Carisbrooke Castle: a shell keep castle on the site of a Saxon burh


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Scheduled Monument
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Ordnance survey map of Carisbrooke Castle: a shell keep castle on the site of a Saxon burh
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Isle of Wight (Unitary Authority)
National Grid Reference:
SZ 48615 87772

Reasons for Designation

A shell keep castle is a masonry enclosure, extending around the top of an earlier motte or castle ringwork, and replacing the existing timber palisades; there are a few cases where the wall is built lower down the slope or even at the bottom. The enclosure is usually rounded or sub-rounded but other shapes are also known. A shell keep is relatively small, normally between 15 and 25m diameter, with few buildings, and perhaps one tower only, within its interior. Shell keeps were built over a period of about 150 years, from not long after the Norman Conquest until the mid-13th century; most were built in the 12th century. They provided strongly fortified residences for the king or leading families and occur in both urban and rural situations. Shell keep castles are widely dispersed throughout England with a marked concentration in the Welsh Marches. The distribution also extends into Wales and to a lesser extent into Scotland. They are rare nationally with only 71 recorded examples. Considerable diversity of form is exhibited with no two examples being exactly alike. Along with other castle types, they are major medieval monument types which, belonging to the highest levels of society, frequently acted as major administrative centres and formed the foci for developing settlement patterns. Castles generally provide an emotive and evocative link to the past and can provide a valuable education resource, both with respect to medieval warfare and defence, and to wider aspects of medieval society. All examples retaining significant remains of medieval date are considered to be nationally important.

Carisbrooke Castle survives well as a good and well-known example of a shell keep castle. The well preserved fortifications constructed by the Italian military engineer Federigo Gianibelli in the late 16th century are a good example of military defensive works of the period. The castle is justifiably famous for its role in the detention of Charles I. Burhs are fortified centres of early medieval date which served as defensive refuges intended for the protection of road and river routes and river routes and of the local population. Some also played a role in organised commercial development and as administrative centres. Around 90 examples are recorded nationally, most of which are concentrated in central and southern England. This is the only example identified on the Isle of Wight. Partial excavations at Carisbrooke between 1976-81 demonstrated the presence of settlement remains predating the castle. The outer defences are of a type analogous to burghal defences elsewhere, although there are no documentary sources to confirm this interpretation, as the Isle of Wight was outside the Burghal Hidage, a record of the burhs of Wessex, thought to have been compiled by Alfred or Edward the Elder.


The monument includes a shell keep castle and associated earthworks built on the site of an earlier Saxon burh lying on the south west end of a long ridge running north east to south west in the centre of the Isle of Wight. This high ground has Lukely Brook on its west side and the headwaters of the River Medina on its south and east. The castle is sited at a point where the ridge terminates abruptly, the land dropping away precipitously on three sides. The castle is stone built and roughly square in plan. In the north east corner is a motte surmounted by a keep which is met by the curtain wall. The curtain wall encloses the domestic buildings and half of the motte. Beyond the curtain wall is a moat. On the internal side of the moat and on the bottom edge of the motte are the half buried remains of the walls of the Saxon burh which pre- dates the castle. Beyond the moat, on the east side of the castle, is the barbican. Enclosing the moated castle and barbican is a ditch, with further earthworks beyond this. The castle can be divided into three parts: the keep, the domestic buildings inside the castle walls and the buildings on the curtain wall and defences beyond. The keep, built shortly after 1100 by Richard de Redvers, is ascended by a flight of steps. The walls of the keep today are lower than when they were first built. The gateway to the keep was built c.1335. This gateway originally had a portcullis, the groove for which can be seen in its outside arch. The walls inside the keep are part of a 16th century modification, but there is a 14th century garderobe recessed into the outer wall. Also in the keep is the first well dug in the castle. This well is 49m deep, and the impressions of the timber support of the windlass can be seen in the nearby wall. The keep was abandoned for living when its military use was ended. The internal buildings of the castle include the area known as Carey's Mansion, St Nicholas Chapel, the great hall and well-house. Carey's Mansion, which runs parallel with the inside of the north curtain wall, contains the earliest domestic quarters of the castle, so placed that the occupants could easily escape into the keep in times of emergency. Within this building are the remains of an oven and chimney and two windows of particular note. The western window is known as Isabella de Fortibus's window and lay in her great chamber. The eastern, barred window, lay in the room which was the last place of captivity of Charles I prior to his removal to London and execution. The chapel seen today dates from 1904 and was designed by Percy Stone, but is built on a 14th century foundation on the site of the original chapel of 1070. The great hall dates from the 13th century. The first improvement to the hall was the fireplace on the ground floor built by William de Montacute c.1400. George Carey, in the 16th century, added the porch and the upper floor, but in making his changes to the great hall he badly damaged the chapel built by Isabella de Fortibus in the south east corner of the hall. In the 18th century the present staircase was inserted. Halfway up the steps a door leads into the building called the Constable's Lodgings, rebuilt and extended by William de Montacute in the 14th century. One of the rooms here is Charles I's bedchamber, from which he first attempted to escape. The entire block formed the suite of rooms occupied by Princess Beatrice as a summer residence from 1896. The great hall is now occupied by the Carisbrooke Castle Museum. Under the great hall lies the room which now houses the boilerhouse; this room dates from the 12th century. The well in the courtyard was dug in the early 12th century. The original well in the keep was unreliable, indeed the defenders ran out of water when the castle was besieged by King Stephen in 1136 forcing Baldwin de Redvers to surrender the castle. There has been a well-house and treadwheel over the well since 1291. The present structure dates from 1587, and the treadwheel inside the well-house was also installed during the reconstruction of this date. The 16th century officers' block on the east side of the courtyard is now totally renovated inside. On the south side of the courtyard lies the entrance to a subterranean room which was the gunpowder room and later became the ice house. The defences of the castle include the curtain wall itself, a gatehouse on the north west side of the curtain wall, towers on the south west and south east corners, the moat and the defences beyond the moat. The castle is approached via a red brick bridge over a ditch which was created as part of the artillery defences built between 1597 and 1600. The gatehouse has been altered over the centuries. The front, with its drum towers, was built c.1335 in front of an earlier gateway, but the upper parts of the towers with their gunports and machicolations over the gate date to c.1470. In the gateway itself are three portcullis grooves, the position of each showing the growth of the gateway. The curtain wall stands to c.3m high with a turf bank 1m high on its top. The corner towers on the curtain wall were strengthened to take cannon in the 16th century. These towers were built around the outer face of the original Norman towers. On the south side of the motte is a narrow gateway, or postern, in the curtain wall. This was constructed in the 16th century to allow access to the fortifications of the same date on the east side of the castle. These fortifications beyond the curtain wall were built by the Italian military engineer Federigo Gianibelli between 1597 and 1600 as a defence against artillery. He built a set of earth ramparts and four bulwarks, one on each corner of the fortification, which were used as forward defensive positions for artillery. The moat, beyond the earthworks, is c.4m deep, 3m wide at the bottom and c.10m wide at the top. Outside the moat on the eastern and southern sides are redoubts, and c.80m to the east of the moat is a ditch c.3m wide at the bottom, c.10m wide at the top and c.2m deep, which is thought to be associated with the defence of the Saxon burh. None of the cannon on display are historically associated with the castle. The iron cannon on the outer defences are naval pieces given in the early years of the 20th century. A 16th century parish cannon can be seen in the entrance to the museum, and there is a battery of small saluting cannon on a grass bank near the well-house. Prior to the building of the castle, the site was occupied by a Saxon settlement about which very little is known. It has been suggested by Dr C Young, who conducted excavations of the site from 1976-81, that the outer defences are of a form which would be compatible with the burghal defences recorded elsewhere. As the Isle of Wight was outside the Burghal Hidage (a record of Wessex burhs), there are no contemporary documentary records. William the Conqueror gave the burh to his kinsman William Fitzosbern, who started to turn it into a castle by building a campaign fort in one corner. The Fitzosberns lost the castle after an unsuccessful rebellion in 1078. Their successors, the de Redvers, held it for nearly 200 years until 1293. It was they who built much of the castle that one sees today. The first Richard de Redvers constructed the motte and bailey, and the stone walls were added by 1136. The last of the de Redvers, Isabella de Fortibus, also added to the castle buildings. She was an innovator, one of the first in England to use glass for windows. In addition to the small chapel she constructed adjoining the great hall, she had a window seat constructed in the north wall of her private chamber, which can still be seen today. King Edward I purchased the castle from Isabella on the day she died. The castle experienced military action only twice: in 1146 it was besieged and taken by King Stephen; and during the Hundred Years War, in 1377, the French unsuccessfully besieged it. After the Wars of the Roses the title of the Lord or Captain of the Castle was dropped in favour of Governor. Queen Elizabeth I appointed her cousin George Carey, second Lord of Hunsdon, as governor. Carey took up the post in 1582 and set about improving the defences of the castle because of the threat from Spain. In addition to this he adapted the great hall and built a mansion next to it. Carey's alterations were the last major changes made to Carisbrooke. The long royal association was broken during the Civil War when Parliament appointed the Earl of Pembroke as governor in place of the royalist Earl of Portland. Here Charles I and two of his children, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Henry, were imprisoned during the Civil Wars. Charles attempted, unsuccessfully, to escape just prior to his removal to London and execution in 1649. The castle continued to be kept in repair as a military defence until the 18th century but played no further part in national history. By the early 19th century it was in a bad state of repair but was restored `in a somewhat too liberal spirit' according to a historian in 1856. Excavations by Dr C Young established the Saxon presence on the site with a find of three Saxon burials in the bailey or ward of the castle. Grave goods dated the burials to the sixth century and included glassware, bowls, a bronze bucket and a fine drinking horn. Much of the castle is Listed Grade I. Specifically the walls of the castle are Listed, as are the gate and gatehouse and all internal buildings. The following are excluded from the scheduling: the concrete plinth and seat outside the south west corner of the outer moat; the metal railing around the car park and the tarmac surface of the car park and coach park; post and wire fences, gates, gateposts, aluminium rails, modern stone walls, metal sign posts and traffic lights with their supporting electrics on the edge of the protected area and within it; telegraph poles and supports; the modern fittings in the officers' block; modern timber buildings in the courtyard; the modern toilet block and cafe; the boiler and service pipes; the modern dividing breeze block walls in the boilerhouse; the electrical fittings in the boiler room and adjoining store room; modern fixtures and fittings in the Governor's Residence, and the cannon, although the ground beneath all of these features is included, as is the subsurface gunpowder magazine and ice house.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
Chamberlin, R, Carisbrooke Castle, (1985), 27
Chamberlin, R, Carisbrooke Castle, (1985), 9-10
Chamberlin, R, Carisbrooke Castle, (1985), 20
Chamberlin, R, Carisbrooke Castle, (1985), 16-17
Chamberlin, R, Carisbrooke Castle, (1985), 21-23
Dr. J Gardener, (1993)
NAR Record SZ 48 NE 1,
Tomalin, Dr. D, (1993)


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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