Worcester emerged as a settlement due to its proximity to a fording point over the River Severn. The extent of the pre-Roman occupation is not known but an oval rampart that surrounded the site is thought to have originally dated from the Iron Age.
Worcester grew into a small town during the Roman period due to the construction of a Roman road running between the Legionary fortresses at Gloucester and Wroxeter. Although both of these sites were abandoned by the military during the first century AD, they subsequently became substantial towns and the traffic between them led to the development of Worcester (known to the Romans as Vertis). Furthermore by the second century the town had a thriving iron industry which emerged due to the proximity to the River Severn enabling exports to the wider Roman world. Around the third century AD a town wall was built although this probably for status and taxation purposes rather than defence. It is likely Worcester was abandoned in the fifth century AD following the withdrawal of the Romans from Britain.
Around AD 680 Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury established a see for the Kingdom of Hwicce, an area that encompassed parts of Worcestershire, Warwickshire and Gloucestershire. Within the walls that had previously enclosed the former Roman town, he founded a new church on the site dedicated to St Peter. By the early ninth century Worcester had become an important ecclesiastical centre with a further three churches established within its perimeter.
Worcester was refounded as a fortified burh in AD 899 by Æthelflæd, daughter of King Alfred the Great, and her husband Æthelred, Earl of Mercia. The Roman defences were restored and re-used although on the northern side of the town the perimeter was extended and accordingly a new earthwork rampart and ditch was built. Within this expanded area a grid of streets was laid out along the line of today’s High Street. Of note this lay takeover of a formerly religious centre was done with the implicit support of the Bishop of Worcester who doubtless saw it as the lesser of two evils given the threat posed by the Danes. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle stated the defensive enclosure was large enough to "shelter all the people and the churches and the bishop".
Worcester Castle was built in 1069 by Urse d'Abitot, Sheriff of Worcester in the form of an earth and timber motte-and-bailey fortification. Built in the south-west corner of the Saxon defences, directly adjacent to the River Severn, the castle occupied an area of around four acres. The motte was raised on top of an existing structure, perhaps an earlier high status Saxon building, whilst the large rectangular bailey encroached upon land formerly owned by the church (originally a cemetery but now the location known as College Green). The first recorded reference is found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which recorded an attack on the castle in 1088 by rebels from Shropshire, Hereford and Wales. They plundered the surrounding area but Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester mustered his forces and marched out of the castle to meet them. He allegedly slew or captured 500 men and put the others to flight. By the twelfth century the role of Sheriff of Worcester had become a hereditary position held by the Beauchamp family. In this role they acted as custodians of the castle and Walter de Beauchamp was required to rebuild it after a fire swept through Worcester destroying all timber framed buildings in 1113.
During the Anarchy, the civil war between Stephen and Matilda, Worcester Castle changed hands on several occasions. The Beauchamp family had been alienated from Stephen’s faction due to a dispute over Bedford Castle and the King himself had to besiege Worcester in 1152. Following the end of the war the castle suffered damage from fires in 1189 and 1202 prompting further rebuilding although the defences seemingly remained in wood. A visit by King John in 1204 led to the gatehouse being rebuilt in stone.
Following the outbreak of the First Baron’s War in 1215, Worcester Castle was initially held by the rebels but was seized by Royalist forces the following year. In 1217 the Regent - William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke – sought to secure the town’s loyalty by returning a significant portion of the bailey to the church. The motte however was retained as was a much reduced bailey abutting the southern defences of the town. The downscaled fortification remained with the Beauchamp family but by this time they had moved their main residence to Elmley Castle. When Robert de Ferrers, Earl of Derby attacked Worcester in 1263 – during the Second Barons’ War – he successfully entered the city via the castle site suggesting it had ceased to be an effective fortification by this time.
The site of the castle remained under the ownership of the Beauchamp family who rented out the motte to tenants (for grazing). The family ceded the land to the Crown in 1487 but nothing was done with the site despite the small bailey continuing to host the county gaol until 1809. The castle’s motte was flattened in 1848 and now only the fragments of an internal building and the Cathedral Watergate, once the postern of the castle, survive.
Despite the decline in the castle, Worcester itself continued to grow in size and prosperity. In the thirteenth century Henry III granted the city the right to charge tolls to fund the rebuilding of the walls although the line of the Saxon defences was retained. The main gates to the city were St Martin's, Sidbury and Bridge Gate although throughout the medieval period additional postern accesses were added. By the early sixteenth century there were eight gates into the city.
First Civil War
In September 1642 the first Civil War started with a skirmish just to the west of Worcester at Powick Bridge. The fight was inconclusive but Parliamentary troops under Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex moved into the city despite the area having predominantly Royalist sympathies. However, as King Charles marched his army south, Essex left Worcester in pursuit and at the Battle of Edgehill (1642) attempted to bar the King’s advance on London. Thereafter Worcester was taken over by the Royalists who held it until the final stages of the war including resisting an attack by William Waller in July 1643.
By early 1646 the Royalist cause was in terminal decline with its field armies destroyed and Parliamentary forces reducing the last outposts of resistance one by one. When Ludlow Castle fell on 27 May 1646, the forces were reallocated to capture Worcester. On 10 July 1646 Major-General Thomas Rainsborough took command of the siege and forced the surrender of the city on 22 July 1646.
Third Civil War
In January 1649, Scotland proclaimed Prince Charles Stuart as King in direct opposition to the English Parliament. The third Civil War followed with an English army, under Oliver Cromwell, invading Scotland and defeating Royalist forces at the Battle of Dunbar (1650). Undeterred Charles invaded England heading south hoping to ignite a general uprising. When he was denied entry to Shrewsbury, he headed for Worcester which was known to harbour Royalist sympathies and was also close to Wales from where it was anticipated significant quantities of new recruits would be forthcoming.
Worcester was garrisoned by a 500 strong Parliamentary garrison under Colonel James who had been tasked with slighting the city's defences to prevent a recurrence of the 1646 siege. He had duly done so and was thus unable to offer any resistance to the Royalist army who entered the city on 23 August 1651. The Royalists immediately started re-fortifying the city including building a substantial earthwork bastion, Fort Royal, to command the high ground overlooking Sidbury Gate. A blockhouse was also raised to control the approach to St Martin's Gate.
Within five days of the Royalists securing Worcester, Parliamentary forces converged on the city. By 28 August 1651 the eastern approaches had been blockaded but an all out attack was delayed until Parliamentary troops were in a position to secure the western side - Cromwell did not want the Royalists simply retreating into Wales. By 3 September 1651 he was ready to commence his assault and the Battle of Worcester commenced. After a long day of fighting, the city was successfully stormed with the closing action in the battle taking place at Fort Royal and Sidbury Gate. The latter was held by the Royalists long enough for Charles to escape via St Martin's Gate.
Notwithstanding damage caused during the Civil Wars, the defences around Worcester survived until the eighteenth century. Thereafter though the medieval gates were largely seen as obstructions and were demolished – the last to be pulled down was St Martin’s Gate in 1787. The city walls were also plundered for their stone and today only a short stretch along City Walls Road survives.
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Worcester Castle has been obliterated although part of an internal building can be seen on College Green. Similarly the city walls have been demolished with the exception of a small stretch on City Walls Road. Despite this, a visit to Worcester is still hugely rewarding with the city layout largely reflecting its medieval configuration and numerous buildings surviving from that period. However, the highlight of any visit is Worcester Cathedral which offers a spectacular panoramic view of the city and is also where King John is interred.
Castle Site. Worcester Castle has been completely obliterated although a good view of the site can be obtained from the tower of the Cathedral.
6 College Green. The remains of a two storey red sandstone building embedded in the side of number 6 College Green have been interpreted as a possible pre-1217 structure. If so this is a surviving section of one of the castle’s internal buildings.
Priory Watergate. In 1217 a large section of the bailey was returned to the church from the “motte tower” to “the causeway leading to the postern gate on the Severn”. The gate now provides access into the Cathedral grounds.
Worcester Defences. The defensive circuit above shows the Saxon and medieval defences. The roads represent the modern arrangement but note the grid like patterns in the north-east which is a direct result of the Saxon expansion of the defences in AD 899.
Worcester City Walls. A short stretch of the city walls survive on the City Walls Road. The lower levels of a single circular tower remains.
Worcester Cathedral. A cathedral church has existed in Worcester since AD 680. The building seen today was started by Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester in 1084 and has been upgraded over the subsequent centuries with its current appearance the result of Victorian restoration. In 1216 King John chose to be buried in the Cathedral but his options were limited - the country was in civil war and Worcester was one of the few places still in Royal control.
Bridge Gate. Worcester bridge was originally slightly further north than the modern crossing with its city-side end barred by a gate (on Newport Street). However, when the bridge was rebuilt in stone in 1313, the gate was moved to the central pier of the bridge itself. It was badly damaged during the Battle of Worcester (1651) and was demolished in 1702. Worcester bridge itself was replaced in 1781.
St Clement's Gate. The city’s common meadow was to the north-west of the city at Pitchcroft and a small postern, St Clement’s Gate (sometimes called the Watergate), provided access. The date of its origin is not known and it was demolished before 1787.
Foregate (North Gate). First recorded in 1182 the Foregate gave access to the road north. It was demolished in 1702 as the narrow archway restricted traffic flow.
Trinity Gate. Probably the last gate to be built, Trinity Gate was first recorded in 1540. It led to the city’s industrial suburbs to the north of the wall and by the seventeenth century it served as the local gaol. It was demolished following the civil war.
St Martin's Gate. Probably the largest of the city gates, St Martin’s Gate connected directly to the road of Warwick. Flanked by two octagonal towers, it was first recorded during the reign of Henry II and was demolished in 1787.
Friars' Gate. In 1231 Friars’ Gate was built as a private postern access for the Franciscan Friars (Greyfriars). The small gate was extensively modified in 1643 into an artillery blockhouse and, after the war, it was demolished.
Frog Gate / Severn Street. The southernmost gate, Frog Gate was a minor postern gate leading to a nearby mill. First recorded in 1467, it acquired its name from the adjacent Frog Brook which was used to flood the ditch around the town. The gate was demolished in the late seventeenth century. The plaque is found on Severn Street which follows the line of the southern perimeter of Worcester Castle’s defences.
Sidbury Gate. A substantial gate that provided access to the main road to Gloucester and London, Sidbury Gate was flanked by twin round towers. It was first recorded before 1197 and saw considerable fighting during the Battle of Worcester (1651) when the Royalists held it to enable Charles II to escape through St Martin’s Gate. It was demolished in the eighteenth century.
Civil War. During the civil war earthwork defences were built around the city to provide protection. Fort Royal, an earthwork bastion built in 1651, survives although the grounds have been landscaped.
New Street. Numerous late medieval era buildings can be found on New Street.
including WORCESTER CITY WALLS
Worcester was first fortified during the Iron Age with both the Romans and Saxons rebuilding the defences during their tenures. Shortly after the Norman invasion, Worcester Castle was raised to dominate the settlement but its use was short-lived and by the thirteenth century the focus was on upgrading the city walls which withstood multiple attacks during the Civil War.
Worcester has ample (pay and display) car parks with one option shown below. All major attractions are within walking distance of the city centre.
Car Parking Option
King Street, WR1 2NX
College Yard, WR1 2LA
Worcester City Walls
City Walls Road, WR1 2DU
Surviving Castle Fragment
6 College Green, WR1 2LL