The Castle from Magna Carta, the Statute of Marlborough, and Decline
John was not a popular king with the barons, partly because of the excessive tax demands he made to pay for his wars. In 1215 the barons revolted after a new scutage was imposed. Defeat at the Battle of Bouvines in July 1214 underlined to many the futility of yet more taxation to pay for John’s unsuccessful wars in France. John gave orders that should Winchester be surrendered, the Constable of Marlborough castle, Hugh de Neville, was to convey the Queen and the nine year old Prince Henry to Marlborough. A month later he faced his barons at Runneymede. The moderate party, led by William Marshall son of John the Marshall former castellan of Marlborough Castle, brought the autocratic king and his supporters including Hugh de Neville, and the rebellious barons to the compromise of written law, to which, for the first time, the king himself was subject. Magna Carta was, however, a device to buy time for John: he had no intention of adhering to it. Here John had an unexpected ally: the Pope declared Magna Carta illegal denouncing it as a usurpation of baronial power in defiance of a sovereign monarch. In September 1215 a more serious baronial revolt broke out. London was taken by the rebels and by May 1216 Prince Louis of France had landed unopposed in England pursuing his claim to the throne.
On John’s death in October 1216, Hugh de Neville surrendered Marlborough Castle to Prince Louis; but within a year the moderate barons forced Louis and his supporters to seek terms. Louis withdrew the claim he was making to the throne of England and the 10 year old Henry III could reign in peace with 80 year old William Marshall as regent.
King Henry III, like his father, spent much time in Marlborough Castle. Mills and fishponds were used by the king. The largest fishpond, the King’s Great Bay, filled the valley between the Swindon and Ramsbury roads at the eastern edge of town. It had been made on the demesne land of the castle estate in the Og valley north east of Marlborough by 1179. In that year 28s 1d was spent stocking it with fish. An earthen dam, sometimes called a bay, was raised across the Og to make a long narrow lake, which extended north to Bay Bridge. The dam can still be seen today. The pond was drained by the early 19th century. In use it supplied bream, pike, and eels to the castle and fish were exported to other places in England. The modern housing development of Baywater is named after it.
From 1222 to 1259 building seems to have been going on almost continuously within the castle on walls and turrets, roofs and windows, porches and kitchens, stables and fences, and on a new dovecot. Constant improvement was made on the King’s and the Queen’s chambers and on the two chapels that stood within the castle dedicated to St. Nicholas and St. Leonard. St. Leonard was the patron saint of prisoners and his was probably a small chapel in or before the Great Tower. There is some evidence that the stone-built tower on top of the mound was the work of Henry III.
Like his father, Henry III had problems with the barons. A group led by Simon de Montfort brought the country to civil war in the 1260s. Henry III was compelled to redress the accumulated grievances of the barons in the Statute of Marlborough of 1267 in the presence of his two sons and the Papal Legate, the greatest and almost the last episode in the history of the medieval castle of Marlborough. The preamble declared that it would end “the many tribulations and unprofitable dissensions” of the past and guarantee the “peace and tranquillity of the people”. It confirmed Magna Carta, regulated wardship and protected persons outside the lord’s jurisdiction being forced to attend his court. When Henry died in 1272 the written, enacted law of England consisted of four documents, the Magna Carta, its sister charter which defined forest law, the Statute of Merton, and the Statute of Marlborough.
The castle declined in the 14th century. By 1390 a commission of enquiry reported,
…of all the goods of the king in the castle of Marlborough there remain only lead in old guttering to the value of £8, old iron in utensils, doorhinges, bolts and window-bars to the value of 2s 1d and 2 bells in the chapel worth £10; various persons (and notably the late parson of St. Peter’s, Nicholas Halle, and John atte Mill) have despoiled it to the wasting and worsening of the said castle, as to the walls, gates, turrets and other things…it is impossible to assess the damage since only complete reconstruction would restore them…
By 1541, Leland, King Henry VIII’s antiquary, described Marlborough castle as,
A ruine of a great castelle, hard at the west end of the town, whereof the dungeon tower partly yet standeth.
Camden’s “Brittania” of 1610 stated,
Now being daunted by time there remained an heape of rammel and rubbish witnessing the ruines and some few reliques of the wall remain within the compasse of a dry ditch.
By the 19th century no trace remained. Local tradition asserts that the dressed stone coping on the churchyard wall of St. Peter’s Church came from the castle. The great black font made of Belgian marble in Preshute Church probably came from St. Nicholas’ Chapel where it could have held the baptismal water for royalty. The high-status font is clearly out of place in a parish church and it would make sense to derive its origin to the castle chapel.
Marlborough quickly became a market and trading centre for the surrounding area. Its history, therefore, needs to be considered along with its surrounding villages. The establishment of a castle and mint both encouraged and protected the new borough’s commercial life and the main period of expansion coincided with the royal use of the castle as both fortress and residence.
Ludgershall Castle was contemporary with Marlborough Castle but very different in lay-out consisting of a ring-work with a double ditch and the remains of a keep of flint rubble. It was, however, of equal importance to King John as he used it extensively as a hunting lodge. In the Middle Ages Savernake and Chute Forests lay between Marlborough and Ludgershall. Like Marlborough, Ludgershall grew up beside its castle and both towns had two members of parliament until the 1832 reform act deprived Ludgershall of both its MPs.