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History of Guildford Castle

Explore the history behind Guildford's medieval Castle.

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Although there are no documents about the early years of Guildford castle, it is almost certain that it was built shortly after the Norman conquest of 1066.

William the Conqueror built castles in all the important towns to prevent rebellion and to strengthen his hold on the country.

Guildford was an obvious site for a castle as it was the only town in Surrey (apart from Southwark). It was also on an important route between London and the south coast and the west of England.

What would the castle have looked like?

The first structures at the castle would have been the motte, or mound, surrounded by a ditch, and an adjoining bailey, or courtyard, defended by a wooden palisade.

The bailey boundary ran along Castle Street, South Hill, the edge of what is now Racks Close and along a line parallel with Quarry Street but to the east. It may have used part of the Saxon borough boundary. The bailey was probably divided into an inner and outer bailey, partly along the line of the path between the bowling green and the castle grounds.

There was probably a wooden tower on the motte, providing a lookout post for the garrison. In the early 12th century a chalk wall, or shell-keep, was built around the top of the motte. Later, perhaps in the 1130s, a keep, or great tower, was built to one side of the motte. It was probably over part of the shell-keep and also used the natural chalk below the artificial motte to take the weight of the tower.

It was built of Bargate stone from the Godalming area, as it is stronger than the local chalk. It had two floors with the door on the first floor for both defence and status. It was probably built as the King's private apartments. The walls were finished with crenellations, and presumably a wall-walk for sentries.

How the castle developed

The first floor rooms consisted of the main chamber, a chapel, and a wardrobe chamber with a latrine. Not long afterwards a second floor was added. This had a two-seater latrine, showing that more people were using the building. The roof was of lead, and the walls were plastered and whitewashed.

In the later 12th century, the tower became the headquarters of the Sheriff and the county gaol for Surrey and Sussex. The King moved to better apartments in the bailey, together with all the other domestic buildings and a chapel. The Great Hall was probably on the site of the two houses at the bottom of Castle Hill. It was stone, with wooden aisle posts painted to look like marble.

In the 13th century Henry III made many improvements, which caused the castle to be referred to as a palace. His queen had a new window in her rooms, made as large as possible, with two Purbeck marble columns.

The Great Hall was given windows with coloured glass, and wall paintings, including the story of Dives and Lazarus, to remind the King to be charitable. A screen by the passage leading to Henry's private chambers was painted with the legend of Edward the Confessor and St. John.

Henry's bedchamber was painted green, with gold and silver stars, and he had a garden surrounded by a cloister with marble columns. In 1254, a fire damaged the hall and other buildings but the improvements continued.

In 1245, Henry bought land to extend the bailey. This was presumably the land along Quarry Street. He built a set of rooms for his son Edward, the heir to the throne, in 1246 when the boy was seven. The ruins at the end of Castle Cliffe Gardens are probably the remains of this.

In 1256, the gate on Quarry Street was built. John of Gloucester, the King's master mason, and Alexander the King's carpenter oversaw the work. They were in charge of all royal works south of the Trent. The original gate to the castle must have been on the other side of the bailey, opposite Tunsgate, but there is no trace of it today.

The new gate suggests that Henry had altered the whole focus of the castle. He later built more sets of rooms in this area, for his daughter-in-law Eleanor of Castile, and for his queen's knights.

Dwelling and mustering point

Although the castle was mainly used as a dwelling, it was strongly defended and was used as a mustering point for troops preparing for Edward I's foreign wars. It was never attacked, though it was strengthened in 1173 - 4 during the rebellion of Henry II's son. The heightening of the great tower may be linked to the civil war of Stephen's reign.

In 1216, the castle was given up without a fight to the forces supporting the barons against King John. There was no fighting during Simon de Montfort's rebellion either. However, Edward, Henry III's son, captured a rebel, Adam Gurdon, in single combat at Alton and brought him to Guildford. It is said that Edward's wife, Eleanor of Castile pleaded for Adam's life, and he was spared, to become a loyal servant of the crown.

In the 14th century, Guildford and other inland castles were no longer needed and fell into disrepair. By 1379 everything at Guildford had fallen down except for the King's great chamber.

The moated hunting lodge in the royal park was improved from the 1360s, so that royalty could stay there. The park was across the river, and was used for hunting deer for sport, and to provide food for the royal household. There was also a rabbit warren. Horses were bred in the park, and oxen were grazed. The trees provided timber for building and fuel for fires and for limekilns, which produced lime for building work.

The Great Tower continued to be used as the county gaol. The Sheriff had a building next to it, probably of timber, from 1247. The gaol was moved to Southwark in the early 16th century and in 1544 John Daborne was made Keeper of the castle garden. His family was involved with the castle for the rest of the 16th century. They put the brick windows and the fireplaces in the tower, may have used it as an official residence.

In 1611, the castle estate was granted to Francis Carter and he, or his son, built the house at Castle Arch soon after this.

The tower was unroofed in about 1630, and was used as a cockpit. Parts of the grounds were farmed, and rented out to different people. In 1885, Lord Grantley of Wonersh, who owned a large part of the castle, sold it to Guildford Corporation.


The tower and other walls were restored, and the grounds were opened to the public in 1888 as pleasure gardens. In 2003 to 4 the Great Tower was conserved and the original crenellations and other features were discovered. A roof and floor were re-instated at first floor level, and the ground floor now houses a display about the castle.

There is limited disability access to the keep, due to the steep castle mound and the number of staircases. There is a small gift shop on the ground floor of the castle.

The Great Tower contains a model of the original castle at about1300 and interpretation panels tracing the tower's history to the present day.