22 November 2023

Berkhamsted Castle
stands in ruins by
the main railway
line to London

Berkhamsted Castle is in ruins after sieges, Elizabethan privateering and the expansion of the railways (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023; click on images for full-screen viewing)

Patrick Comerford

I have often caught a glimpse of the magnificent ruins of Berkhamsted Castle from the train between Milton Keynes and London. Berkhamsted Castle is half-way betweem both, just 35 minutes by train, and nestled in beautiful Hertfordshire countryside.

Much of the castle’s stone and fabric was plundered during the 16th century. But I only managed to appreciate its splendour during my two visits to Berkhamsted earlier this month.

From the Norman Conquest on, kings, queens and princes lived within the castle walls and shaped the course of English history. For centuries, the castle was a royal stronghold, and many key figures lived there in the Middle Ages, including Thomas Becket, Richard, Earl of Cornwall, and the Black Prince.

Berkhamsted is a typical motte-and-bailey castle, with a tower or keep built on an earthern mound surrounded by a defensive enclosure. The castle was first built in the late 11th century, and became one of the most important early Norman castles, controlling the northern approach to London, 30 miles away.

William the Conqueror received the submission of the English at Berkhamsted Castle after the Battle of Hastings. His half-brother, Robert of Mortain, built a timber castle there ca 1070. It was in the classic Norman motte-and-bailey form, with a defensive conical mound and oval bailey below.

The castle remained in royal hands, and in 1155 Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was granted the honour of Berkhamsted by King Henry II. As chancellor, Becket was the king’s right hand man and enjoyed great favour. He rebuilt the castle to befit his new status and house his large staff. His buildings probably included the huge stone curtain wall.

Later, in 1164, during his quarrel with Henry II, Becket was deprived of the honour of Berkhamsted. In a further dispute with the king over the rights and privileges of the Church, he was murdered by followers of the king in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170.

Berkhamsted Castle was designed as a fortress, with impressive earthwork defences, high motte and stone curtain wall. The water-filled ditches prevented tunnelling under the wall, and the motte could protect the bailey as well as defend attacks from the north.

The castle defences were put to the test in 1216. Prince Louis of France had invaded England at the invitation of the English barons. When John died in October 1216, his nine-year-old son was crowned King Henry III. Louis acted quickly and besieged the castle for two weeks, battering it with huge stones flung from siege weapons. The earthwork buttresses by the outer ditch were probably platforms to support them, although it is still unclear which side built them. The castle surrendered finally on the orders of the king.

King Henry III granted Berkhamsted Castle to his brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall, in 1225. Richard was a skilful diplomat was believed to be the richest man in England. He made Berkhamsted the administrative centre of the earldom of Cornwall. He repaired and refurbished the castle and enlarged the western tower to create a luxurious palace complex. Parts of the palace, believed to be the chapel and possibly the undercroft of the Great Painted Chamber, remain.

Richard’s son Edmund was born at the castle and two of his wives died there. He himself died at Berkhamsted in 1272.

A century later, Prince Edward, the ‘Black Prince’ (1330-1371), son and heir of Edward III, was given the castle as Duke of Cornwall. Berkhamsted was a favourite residence of the Black Prince, and he repaired the castle buildings and ordered a new timber palisade around the park to keep the deer from escaping. He married Joan ‘the Fair Maid of Kent’ in 1361 and the couple spent their first Christmas at the castle.

The castle later passed to five queens in succession, until Elizabeth I. It was probably not occupied after 1495, however. Elizabeth I granted a lease of the manor, including the ruins and the park, to Sir Edward Carey in 1580, for the nominal rent of one red rose each year.

Carey built a new house to the west – Berkhamsted Place – that is now almost totally demolished, while the castle itself gradually fell into ruin. Stone from the castle was used to build a local school and other buildings in the late 16th century.

Sir Edward Carey demolished most of Berkhamsted Castle after leasing it from Elizabeth I in 1580 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The castle’s park, which had reached 507 ha (1,252 acres) in size by 1627, was broken up in the next two decades, shrinking to only 152 ha (376 acres). Writing in the early 17th century, Camden described the damage wrought by Carey’s masons and said the castle was a heap of stones and ruined walls.

The English Civil War in the 1640s largely passed Berkhamsted by, and the castle apparently played no part in the conflict.

Some writers in the 18th century described the remaining castle, including most of the outer walls, chimneys, the remains of the chapel and the signs of a staircase. The wider estate and the castle were separated in 1761, when the estate was leased to the Duke of Bridgewater, while the castle remained in the direct control of the Duchy of Cornwall.

An orchard in the inner court survived until the early 19th century, the outer court was cultivated as a farm, and a small cottage with a few outbuildings stood on the site.

At the height of the Industrial Revolution, the neglected castle stood in the way of the plans and ambitions of railway engineers. From an engineering perspective, the ideal route for the new railway ran through the site of the castle. However, concerns over the need to protect ancient monuments and buildings had been growing for several years, and the Bridgwater estate was keen to protect the local view from their buildings.

The castle was specifically protected in an 1833 Act that sanctioned the railway, forcing the track to take a route across the valley floor. Berkhamsted was the first building in Britain to receive statutory protection from development in this way.

However, the route still needed the track to pass through the outer fortifications of the castle. When the London and Birmingham Railway built its new line through Berkhamsted in 1837, the ruins of the barbican gate were demolished and the southern outer moat was filled in.

What Prince Louis of France had failed to destroy in the 13th century, and what the warring parties in the Civil War had ignored in the 17th century, was now levelled by Victorian engineers.

The Keeper’s Lodge at Berkhamsted Castle is thought to be the location of the Countess of Bridgewater’s soup kitchen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

A soup kitchen operated within the castle ruins from 1841. It was set up as a charity by Charlotte Egerton (1763-1849), Countess of Bridgewater, to feed destitute agricultural workers during the winter months. Soup and bread were distributed to hundreds of poor people from a house in the castle grounds, thought to be the 19th-century keeper's house which stands in the outer ward.

Most traces of the castle had gone by 1855, when a local historian, the Revd John Wolstenholme Cobb of Saint Peter’s Church, wrote: ‘Windows, chimneys and staircases there are none. Walls there certainly are, but so hopelessly ruinous that the remains do little more than mark their original site.’ The surrounding estates and park were sold off in 1863 by the duchy to Lady Bridgewater’s heir, Earl Brownlow, who rented the castle from the Duchy of Cornwall at a nominal rent.

Lady Bridgewater’s soup kitchen continued to run from the Keeper’s Lodge at Berkhamsted Castle until at least 1879.

William Cooper and Nephews, a local agricultural chemical factory, bought a strip of land around the periphery of the castle ruins from the Brownlow estate in 1924 for use as grazing land for sheep.

Meanwhile, the cultural value of ancient monuments came to be more widely recognised in the 20th century. The Office of Works, later the Ministry of Works, acquired control of Berkhamsted Castle from the Duchy of Cornwall in 1929. Extensive renovation works were carried out on the castle ruins in 1930-1931, with a workforce of men who had become unemployed during the Great Depression.

Overgrown trees were felled and the moats cleared and filled with water. During the clearance work, the stave of a 13th-century crossbow, thought to date from the siege of 1216, was found in the eastern part of the inner moat.

When the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, visited Berkhamsted Castle in 1935, he was the first Duke of Cornwall to visit to Berkhamsted since a visit in 1616 by Prince Charles (later Charles I).

After the outbreak of World War II, Berkhamsted Castle was used as a secret location to hide a collection of public statues removed from central London to protect them from bomb damage during the Blitz.

In its heyday, Berkhamsted Castle was extremely well defended, with two ditches and three sets of earthworks around the oblong bailey, and a further ditch around the motte. Although no worked stone remains on the curtain wall, its flint rubble core survives for almost the full circuit of the bailey.

Access to the site is from the south-west, although the main entrance to the castle was to the south, and it would have opened to a wooden bridge across the moat. The remains of some of the structures that occupied the bailey, one of which was probably a chapel, survive on the west side.

The moat was cleared and filled with water during renovation works on the castle ruins in 1930-1931 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The substantial motte stands at the north-east corner of the enclosure, and commands impressive views over the surrounding area. On the top are the foundations of the circular keep, 18 metres in diameter. Within the keep is a well.

The 900th anniversary of the Norman Conquest was marked in 1966 with a festive pageant in the castle grounds, including a dramatic presentation of the history of Berkhamsted. Plans to mark the 950th anniversary in 2016 were cancelled due to concerns about damage to the castle fabric and health and safety.

Today, Berkhamsted Castle is a protected ancient monument. Berkhamsted Castle is under the care of English Heritage, and Berkhamsted Castle Trust has managed the site since 2018 in partnership with English Heritage under a Local Management Agreement.

The land is still owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, with two peripheral sections formerly held by Coopers Works now held by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Berkhamsted Castle Trust.

The site is staffed by local volunteers. It is open daily and visitors can enter free of charge. The castle ruins are open daily in summer months from 10 am to 6 pm, and in winter from 10 am to 4 pm.

Berkhamsted Castle is a protected ancient monument and the site is staffed by local volunteers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023; click on images for full-screen viewing)

Daily prayers in the Kingdom Season
with USPG: (18) 22 November 2023

The Library of Celsus in Ephesus was built between 110 and 135 AD by the Consul Gaius Julius Aquilus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In this time between All Saints’ Day and Advent Sunday, we are in the Kingdom Season in the Calendar of the Church of England. This week began with the Second Sunday before Advent (19 November 2023).

The calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (22 November) remembers Saint Cecilia (ca 230), martyr in Rome.

Throughout this week, I am reflecting on the seven churches in cities or places that give their names to the titles of nine letters or epistles by Saint Paul: Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae and Thessaloniki.

My reflections this morning follow this pattern:

1, A reflection on a Pauline church;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The ruins of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the classical world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Paul’s Ephesus:

The Apostle Paul wrote 14 of the 27 books the New Testament. He founded several Christian communities in Asia Minor and Europe from the mid-40s to the mid-50s AD, and wrote letters to the churches in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae and Thessaloniki.

The Letter to the Ephesians is the tenth book in the New Testament. According to tradition, the Apostle Paul wrote the letter while he was in prison in Rome, ca 62 CE, about the same time as his Letter to the Colossians and his Letter to Philemon. However, many critical scholars question its authorship and suggest it may have been written between 80 and 100 CE.

The themes include living together in love and unity in the Church and keeping of Christ’s body, the Church, pure and holy. In the second part of the letter (Ephesians 4: 17 to 6: 20), there is practical advice on living a holy, pure, and Christ-inspired lifestyle.

For me, one of the key message in this letter is: ‘Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us’ (Ephesians 5: 1-2).

‘Llive in love, as Christ loved us’ (Ephesians 5: 2) ... flowers in the grounds of the basilica in Ephesus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Strolling down the paved Priests’ Way or Curetes Street in Ephesus some years ago at the height of the summer, a guide happily pointed out the vista ahead, including – in his own words – the ‘Library of Celsius.’ Well, it was a scorching hot day. And – given the decadent reputation of Ephesus at the height of its prosperity – I had no doubt the library shelves once held some hot topics.

Pompeii aside, Ephesus is the largest and best-preserved ancient city in the Mediterranean, and after Istanbul it is the most popular tourist site in Turkey. From early morning, the site is packed with tourists, who are often rushed through the streets in an hour or less. Yet, despite the commercialisation of the site, visitors never fail to be overawed by the dramatic impact of Ephesus, with its well-preserved and restored buildings, temples, baths, lavatories, fountains, streets, agorae, monuments and theatres.

Ephesus owed its early growth and prosperity to its proximity to the Temple of Artemis, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the World – according to Pausanias, it was the largest building of the ancient world – where the Greek goddess Artemis and the Anatolian goddess Cybele were worshipped as Artemis of Ephesus.

The temple was burnt down by Herostratus, a lunatic, one night in 356 BCE. By coincidence, this was the night that Alexander the Great was born. Restoration began at once, with plans for a larger and grander temple. When Alexander the Great defeated the Persians, he was greeted warmly in Ephesus with a triumphal entry. He saw that the Temple of Artemis had not yet been completed, and proposed financing the work with his name inscribed on the temple. But the people of Ephesus refused, arguing that it was not fitting for one god to build a temple for another.

Ephesus is mentioned over 500 times in Greek literature alone, and was home to many important historical figures, including the poet Callinus, the satirist Hipponax, the philosopher Heraclitus, the painter Parrhasius, the grammarian Zenodotos and the physicians Soranus and Rufus. As the gateway to Asia and the East, it was at the heart of trade between Rome and India. It was once the capital of the richest province in the Roman world and the largest port city in the civilised world. When the port silted up in the sixth century, the prosperity of Ephesus began to fade, but even the port of London did not reach the size or importance of Ephesus at its height until the Tudor era.

Walking through Ephesus today, it is impossible not to be taken by the beauty of the Temple of Hadrian, with its relief of Medusa, the Fountain of Trajan, the Baths of Scholastica, the Theatre that could seat 25,000 to 40,000 people, or the Arcadian Way, leading from the port to the Theatre and along which Cleopatra made her triumphal entrance to Ephesus.

The Library of Celsus was built between 110 and 135 CE by the Consul Gaius Julius Aquilus in honour of his father, Julius Celsus Polemaenanus. It is a truly magnificent and imposing two-storey building with a finely-crafted façade, four niches for statues personifying Virtue, Wisdom, Fate and Genius – long removed to Vienna – a spacious paved courtyard, and reading rooms with cavities to keep over 12,000 papyrus scrolls. The library faced east so that the reading rooms could make the best use of the morning light.

A carved relief of Nike, the goddess of victory, on a paved street in Ephesus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Ephesus is of particular interest to Christians because of its associations with the Apostle Paul, later with Saint John the Evangelist, and as the location for two Councils of the Church in the fifth century.

The Apostle Paul spent two or three years there between 52 and 54, and his letters from Ephesus make this time the best documented period of his career. Ephesus was equidistant from his churches in Achaia, Macedonia and Galatia.

From Ephesus, Saint Paul wrote his Epistles to the Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, his First Letter to the Corinthians, and a lost Letter to Laodicea. Some were written from his jail in a tower near the west end of the city walls.

A stall outside the Isa Bey Camii in Selçuk near Ephesus selling souvenir statues of Artemis, Greek philosophers and the Virgin Mary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Paul’s preaching in Ephesus posed a real threat to the cult of Artemis. The city’s silversmiths began to fret about their future, worried that religious tourism might start to drop off or that the sales of souvenir statues of Artemis and votive offerings might dwindle. Demetrius called the silversmiths together in the theatre, where they howled: ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’

The crowd was calmed, but Paul was eventually forced to leave for Macedonia, where he would preach to the church in Thessaloniki and Philippi (Acts 19: 23 to 20: 1). Paul found it emotionally draining to leave Ephesus, and so said his farewell to the elders of Ephesus in the neighbouring port of Miletus (Acts 20: 17), leaving Timothy in charge of the Church in Ephesus (I Timothy 1: 3). But Paul never forgot the church in Ephesus and wrote his Epistle to the Ephesians from his prison in Rome before his martyrdom.

By the end of the first century, Ephesus was an important centre of Christianity and was one of the Seven Churches addressed in the Book of Revelation by Saint John the Evangelist from his exile on the neighbouring island of Patmos.

After Domitian’s death, Saint John is said to have moved from Patmos to Ephesus, where he wrote his Gospel. John, who is known in the Greek Church as Saint John the Theologian, is said to have died in Ephesus in the year 100. He was buried on the nearby hill of Ayasoluk, whose name is a corruption of the Greek Aghios Theologos – the Holy or Saintly Theologian.

The Basilica of Saint John the Theologian gave the later name of Ayasoluk to the area overlooking Ephesus and the Temple of Artemis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint John’s disciples in Ephesus included Ignatius of Antioch, who died a martyr in the Colosseum in Rome on 19 December 107. Before his death, Ignatius wrote his Letter to the Church at Ephesus, in which he refers to Onesimus, the Bishop of Ephesus. Few writers have resisted the temptation to identify this Onesimus with the ex-slave who was converted by Paul in Ephesus and who is the subject of Paul’s Letter to Philemon.

The persecution of the Christians of Ephesus under the Emperor Decius in the second century gave rise to the legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, who slept in a cave for two centuries until the persecutions came to an end. The story is popular among Christians and Muslims.

The Temple of Artemis was sacked by the Goths in the year 263, and the cult of Artemis went into decline after the legalisation of Christianity under the Emperor Constantine. In 406, Saint John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople, ordered the final destruction of the temple.

By the early fifth century, Ephesus was such an important centre of Christianity that the third Ecumenical Council of the Church met there in the year 431. The council was called by the Emperor Theodosius II and met inside the Double Church, one of the largest in Christianity at the time, and the first church ever dedicated to the Virgin Mary. At the council, Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, was condemned and deposed for heresy and the Nicaean Creed was affirmed.

A second council met at Ephesus in 449, but its decrees were overturned two years later at Chalcedon and the second council has been known ever since as the ‘Robber Council.’

A century later, the Emperor Justinian replaced two small churches at the tomb of Saint John on the top of the hill of Ayasoluk. The new Basilica of Saint John became one of the largest and most ornate Byzantine churches. It was 110 metres long and 40 metres wide, with one large dome and ten smaller ones, supported by columns, and looked down on the ruins of the former Temple of Artemis. What remained of the temple was finally razed to the ground by the Byzantines, who carted most of the remaining masonry up to Ayasoluk or away to Constantinople.

The lone remaining column of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, seen from the streets below the hill of Aysoluk in Selçuk (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The town was severely damaged by an earthquake in 614. The decline of Ephesus was hastened with sackings by the Arabs in 654-655, 700 and 716. When the Seljuk took Ephesus in 1071-1100, it was a small village. The Byzantines returned in 1100, changed the name of Ephesus to Aghios Theologos, and remained here until 1304, when the region was conquered by Sasa Bey.

Ephesus flourished again for a short period under the Seljuk Turks, and in 1375 the Isa Bey Camii or Prophet Jesus Mosque was built below the slopes of Ayasoluk, using some remaining Roman columns to support the gabled room. The Basilica of Saint John was finally destroyed in 1402 by Tamerlane’s Mongols, and in 1425 the region became part of the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Mehmed II. Ephesus was completely abandoned later in the 15th century, but a new town grow up around the hill of Ayasoluk or Ayasluğ and was renamed Selçuk in 1914.

Some of the colonnades and walls of Saint John’s Basilica have been re-erected in recent years, giving a glimpse of its former grandeur. The tomb of Saint John is pointed out in the apse, there is a Baptistry in the shape of a cross, and a marble plaque marks the visit of Pope Paul VI to the basilica in 1967.

During his visit to Ephesus, Paul VI also prayed in the ruins of Double Church or the Basilica of Saint Mary, where the Councils of Ephesus met. Although the ruins are only a few metres west of the main car park at Ephesus, they are seldom included in the guided tours, and are often off-limits for tourists. Instead, tourists in popular resorts such as Kusadasi are often bussed to Meryemana, the so-called ‘House of Mary,’ paying exorbitant fees to attend Sunday Mass at a site marketed as the place where the Virgin Mary lived out her last days.

The Early Church originally held that Mary lived and died in Jerusalem. A later myth said that in her final years she lived under the protection of Saint John. It was a further step to suggest that she had lived with him in Ephesus. But the tradition surrounding the House of Mary is built on an incredible set of presumptions resting solely on the dreams of a German nun and seer, Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), and on the curious interpretations placed on those dreams by French Lazarist priests living in Smyrna (Izmir) in 1891.

Instead, it’s worth spending more time in Ephesus before moving on to neighbouring Priene, Miletus and Didmya, three more breathtaking classical sites on the Anatolian coast.

Saint Paul said farewell to the elders of Ephesus at Miletus … many of the Greek inscriptions at the theatre in Miletus are still legible today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 19: 11-28 (NRSVA):

11 As they were listening to this, he went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. 12 So he said, ‘A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return. 13 He summoned ten of his slaves, and gave them ten pounds, and said to them, “Do business with these until I come back.” 14 But the citizens of his country hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, “We do not want this man to rule over us.” 15 When he returned, having received royal power, he ordered these slaves, to whom he had given the money, to be summoned so that he might find out what they had gained by trading. 16 The first came forward and said, “Lord, your pound has made ten more pounds.” 17 He said to him, “Well done, good slave! Because you have been trustworthy in a very small thing, take charge of ten cities.” 18 Then the second came, saying, “Lord, your pound has made five pounds.” 19 He said to him, “And you, rule over five cities.” 20 Then the other came, saying, “Lord, here is your pound. I wrapped it up in a piece of cloth, 21 for I was afraid of you, because you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.” 22 He said to him, “I will judge you by your own words, you wicked slave! You knew, did you, that I was a harsh man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then did you not put my money into the bank? Then when I returned, I could have collected it with interest.” 24 He said to the bystanders, “Take the pound from him and give it to the one who has ten pounds.” 25 (And they said to him, “Lord, he has ten pounds!”) 26 “I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 27 But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence”.’

Remains of the basilica in Ephesus … the third Ecumenical Council of the Church met there in the year 431 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Wednesday 22 November 2023):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence’. This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (22 November 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

Let us pray that churches around the world might become leaders in their communities for upholding the rights of women and girls.

An elaborate marble fountain was supplied with fresh waters from the channels that once brought water to the pool in the Baptistry in Ephesus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Collect:

Heavenly Father,
whose blessed Son was revealed
to destroy the works of the devil
and to make us the children of God and heirs of eternal life:
grant that we, having this hope,
may purify ourselves even as he is pure;
that when he shall appear in power and great glory
we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom;
where he is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Gracious Lord,
in this holy sacrament you give substance to our hope:
bring us at the last
to that fullness of life for which we long;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

Yesterday’s Reflection (Galatia)

Continued Tomorrow (Philippi)

The caves of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Sunset on a beach at Kusadasi near Ephesus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)