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A Castle Fit for Kings, Queens and Miscreants

Updated: Nov 16, 2022

Gloucester Castle then and now


Gloucester Castle 12th–15th Centuries

The site of Gloucester Castle, the second of two medieval castles built in the city, is today a former prison on the bank of the River Severn above the entrance to the docks. The castle was a contemporary of the Tower of London and in its early years a residence fit for a king, as lavishly attended to as London's tower. It played a prominent part in the affairs of a divided nation in the 13th century. The castle survived its moment in the sun, though not without being burned, and slipped, slightly battered, into the political shadows in the 14th century.

Gloucester castle became first a retirement home for dowager queens, then an increasingly neglected detention centre for people at the other end of the social spectrum. As the medieval period began receding into history, so too did the castle. It shrank slowly away as its stone was distributed about Gloucester to be recycled in civic building and city road, until pretty much only the keep remained. The ruinous remnant was finally dismantled in 1787 to make way for a purpose-built prison.

Old Castle

Blackfriars, site of old castle

The first castle in Gloucester was built shortly after the Norman Conquest in 1066. As best can be gleaned from the sparse evidence, it started life as an enclosure in the south-west corner of the old Roman walled perimeter, on the site of the future Blackfriars priory. A second phase of building in the last decade of the 11th century, probably after the Roman wall in this area was dismantled, extended the castle across the line of that wall to the west, where a motte, or barbican, was erected on the site of today's Gloucester Academy of Music (at the entrance to Barbican Road off Commercial Road). The keeper of the castle, known as the castellan, was a hereditary privilege granted to the first Norman Sheriff of Gloucester.

New Castle

Site of old (r) & new castles separated by Barbican Rd.

Around 1110 construction began on a new castle to the west of the old castle, next to the River Severn on land belonging to Gloucester Abbey (the future Cathedral). By 1130 the castle comprised a square keep up to sixty feet (eighteen metres) high at the centre of an area enclosed by a moat. An outer moat was subsequently dug along most of the northern and all of the eastern sides, possibly by 1143. It brought the motte of the original castle into the now enlarged enclosure, indicating the end of the old castle's useful life.

The castellans, who in 1141 were granted the earldom of Hereford, enjoyed significant autonomy in their handling of the royal estates at Gloucester by the mid-12th century. It was a privilege forfeited by the second Earl of Hereford, whose failed rebellion in 1155 relieved him of his castles and resulted in Gloucester Castle passing to the direct control of King Henry II.

By the end of the 12th century a curtain wall up to forty feet (twelve metres) high and six feet (two metres) thick had been erected along the inside bank of the inner moat. Internal walls divided the area enclosed by the outer walls into separate baileys; four are either implied or specifically mentioned in the medieval records.

Castle Gates

Upper Quay Street

The southern end of today's Upper Quay Street is dominated by a wing of the huge Shire Hall complex. The civic building's construction in the 1960s did for Castle Lane, a continuation of Upper Quay Street and the approach to the castle's main entrance. The outer gate once stood where the complex now towers, foundations planted in ground once flooded with moat-water and challenging the cathedral for a place on the Gloucester skyline. The castle's inner gate was located at the far end of Castle Lane, almost exactly where the 19th-century prison's outer gatehouse still stands at the meeting of Barrack Square and Barbican Way.

Castlemeads end of west entrance bridge today

A smaller gate was located in the south wall, at the end of a road from Llanthony Secunda Priory. A third, even smaller gate was located in the west wall, close to where today's Barrack Square road joins the riverside road above the quay. The gate was accessed by a drawbridge over the Severn, the far end on Castlemeads defended by a small fortified gate house.

King Henry III

19th-century prison gate on site of main castle gate

The reign of King Henry III, Gloucester's greatest royal patron, was bookended by conflict with the barons. Henry's father, King John, had reneged on the Magna Carta, his settlement with the barons in 1215, thus precipitating the First Barons' War. The next year a significant majority of barons enlisted the aid of the French prince Louis, heir to the throne of France, as an alternative to King John. Their invitation for Louis to intervene became an invasion which resulted in his welcome (at least, by the rebel barons) occupation of much of England. The would-be king established himself in London and was proclaimed but not crowned King of England.

Gloucester Cathedral

The death from natural causes of King John in October 1216 fundamentally altered the dynamic of the conflict. John's few remaining baronial allies proclaimed his son, the nine-year-old Henry, as King. With London occupied by his French rival, Henry's claim to the throne was legitimised by a hasty coronation at Gloucester Abbey, his crown fashioned from a piece of his mother's jewellery.

The rebel barons, suffering military setbacks and with their main antagonist John no longer a factor, found themselves on the wrong side of a war being cast as a crusade. They began to defect to the loyalist cause, and the war was settled in Henry's favour in 1217. Three years later he was crowned again in Westminster Abbey, like every other English monarch before and English then British monarch since, just to be sure.

The site of the Saxon palace at Kingsholm today

Henry was a frequent visitor to Gloucester, and during his reign Gloucester Castle supplanted the Saxon palace at Kingsholm as the royal residence. He acquired a taste for shad, salmon and especially lamprey fished from the castle's weirs on the Severn.

Henry spent lavishly on Gloucester Castle, on a scale comparable to his works on the Tower of London. He added suites for his queen and their son, the future King Edward I, built new chapels for both himself and the Queen (two of the three, possibly four chapels in the castle) and installed a second great hall, known as the King's Hall. He subsequently radically altered or rebuilt the hall with its buttery and kitchen, and made multiple improvements to his own suite of rooms. A turret behind his chambers was made into the castle's prison.

In addition to this work on accommodation and facilities around the curtain wall, the keep also underwent significant changes, with an extra floor being added above the second of the castle's great halls. The walls were crenelated in 1241, and during Henry's reign and after, towers were installed in both inner and outer walls. Money was also spent on the castle's garden and vineyard.

Now prison wall and road, then castle wall and moat

Towards the end of Henry's reign the barons became restive again. The situation spiralled into the open conflict of the Second Barons' War in 1263. Gloucester's strategic position on the Severn ensured it would play a prominent part in the conflict. The castle suffered significant damage when it was successfully besieged by the barons that year, and it was seized again in 1264 and 1265.

The baronial struggle prompted the last major works on the castle defences. In 1265 Henry ordered a new dyke to be built around the town, which to the south ran from the now demolished St. Kyneburgh chapel, just outside the south gate, along the line of today's Kimbrose Way and Commercial Road to the Severn. The new ditch connected to the southern end of the castle's eastern double moat and became part of its southern perimeter. It's likely the area immediately outside the southern wall (which was up to some 130 feet (40 metres) to the north of the new moat) was walled off to become a barbican.

Kyneburgh Tower sculpture where chapel once stood

The area immediately outside the castle perimeter was cleared of properties which had given cover to the besiegers during the war. To the north this created the Bare Land, a name which survives today as Bearland.

Decline and Fall

The suppression of the troublesome barons and the succession of Edward I to the throne in 1272 shifted the political focus away from Gloucester. Repairs were made to the castle after the damage inflicted during the recent conflict, but the castle never regained its former glory. Two floors of the keep burned during the siege were not repaired until 1304, and the near catastrophic state of disrepair of the keep's south wall recorded in 1328 was not fixed until 1389.

The castle became the home of dowager queens, the widowed mothers of King Edward I and King Edward II, and when King Richard II convened Parliament at Gloucester in 1378, he stayed not at the castle but at Llanthony Secunda Priory.

Prison Governor's house where east & south moats met

The castle, which had always included a prison, was still maintained into the 15th century, but during the reign of King Richard III it became primarily a prison. In 1489 some of the buildings arrayed around the outer wall were demolished and their stone recycled into Gloucester roads. In 1529 castle stone became part of the then new, now demolished Boothall, a rebuild of the original seat of local government located since the late-12th century on the corner of Westgate and Upper Quay Streets.

In the last decade of the 16th century more of the castle found itself embedded in the city's roads. The former stronghold formed part of the city defences during the siege of Gloucester in 1643, and a Parliamentarian artillery battery was placed in the barbican, but the castle saw little of the fighting.

The last of the former royal chambers around the curtain wall had been demolished by the middle of the 17th century and the curtain wall itself replaced by a new wall no more than ten feet (three metres) high and two feet (a little over half a metre) thick. Of the medieval castle only the keep-become-prison and the gatehouse survived, augmented by a new brick bridewell built to the north of the keep.

Bearland today

In 1683 the prison was "esteemed...the best in England". Within its precinct prisoners and city residents alike could enjoy a flower garden, a bowling green and, from 1740, an ornamental garden.

Around this time Bearland, no longer bare, became a fashionable quarter, the location of townhouses for the city's merchants. Three of them – Bearland House, Bearland Lodge and Ladybellegate House – still echo today the wealth invested in this quarter of Gloucester at the time, though the extensive ornamental Bearland gardens have long since been dug up.

Former prison on former castle site

By contrast, the keep was described as ruinous in the late-17th century, and reformer John Howard was less than glowing in his 1777 report on the prison. When his recommendations began to be championed in 1783 by another prison reformer, the leading county magistrate Sir George Onesiphorus Paul, the days of what little remained of the former castle were numbered. A 1785 Act of Parliament authorised the construction of a purpose-built county prison, and demolition of the last surviving remnants of Gloucester's medieval castle began in 1787.

The new prison was opened 1791, at which time King George III, who still owned the land, granted the site of the prison to the "County of Gloucester". The rest of the castle land remained a royal possession until it was sold in two lots, in 1815 and 1818, but was not brought into city jurisdiction until the boundary extension of 1874. The motte of the first castle, now just a mound, survived as a feature known as Barbican Hill until the 1930s, when it was levelled during archaeological excavations. Gloucester Prison was closed 2013, and during archaeological excavations preparatory to its redevelopment, parts of the keep were once again exposed to sunlight, albeit briefly and soon sealed over again.

Representations in Art and Cartography

Bonnor's The old County Gaol at Gloucester, 1819

The castle keep appears in a somewhat sketchy 14th-century illustration of the Gloucester skyline attached to the manuscript of Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th-century history. Almost as sketchy are maps of Gloucester produced by Speed in 1610 and Kip in 1712, informative more for the castle's location than its appearance.

A 1748 painting by Thomas Robins offers a view from the south-east of the castle only decades before its demise, with the mound of the old castle motte (Barbican Hill) in the foreground. Bonnor's The old County Gaol at Gloucester, part of the ancient Castle, published 1819 and based on an earlier sketch, illustrates the keep shortly before it was demolished in 1787.

The castle also appears, if only in inferred outline, in 19th-century plans produced for the sale of Crown lands in 1815, the purchase of land by the Gloucester and Berkeley Canal Company in 1819, an 1834–1835 legal dispute over the castle approach, an excavation plan in 1835 and a Board of Health map in 1851.

Where available, direct links to the above mentioned have been provided (and Bonnor's engraving blatantly lifted from the internet and embedded above – public domain and credited below). All can be viewed on pp. 84–91 of this article's primary source, The Archaeology of Gloucester Castle: An Introduction.

Finally, a superb and highly educated illustration of the medieval castle drawn in 2013 by local historian Phil Moss headlines The Re-discovery of Gloucester Castle: archaeological investigations 2014-2019, a lecture delivered in February 2020 by city archaeologist Andrew Armstrong to the Bristol and Avon Archaeological Society.

See also

Fortress to Gaol: The archaeology of the former HMP Gloucester – Overview of castle history and findings of archaeological work completed by Wessex Archaeology in 2021.


Image Credits

All images © @EyesShadowed, except:

  • Bonnor's The old County Gaol at Gloucester, part of the ancient Castle: public domain via Wikimedia Commons

  • Gloucester Castle 12th–15th Centuries: base map © OpenStreetMap contributors (CC BY-SA 2.0), overlaid with castle details based on an illustration by Phil Moss, p. 99, The Archaeology of Gloucester Castle: An Introduction

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David Hanks
David Hanks
Feb 22, 2021

A superb piece of work that draws on scattered sources to create an impressive picture of this historic part of Gloucester.

Feb 22, 2021
Replying to

Hey, thanks David 😀

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