The striking twin-towered 14th- century gatehouse of this castle, later the focus of a Civil War siege and battle, survives amid impressive earthworks.
Donnington Castle, near Newbury, was formerly a place of importance, commanding as it did the London road to Bath and the W., and also the road between Newbury and Oxford. The date of its original foundation is uncertain, but from an MS. in the Cottonian Library, a castle here appears to have belonged, in the reign of Edward II., to Walter Atterbury, son of Thomas Atterbury, who had bought it from that King for twenty shillings. In 9 Richard II. “Richard Abberbury, senior” had a licence to crenellate “quoddam castrum” at Donyngton, Berks; and the Patent Roll adds: “in solo suo proprio apud Donyngton in Com. Berks de novo construere ac petra”, which shows clearly this was a rebuilding of an old “castrum” in the year 1386, the existing fabric having been bought about fifty years before for £100 of our money. Sir Richard had been one of the king’s trustees during his minority, but he gave offence and was banished in 1388, and from him the castle came to his son Richard, who is said to have sold the castle, ten years after its erection, to no less a person than Geoffrey Chaucer, the parent of English poetry. Lysons, however, is of opinion that the more likely purchaser was the poet’s son Thomas, who was sheriff of the county in 1399. Hither, at all events, did Chaucer retire in 1398, soon after the publication of his poems, when sixty-nine years of age, to enjoy quiet and repose, and here he remained more than two years. He died at London in 1400, in a house which adjoined Westminster Abbey. The real story of Chaucer’s Oak is given in John Aubrey’s “Lives of Eminent Men” (vol. ii. p. 284): “Neare the castle was an oake under which Sir Geoffry was wont to sit, called Chaucer’s Oake, which was cut down by … (temp. Charles I.); and so it was that … was called into the Starre Chamber and was fined for it.” As his poems were published before 1398 he could not have written them beneath the tree. His granddaughter Alice married, as her third husband, William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, who made Donnington his residence and greatly enlarged it. Suffolk, after the murder of the Duke of Gloucester, wherein he was said to have had a hand, became the leading man in the kingdom, whose affairs he and the Queen now managed, and when matters went ill both abroad and at home, he shared the unpopularity of Margaret, and became odious to the people, so that an accusation of high treason was preferred against him by the Commons in 1450. To save him Henry VI. banished him for five years, but on his passage to France his enemies intercepted him off Dover, and struck off his head on the side of the boat, throwing his body into the sea. Since he had never been attainted, Donnington, Castle then became the property of his son John, from whom it descended to Edmund de la Pole. He was married to Elizabeth Plantagenet, the widowed sister of Edward IV., and was executed by Henry VII. in 1503, when Donnington reverted to the Crown. There it remained till 1545, when Henry VIII. was authorised by Act of Parliament to erect this castle and three other places into as many honours, with lands attached, and conferred Donnington on Charles Brandon, Viscount de L’Isle, created Duke of Suffolk. In Camden’s time it belonged to Charles, Earl of Nottingham, the Lord Admiral. Leland’s description of it is: “A small but very neat castle, seated on the brow of a woody hill, having a fine prospect and windows on all sides very lightsome”. Edward VI. visited it in September. 1551, staying there two days, and six months after presented it with its manor and deer park to his sister Elizabeth, for her lifetime. She lived there for a time, and visited it in 1568, and in 1600 gave the place to Charles, Earl of Notts, as above, Baron Howard of Effingham, in reward for his great services against the Spanish Armada; his son and successor alienated it. In the reign of James I. the castle belonged to a family named Packer, whose heiress married a Dr. Hartley, and by his family Donnington was owned at the beginning of this (19th) century.
In the Civil War, when the place was the property of Mr. John Packer, it was a post of consequence, and was held by a garrison for the King, under Captain John Boys, when it stood three sieges. It was first attacked by Lieutenant-General Middleton with a force of 3000 horse and foot, July 31, 1644; he summoned it to surrender, and, receiving a defiant reply from Boys, proceeded to assault it, but was unsuccessful, losing one colonel, eight captains, one sergeant-major, and army rank and file. Then, on September 29, came Colonel Horton with a battering train of artillery, and for twelve days showered shot on the devoted fortress, firing altogether about 1000 cannon-balls from guns planted at the foot of a hill in the direction of Newbury, by which three of the corner towers were ruined and part of the walls. A second summons to Boys produced only a further spirited reply, and then the siege was carried on by the Earl of Manchester for two or three more days with little effect on the brave garrison, who kept up the defence of the strong outworks, with which the castle had been skilfully surrounded. In one vigorous sortie they killed a lieutenant-colonel and the engineer-in-chief, with many soldiers, and after nineteen days, on the approach of a Royalist relieving force, the Parliamentary troops raised the siege. Captain Boys was justly made colonel, and knighted for his services. The next month, October 27, took place the second battle of Newbury, upon the ground between that town and Donnington Castle, from which place the King, seeing the great superiority of the enemy, resolved to retreat at ten o’clock at night. He accordingly marched his army off to Wallingford and Oxford, leaving at the castle, under the care of Sir John Boys, his wounded, and all his artillery, ammunition, and baggage; such was his confidence in the earthworks round the castle. Two days after the battle, Manchester again demanded the delivery of the castle, threatening otherwise not to leave one stone upon another of the building, but offering good terms to the garrison if they would surrender at once. The only answer he got from Sir John was this: “Carry away the castle walls themselves, if you can, but with God’s help I am resolved to keep the ground they stand on till I have orders from the King, my master, to quit it, or will die upon the spot.”This brave refusal was followed by another unsuccessful assault, and by an attempt to poison the castle well, of which Boys was warned by the commander of the investing force. After this the garrison was not molested, and in a few days the King came in force to relieve the fortress. Charles slept in the castle, and next day (November 10) took away his artillery and baggage to Oxford, but left with Boys eighteen field pieces and five or six large guns for the works, while a reinforcement of 140 men was sent in from Winchester. Hitherto the castle had had but four guns and a garrison of 300 foot and twenty-five horses (Symonds’ MS.), of whom many must have perished under the heavy fire of the enemy.
After this second relief of Donnington the Parliamentary troops seem to have removed to the N. side of Newbury, and fortified themselves there, while Sir John Boys added to his defences by the formation of an outwork, with ditches and palisading 200 paces on the N.; he also made reprisals on the town of Newbury and other places from which he had received scant help. The Roundheads then sent Colonel Dalbier to finally reduce Donnington, the gallant defence of which kept alive the spirit of royalty in Berkshire. He brought two regiments of horse and three of foot, and invested the place, though not completely, since Boys was able to obtain provisions from the country round. At this time a fresh spirit had been given to the Parliamentary forces by the adoption of the “new-model” army, and the appointment of Fairfax and Cromwell to the chief commands. In April the enemy’s approaches were pushed closer to the castle, up to the foot of Maypole Hill, in spite of the gallant sorties made by Boys upon their works, and a mortar battery was opened, “which fired seventeen shells at the oolde weak Rotten howse yet with this dayes worke was well ney all shattered to pieces”. Thus the castle was almost all destroyed except the gatehouse; the barn and outhouses were burnt, and “the granadoes made such work that the souldiers within knew not how to secure themselves, divers leaping over their works and craving quarter”. A last summons was now sent to the old knight, who was told about the other successes of the Parliamentary forces, and a parley followed, when, in a field S. of the castle, still called Dalbier’s Mead, terms were agreed on, by which the garrison was allowed to march out with all the honours of war, and the fortress was given up. Then, except at Wallingford, the King’s flag was seen nowhere in Berkshire.
After the war Mr. Packer pulled down the ruinous part of the old building and erected with the materials the house which stands at the foot of the hill. Grose (1783) gives an accurate plan showing not only the dimensions of the castle when entire, but also the earthworks by which the place was so successfully defended, “carefully traced out (in 1768) amongst the bushes and briars with which they are now overgrown”. This shows the main building to have been almost a square, facing E., where was the existing gatehouse, and measuring from E. to W. 120 feet, while the E. front was 85 feet long. At each corner was a round tower, and the W. front was in the form of a semi-octagon. The well was near the N.W. tower. The entrance, in the gatehouse, is through a passage 40 feet long, with a portcullis groove at the castle end; all this, with the two circular flanking towers, is standing, the S. tower having a staircase. These towers terminate in crenellated turrets, and have four bold horizontal mouldings, ornamented with bosses, marking the floors, these mouldings being continued round the building. The outworks occupy almost the whole summit, and are of much interest, as their proved strength justified the bravado of the governor. The shape of the fortress, which was quite independent of the castle in its midst, was an irregular pentagon, having a large and principal bastion fronting the S., and another redan at the N.W. point. On the N.E. was a half bastion, and between it and the gorge of the S. redan was a “double”, the whole E. front being defended by a second bank, and, of course, in front of the ramparts there was a ditch, while the edges of the hill were scarped and perhaps palisaded. The small river Lamborne flows beneath the castle.
The property is in the hands of the trustees of W. H. II. Hartley, and the old gatehouse is tenanted.* (Castles Of England, Sir James D. Mackenzie, 1896)
* Now an English Heritage property.