The castle has been extensively altered over the years and much of that visible now dates from the nineteenth century. Nevertheless the layout of the castle can still be appreciated and there are some older elements visible. The Museum of Somerset itself is also well worth a visit.
Taunton Castle Layout. The castle was dominated by the Keep and the entire site was surrounded by a water filled moat fed from the nearby River Tone.
Car Parking Option
Notes: Castle is found in central Taunton sign-posted as the ‘Museum of Somerset’. Ample car parking facilities in the near vicinity with one option shown above.
East Gate. The East Gate to the Outer Ward survives, albeit having been heavily modified over the years and now fully annexed to the Castle Hotel.
Foundations. Only fragments of the Great Keep survive as the structure was demolished by Charles II in 1662.
Initially a Saxon Fort and later site of a religious foundation, Taunton Castle was built to administer the vast wealth of the surrounding area. It saw action during the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War. Later it played host to the ‘Bloody Assizes’ where many of the rebels from the Monmouth rebellion were condemned.
HISTORY OF TAUNTON CASTLE
Although there was Roman and probably Iron Age activity in the area, Taunton itself was established by the Saxons to administer the surrounding estate. The first fortification was built circa-AD 710 by King Ine of Wessex as part of a temporary frontier as he pushed the boundary of his Kingdom further west. It seems likely his campaign went awry for his wife, Æthelburg, destroyed it around AD 722 probably after the Saxons suffered a defeat at the hands of the native Britons at the Battle of Taunton (also known as the Battle of Hehil). If so, the area was soon reclaimed by the Saxons for a few decades later the site took on religious significance when a church was founded there by Frithogyth, wife to Ine's successor King Æthelheard.
In 1120 the then owner - William Giffard, Bishop of Winchester - converted the church into an Augustinian Priory. His successor was Henry of Blois who commenced construction of numerous castles including Ashley, Bishop’s Waltham, Downton, Farnham, Merdon and Taunton itself. At the latter he commenced construction of a stone Keep, perhaps sited within an existing earth and timber fortification, in 1138. This grand structure was reflective of the wealth of Taunton which had swelled into a significant settlement that had been made rich from the Wool trade. Work was almost certainly still ongoing on the new Keep when the country slipped into Civil War (the Anarchy) over the right of succession between Matilda, daughter of Henry I, and King Stephen.
The castle’s builder - Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester - was King Stephen's brother although his support wavered between the two factions during the war. The conflict was eventually settled with agreement that Matilda's son would succeed to the throne as Henry II when King Stephen died. This occurred in 1154 and Henry of Blois, perhaps fearful of the new King's displeasure, fled abroad. This act led to Taunton, along with six other castles built by Bishop Henry during the war, being demolished by Henry II. The extent of the damage at Taunton is uncertain but King and Bishop were reconciled a few years later and the castle was repaired. The Keep was rebuilt into a substantial rectangular structure complete with five towers. The castle was also able to expand when the Priory relocated to a new location to the east of the town in 1158. Now a significant fortress, it was garrisoned for the King during the First Barons War (1215-17) when a moat was excavated around the entire structure by the then owner Peter de Roches, Bishop of Winchester. The castle was also garrisoned during the Second Barons Wars (1264-67) and was requisitioned by the King in 1267 after which it was used to imprison one of the sons of Simon de Montfort who had led the rebellion. During this period the castle underwent various upgrades including significant enhancements to the Inner Ward Gatehouse, the Great Hall and outer Curtain Wall. .
The castle saw action during preliminary actions to the Wars of the Roses. In 1451, some years before the conflict became a national struggle, it was held by Thomas de Courtenay, Earl of Devon who was besieged within by Lord Bonville on behalf of Henry VI. The Yorkist Courtenay was saved from defeat by the timely arrived of Richard, Duke of York. The castle saw no further action during the wars but in 1497 was briefly taken by rebels supporting Perkin Warbeck who claimed to be Richard, Duke of York - one of the missing ‘Princes of the Tower’ - in an attempt to overthrow Henry VII. His men took Taunton Castle but, faced with the approach of a Royal army, resistance withered away and Perkin’s rebellion was swiftly defeated. Although he fled to Hampshire, he was captured and returned to Taunton Castle where he was imprisoned and interrogated. He was subsequently executed at Tyburn.
Taunton Castle was extensively modified during the Tudor era when its defensive arrangements were downgraded in order to convert it into a more comfortable residence. Large windows were installed in the Inner Ward Gatehouse and Great Hall. A Grammar School was also built within the castle’s walls in 1520 by Richard Foxe, Bishop of Winchester. The nearby Priory was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539 but the castle remained property of the church until 1551 when it was transferred into Royal ownership. It was recovered by the Bishops of Winchester in 1577.
During the Civil War Taunton was staunchly pro-Parliament but the wider area was in the Royalist sphere of influence. The populace hastily re-fortified the castle but, in June 1643, both it and the town were taken over by the King’s forces. They held it until 5 June 1644 when Taunton was taken by a Parliamentary force under Colonel Robert Blake. He fortified the town with extensive earthworks and by August 1644 he was besieged by Royalist forces under Sir Edmund Wyndham. They attempted to storm the town and succeeded in forcing Blake’s men to retreat into the castle but the arrival of a Parliamentary army under the command of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex led to the Royalists withdrawing. The respite was short-lived however as Essex was defeated at the Battle of Lostwithiel (1644) giving the King complete dominance in the area. By September 1644 Taunton was besieged again this time by George, Lord Goring. Various relief efforts enabled Taunton to keep on resisting and neither the castle nor town fell. On 11 May 1645 the siege was lifted and, with the Royalist defeat at the Battle of Naseby in June 1645, meant the threat to the town substantially reduced although one final (and unsuccessful) attempt to take the town was made in June 1645.
The Civil War left deep anti-Royalist feelings amongst Taunton’s residents who opposed the Restoration of Charles II and initially refused to hand over the castle. This resistance prompted the new King to order the demolition of the castle in 1662. The Keep bore the brunt of this and was reduced in height to its foundations. Nevertheless the festering resentment of the town was exploited by James, Duke of Monmouth when he rebelled against James II in 1685. Around 400 locals flocked to his banner but the rebellion was swiftly crushed at the Battle of Sedgemoor on 6 July 1685. Taunton Castle was used to hold some of the prisoners and its Great Hall used for the subsequent legal hearings. These proceedings were led by Judge Jeffreys and became known as the ‘Bloody Assizes’ for the large number of death sentences awarded. During a three day session that started on 17 September 1685, 526 cases were tried with 158 rebels being sentenced to death and a further 284 for transportation to the West Indies. Of those sentenced to death a total of 19 were hung, drawn and quartered at Taunton.
By the eighteenth century, Taunton Castle was ruinous but in 1786 was purchased by Sir Benjamin Hammet MP. He repaired the remaining structures and rebuilt much of the castle in a Georgian style. The Castle Hotel was built in the nineteenth century whilst the Great Hall was converted into a museum in 1899. The site continues in this role today hosting the ‘Museum of Somerset’.