Although the site has been fortified since at least the eighth century AD, Bedford Castle itself was built by the Normans soon after the invasion in order to dominate the Saxon settlement. It was besieged by King Stephen in 1137 and Henry III in 1224 and on both occasions proved to be a formidable fortress.
A settlement at Bedford has existed since at least the eighth century AD. At this time it was on the border of the Kingdom of Mercia and, given the presence of the Danes to the north, it was fortified from an early date - perhaps by King Offa. The Danes overran Mercia in AD 874 and occupied Bedford due to its proximity to the navigable waters of the River Great Ouse which allowed access towards King's Lynn and the Wash. They were expelled from the area by King Edward the Elder in AD 915 and he subsequently built a fortified town (burh) on the southern banks of the river.
Following the Norman invasion, an earth and timber motte and bailey castle was built on the northern bank of the river to dominate the Saxon settlement and the crossing point over the River Great Ouse. Like numerous other Norman fortifications, existing buildings were demolished to make space for the new castle both to ensure the optimum position and to make a clear political statement.
In 1087 Hugh de Beauchamp was granted Bedford by William II to complement his extensive landholdings in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire. It passed to his son, Simon, sometime before 1114 but when he died in 1137 without a male heir, a dispute arose over ownership. The castle was initially taken over by Miles de Beuchamp, Simon's nephew, on trust for his daughter. However, when King Stephen arranged a marriage between Simon's daughter and Hugh the Pauper (with the latter taking Bedford Castle), Miles refused to hand it over. The castle was besieged by Royal forces and, after an initial attempt to storm the defences failed, the focus shifted on blockading the site to starve the garrison out. Although King Stephen departed, the Royal army remained in situ and Miles was eventually dislodged. However, England descended into civil war in 1139 between the forces of King Stephen and Matilda, the daughter of Henry I, over the succession to the English Crown. Miles used the opportunity to support Matilda and re-captured Bedford Castle. Despite attacks on Bedford town in 1146 and 1153, the castle was not taken during the rest of the war and Miles held the fortification until his death sometime before 1155.
Civil war once again engulfed England in 1215 with the outbreak of the First Barons War between King John and his rebellious Barons. The first target of the rebels was Northampton Castle but this Royal fortress had been greatly strengthened in the months preceding the war and proved impregnable. It soon became clear an extended siege would be required but word soon reached the Barons that William de Beauchamp, then owner of Bedford Castle and initially a supporter of the King, was on the verge of switching sides. The rebels moved to Bedford where they were welcomed into the castle by William. The bulk of the rebel force then moved on towards London.
Bedford Castle was re-taken for King John in late 1215 by Falkes de Breauté, a soldier who had been in Royal service since at least 1206. In recognition of his achievement, the King subsequently granted him the castle which he significantly enlarged. In doing so he demolished the churches of St Paul's and St Cuthbert's both to make space for the enhanced castle and provide building materials. A barbican, outer bailey and stone curtain wall were all constructed at this time. It is also likely the motte was enlarged and a stone shell Keep built upon its summit.
King John died in 1216 and was succeeded by his nine year old son, Henry III. During the minority both William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and Hubert de Burgh, Earl of Kent - both key magnates in the new regime - marginalised Falkes de Breauté culminating in a decision in 1224 that Bedford Castle should be returned to William de Beauchamp. Falkes refused to hand the castle over and imprisoned a Royal judge - Henry of Braybrooke - when he tried to intervene. On 22 June 1224 a Royal army besieged Bedford and Falkes, who was not present in the castle, was excommunicated by Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury. The siege saw the full might of the Royal arsenal brought against the fortification with surviving records detailing the apparatus and tactics used in significant detail:
- Northern Walls - one mangonel (a form of catapult)
- Eastern Walls - a petrary (stone throwing device) and two mangonels
- Western Walls - two mangonels
- Southern Walls - one mangonel
Furthermore two tall towers were built to provide archers with the ability to fire directly into the castle's interior whilst workmen used a Cattus (a wooden shelter) to access the curtain wall's foundations. Despite these endeavours, the siege lasted eight weeks with the defenders repelling several assaults which saw hundreds of attackers killed. Eventually however an assault broke down the walls and Royal troops stormed in. The King showed no mercy and William de Breauté, brother to Falkes, and dozens of Knights who had been defending the castle were summarily executed. Falkes himself submitted to Henry III and, in exchange for loss of all his possessions, was pardoned to exile. Bedford Castle was restored to William de Beauchamp but the King was adamant that the fortification should be slighted. Despite William's best efforts, the castle was demolished and never rebuilt although the buildings within the Inner Bailey continued in use for some years thereafter.
During the English Civil War, Bedford was a Parliamentary stronghold although it was briefly captured by Royalist troops in 1643. The castle's motte, by then the only substantial portion of the fortification still standing, was re-commissioned as a fortification for protection of the town presumably as a high point for artillery. After the war the motte was again abandoned and ultimately became a bowling lawn!
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Only the motte remains of this once substantial fortification but this can be accessed and offers good views over the River Great Ouse. A small model is on display showing the configuration of the castle in the thirteenth century. A few artefacts found during archaeological investigation of the site can be seen in The Higgins museum/art gallery including a mangonel shot used during the 1224 siege. A lime kiln, dating from the mid-thirteenth century and located within the castle’s bailey, can be found on the ground floor within a building called ‘Castle Quay’ on Castle Lane. Regrettably this fascinating exhibit is only rarely open to the public although visitors can gaze through a dirty window into the poorly lit room.
Mangonel Shot. One of approximately 30 mangonel shots recovered from the castle site. It probably dates from the 1224 siege.
Ice Storage. Around 1800 part of the motte was hollowed out and a brick-lined chamber built to store ice.
The motte is all that remains of Bedford Castle.
The summit of the motte.
The castle is located in central Bedford on the northern banks of the River Great Ouse. The site is not sign-posted for vehicular traffic but is easily found. Pay and display car parking can be found along the Embankment but there are plenty of other options.
Bedford Castle (Motte)
Castle Lane, MK40 3PJ