Guildford Castle was raised shortly after the Norman invasion by William I as one of a chain of fortifications intended to secure control of London. It was rebuilt in stone during the twelfth century including construction of a Great Keep intended to serve as a Royal residence. By the thirteenth century the castle was being used as the county gaol and continued in this role until 1544.
Guildford Castle was probably raised in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Hastings (1066) as one of a chain of fortifications intended to encircle London. At the time of the invasion Guildford was a Saxon Royal borough and dominated a major route through the South Downs and Surrey Hills connecting London and the South Coast. Furthermore it was also located in proximity to a fording point over the River Wey. For all these reasons Norman control of this key nodal point was essential and a castle was raised to overlook the site.
The castle was built upon a spur of Pewley Hill to the south side of the Saxon town specifically so it occupied the higher ground dominating the settlement. However, unlike many other early Norman castles (such as Exeter and Totnes), Guildford was seemingly built on a previously undeveloped site. The castle took the form of an earth and timber motte-and-bailey fortification. The motte was topped with a timber palisade and tower whilst Inner and Outer baileys extended to the west. The precise configuration of the defences around the two baileys is unclear. Although the castle was overlooked by higher ground, this was well beyond the circa-200 metre range of projectile weapons of the era.
Guildford Castle remained a timber structure until the reign of Henry I (1100-35). Within the first few years of his reign he rebuilt the timber palisade around the motte into a polygonal shell Keep constructed from chalk. Initially the tower within remained a timber structure but, at some point during the twelfth century, this was replaced with the stone built Great Keep but records are inconclusive as to precisely when this happened. Architectural styles suggest it was probably in the 1170s during the reign of Henry II but, although Guildford is mentioned in official Royal accounts, there is no allocation of funds sufficient to build such a substantial structure. It was possible work was undertaken during the latter years of Henry I's reign or by King Stephen (1135-53). Regardless the result was a grand structure which, coupled with the castle's proximity to London, ensured regular Royal visits. During the reign of Henry II new Royal apartments were added to the bailey and Guildford later became a favoured residence of King John.
Following the outbreak of the First Barons' War (1215-17), Guildford Castle was captured by Prince Louis of France but was soon back in English hands. However, in 1252 the castle suffered a major (accidental) fire and was gutted. Henry III commissioned John of Gloucester to conduct repair work and he made numerous improvements to the castle including building apartments for Prince Edward (the future Edward I) and Eleanor of Castile. However, by this stage the castle's status as a Royal residence was being eclipsed by its role as the county gaol for both Surrey and Sussex with felons incarcerated within the Great Tower.
In 1381 Lewes Castle took on greater responsibility for Sussex prisoners but Guildford continued as the county gaol for Surrey and remained in the role until 1544. Thereafter the castle was abandoned and quickly fell to ruin. In the early seventeenth century it was sold by James I to Francis Caster who attempted to convert the Great Keep into a residence. His plan failed and instead he built a new house within the bailey. Later the castle grounds were leased for agricultural purposes until 1885 when the site was purchased by the Guildford Corporation. They started the long process of restoration and also laid out the pleasure gardens that surround the Keep.
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Guildford Castle was a motte-and-bailey fortification built in the years immediately following the Norman Conquest. The site is dominated by its twelfth century Great Keep which is open to the public. Little remains of the buildings that once occupied the two baileys and these have now been landscaped and converted into a park.
Great Keep. The Keep was built from Bargate stone from the Godalming area. It is 14 metres square and stands in excess of 19 metres high and was originally plastered and white-washed to give it a striking image over the town it dominated. The purpose of the Great Keep was to serve as a high status residence, as evidenced by the elaborate fireplaces and ornate stonework, but by the thirteenth century was being used as the county gaol. Brick additions were made during restoration in the early seventeenth century. Part of the original Shell Keep is also visible.
Apartments. The structure in the south-west of the site was built in 1242 to serve as State apartments for the Sheriff of Surrey.
Outer Bailey Gateway. The complete layout of the bailey is not fully understood but a portion of the gateway into the Inner Bailey survives. The arched gateway was added by Henry III in the mid-thirteenth century.
Guildford Castle is found within a public park in the city centre. There is no dedicated car park but Guildford is well served by a variety of (pay and display) options near the castle.
Car Parking Option
Millbrook Road, GU1 3XJ