Site of a castle, demolished in 1648 and now built over. Excavation in 1973-74 uncovered three phases. Firstly a castle, built circa 1125-36, of rectangular plan; remodelled to a concentric plan in the late 13th century and early 14th century. After the siege of 1644 bastions were added. A vanished castle, the site is now a shopping centre.
This castle was built about the year 1125, in the reign of Henry I., by Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln, nephew of Roger, the celebrated Bishop of Salisbury (see DEVIZES), who, being made prisoner by Stephen, was, by severe imprisonment, continued for seven months on scanty fare, forced to give up the castle; he succeeded, however, in recovering it, and the Bishops of Lincoln continued to possess the estate till the reign of Edward VI. Leland describes the castle thus: “Ther is a castle on the N. side of this area, having two wards, and each ward a dich. In the utter is a terrible pryson for convict men. In the N. part of the inner ward is a fair piece of new building of stone.” The outer ditch enclosed over 3 acres, the area of the castle covering 3 roods, 3 perches.
Nothing remains but a fragment of wall, from 2 to 3 yards square, and a portion of the moat. The Cherwell flowed at a short distance on the E., receiving the waters from the moat. Stokeley, writing 1712, says that in a part of the work were the lodgings and the chapel, but no more existed at that time than at present, and he adds: “The ditch went along the middle of the adjacent street, and houses are built by the side of it, as people now alive remember. In the civil wars it received new additional works, for there are plain remains of four bastions, a brook running without them.”
The fortress appears to have been a magnificent work of its day (Beesley), but until the seventeenth century, when it proved an important and formidable post, no military events are recorded in connection with Banbury. In February 1500, Henry VII. held a council of war in this castle, and a year after a commission was held there to try certain clerks convicted of highway robbery, who were confined in this prison of the bishops, a similar prison of the same diocese being placed at Newark. These ecclesiastical gaols were required in order to detain clerics who, in cases of felony, demanded “benefit of clergy”, when the civil courts were obliged to hand them over to the episcopal jurisdiction, and this continued as long as the Papal supremacy was recognised in England. This, then, was the “terrible pryson” of Leland. In 1595 Queen Elizabeth “leased” the property to Sir Richard Fenys (Fiennes), afterwards Lord Saye and Sele, and his children, a process which seems equivalent to giving the fee simple.
At the opening of the civil war between King Charles and his Parliament, William, Viscount Saye and Sele (see BROUGHTON), who took a leading part on the popular side, and is said by Clarendon to have been responsible for many of the evils that befel the unhappy kingdom, had garrisoned Banbury Castle, and after the battle of Edgehill on October 27, Charles marched thither, and, drawing out his forces, planted some guns against the castle; but at the first cannon shot the garrison sent to treat, and the castle was surrendered with 1500 stand of arms therein. From thence to the end of the war Banbury continued a Royalist stronghold, in the midst of a district entirely Parliamentarian. No doubt the saintly townsfolk were sorely tried by the presence of the ungodly cavaliers in their midst, but the puritanism of Banbury was proverbial, as a verse of those days declares:
In my progress, travelling northward,
Taking my farewell of the southward,
To Banbury came I, O profane one,
Where I saw a puritane one
Hanging of his cat on Monday,
For killing of a mouse on Sunday.
In 1644 the great siege of Banbury Castle took place, commencing in July and being carried on with great determination till after Michaelmas. The governor was the brave young Sir William Compton, son of the late Earl of Northampton, a lad of only eighteen, who proved himself. well worthy of the trust confided to him. The Parliamentary leader was Colonel John Fiennes, son of Lord Saye and Sete, and after summoning vainly the governor to yield up the castle, he closely pressed the siege. Lines were drawn round it, and guns in battery daily played on the fortress, but the garrison made successful sallies on their works and quickly repaired damages. By the middle of September the shot had made a great breach in the W. wall of the outer ward, 30 yards in length, but it was speedily backed up with earth, and when after another futile summons, Fiennes, on September 23, stormed the walls, he was met with a determined resistance and beaten back. Besides battering the walls, colliers were brought to mine them; but the mines were spoilt by springs of water which burst out below, and then an attetnpt was made unsuccessfully to drain the moat. At length, on October 25, the Earl of Northampton, Compton’s brother, came to the relief of the place, with some cavalry from Newbury, aided by some horse and foot from Atterbury. Then the besiegers tried to retreat, and some heavy encounters took place in which the rebels were worsted and their whole force broken up. Only two horses were found in the castle, the garrison having eaten all the rest.
On November 5, 1645, the King took Banbury on his way from Newark to Oxford, and dined in the castle, proceeding to Oxford in the afternoon.
The second siege began in January 1646, Colonel Edward Whalley investing the castle with a force of 3000 men. The governor was still young Compton, with a garrison of 400. The Parliament troops had the advantage of possessing the friendly town, but found the castle works which had been thrown up very formidable, and they suffered much by the sallies of the garrison. Whalley summoned the castle on March 18, but received a fierce defiance from Compton, and the siege went on.
At last, in May, when Charles had given himself up to the Scots army, and his affairs were desperate, further resistance seemed useless, and highly honourable terms were agreed on for the delivery of the fortress, which was given up after a siege of fifteen weeks. Immediately after an Order of the House was sent to see to the dismantling of the building, which resulted in its being “slighted”. Two years later, however, its further destruction was determined on, and this was carried out, the materials being sold and distributed in the town. The sum of £2000 was paid to Lord Saye and Sele as compensation for the loss he thus suffered.
The gatehouse of the castle stood at the N.E. of the market-place, where the Cuttle Brook formed the outer moat. In 1792 the property was sold by the Saye and Sele family to some persons of the name of Goldby. (Castles Of England, Sir James D. Mackenzie, 1896)