12 February 2023
Looking for the ruins of
Northampton Castle beside
a modern railway station
Northampton Castle was once one of the most famous Norman castles in England. During my recent visit to Northampton, I went in search of the site of the castle, which once stood outside the west gate of the town. It was defended on three sides by deep trenches, while a branch of the River Nene provided a natural barrier on the western side.
The castle was probably built on top of an original Saxon defences, first of wood and then from the distinctive sandstone that can be seen to this day in various buildings about the town.
Soon after the Romans left Britain in 410, Northampton became a local seat of power with Saxon defences near the site of the castle and Saint Peter’s Church. There were Saxon buildings in the area around Sol Central and Saint Peter’s Church, and by the early 11th century Northampton had connections to powerful people of the time.
The castle was built in the 11th century and rapidly became an important royal establishment, with parliaments, trials, tournaments and feasts being held at the site, with the castle also forming a key part of the town’s defences.
The castle was built bt Simon de Senlis, the first Earl of Northampton, in 1084. It took several years to complete, and the castle had extensive grounds and a large keep. The gates were surrounded by bulwarks made of earth, used to mount artillery.
During the reign of Henry II, the castle was in the hands of the Crown. Thomas Becket was tried at the castle before a great council in 1164, but he escaped dressed as a monk, and fled to France.
The castle was a day’s ride from London, and was so important that parliament sometimes met there in the mediaeval period. The castle became a favourite of King John, who visited 30 times. In the civil wars between the king and the barons, King John used it as a stronghold. When the king prevailed, the castle was entrusted to Falkes de Breauté. King John moved his royal treasury to the castle in 1205, and the castle was associated with a mint for coins of the realm.
Northampton Castle is the location of the death of Prince Arthur, the young nephew to King John and claimant to the throne, in Shakespeare’s King John (Act IV Scene III), in which he leaps to his death from the castle walls in an attempt to escape.
The fate of the real-life Prince Arthur remains mysterious. He was last recorded as a 16-year-old captive in Rouen Castle in April 1203. He was rumoured to have been killed on King John’s orders, and it is more likely that he died in France rather than England.
During the wars between King Henry III and his nobles, the castle was owned by the confederate barons and governed by Simon de Montfort in 1264. When the King defeated the garrison, the castle reverted to the Crown. It remained so until three years into the reign of King Edward III, when Thomas Wake, who was then sheriff of Blisworth, claimed it belonged to the county under his jurisdiction.
Northampton and the castle were greatly affected by the Black Death in 1349-1350. A steady period of decline followed due to enormous loss of population. Although the castle was a day’s ride north of London, its strategic importance became less obvious. The last parliament held in the castle was in 1380.
The castle continued to be used as a County Gaol for some time after. The castle was rented to Robert Caldecote in 1452 for 20 years, at the annual rate of £5. The rent included the castle, the castle grounds, walls and trenches, a meadow, and fishing rights in the river.
By the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), the site of the castle was described as ‘ruinous’ in 1593.
Charles II ordered the destruction of the town walls and the partial demolition of the castle in 1662 as retribution for the town’s support of the Parliamentarian Roundheads during the English Civil War.
The great fire of 1675 destroyed a great part of the town, wiping out most of the historic buildings in the centre of Northampton. The castle site was sold to Robert Haselrig (later Hazelrigg), and castle stone were reused in other buildings in the town, and little remains of the Castle today. Hazelrigg House was originally an Elizabethan house that escaped the fire of 1675 and still stands on Marefair.
The Hazelrigg family held the castle site until 1861, when it was sold to Samuel Walker who dug it for treasure.
The site was finally bought by the London and North Western Railway. The railways in England initially by-passed Northampton. The main line from Euston London Euston, now known as the West Coast Main Line, passed about five miles south of the town. However, a loop line through Northampton was built in 1879. What remained of the castle and its foundations were demolished for the construction of Northampton Castle railway station. All that survived were some earth banks beside Saint Andrew’s Road and the re-positioned postern gate, described as ‘a minor archway.’
The station was rebuilt in 1963-1964, when the suffix castle was dropped from its name as it was then the only remaining station in the town. Excavations in 1961 before rebuilding revealed 12th century defences, including a ditch 90 ft wide and 30 ft deep and a bank 80 ft wide and 20 ft high.
The expansion of the town and the launch of a Northampton Waterside Enterprise Zone in 2011 created the need to expand, redevelop and double the size of the railway station.
The opportunity was taken to carry out further, more extensive, excavations in 2012-2013, which uncovered various items of Anglo-Saxon origin. Among the finds was a brooch, pottery fragments and an ironstone wall. Some foundations remain below the surface, but all that remains of the castle today are a few stones, part of the earthworks associated with the North Gate and a rebuilt postern gate near the railway station.
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