Kings, Castles and Magna Carta: The Castles of the First Barons' War

By James Murray | 02 March 2015

What did Magna Carta mean in the 13th century, and what happened next? Follow the course of the First Barons' War by visiting the castles where the conflict happened

A photo of a large castle with an old gun in the foreground
Lincoln Castle's East Gate© Lincolnshire County Council
With the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta by King John in 1215 fast approaching, there has rarely been a better time to re-examine the crisis which led to the drafting of this important document and its successor, the Charter of the Forest – considered by many to be the inspiration for the American constitution and the foundation of our own liberal democracy.

The story begins in France, where King John spent a great deal of his early reign attempting to hold together the Empire his father and mother had created.

John’s elaborate plans, however, suddenly collapsed when his allies were defeated at the Battle of Bouvines in July 1214, and King Philip II Augustus of France took control of almost all John’s territory on the continent.

John’s style of government – raising unprecedented amounts of tax, and spending more than any of his predecessors on castle-building and mercenary armies – had grated on the Barons, who had ruled his lands in England, Wales and Ireland for some time already. But with this drastic reverse they found the perfect opportunity to force concessions on him.

The text of the ‘Great Charter’, granted by the King at Runnymede on June 15 1215, fails to even mention the notion of universal rights - in reality, it is a document concerned with the rights of an elite.

Magna Carta monument at Runnymede
The monument commemorating Magna Carta, on the banks of the Thames at Runnymede© Len Williams and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
The story of Magna Carta, then, is one of Royal vs Aristocratic power – a contest which pitted John’s Papally endorsed legitimacy as King of England against an uneasy coalition of his most powerful subjects.

Looking at a conflict which largely consisted of siege and counter-siege, the best way to engage with the reality and the legacy of Magna Carta is to visit the palace-fortresses where this great game was played out. Indeed, the control of castles was absolutely essential in any medieval war, since they were the most defensible sites on major communications choke-points where an army or garrison could camp and gather resources.

Hundreds of castles changed hands between 1215 and 1217, when the Earl of Pembroke, William Marshal, finally crushed the rebellious barons – we will visit 11 of the most important.

The Tower of London

a photo of a white tower with Union Jack flag flying above it
The White Tower at the Tower of London© Photo Richard Moss
The Tower of London was one of the first and largest of the great stone keeps of the Norman period to be built. The tower held out against rebel forces which seized control of the rest of the city in May 1215, after John had spent the first half of the year avoiding his barons’ demands.

Its imposing formerly whitewashed walls, built from stone imported specially from Normandy, are still impressive today, though the great mass of curtain walls and round towers surrounding the central keep are later additions representing a completely different kind of castle.

Already an out-dated and vulnerable design wedged into a corner of the old Roman city walls, the White Tower was lucky to have survived this episode.

Later, London and the Tower would be the operational stronghold of the rebel movement under Prince Louis.

The Tower of London remains property of the crown to this day, and contains a range of exhibits including a display of some of the most precious items from the Royal Armouries, and the Crown Jewels.

Rochester Castle

Rochester Castle
Rochester Castle, abandoned in the 16th century© Christine Matthews and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
Rochester Castle, on the other hand, did not get off so lightly.

When a group of Barons came out in open rebellion against the King in October 1215, inviting the Crown Prince of France, Louis, to claim the English throne, John was forced to besiege Rochester Castle, which controlled the River Medway estuary and the road between London and Canterbury.

It was a costly distraction for the King, but after seven weeks of relentless siege works and a fight to the death which saw the destruction of one corner of the square keep (apparently felled by a mine fired with the fat of 40 pigs), the starving defenders surrendered and John moved on to quell rebellion elsewhere.

The 2011 film, Ironclad, starring James Purefroy, Brian Cox and Paul Giamatti, offers a visceral re-telling of Baron William d’Aubigny’s heroic stand.

Built shortly after 1127 by Archbishop William de Corbeil, with a round tower replacing the one destroyed by John in 1226, Rochester Castle is just about the best surviving example of a Norman square keep. In its ruinous state, many original features now lost from the continuously occupied Tower of London have been preserved.

English Heritage now owns the castle, which has gradually languished into a state of total dereliction since the 16th century.

Norham Castle

Norham Castle
Norham Castle; also abandoned since the 16th century© Mike Searle and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
Meanwhile in the North, Norham Castle, with its commanding views over the River Tweed, was besieged by King Alexander II of Scotland, who took advantage of the rebellion to push his own claims.

Also a square keep, Norham was built a little later, during the reign of Henry II, and is notable for its unusual stone vaulted basement.

Henry is reputed to have ordered Hugh de Puiset, Bishop of Durham, to rebuild the castle there in stone sometime between 1157 and 1170.

The ruins of the castle, which was converted into an artillery fortress in the 16th century, are free to visit all year round.

Berwick Castle

Berwick Castle
The scanty remains of Berwick Castle, largely cleared away for the adjacent railway station© N. Chadwick and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
John, however, had a formidable army behind him, which he took north during the winter of 1215/16 to sack Berwick and its adjacent castle, forcing the Scots to abandon their operations in England.

Very little of the original castle founded by David I of Scotland (reigned 1124-1153) survives above ground, having been rebuilt by Edward I in the late 13th century, and partially cleared to make way for a railway station.

What does remain, along with the vast artillery fortifications surrounding the town, is free to explore.

Dover Castle

the Great Tower at Dover Castle
The Great Tower of Dover Castle© J. Thomas and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
With walls up to 21ft thick, Louis was hard-pressed at Dover, and although he did manage, through a combination of siege engines and mining, to bring down part of the barbican and undermine the gatehouse, the breach was successfully defended, forcing him to call a truce.

The surprising colour and opulence of Dover Castle in the 12th and 13th centuries has been painstakingly recreated in the Great Tower by English Heritage, giving visitors a sense of what a castle of this period would really have been like at the time when it was built.

Windsor Castle

a photo of the towers of castle with walls and car park in the foreground
The oldest parts of Windsor Castle are the towers that occupy the original motte and bailey© Colin Smith via CC
Louis also failed to take Windsor Castle, which had also been heavily re-built by Henry II.

Henry replaced the old wooden keep with the stone Round Tower in 1170, and improved the defences and residences of the two outer baileys, though almost none of his work survives today.

The refusal of these two important castles to surrender forced Louis to divide his forces, and thus contributed significantly to the defeat of rebel forces at Lincoln by William Marshal in May 1217.

Windsor, as the home of the Royal family, is well known as the oldest continuously occupied castle in the world, and as such it is a difficult building to decode. The motte and the banks of the two baileys, however, are ancient features which can easily be appreciated on a visit today.

Odiham Castle

Odiham Castle
The remains of Odiham Castle, one of the few new castles built by King John, on the banks of the Basingstoke canal© Andrew Matthewson and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
Odiham Castle, built by John himself between 1207 and 1214, fell to Louis’ forces after a siege of just 15 days in 1216.

Significant for its strategic location between Windsor and Winchester, and its unusual octagonal stone keep, John spent £1,000 on this project – equivalent to about one year’s expenditure at Dover during the 1180s.

Falling into a ruinous state by 1605, the crumbling remains of Odiham are free to view, perhaps combined with a walk along the Basingstoke canal.

Portchester Castle

the Great Tower, Portchester Castle
The Great Tower of Portchester Castle, built into one corner of the Roman fortress© Mike Searle and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
Portchester Castle, a strategic port fortification near Portsmouth often used by King John, surrendered to Prince Louis in June 1216.

The stone castle, built by William Pont de l’Arche in around 1130, was actually squeezed into a corner of a much larger fortress, built on the orders of Roman Emperor Diocletian in 285 as part of a campaign to rid the North Sea of pirates.

Also an important Anglo-Saxon Burgh, the site was continuously occupied, and proved a popular point of embarkation for Norman and Angevin monarchs travelling to and from their lands in France.

Today the Roman fortifications are renowned as the most complete in Northern Europe, and are free to visit, though there is a small fee to climb the medieval Great Tower.

Berkhamstead Castle  

Berkhampsted Castle
Berkhampsted Castle, boasting a double moat© Rob Farrow and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
Berkhamsted Castle, controlling a key route into the Midlands from London just to the west of St Albans, was also swiftly taken by Louis, who made use of the recently developed counterweight trebuchet to force the new King Henry III to order its surrender within 20 days.

Although John had died of dysentery in Newark a couple of months before Louis took Berkhamsted in December 1216, the war raged on as the French Prince maintained the rebel alliance and continued to claim the English throne.

The strategic importance of Berkhamsted is emphasised by the tradition that the Archbishop of York formally surrendered to William the Conqueror here before the invading Norman ventured on to London.

Having been extensively modernised, probably by Archbishop Thomas Becket during the mid-12th century, the castle was well defended, but still retained the basic motte and bailey ring-work form it originally took when built by the Conqueror’s half-brother Robert of Mortain.

Lying unoccupied since the death of Lady Cecily, Duchess of York, in 1495, the castle rapidly fell into ruin, and was robbed for construction materials until just a few low walls remained in the 19th century. The ruins are free to explore throughout the year.

Barnard Castle

Barnard Castle
Barnard Castle, abandoned in the 17th century© Ben Gamble and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
Barnard Castle near Darlington, meanwhile, was successfully defended against King Alexander, who had returned south from Scotland in the summer of 1216.

Hugh de Balliol, whose ancestors had owned the site since 1095, inherited a strong stone castle with four separate wards, largely built by Bernard de Balliol and his son from around 1125 onwards.

Records of the siege are not clear, but it is possible the Scots retreated when Alexander’s brother-in-law, Eustace de Vesci, was killed by a crossbow bolt.

The imposing ruins are perched high on a rock above the River Tees, making it a really stunning spot to visit today.

Lincoln Castle

Lincoln Castle
Lincoln Castle, from the cathedral© Jo Turner and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
Lincoln Castle saw the last significant land action of the first Baron’s War.

Although the town of Lincoln was controlled by the rebels, Lady Nicola de la Haye barred the gates to the castle all through March, April and May of 1217.

Maintaining the siege forced Louis to divide his forces between Lincoln and Dover in the south, and thus made the force he was not personally commanding in Lincoln vulnerable to the united forces of the new King, commanded by William Marshal.

The Marshall destroyed the rebel army at Lincoln on the 20th of May, leaving Louis dependent on re-enforcements sent to London in August.

When the ships carrying the new army were defeated by the English Navy at the Battle of Sandwich, Prince Louis finally despaired of his attempt to conquer England, and the war was soon after concluded by the Treaty of Kingston, by which Louis accepted 10,000 marks to return with his army to France.

Occupying a strategic position on the old Roman roads leading to the north and north-west, and constructed on the site of the military camp at Roman Lindum by 1068, Lincoln Castle was one of William the Conqueror’s priorities when consolidating his rule.

Although the architectural history of Lincoln Castle, including the curious double motte paralleled only at Lewes in East Sussex, is complex and uncertain, recent archaeological work will hopefully shine a brighter light on its long history.

Today the Castle is an increasingly interesting place to visit, containing a working Crown Court, and by April 2015 a brand new visitors centre for the original copies of Magna Carta and the 1217 Forest Charter which it is lucky enough to own.

Only four copies of the 13 original 1215 documents survive.

The copy usually on display at Lincoln Castle returns from a US tour for a new display in April 2015. But the best preserved example remains on display at Salisbury Cathedral, while the other two can be found at the British Library in London.

The British Library exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy runs from March 13 – September 1 2015.

Salisbury Cathedral's Magna Carta: Spirit of Justice, Power of Words opens on February 28 2015.

Lincoln Castle's Restoration and new Visitor Experience featuring the Magna Carta Vault opens to the public on April 1 2015.

More pictures:

Lincoln Castle, the West Gate
The west gate of Lincoln Castle© Richard Croft and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
Odiham Castle
Another view of Odiham Castle© Chris Talbot and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
Rochester Castle Great Tower, interior
Inside the Great Tower at Rochester Castle: note the internal dividing wall which made it possible to continue defending the castle, even when the southern tower fell© Chris Downer and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence
Roman walls at Portchester Castle
Palace or fortress? Portchester Castle was added to a much older defensive structure, heralding a major change in the way it was used© Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

Magna Carta and the First Barons' War: a Timeline

  • 27th July 1214: the Battle of Bouvines - the Angevin Empire in France collapses
  • May 1215: London, Lincoln, Northampton and Exeter occupied by the rebel Army of God
  • 15th June 1215: King John agrees to the clauses of the Magna Carta, temporarily ending hostilities
  • 24th August 1215: Magna Carta annulled by Pope Innocent III
  • October 1215: Barons come out in open rebellion against the King, inviting Prince Louis of France to claim the throne
  • December 1215: King John besieges Berwick and ravages the Lowlands of Scotland
  • February 1216: King John quells rebellion in East Anglia
  • 21st May 1216: Prince Louis lands with an army on the Isle of Thanet
  • June - October 1216: Prince Louis occupies most of the south east of England, except the castles of Dover and Windsor
  • 19th October 1216: King John dies of dysentery at Newark Castle
  • December 1216: Berkhampsted Castle surrenders to Prince Louis
  • 20th May 1217: The Battle of Lincoln Fair - William Marshal defeats half the rebel army, relieving the siege of Lincoln Castle 
  • 24th August 1217: The Battle of Sandwich - a French navy carrying re-enforcements for the rebels is destroyed off the coast of Sandwich by an English fleet sheltering at Dover
  • 12th September: Prince Louis agrees to the Treaty of Kingston, bringing an end to the First Barons' War
For more information about the First Barons' War, visit these useful websites and articles:

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