Tamworth Castle was built in the south-west corner of a Saxon fortified burh. It was raised shortly after the Norman Conquest, rebuilt in stone during the twelfth century and in 1423 it came into the hands of the Freville family who made it their main residence. The castle briefly saw action during the Civil War when a Parliamentary force dislodged the Royalist garrison.
Tamworth is located at the confluence of the Rivers Anker and Tame, important communication arteries in the pre-industrial age. It was also in proximity to Watling Street, the Roman road running across the country between Richborough, London and Chester. By the sixth century AD it had become part of the Kingdom of Mercia, a political entity that would expand over the next two hundred years to incorporate the modern Midlands region along with large swathes of Yorkshire as well as the Thames valley and London.
The first known fortification at Tamworth was built by Offa. He was King of Mercia between AD 757 and AD 796 and made Tamworth his caput. He built a Royal Palace and surrounded the adjacent settlement with a rampart and ditch. Known as Offa's Dyke (separate and distinct from the earthwork that runs along the Anglo-Welsh border), this fortification is how the settlement acquired its name - Tamworth effectively meaning 'fortified enclosure by the River Tame'. It remained the capital of Mercia until AD 874 when King Burgred, faced with attacks from the Danes, surrendered the eastern portion of his Kingdom (including Tamworth) in exchange for peace. Tamworth was overrun and razed.
The Danes had been hugely successful and by the late ninth century the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia plus half of Mercia had all been consumed by their warriors. Only Wessex, under King Alfred, remained under unfettered Anglo-Saxon control. A concerted assault by the Danish warlord Guthrum almost overran the Kingdom but Alfred prevailed and led Wessex to a decisive victory at the Battle of Edington (AD 878). An agreement was struck where England was divided along the line of Watling Street - the west was to be exclusively under Anglo-Saxon control whilst the east was to be the Danelaw, an area where English and Danes were equal under the law. This agreement secured fourteen years of relative peace but Alfred was not idle - he built a system of fortified burhs, effectively walled towns, which facilitated the economic infrastructure to support his war machine and, when attacked, allowed him to seize the military initiative. When the Danes launched a renewed assault on Wessex in AD 892, the fortified burhs proved their worth preventing the attackers making any effective gains into Wessex. By AD 896 the borders of the kingdom were secure and Alfred looked to beyond his own domain and sought to achieve a united England. The first step was the recovery of Mercia and so he married his daughter Æthelflæd to Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians effectively merging the Wessex and Mercian Royal dynasties. Alfred died in AD 899 but his son, King Edward the Elder, fought a war of attrition and piecemeal advances against the Danes whilst Æthelflæd did the same from Mercia. By the end of Edward's reign in AD 924, he was King of all land south of the River Humber.
Anglo-Saxon advances were secured by establishment of new fortified burhs. Chester was fortified in AD 907, Bridgnorth in AD 912 whilst Tamworth and Stafford were converted to burhs in AD 913. At Tamworth the fortifications may have enclosed the same area as established by Offa. The defences consisted of a turf built rampart held together by wooden framing and riveted by a timber frontage. A deep ditch ran in front of the wall. The southern side of the town was protected by the Rivers Anker and Tame. The defences remained in good order throughout the tenth century although they did not stop a Danish attack in AD 943.
A castle was established at Tamworth shortly after the Norman invasion of 1066. Like other Crown owned property, Tamworth was seized by William I and he subsequently granted it to Robert le Despenser who probably built the castle. It was constructed in the south-west corner of the former Saxon burh adjacent to the River Tame which provided an assured way of resupplying the site. The fortification took the form of an earth and timber motte-and-bailey castle. The mound itself was topped with a timber palisade creating a Shell Keep within which the most important buildings of the castle, such as the Great Hall and high status accommodation, were enclosed. The bailey was located to the east and would have hosted the ancillary buildings associated with such a site such as stables, storerooms, brewhouse and bakehouse.
Robert died around 1098 without leaving a male heir and Tamworth then passed to Robert Marmion, hereditary Royal Champion to the King. It remained with his family for the next two hundred years and was rebuilt in stone from the late twelfth century onwards. Constrained by the surrounding town, the layout of the castle maintained the same footprint as the earlier timber castle although the motte was undoubtedly enhanced to take the increased weight of the stone Shell Keep. The Marmions hosted several Royal visits at the castle including Henry I in 1100 and Henry II in 1158.
In 1215 the then owner of Tamworth Castle, Sir Robert Marmion, sided with the Barons who compelled King John to sign Magna Carta. When that charter failed to prevent civil war, Robert supported the rebels during the First Barons' War prompting the King to order Tamworth Castle to be razed. It is unknown whether this instruction was ever implemented but there is some evidence the Shell Keep was partially rebuilt at this time which could indicate damage occurred at this time. The castle was certainly in a sufficiently good condition to host a visit by Henry III in 1257.
The male line of the Marmion family failed in 1294 and Edward I granted the castle to Sir Alexander de Freville. He and his descendants served in the Wars of Scottish Independence and later in the continental campaigns of the Hundred Years War. His family also continued to perform the role of Royal Champion with Sir Alexander himself doing this at the coronation of Edward III in 1327 and his great grandson, Sir Baldwin Freville, doing the same for Richard II in 1377. However, the family's relationship with the burgesses of Tamworth was not always so cordial. In 1348 Tamworth Castle was effectively besieged by the local populace due to encroachment of their rights. A peaceful resolution was eventually achieved.
In 1423 Tamworth Castle passed through marriage to Sir Thomas Ferrers of Groby in Leicestershire. He made the castle his main residence and built the timber framed hall within the Shell Keep. However, the buildings in the bailey were clearly neglected for the antiquarian John Leland described the site as "cleane decayed" when he visited during the 1540s. Furthermore, in the mid sixteenth century the Ferrers family moved their family seat to Walton-on-Trent although Tamworth continued to be used as a high status residence and hosted a visit by James I (VI of Scotland) in the early seventeenth century.
Following the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, Tamworth Castle was garrisoned by the Royalists. This force was able to cause the Parliamentarians some difficulties, not least frustrating their attempts to capture nearby Lichfield, and accordingly Tamworth was besieged in 1643. It was captured after a two day siege and remained in Parliamentary hands for the rest of the war under the command of Captain Waldyve.
In 1715 Tamworth Castle passed to James Crompton, Earl of Northampton and in 1786 it was in the hands of George Townsend. Neither had much use for it and by the end of the eighteenth century it had been leased to Robert Peel for use as a forge. The castle was purchased by the Tamworth Corporation in 1897 and was opened to the public two years later.
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Tamworth Castle is a major tourist attraction with the Shell Keep, along with the Great Hall, surviving intact. The castle's bailey gatehouse is also visible (foundations only) along with a short stretch of curtain wall. The town's Saxon defences were flattened in the first half of the twentieth century.
Tamworth Context. By the early tenth century Mercia had been reduced in size to occupy an area broadly covered by what we today regard as the West Midlands although it also occupied parts of the South-East including London. The eastern boundary of the Kingdom was marked by Watling Street, the London to Chester road built by the Romans and still in use during the medieval period. Tamworth was located upon this road and as a fortified burh provided a secure base from which to place pressure on the Danish held territory to the east.
Castle Keep. Tamworth Castle Keep replaced an earlier timber palisade. The stone shell was constructed in the late twelfth century and subsequently modified as the site was slowly converted from a fortification to a mansion between the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.
Tamworth Saxon Burh. The defences of the Saxon burh enclosed three sides whilst the Rivers Tame and Anker provided protection to the south. The defences on the south-east seem to end abruptly which probably meant either the River Anker originally ran on a more northerly line or there was another natural barrier present (marshland for example).
Castle Courtyard. The courtyard within the Shell Keep has been gradually reduced in size over the centuries as more buildings were constructed.
Dining Hall. This room dates from at least the thirteenth century and was either originally the Great Hall or private chambers for the nobility
Great Hall. The Great Hall seen today was built by Sir Thomas Ferrers in the late fifteenth century and replaced an earlier building on the same site. It was modified in the seventeenth century, when it was faced with brick, and enhanced further during the 1700s. It is the largest roofed building of its kind in Staffordshire.
Bailey Gatehouse. Whilst the bailey itself has been landscaped, the foundations of the gatehouse survive.