In 1267, some fifty years after succeeding to the throne of England on the death of his father King John, Henry III signed one of the most important pieces of medieval legislation, the Statutes of Marlborough. These laws were very much the product of the civil war that had broken out some nine years earlier between king and barons, and were designed to pacify the second rank of English nobility, very much as Magna Carta had been drawn up to deal with the grievances of the barons.
The creation of such a body of laws was in part the work of legal advisors to the Crown, but also the result of a meeting of the King and the chief men of his kingdom, a meeting that not long after this event people would begin to call a “parliament”. These sessions were extended and formal operations of the Curia Regis, the King’s Court, and met wherever the King happened to be, to which place the chief men of the kingdom would then be summoned. That such an important event should have taken place at Marlborough attests to the fact that there must have been an equally important building in which such a meeting of so many important people could have happened.
Indeed, nearly sixty years earlier an almost equally important meeting took place also at Marlborough, when King John summoned all the great men of his kingdom to swear an oath of loyalty to him, at a time when the King was beginning to have cause to question the support he was receiving from many of his barons. Such a ceremony was designed to create an awe-inspiring spectacle as a visual communication of the power of the monarch, and as such it needed to be done against the background of a great castle.
There is therefore little doubt that in the thirteenth century Marlborough could lay claim to one of the most important castles in the south of England. It may not have had the military significance of other fortresses, and it may not have had the architectural dominance of a Rochester or the White Tower in London, but it is clear that it was a castle much favoured by John and his son, and if we dig a little deeper into the evidence we can see that it had developed over time into a palatial building.
The first references to a castle in Marlborough come soon after the arrival of William the Conqueror to these shores, and it would appear that it was more of a wooden hunting lodge to serve the King’s sport in neighbouring Savernake forest, than an example of the many other Norman castles that were springing up all over the country at this time to subdue the local population. Nevertheless it grew in importance and some military significance. We know that Henry I celebrated Easter here in 1110 with his archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm, also present, and by the time of the civil wars of King Stephen’s reign it features in the many power struggles that ebbed and flowed across the southern half of the country.
It was at this time that the castle appears as one of the main possessions of the Marshall family, one of the most revered and often feared of the baronial families of England in the twelfth century. Despite the fact that Marlborough was reinstated as a royal castle early in Henry II’s reign, the Marshalls continued to retain an interest. The same William Marshall, who as a young boy was taken hostage at Marlborough by Stephen, was the man who opened the gates of the castle to the young King Henry III on the departure of Prince Louis and collapse of the baronial faction after the death of John.
It was during second half of the twelfth and the first half of the thirteenth centuries that the actual building at Marlborough matured into a castle of greater importance. Stone replaced wood and residential buildings within the bailey were expanded and improved. Henry II celebrated Christmas there in 1164, and some twenty years later we have the first evidence of Marlborough castle being a location of some political significance as it was the venue for a summoning of the king’s Great Council, attended on this occasion by the King of Scotland. John was married to his first wife in the castle chapel, and there is evidence to show that it was one of the most visited of his residences during his sixteen year reign. Certainly the young Henry III spent much of his childhood there.
It was during the next fifty year period, however, that Marlborough developed into something of a palace. Considerable sums of money were spent on the castle to convert it from an essentially military function into a royal residence fit not only for a king but also a queen, for Eleanor of Provence whom Henry married in 1236 clearly had a soft spot for the place and it was to her that Henry bequeathed the castle when he died. Huge building works are recorded in the Pipe Rolls and Letters Patent of this reign, which make it clear that by 1267 Marlborough castle could most certainly have become a place at which one of the first ever “parliaments” could have met to enact one of the most important pieces of medieval legislation.
In the centuries that followed Marlborough fell out of favour with its royal owners for whatever reason, and we read little more about it. There is reference to the fact that “various persons have despoiled it to the wasting and worsening of the castle” in Richard II’s reign, and by the time of Henry VIII all we know is that “there is a ruin of a great castle, hard at the west end of the town”. Subsequently the site passed to the Seymour family who built three homes successively on the land just to the east of where the great gate into the bailey of the castle would have stood. The last of those homes currently stands at the centre of Marlborough College.