Where Bristol Castle Once Stood Pt 2 – The First Plantagenets

Where Bristol Castle Once Stood - Castle Park

Where Bristol Castle Once Stood Pt 2 - The First Plantagenets

In this second part of a series of posts about Castle Park, I’m going to try and unravel what happened at Bristol Castle when the first Plantagenets took over from the Normans after the Anarchy.

If you haven’t read the first part yet, or just want to refresh your memory you can read about it here; and if you cast your mind back, the man responsible for providing Bristol with one of the country’s biggest castles at the time was the 1st Earl of Gloucester, and after his death in 1147, his son William Fitz Robert became the 2nd Earl. You may also remember that King Stephen, who was victorious over Matilda in the civil war known as The Anarchy, died in 1154 without an heir and signed an agreement to hand the crown over to his adversary’s son, Henry.

Henry II was the first Plantagenet king, the name deriving from his father, Geoffrey of Anjou who wore a sprig of broom in his hat. Botanists will tell you that the Latin name for this shrub is Planta Genista which in French was known as Genêt, but where the English name Broom came from, I have no idea.

King Henry II spent much of his young life during the Anarchy under the protection and guidance of the 1st Earl of Gloucester at Bristol and even though his 34-year reign started well enough, it didn’t quite end that way, and he’s probably best remembered for the murder of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. He died on 6th July 1189 and was buried in France.

King Henry II (Historic UK)
The spot where Thomas Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral

Henry was succeeded by his eldest surviving son Richard, who seems to have been more of a fighter than a lover. Apparently, he had no legitimate children and only one that wasn’t, which led some experts to suggest that he might have been a bit light on his feet. During the 10 years he wore the crown, Richard I spent most of his time fighting in France or on Crusades to the Holy Land, and for this he earned the nickname Lionheart.

As for John, Henry’s other remaining son, an arrangement had been made for him to marry Isabella, the 2nd Earl of Gloucester’s daughter, which they duly did within weeks of Henry’s death. In practical terms what this meant was that Prince John inherited the barony of Gloucester including Bristol Castle.

King Richard, although born in Oxford, was brought up in France by his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine, and during his long periods of absence from England, he made arrangements for William Longchamps, the Bishop of Ely, to look after the country for him. Prince John (who wasn’t called Lackland for nothing) saw things somewhat differently and decided to relieve the bishop of his duties while Richard’s back was turned, using Bristol Castle as his headquarters.

Bristol Castle c1200 (Water Colour by Tim Rossiter and based on a model by M.W. Ponsford and P Weare)

Needless to say, King Richard wasn’t too happy when he found out about the new arrangements, and on a brief visit back to England he found enough time to confiscate Henry’s titles and lands: However, the garrison at Bristol Castle still remained loyal to John. Lackland didn’t have long to wait though before England became officially his, and it probably won’t come as any great surprise to learn that on 6th April 1199 Richard the Lionheart died from wounds inflicted on a French battlefield by a bolt fired from a crossbow.

Richard the Lionheart (Monarchy of Britain)

Due to the fact that Isabella was a distant relative, John had only been allowed to marry her providing they didn’t consummate the marriage, and so when he became king and she was no longer useful to him, he quickly dumped her – and I think it’s fair to say that she seemed quite happy to let him.

John’s reign could hardly be called a successful one: He lost nearly all of the French lands that he had inherited, was forced to relinquish some of the royal power to the barons with the signing of the Magna Carta, and even managed to lose the crown jewels while crossing The Wash. In fact, it’s said that no monarch has wanted to be called King John since.

King John (History Hit)

Even though he was Bad King John to many, he still had his supporters, including the barons and people of Bristol, and it was to Bristol Castle that he came when the rebel barons enlisted the help of Louis, the son of King Philip II of France, to depose him. Before that was able to happen though, he succumbed to dysentery and died at Newark Castle on 18th October 1216. He is buried in Worcester Cathedral.

King John's Tomb in Worcester Cathedral

With John out of the way, many of the barons no longer needed any help from Louis, especially as John’s son, Henry, was only 9 years old when he inherited the right to wear the crown – or he would have done if his father hadn’t lost it. Nevertheless, the coronation took place on 28th October at Gloucester Abbey with a bracelet belonging to his mother, Queen Isabella.

John at least had the sense before he died to leave the country in a safe pair of hands when he made William Marshall, the Earl of Pembroke, the boy king’s regent. Not only did he look after the young monarch, he also saw off Prince Louis once and for all at the Battle of Lincoln the following year.

By the time he was 20, Henry was in soul charge of his realm, but it seems as though he hadn’t learnt from his father’s mistakes. Once again, the barons were unhappy with the way things were being run, but this time there was no going back. In Simon de Montfort, the Earl of Leicester, they had a leader who could take on the king and win, and in 1264 he led a rebellion which led to the king being defeated at the Battle of Lewes: Henry and his son Edward were captured, and for a year the country was effectively run by de Montfort.

Unfortunately for Simon de Montfort and his supporters, they may have won the battle, but they hadn’t won the war, and at the Battle of Evesham, de Montfort lost his life as well.

Simon de Montfort (The Simon de Montfort Society)

This was bad news for the barons and for the people of Bristol too, because this time they backed the wrong horse. Henry had asked the town to finance improvements to the castle’s defences out of the taxes he allowed them to collect on imported goods. The locals weren’t too enamoured with the king as it was, and they didn’t only decline the offer, they also besieged the castle with his son Prince Edward inside.

Prince Edward escaped and went on to win the decisive battle against Simon de Montfort at Evesham, and when Henry III died in 1272, he took over as the next King of England.

In the next post I’ll be describing what happened at Bristol and elsewhere during the reigns of the next three kings – all named Edward.

Henry III (Westminster Abbey - Wikipedia)

6 thoughts on “Where Bristol Castle Once Stood Pt 2 – The First Plantagenets

  1. Toonsarah

    A great read as always! I wish I had known half of this stuff when I used to visit Bristol regularly as history comes alive when you can link it to specific places, I find 🙂

    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks Sarah. I agree with you that knowing a bit about what you’re looking at also helps to appreciate it a bit more. Mind you, there’s hardly anything of Bristol Castle left to see 🙂

  2. Fergy.

    You missed your calling, Malc,

    you should have written history books as you do it so well and certainly a lot better than the rubbish I had to read in school!

    1. Easymalc Post author

      That’s a nice comment Fergy. Thanks.

      Knowing what to leave out is the biggest problem. Trying to condense years into a few pages is easier said than done and is one of the reasons why I’m breaking up the history of this particular area of Bristol into something that is at least manageable.


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