Where Bristol Castle Once Stood Pt 1 – The Normans and The Anarchy

Castle Park

Where Bristol Castle Once Stood Pt 1 - The Normans and The Anarchy

You wouldn’t know it, because there’s hardly anything left to see, but Bristol once had an impressive Norman castle. A lot of water has passed under the drawbridge since then, and where the castle once stood, there is now an open recreational green space occupying the land between the River Avon, the Old City and the shopping quarter.

In my post From Brycgstowe to Bristol I briefly explained the city’s origins, and in this first part of a series of posts about the area now called Castle Park, I want to talk about what happened when the Normans arrived after the Conquest of 1066.

Brycgstowe had been built by the Anglo-Saxons on the high ground between the Rivers Avon and Frome, which not only provided them with access to trading routes, but also afforded good protection on three sides. To supplement this natural protection a wooden palisade was also built around the town.

A Plan of early Bristol showing its position between the Rivers Avon and Frome

After the conquest of England by William of Normandy, he immediately set about consolidating his hold on the realm by taking lands owned by the Saxon nobility and giving them to his own knights. Geoffrey de Montbray, Bishop of Coutances, was rewarded for his ‘good service’ at the Battle of Hastings with 280 English manors, including the manor of Barton in which Bristol was located – and where he decided to make his base.

In line with William’s plans to reinforce his defences around the country, Geoffrey constructed a motte and bailey castle on the town’s vulnerable eastern flank, and replaced the wooden defences with a stone wall, incorporating the castle at the same time. When William died in 1087, he left behind a legacy which brought about a family squabble that ultimately ended up in a civil war – with Bristol Castle being right in the thick of it.

William and his wife, Matilda of Flanders, had at least nine children, four of them boys. Robert was the eldest, followed by Richard, Willam (Rufus), and finally the youngest son Henry. Richard, their second son, was killed in a hunting accident in the New Forest at an early age, and therefore never featured in the lack of brotherly love that followed the Conqueror’s death.

I’m not entirely sure why (although several reasons are given) but Robert (nicknamed Curthose) must have upset his father somewhere along the line, because William bequeathed the Kingdom of England to his third son William Rufus, leaving Robert the Duchy of Normandy. Claims to the throne weren’t always straightforward back in those days, but this seems the wrong way round to me, as it did to others at the time, including Geoffrey de Montbray, who made his feelings known by rampaging through the Somerset countryside in support of Robert. The rebellion was quashed, and Geoffrey managed to save himself and the castle by making his peace with the new king.

William Rufus © British Library

Rufus became the undisputed King of England when he struck up an amicable arrangement with his brother Robert, whereby they agreed to be each other’s heir. As far as Bristol was concerned, after Geoffrey de Montbray’s death in 1093, it became part of the new Honour (feudal barony) of Gloucester which William II created out of his mother’s estates. For his support in crushing the rebellion, the king handed the Honour of Gloucester to Robert Fitzhamon.

On 2nd August 1100 King William II became the second member of the family to die in a hunting accident in the New Forest. Riding with him was his younger brother Henry, and some believe that it wasn’t a coincidence either, but whatever the truth, Henry slipped down to Winchester whilst Robert was on his way back from a crusade and lifted the crown for himself. Needless to say, Robert didn’t take too kindly to his younger brother’s act of treachery and it wasn’t long before they were at war with each other.

One of Henry’s strongest supporters was none other than Robert Fitzhamon: Some say that he was a blood relative of William I, and although the claim can’t be substantiated, his allegiances were always with William and Henry rather than Robert. His support took him to Normandy where in 1105 he was wounded fighting against Robert. He never fully recovered and died two years later. He was buried in the abbey that he founded at Tewkesbury.

Robert’s fight to become King of England came to an end when he was decisively beaten by Henry at the Battle of Tinchebray in Normandy in 1106. Henry claimed Normandy for England and Curthose spent the next twenty years as prisoner in Devizes Castle before being transferred to Cardiff Castle where he died in 1134 at the grand old age of 83 (or thereabouts). His body lies in Gloucester Cathedral.

Tomb of Robert Curthose in Gloucester Cathedral

Robert Fitzhamon hadn’t only been fighting in France, he had also been busy enlarging and strengthening Bristol Castle, whilst at the same time taking control of a large part of South Wales.

In 1114 his daughter Maud married King Henry’s illegitimate son, Robert (Fitzroy) of Caen: I should have really said, one of Henry’s illegitimate sons, because he had so many that nobody really knows for sure how many there were. It’s thought though that Robert was the oldest. Marriage to Maud also brought with it her father’s baronry, and in 1122 Henry bestowed upon his son the title of 1st Earl of Gloucester.

The new earl set about vastly improving Bristol’s defences by extending the town walls across the river to include Redcliffe Back and Temple and also building a massive keep out of Caen stone: It was 100ft high with walls up to 25ft thick and was the third largest in the country. Only the Tower of London and Colchester were bigger.

The map below shows the castle in relation to the Old City and the extension of the town walls across the river. Note also how the course of the River Frome had been diverted, a topic I discussed in The Centre and St. Augustine’s Reach.

The Castlle in relation to the town (The red spot marks the site of the High Cross)

Amongst Henry’s numerous children he also had two that were legitimate – William and Matilda (also known as Maud). Unfortunately, William (Adelin) was on the White Ship which sank off the coast of Normandy in November 1120, killing all bar one of the 300 or so passengers onboard. Legend says that Henry never smiled again after his son’s death, but he got his barons to promise that when he died, his daughter should be crowned queen.

When Henry died in 1135 the barons didn’t really relish the thought of Matilda running the country for several reasons and reneged on their promise.

The date of Matilda’s birth is not quite certain, but she would have only been about 9 years old when she moved to Germany to marry King Henry V of Germany in 1110. Her husband became Holy Roman Emperor, and she became known as the Empress, but on his death in 1125 she moved to Normandy and married Geoffrey of Anjou.

Having lived abroad for most of her life, she was seen as a foreigner to the barons, but not only that she didn’t sound a very endearing character either, and so I suppose it’s not surprising that they favoured another claimant to the throne, Stephen of Blois.

Matilda (from History of England by St Alban's Monks)

You can see why they thought Stephen had a claim. His mother was Adela, William the Conqueror’s daughter and Henry I’s favourite sister, which not only made him Henry’s nephew, but also Matilda’s cousin. Another thing in his favour was that he was more likeable than Matilda with an easy-going attitude and a promise of rich rewards for anyone who supported him.

After Henry’s death he wasted no time in rushing over to England to claim the throne, and what’s more, nobody tried to stop him. He had friends in high places too, and none more so than his brother, Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester, who persuaded the Archbishop of Canterbury to crown him king on 22nd December 1135.

Stephen may have had more charm and influence than his opponent, but his rhetoric never lived up to the barons’ expectations. For example, Robert, the 1st Earl of Gloucester initially supported him, but when the king tried to reduce his power by seizing all his property, he joined forces with his half-sister, Matilda. In 1138 Stephen laid siege to Bristol Castle, but by now Robert had created a formidable fortress and it was too strong for the king’s forces to take. The gloves were off, and what followed was a civil war that became known as The Anarchy.

The Earl of Gloucester's Castle

Matilda returned from Normandy and joined forces with Robert at Bristol Castle, bringing her 9-year-old son, Henry with her.

On 2nd February 1141 her forces defeated Stephen at the Battle of Lincoln, and he was brought back to Bristol Castle in chains, where he remained for the next eight months. She proclaimed herself Queen of England, but if Stephen never won the barons over, neither did Matilda, and she was never officially crowned queen, but instead was called Lady of the English.

The following September, the Earl of Gloucester was captured in a battle led by Stephen’s wife (also called Matilda), his brother Henry of Blois and William of Ypres. The self-appointed Queen of England agreed to exchange Robert for Stephen and after Matilda herself managed to escape capture at Oxford, the Anarchy descended into stalemate with Matilda controlling much of the south-west of England, and Stephen the south-east and the Midlands. The rest of the country was largely in the hands of local independent barons.

In 1147 Robert died peacefully at the age of 57 in Bristol Castle, and the following year, Matilda realising that the game was up, went back to Normandy and Stephen became the official King of England.

When Stephen died in 1154, he was to be England’s last Norman King. His only son and heir Eustace, had died the previous year, and Stephen formally recognised Matilda’s son Henry as the next in line to the throne.

The new king – Henry II – was the first of the Plantagenet dynasty, but even though his time as ruler of England, Wales, Ireland, Normandy, Anjou, Brittany and Aquitaine didn’t always go the way he planned, he always had fond memories of the protection and education that he was given by Robert Ist Earl of Gloucester, and others, during his younger years in Bristol.

King Stephen

14 thoughts on “Where Bristol Castle Once Stood Pt 1 – The Normans and The Anarchy

  1. Fergy.

    Another great post here, Malc.

    Since I have been under house arrest I have been gorging on history documentaries which I love and I have learned so much about the Plantagenets whose dynasty had previously been a huge gap in my knowledge of the UK, they are a fascinating if somewhat dysfunctional outfit. Just off to read Pt. II now.

    1. Easymalc Post author

      The trouble with finding out all this stuff Fergy, is that you start to realise how little you know don’t you?

  2. bitaboutbritain

    Excellent stuff, Malc! If you knew all that – deeply impressed! If you din’t – well researched! Either way, beautifully told! I must spoend more time in Bristol – preferably before the pubs open.

    1. Easymalc Post author

      I knew some of it Mike, but I had to dig deeper to get it all to make sense. I often find that writing these blogs helps me to learn more too. Thanks for your smashing comments. They’re always greatly appreciated

  3. scooj

    A wonderful post, and so much easier than picking up a history book. I knew some snippets of this, but you have stitched it together beautifully.

    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks F. It sounds like Three Kings Day is a cause to celebrate with a glass of something later 🙂


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