparts.
Forced labourers raised the huge motte earthwork of layered chalk on which was built the wooden castle keep. To avoid having to going to the local church, the Normans created their own parish of St Nicholas inside the enclosure.
Lord Richard de Redvers (ruled 1101-1107) and his son, Lord Baldwin, (1107- 1155) replaced the wooden walls, now "stately built of hewn stone and strengthened by great fortifications".
This involved importing rock from a dozen quarries and it required great teams of men and animals to haul the blocks from the River Medina. It is no coincidence Newport was planned and built at the same time. The High Street and Pyle Street still follow the supply route to this massive building project.
In 1135, Lord Baldwin attacked the forces of King Stephen in support of the usurped Queen Matilda.
In 1136, King Stephen besieged Carisbrooke Castle. It was an unusually dry summer and the castle well in the keep ran dry. The castle surrendered but the civil war continued to 1153. Baldwin, however, was finally victorious and reclaimed the Island.
Work was begun on a second well in the courtyard that descended 161 feet or 49 metres. At first the treadmill mechanism was operated by prisoners before they were replaced by the still familiar donkeys.
The last of the de Redvers dynasty was the fabulously wealthy Lady Isabella de Fortibus (ruled 1262-1293). She based her court at the castle and the imposing square gatehouse was constructed, a miniature fortress in itself.
A herb garden was also developed to support the expanded kitchens and grand new accommodation.
In 1293, Isabella sold the Island on her deathbed to King Edward I. The castle became the official residence of crown-appointed lords (from 1385), captains (1495) and governors (1582).
The castle’s defences were repeatedly reinforced after the start of the Hundred Years War with France from 1324. The entrance drum towers were added to the gatehouse from 1336.
On August 21, 1377, a French invasion army landed but the castle, commanded by Constable Sir Hugh Tyrell, successfully defied a three-week siege.
In 1582, Queen Elizabeth’s cousin, George Carey, took up residence as governor and prepared for a Spanish invasion. He added to the existing accommodation, ordered the building of the well house and an extra mansion of 13 rooms, later demolished.
After the Spanish Armada fought its way past the Island in July 1588, Carey persuaded Elizabeth to invest in up-to-date artillery defences. The Italian engineer Federigo Gianibelli devised a five-star bastion faced with an outer ditch, faced with a mile of cut stone, all covered by artillery fire.
From 1597 to 1602, a human and logistic effort, as great as the original building, quintrupled the size of the defences.
When the constitutional crisis between Charles I and Parliament threatened civil war in August 1642, the royal castle had arms enough for 1,500 soldiers.
However, the Borough Council of Newport and the Island militia sided with Parliament. They were reinforced to 600 men by sailors from the Parliamentary navy.
Lady Portland, the wife of the governor, had just 20 royalist supporters and surrendered the helpless castle for the second time.
From 1647 to 1648, the castle became the prison of King Charles I after his defeat in the first Civil War of 1642 to 1645. Here he conspired the second war of 1648 to 1649 while at the same time negotiating with Parliament the 1648 Treaty of Newport.
He was beheaded in Whitehall in January 1649. His 14-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, and ten-year-old son, George, were moved to the castle in 1650. Princess Elizabeth died just weeks later and is buried in Newport church. Prince George was exiled in 1653. The castle remained a prison for political prisoners long after the Restoration of 1660.
By the 1750s, the Island was defended by coastal forts and a field army camped at Parkhurst. The redundant castle was sadly neglected, trees growing everywhere, its romantic ivy-clad walls a favourite for visiting artists. In 1856, it was taken over by the Ministry of Works and restoration begun.
The last Governor who lived at the castle was Princess Beatrice, the youngest daughter of Queen Victoria. She became governor in 1896 and in 1913, she moved into the castle after making alterations such as adding a bathroom.
The princess spent her summers at the castle until 1938 but, unlike the Norman lords, she worshipped at St Mary’s church in the village. The Chapel of St Nicholas became the Island’s shrine to our war dead and 2,000 names are carved onto the interior walls.
In 1965, the castle had its last great state occasion when the Queen inaugurated Earl Mountbatten as Governor of the Island.
Carisbrooke Castle is now managed by English Heritage www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/carisbrooke-castle
Carisbrooke Castle Museum, founded by Princess Beatrice in 1898, continues as an independent Island trust. This little publicised museum is one of the Island’s greatest cultural treasures — see www.carisbrookecastlemuseum.org.uk.
• John Medland is giving a talk, An Introduction to IW Landscape History from 10am to 1pm next Saturday, November 9, at the Congregational Church, Pyle Street, Newport. For information, call Margaret Rylands on 01983 529589.