Wallingford is located at the point where the River Thames cuts through the Chilterns and was also in proximity to a fording point across that river. For this reason it has seen human activity since prehistoric times but, whilst small agricultural settlements became established in the vicinity, it wasn't until the ninth century when a town was founded on the site.
Wallingford was founded in the late ninth century as part of a national scheme of fortified settlements designed to frustrate attacks by the Danes. With its rectangular shape and major roads running through the centre of the settlement, Wallingford imitated the design of earlier Roman cities. Like the other towns founded by the West Saxons, its defences were intended to withstand Danish attacks allowing the Royal army freedom of manoeuvre to campaign where it would be most effective rather than having to rush to the aid of every settlement. The ramparts were constructed from earth topped with a timber palisade and defensive towers may have been built along its length. Despite these fortifications the Danes, sailing up the River Thames, devastated the town in 1006 and further attacks followed in 1010 and 1013 but on each occasion the town was rebuilt. By the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) Wallingford was a royal borough and an occasional royal residence.
At the time of the Norman invasion, Wallingford was the largest and most important settlement in Berkshire. The pre-Conquest owner, Wigod, supported the Normans but a portion of the town had been owned by the King and this was used as the site for a new castle. The Domesday Book (1086) recorded that "eight sites (haguae) were destroyed for [construction of] the castle" which included a number of high-status Saxon residences and also involved disruption to part of the street grid (although not the main north/south and east/west thoroughfares). The builder of this new castle was Robert d'Oyley (or d'Oilly), a Norman Knight who had fought at the Battle of Hastings (1066) and who has built numerous other fortifications throughout the area including Oxford Castle.
Little is known about this early fortification as no plans survive and it was heavily modified later in the Middle Ages. However it was initially raised in the form of an earth and timber motte-and-bailey fortification. It was constructed in the north-east corner of the former Saxon defences enabling it to dominate the crossing over the Thames and the northern gate into the town. The castle was certainly in place by 1071 when it hosted its first state prisoner, the Abbot of Abingdon, who stood accused of supporting the rebellion of Hereward the Wake. By the late 1070s Robert d'Oyley had founded the college of St. Nicholas within the castle precincts and a Benedictine Priory in Wallingford town.
England descended into civil war in 1139 over the succession to the English Crown. Henry I had died in 1135 leaving only a daughter, Matilda, as his heir. Although Henry's magnates had sworn loyalty to Matilda during the old King's lifetime, upon his death they switched their support to her cousin, Stephen of Blois. When Matilda's half-brother - Robert, Earl of Gloucester - declared his support for her, war was inevitable. Given Robert's powerbase, Matilda's support was centred around Gloucestershire but also extended to include much of South West England and Southern Wales. In the east Wallingford Castle was held by one of her supporters, Brian fitz Count, but it was at the extremity of her sphere of influence. Unsurprisingly then it was targeted by Stephen who placed the castle under siege in 1140 with two counter castles constructed one of which was built around St Peter's Church. However, the besieging forces were surprised by Miles of Gloucester who destroyed at least one of the counter-castles and enabled Wallingford to be resupplied. Stephen tried again in 1145 and 1152 but on each occasion the castle proved too strong. The latter attempt however prompted the two sides to enter into negotiations and, although no agreement was struck, it paved the way the Treaty of Wallingford in November 1153 which ended the war by confirming Stephen as King and Matilda's son, Henry of Anjou, as his heir.
Later Medieval Period
Stephen died in 1154 and Henry II showed his gratitude to Wallingford for resolutely supporting his mother's cause by granting it a Charter of Liberties which included the right to hold regular markets. His successor, Richard I, granted the town of Wallingford to Prince John but, ever distrustful of his younger brother, placed the castle in the more reliable hands of Walter de Coutances, Archbishop of Rouen. However, Richard's absence on crusade led John to seize control of the castle although he was eventually forced to relinquish it to his mother, Queen Eleanor.
Richard died in 1199 and was succeeded by his brother. He visited the castle on numerous occasions and in 1213, after having spent years misappropriating church property, submitted to the Pope's envoy there. Between John and his son/successor, Henry III, significant upgrades were made to Wallingford Castle. This included a new outer moat which required the northern portion of town's main north/south road to be relocated slightly further west.
Wallingford Castle became the property of Richard, Earl of Cornwall in 1231 who made it his main residence and built new State apartments. It was still in his hands in 1264 when, following the King's defeat at the Battle of Lewes (1264), it was seized by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. He imprisoned Prince Edward (later Edward I) at the castle until a rescue attempt saw the Royal prisoner transferred to Kenilworth Castle. The defeat of Montfort at the Battle of Evesham (1265) saw the castle returned to Richard, Earl of Cornwall and he built a new chapel for the college of St. Nicholas around 1278.
In 1307 Edward II granted Wallingford to his unpopular favourite Piers Gaveston. He retained it until 1312 when he was seized, tried and executed by the Earls of Lancaster and Warwick. Thereafter it returned into Crown ownership until 1317 when it was granted to Queen Isabel. She used it as her headquarters during her 1326 rebellion against Edward II in which the King was overthrown and possibly murdered. The castle later became the residence of Joan, wife of Prince Edward, (Black) Prince of Wales.
Wallingford went into decline during the fourteenth century. A new bridge at Abingdon meant many people now bypassed the town whilst the Black Death decimated the local populace. The castle however remained in periodic use by Royalty and continued to be associated with the spouse of the King. It was granted to Catherine of Valois, widowed Queen of Henry V, and is believed to have been where she met Owen Tudor who she later married. Subsequent monarchs disliked Wallingford however and it later fell into decline. The castle played no significant part during the Wars of the Roses although it was briefly used to imprison Queen Margaret after her defeat at the Battle of Tewkesbury (1471). By the reign of Queen Mary (1553-58) the castle was described as ruinous with much of its building material having been robbed to support repairs to Windsor Castle.
Wallingford Castle was hastily recommissioned following the outbreak of the Civil War. The first battle was at Edgehill in October 1642 but, although the Royalist forces won, London was still denied to them and accordingly a wartime capital was established at Oxford. The Royalist army occupied outlying towns, including Abingdon and Wallingford, to quarter the army. Wallingford Castle became the headquarters of Colonel Blagge who made modifications to prepare it for warfare in the artillery age. Money was raised for these upgrades from the reluctant populace of Reading!
By early 1646 the King's field armies had been defeated and Parliament turned its attention to capturing towns and castles that remained under Royalist control. Wallingford was besieged by Sir Thomas Fairfax on 4 May 1646 and, despite the surrender of the King and no hope of relief, Colonel Blagge refused to give up until his supplies were nearly exhausted. He eventually capitulated on 27 July 1646 and was allowed to march out "with flying colours, trumpets sounding, drums beating, matches lighted at both ends, bullets in their mouths and with bag and baggage".
After the War
After its surrender a Parliamentary garrison was installed and the site was briefly used as a prison. However, in 1652 the castle was slighted to prevent further military use. The destruction was total with almost all the masonry remains obliterated. With the exception of a Gothic style house, built in 1837 and now demolished, the site has remained undeveloped since and is now a park.
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Wallingford Castle was slighted by order of Parliament and virtually all the masonry has been removed whilst the site itself has been partially landscaped into a park. However the motte survives and is accessible whilst some undisturbed earthworks and a few small fragments of internal buildings are also visible.
Wallingford Castle Motte. The large motte survives and a pathway provides easy access to the top. Regrettably the view is limited due to the trees.
Wallingford Castle Masonry Fragments. A few small masonry sections of the castle survive.
Destruction. The castle has been almost entirely destroyed.
St Nicholas College. Founded in the eleventh century within the castle precincts and rebuilt circa-1278.
Wallingford Town Defences Layout. Wallingford was a ninth century Saxon planned town with a street pattern that would have impressed Roman planners! The modern road layout (shown on the plan above) mirrors the medieval plan although the northern portion of Castle Street was shifted to the west to make more space for the castle.
Wallingford Saxon Rampart. Wallingford was protected by an earth rampart that surrounded the Saxon town that would have originally been topped by a timber palisade. Significant sections of the rampart survive in Kinecroft Park and Bull Croft Park.
St Mary-le-More Church. A church has stood on the site since the eleventh century and was the only church in Wallingford to evade any serious damage during the Civil War. The tower was built using stone robbed from the demolished castle and bears an inscription dedicated to Will Loader, the Royalist Mayor of Wallingford who was deposed in 1647 but regained his position in 1662. The bulk of the church seen today dates from the 1888 rebuilding.
St Peter's Church. This church was built by the Normans and was incorporated into a counter castle by King Stephen during his attempts to besiege Wallingford Castle in the 1140s. It was destroyed in 1646 but rebuilt in its current form in 1769.
St Leonard's Church. This is the oldest of surviving Wallingford parish churches dating back to Saxon times and possibly long before. The church was used to garrison Parliamentary troops following the capture of Wallingford in July 1646 and suffered fire damage during this period.
River Thames. Wallingford emerged due to its proximity to a fording point over the River Thames. This was superseded by a bridge no later than 1141.
and WALLINGFORD SAXON BURH
Wallingford was founded by the West Saxons in the ninth century as a fortified burh designed to resist attacks by the Danes. The Normans built Wallingford Castle in a corner of the existing Saxon defences and this evolved into a substantial fortification that withstood long sieges during the Anarchy and seventeenth century Civil War.
Wallingford is well sign-posted and there are numerous car parks throughout the town with one option shown below. The Saxon ramparts, churches and Castle Park are all easily accessible from the centre of town. The latter includes access to Wallingford Castle motte and the ruins of St Nicholas College. There is also a gate leading to the grounds of the Wallingford Castle site which has the few remaining masonry fragments of the castle. Inexplicably on the three occasions we visited Wallingford this gate was locked! Access is still possible but requires the visitor to leave Wallingford town, head north along Castle Street and take the turning sign-posted to 'Castle Meadows'. This route is a circular walk of around two miles or alternatively on-road parking is possible on the access road.
Castle Site and Car Parking
Castle Street, OX10 8LG
Car Parking Option
Castle Park (Wallingford)
Bear Lane, OX10 8DR
Kinecroft Park, OX10 0HN
Bull Croft Park, OX10 0DB
St Mary-le-More Church
St Martin's Street, OX10 0AL
St Peter's Church
Thames Street, OX10 0BH
St Leonard's Church
Bear Lane (off Castle Street). The access to Castle Park including the Motte and St Nicholas College ruins. A lockable gate might (if you are lucky!) give access to the Castle grounds.
Castle Meadows (off Castle Street). The alternative (always open) access to the castle site can be found near the church and cemetery.