Originally founded by Bishop Osmund of Salisbury between 1078-1099, the castle passed to royal hands when it was siezed by King Stephen from Bishop Bigod in 1139. Even then it was described as one of the finest and strongest castles in England. It remained a royal stronghold, but its upkeep was always burdensome. From 1299, it passed to the Queen as a possession, and thereafter remained a dower possession for successive queens. By the early 16th century it was severely decayed, and was ordered to be demolished in the Civil War. The castle, as it appears today, is a Victorian folly, standing on the motte of the original castle.
Not open to the public.
Devizes, called of old “the Devizes,” and by the Romans “ad Divisas”, is a town that arose in later times round a castle standing on a kind of promontory in the Avon valley, strongly defended by nature, on the border of a territory retained by the Britons till 653; and the march having this Roman name, the castle took its name from the district. At the time that this Norman fortress was erected by Bishop Roger Poor, the three counties of Wilts, Berks, and Dorset, forming the West Saxon kingdom, were under one bishop, resident at Sherborne or Ramsbury, but in the time of the Conqueror the See was removed to Old Sarum, of which place Roger Poor was third bishop. Nothing authentic is known as to the site previous to the time of Henry I., but the vast mound, encircled by its mighty ditch, 45 feet deeper than the present level, was placed there by some Saxon or Danish chieftain, and doubtless bore the timber dwellings of his burh. This was fixed on by Bishop Roger for his great work; he crowned the earthwork, perhaps then 500 or 600 years old, with a fabric which was said to be unsurpassed by any castle in Europe. Prince Henry had fallen in with this priest at VanceIles, near Caen. When passing the church he desired to hear Mass, and was so pleased with the despatch which the young monk observed in the service that he made him his chaplain, and finding him useful when he came to the throne as Henry I., he made Roger his chancellor, two years later advancing him to the bishopric of Old Sarum, and conferring on him large gifts of land. When at this See, Roger surrounded Old Sarum castle with a wall, and after becoming very rich he devoted himself to castle building, founding one at Devizes, and another at Sherborne; he also began another castle at Malmesbury. “The first was in the rich form of style of which its founder was such a master, between the stern simplicity of the Conqueror’s days and the lavish gorgeousness of the days of Henry II”. (Freeman.) It was a place of immense strength, and of the costliest workmanship, its builder being anxious that it should be beyond compare in the kingdom. Bishop Roger’s fortress was then an immense Norman shell keep, built on the summit of the mound, round which ran an embattled wall, 12 feet high, flanked with mural towers at intervals; outside this was the deep ditch, crossed by a drawbridge which was protected by the barbican outside the moat. The lower storey of the keep was used as a State prison, and the next above for stores—as was usual, being dark and lighted only by loops. On the second floor was the dwelling-place of the garrison, and on the third the State apartments of the governor, while the topmost was devoted to the sleeping accommodation of his family. The only entrance was by an outside staircase to the second or third storey, leading through a small tower by a drawbridge into the interior, and under a portcullis studded with iron; about the middle of the ascent was a strong gate, commanded from the interior and from above. Outside the whole ran an outer defence, which lay along the W. side of the street called St. John’s. From an old word bretesque, signifying a wooden staging placed over the drawbridge at the entrance of a castle, the town of Devizes derives the name of one of its streets, still called “Brittox”.
In 1106, after the subjugation of Normandy, Henry I. brought his captive elder brother, Robert, Duke of Normandy, to this castle and placed him under the bishop’s charge, previous to immuring him for the rest of his life in Cardiff Castle, where he died after a captivity of twenty-eight years. Stephen, coveting this stronghold, seized the Minister Bishop Roger, and imprisoned him, along with his nephew, Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln, and his avowed son Roger, who was the late King’s chancellor, and under threats extorted from them their castles and possessions. Another nephew, Richard, Bishop of Ely, escaped to Devizes, where the mother of Bishop Roger the chancellor held the keep, refusing to give it up, when Stephen came there and threatened to starve the father, bishop Roger, and to hang the chancellor unless the castle was surrendered, and a gibbet was set up, the site of which is known to this day as the Gallows Ditch. Then the mother, weaker than the bishop, in her terror for her son, yielded the keep, after which resistance by the Bishop of Ely was impossible. (Freeman.) The aged Bishop Roger, thus rifled of his possessions, died in 1139. In the struggle between Stephen and the Countess of Anjou, Maud, his cousin, Devizes was taken and retaken several times. At one time, a partisan of Maud, Robert Fitzherbert, managed to surprise the place, and no doubt by friendly aid within, scaled the walls by means of leathern ladders slung from the battlements. The garrison were overpowered, and retreating to a tower, were there starved out.
Fitzherbert was, however, soon after entrapped by Stephen’s custodian at Marlborough, John Fitzgibert, and being hung in front of Devizes, his followers surrendered. Stephen then placed this castle under his nephew Herve of Brittany, from whom it was taken after a siege by the people of the neighbourhood, who handed it over to the Countess, or “Empress” Maud, once more, and Herve fled from England. Maud herself came there on her escape from Winchester (q.v.) to Ludgershall in 1141, whence, not being admitted, she hastened on horseback, dressed in man’s attire, to Devizes, and left soon after in a litter for Gloucester. She afterwards held two councils here. In John’s reign there was a large royal park with deer attached to the castle, and at the King’s death there were here thirty falcons, thirty greyhounds, thirty grooms, and a like number of horses, under the charge of John Marshal the custodian.
Hubert de Burgh, Earl of Kent, the faithful servant of John, as he had also been of Coeur de Lion, being accused of grave offences by the Bishop of Winchester, and arrested under Henry III., was confined here, and contrived to escape by the aid of his two servants on Michaelmas Eve, 1233. One of the men took the earl on his shoulders, fettered as he was, and descending from the tower passed through the castle unnoticed to the great gate, where they got out, and crossing the ditch, made their way to the parish church of St. John, where Hubert was deposited safely before the altar. The escape being discovered in the morning, the earl was dragged back, but as the privilege of sanctuary had thus been violated, the bishop had him replaced in the church, the King’s soldiers keeping guard around. Next day a strong party of his friends cane to his rescue and brought him away in triumph to Wales. Edward I. spent several Easters here, visiting his mother, who had taken the veil at Amesbury Nunnery. Then the place became the dower of several Queens of England. The Good Duke Humphrey, brother of Henry V., lived here occasionally. After this the fortress fell into neglect and disuse, and must have been alienated by the Crown, since in the sixteenth century it was partly pulled down in order to build old Bromham House (the seat of the Bayntons), as well as the lodge at Spye Park. Leland wrote of it: “The keep or donjon, set upon a hill cast by hand, is a piece of work of incredible cost; there appear in the gate six or seven places for portcullises, and much goodly building was in it; part of the towers of the gate of keep were carried unprofitably to build Old Bromham House” (burnt down in 1645). “There remained yet divers goodly towers on the outer wall of the castle, but all going to ruin; the principal gate leading to the town was yet of great strength, and had places for seven or eight portcullises”.
In 1645 this gate and a sufficient part of the fortress survived to enable it to be held by a King’s garrison of 400 men, under Sir Charles Lloyd the governor, a good engineer, who improved the natural strength of the place by a series of earthworks, supporting one another, which were proof against the enemy’s cannon, and were defended also by stockades. Oliver Cromwell, then Lieutenant-General, sat down before the castle, after the taking of Bristol, and having completed his batteries on Sunday, September 21, summoned the governor to yield, and being refused, opened fire with cannon and mortars that afternoon. Some shells bursting inside the open keep so startled the defenders that on Monday morning they made terms, and delivered up the castle, which was soon after utterly demolished, and the site sold. It was evidently then used as a quarry, for when ancient houses in the town are pulled down it is common to find old Norman stones in them.
When the castle was bought by the late proprietor, Mr. Leach, he erected a large but uncomfortable mansion on the ancient site, but this has been remodelled and very greatly improved by the present owner (1896), Sir Charles H. S. Rich, Bart. Two of the towers of the early castle have happily survived, that on the N. side being practically intact, and except in its battlements and upper defences, is much as it appears in an old print of the last century, when, however, it was capped by a windmill erected on it for grinding snuff. At the S. end is another ancient tower. On the sides of the mighty mound below appear the openings of early structures which formed cellars and dungeons, and it is thought that an underground passage exists below the ditch, connecting the castle with the church, through which Hubert de Burgh may have been conveyed with his fetters. (Castles Of England, Sir James D. Mackenzie, 1896)