Notes: The castle and church are found off the main road through Ashley. On-road parking is possible near the castle.
WHAT IS THERE TO SEE?
The earthwork remains of a ringwork fortification along with the well preserved remains of the contemporary church of St Mary’s. The church is open to visitors (for a small donation) and a footpath to the rear allows access to the earthworks.
Ashley Castle was a ringwork fortification built to dominate the Winchester to Salisbury road during the civil war known as the Anarchy. After the conflict it was slighted on the orders of Henry II but was later rebuilt and remained in use until the seventeenth century.
HISTORY OF ASHLEY CASTLE
Ashley Castle, which has also been known as Gains Castle, occupied the site of a former Iron Age fort. Positioned on the Roman road (still in use in medieval times) between Winchester and Old Sarum (Salisbury), it was founded by Henry de Blois, Bishop of Winchester around 1138. At this time England was on the cusp of civil war over the issue of who should succeed to the English throne. The incumbent monarch was Stephen, nephew of Henry I, who had taken the throne in 1135 when that King died without a male heir. However Matilda, Henry I's daughter, challenged his claim and by 1139 the country was embroiled in a protracted civil war that became known as the Anarchy. Henry de Blois was Stephen's brother and, along with most of the senior magnates of the realm, initially supported him. In this turbulent time he constructed numerous castles and/or palatial strongholds to secure his powerbase including Ashley, Barley Pound, Bishop's Waltham, Farnham, Merdon, Taunton and Wolvesey Castles.
Ashley Castle itself was an earth and timber ringwork fortification. The ringwork was located on a spur of high ground with its rampart surrounded by a deep ditch that probably re-used the earlier Iron Age defences. A Great Hall stood within the ringwork. The broadly rectangular shaped bailey was sited to the west of the ringwork and would have included all the ancillary buildings associated with such a settlement. The church of St Mary the Virgin was also located within the bailey which dates no later than the early twelfth century.
The Anarchy came to an end with an agreement that Matilda's son, Henry of Anjoy, would be Stephen's heir. He succeeded to the throne in 1154 as Henry II and immediately sought to re-establish Royal supremacy by destroying the numerous, unauthorised castles that had been raised during the Anarchy. Ashley Castle was seemingly one of the many fortifications destroyed at this time. Despite being Stephen's brother, Henry de Blois had been instrumental in the peace settlement and there is no evidence to show that this action was punitively aimed at his family.
Precisely what remained of Ashley Castle after its 'destruction' is uncertain and it probably remained a functional residence. However, by the late twelfth century it was in the possession of William Briwere and in 1200 King John granted him a licence to crenelate (re-fortify) Ashley. Although there is some debate as to whether this licence referred to Ashley or Stockbridge, it is presumed this refers to the rebuilding of the castle in stone. The manor of Ashley later passed into the hands of Richard II's unpopular favourite, Hugh Dispenser the Elder. The castle went out of use around the seventeenth century and its stone robbed for use elsewhere.