Christchurch was originally known as Twynham ("the place between the rivers") due to its position at the confluence of the Rivers Avon and Stour. These waterways, which were an important means of movement during the medieval period, provided access to Salisbury and Wimborne Minster. Accordingly Twynham evolved into an important trading post where goods from larger seagoing vessels would have been transferred onto river barges for onward movement.
King Alfred converted Twynham into a burh (fortified town) around AD 879 in his attempts to secure his Kingdom of Wessex against the Danes. Such sites concentrated economic activity enabling effective taxation which could fund a Royal army. Furthermore, the defences enabled the town to resist an attack meaning the Royal army did not need to respond to every attack by the Danes and accordingly ensured the military initiative remained with the King. The coastal location of Twynham could also have meant the site served as a base for King Alfred's fledgling navy.
Saxon Twynham was aligned along a High Street on a north-west to south-east axis adjacent to the western bank of the River Avon. The River Stour abutted the southern end of the town. The physical defences consisted of an earth rampart topped with a timber palisade and fronted by a ditch. In total the defences enclosed an area of 27 acres. This was recorded in the Burghal Hidage, an early tenth century document listing the fortified burhs, as having a value of 470 hides, which meant it was similar in size to Portchester or Hastings but significantly smaller than the vast burhs at Warwick, Wallingford and Winchester.
The town walls were rebuilt around AD 890 when the outward face of the earth rampart was riveted in stone. This strengthening is probably what led Æthelwold, nephew of King Alfred, to seize control of the town (along with nearby Wimborne Minster) following that monarch's death in AD 899. As a member of the Royal family it is quite possible he was welcomed by the populace and entered unopposed before he then took control. The new King of Wessex, Edward the Elder, besieged the town prompting Æthelwold to flee in the night. The Saxon defences remained in place until slighted by King Cnut circa-1016 with significant sections of the wall levelled and the spoil thrown into the ditch.
There is no evidence that a castle was built at Twynham in the immediate wake of the Norman Conquest but in 1094 a priory was established in the south-eastern end of the town. This establishment prospered and ultimately led to Twynham becoming known as Christchurch. In 1106 Henry I granted it to Richard de Redvers, a Norman Knight who had enthusiastically supported the King's claim to the throne over that of Robert, Duke of Normandy despite his family's territory being in the Vexin which was under Robert's jurisdiction. Christchurch was just one part of a large package of lands – which included Carisbrooke, Exeter, Plympton and Tiverton – granted to Richard and these holdings made him one of the wealthiest barons of his time. He raised Christchurch Castle around 1107 predominantly to serve as an administrative centre for enforcing control of the New Forest. The initial fortification was an earth and timber ringwork-and-bailey fortification. The site chosen was the central western portion of the burh to the north of the Priory. The ringwork itself was built within the town abutting the High Street. The bailey extended to the north-west and extended out to the Mill Stream. A town ditch was also constructed at this time replacing the infilled Saxon defences although its construction was probably more to do with tax than actual defence.
Richard died in 1107 and his estates passed to his son, Baldwin de Redvers. During the Anarchy, the civil war over the English throne, he supported Matilda's claim prompting an attack on Christchurch in 1147 by Walter de Pikney on behalf of Stephen. The Redvers family later recovered the castle and around 1160 it was rebuilt in stone. This included construction of the hall block and may also have included the Keep although the latter has not been securely dated and may have been later.
Christchurch Castle was granted to William Montagu, Earl of Salisbury in 1330. It remained with his family until the early fifteenth century when it passed by marriage to the powerful Neville family. Later it passed to George, Duke of Clarence but it was taken into Crown ownership in 1541. It was garrisoned for the King during the Civil War but was surrendered to Parliamentary forces without a fight in 1644. The Royalists counter-attacked in 1645 retaking the town but the Parliamentary garrison continued to hold the Keep. An attempt to besiege the castle failed and ultimately the Royalists withdrew. In 1650 Parliament ordered the castle to be slighted and it was never rebuilt.
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Christchurch Castle consists of the remains of a mid twelfth century stone keep surrounded by an earthwork designed to imitate a motte. The stone remains of a Norman hall house, originally in the castle’s bailey, are also visible. There are no above ground remains of the town defences.
Christchurch Castle and Twynham Saxon Burh Layout. The Saxon town occupied a strong position with the Rivers Avon and Stour on the east and south whilst the west was marshland. The defences were levelled by King Cnut around 1016 but in the twelfth century the ditch was restored probably for taxation purposes. The castle was built straddling the former Saxon defences circa-1106.
Christchurch Castle. Despite its appearance, Christchurch Castle was not a motte fortification. The Keep was built at ground level and earth piled up against it to give the impression of a motte.
Keep. The Keep stood two storeys above the earth bank that wrapped around it. Unusually the structure had chamfered corners.
Bailey. The castle’s bailey has been flattened and is now a bowling green. Only the hall block survives.
Norman Hall. The castle's hall block is a remarkable survivor and consisted of a hall and solar. The building retains many of its original features including a number of double Norman round headed windows and a chimney.
Christchurch Priory. A Priory was established in the former Saxon burh of Twynham in 1094 and this led to the settlement becoming known as Christchurch.
Mill. The Mill Stream was probably established in the late Saxon era. The current building is eighteenth century with some medieval stonework. The mill was mentioned in the Domesday survey of 1086.
River Stour. Christchurch is at the confluence of the Rivers Avon and Stour. In the medieval period these waterways were larger than today and gave access far inland.
and TWYNHAM SAXON BURH
Christchurch Castle was built in the early twelfth century and occupied a portion of a former Saxon fortified burh. It was attacked by the forces of King Stephen during the Anarchy. The castle was garrisoned for the Royalists during the seventeenth century Civil War but was seized by Parliament in 1644 and subsequently demolished.
Christchurch Castle is found off Castle Street. There are numerous car parking options in the vicinity with one shown below.
Car Parking Option
Quay Road, BH23 1BX