Reasons for Designation
Motte castles are medieval fortifications introduced into Britain by the
Normans. They comprised a large conical mound of earth or rubble, the motte,
surmounted by a palisade and a stone or timber tower. In a majority of
examples an embanked enclosure containing additional buildings, the bailey,
adjoined the motte. Motte castles and motte-and-bailey castles acted as
garrison forts during offensive military operations, as strongholds, and, in
many cases, as aristocratic residences and as centres of local or royal
administration. Built in towns, villages and open countryside, motte castles
generally occupied strategic positions dominating their immediate locality
and, as a result, are the most visually impressive monuments of the early
post-Conquest period surviving in the modern landscape. Over 600 motte
castles or motte-and-bailey castles are recorded nationally, with examples
known from most regions. As such, and as one of a restricted range of
recognised early post-Conquest monuments, they are particularly important for
the study of Norman Britain and the development of the feudal system.
Although many were occupied for only a short period of time, motte castles
continued to be built and occupied from the 11th to the 13th centuries, after
which they were superseded by other types of castle.
Berkhamsted Castle is a well-documented example of a Norman castle with
historical records dating from the 12th to the 15th century. It has important
associations with the family of William the Conqueror and, later, with Thomas
a Becket. The motte and bailey and its defences survive in extremely good
condition and will retain considerable potential for the preservation of
archaeological and environmental evidence relating to the various stages of
development of the castle.
Berkhamsted Castle is situated north of the town on the Akeman Street gap
through the Chilterns and comprises a motte standing at the north-east corner
of an oblong bailey. The motte mound is c.14m high and c.55m in diameter at
the base. On the motte are the foundations of a shell keep, about 18m in
diameter and containing a well. The bailey, which covers an area of about 1.3
hectares, measures c.130m north-south by c.100m east-west. Enclosing the
bailey is a flint-built curtain wall with half-round towers at intervals of
about 55m. A wall runs across the northern end of the bailey from east to west
forming a forecourt to the motte. Two wing-walls run up the south side of the
motte from the north-east corner of the bailey to the keep. At the point of
intersection between the walls and the edge of the keep are traces of a
building, the function of which is unclear. On the west side of the bailey the
remains of a rectangular building are thought to represent a chapel while it
is probable that the hall and living quarters were also on this side. A wide
ditch surrounds the bailey and the motte and an outer bank and ditch surrounds
these earthworks. The outer defences have been altered by the construction of
the railway and road to the south. The ground level falls from the north to
the south and on the higher ground north and east of the castle there is
another bank. This bank is unusual in that it has eight, possibly nine,
earthen bastions set against its outer face which are considered to be the
remains of seige platforms. Access to the interior was provided by the main
gateway on the south of the bailey which would originally have had a wooden
The castle is believed to have been erected by Robert, Count of Mortain and
half brother of William the Conqueror. Between 1155 and 1165 the castle was
owned by Thomas a Becket, the Chancellor, when considerable sums were spent on
building. Henry II spent Christmas 1163 at Berkhamsted Castle. In December
1216 it withstood a fortnight's seige by Louis of France while Richard Earl of
Cornwall was responsible for the construction of a three storey tower in 1254.
It was given to the Black Prince by Edward III in 1337 and in 1360 repairs
were undertaken to make the castle habitable for King John of France. The
castle has been unoccupied since 1495.
Partial excavations were carried out in 1962 and 1967 in the south-eastern
area of the curtain wall at the location of one of the half-round towers.
Finds included an iron arrowhead and pottery from the 13th century, a floor
tile from the mid 14th century and a horseshoe from the 17th century.
Excluded from the scheduling are the lodge and the concrete steps on both the
motte and the defence walls. However, the ground beneath these features is
included. The monument is in Guardianship of the Secretary of State for
The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.