Donnington Castle was built in the 1380s by Richard de Abberbury on the site of an existing manor house. During the Civil War, its strategic location led to it being seized by Royalist forces. At the Second Battle of Newbury (1644), which was fought under the castle's walls, Parliament attempted to retake control. They failed and it took an 18 month siege to dislodge the Royalist garrison.
The manor of Donnington was purchased by Thomas de Abberbury in 1287 and would have included some form of manor house. In 1350 it passed to his cousin, Richard de Abberbury, who prospered in Royal service and was chosen by Edward, (Black) Prince of Wales to be one of the guardians of his son, the future Richard II. He later became chamberlain to Richard II's queen, Anne of Bohemia. This activity clearly brought him wealth for in the 1380s he started upgrading his existing manor house at Donnington into a small castle. A licence to crenellate was granted by Richard II in 1386 although most of the structure had seemingly been built by this time and the Royal permission was simply sought for the addition of the gatehouse.
The castle was built upon a hill overlooking Newbury and the River Lambourne. It was arranged around a rectangular courtyard with ranges on all sides and was undoubtedly heavily influenced by the existing structure. The site was enclosed by a thick curtain wall constructed from flint with stone dressings and augmented with round towers on each of the corners. Additional rectangular towers, which provided further chambers, were added to the north and south curtain walls. The most prominent feature of the castle was the twin towered, three storey gatehouse which may have been the work of Henry Yevele, master mason.
Richard de Abberbury was expelled from the Royal court in 1388 by the Lords Appellant, a group of nobles who sought to restrict the King's rule by eliminating his key supporters. He retired to Donnington and it passed to his son, also called Richard, around 1400. He sold it in 1415 to Thomas Chauncer and it later passed through marriage to William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk. His family were Yorkist supporters during the Wars of the Roses and, after participation in the Battle of Stoke Field (1487) and the attainder of the surviving heir in 1503, Donnington Castle was taken into Crown ownership. In 1514 Henry VIII granted it to Charles Brandon concurrently with his elevation to Duke of Suffolk. He made some minor modifications to the site, including adding the squared windows, but by 1535 it was back in the King’s hands. In the subsequent years it hosted Royal visits from Henry VIII (in 1539 and 1541), Edward VI (1551) and Elizabeth I (in 1568). Donnington Castle was returned to private ownership in 1600 when it was granted to Charles Howard, Earl of Nottingham.
At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642 the castle was owned by John Packer who, despite previously serving as private secretary to the Duke of Buckingham, supported Parliament and garrisoned the castle accordingly. By this time the castle was an out-dated structure and few probably expected it to play any significant part in the ongoing hostilities. However, when the King failed to capture London in the early months of the war, Oxford became the Royalist capital. Donnington, which is located twenty miles to the south on the main road north, became strategically important. On the 20 September 1643 the First Battle of Newbury was fought a mile to the south of the castle. Parliament's main field army - which was under the command of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex - found its way to London blocked by the Southern Royalist Army. The battle was indecisive although it left the Parliamentary garrison at Donnington Castle dangerously exposed. The Royalists took full advantage of this and Sir John Boys was dispatched with a force of 200 infantry, 25 cavalry and 4 cannon to take possession of the castle. He successfully seized it and commenced construction of substantial earthwork artillery bastions around the old medieval castle.
By Summer 1644 the war was going in Parliament's favour and attempts were made to open a path to Oxford. Three key Royalist strongholds were targeted - Banbury Castle, Basing House and Donnington Castle. The Earl of Essex dispatched Lieutenant-General John Middleton with a 3,000 strong combined cavalry and dragoon force to seize control of Donnington. A direct assault was attempted on 31 July 1644 but, lacking artillery support, it failed with heavy casualties. Parliament then prepared to besiege the castle and by the end of September, under the supervision of Colonel Jeremy Horton, this was in place. Banbury and Basing were also under siege by this time. The King wished to relieve Basing House, which was critically short of supplies, but Parliament merged its three main three field armies into one huge force at Basingstoke frustrating any attempt to relieve Basing House. Accordingly the King turned his attention towards relief of Donnington. The Parliamentary army moved to intercept him and at the Second Battle of Newbury, fought on 27 October 1644 under the walls of Donnington Castle, the two forces vied for control of the site. The Royalists were greatly outnumbered but had established themselves in an extremely strong position and were defended by the guns of Donnington Castle. Furthermore, the Parliamentary army was riven with division that frustrated their deployment and led to poor co-ordination of attacks. Ultimately their numbers ensured the battle itself was a Parliamentary victory but the King's objective of relieving Donnington Castle had been achieved and it remained in Royalist hands.
Parliamentary forces made another attempt to capture Donnington Castle on 2 November 1644 but the assault was repulsed. Further attempts were made but, on the 9 November, the Parliamentary forces withdrew enabling the King to resupply the garrison once more. The castle remained under a loose siege but this slowly tightened as Royalist fortunes waned. After the Battle of Naseby (1645), which saw the destruction of the last Royalist field army, any hope that the garrison would be relieved rapidly diminished. Donnington remained a thorn in the side of Parliament but the end was now inevitable and in April 1646, after an eighteen month siege, Sir John Boys surrendered. Given its stiff resistance Parliament ordered its immediate demolition with only the gatehouse (at the request of the local populace) left standing. That structure remained inhabited until the twentieth century and, for a short time, a small cottage stood within the courtyard of the ruined castle.
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Donnington Castle has been partially demolished and only the late fourteenth Gatehouse survives. The site is surrounded by substantial seventeenth century earthworks which are some of the best preserved examples of their kind in the UK.
Donnington Castle Layout. The castle was built around a rectangular courtyard which was probably a relic of the earlier manor house. All the internal ranges have been destroyed and the curtain wall only survives as foundations.
Gatehouse. The gatehouse stood one storey higher than the rest of the castle and was designed to impress. The northern (right side) tower originally incorporated a dovecot. It was originally fronted by a drawbridge but this was replaced by a stone bridge in 1568. When Parliamentary forces started levelling the rest of the castle, the local populace made a special plea to save the Gatehouse. The brick additions were repairs made to the gatehouse after the final siege.
Earthworks. Defensive earthworks were constructed around Donnington Castle during the seventeenth century Civil War. They remain some of the best preserved examples of such defences in the UK.
Donnington Castle is located off Castle Lane to the north-west of the village. There is a dedicated car park but note access is automatically barred by an electronic gate that closes at 7pm and doesn’t re-open until 7am. Pedestrian access is possible outside these times and onroad car parking is possible in the village.