Donnington Castle, Proud Survivor of Parliamentary Guns
There are various types of castles in Britain built by conquerors, rightful kings and wealthy supporters of the monarchs. One of the most distinctive is that of Donnington Castle (not to be confused with Castle Donington, a town 127 miles to the north). Donnington Castle was inhabited for over 500 years and was visited by many important figures in English history. This fortress played a key role in the English Civil War and is today is a popular tourist destination.
The History of Donnington Castle: English Civil War Stronghold
Donnington Castle was built in the 13 th century by the Abberbury family. Sir Richard Abberbury was knighted by the Black Prince for his service in wars against the French. The Abberbury family built the castle in the late 14 th century under license from King Richard II. It was at this time that the distinctive gatehouse was built.
The family later sold the castle to the son of the author of The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer. It then passed into the ownership of the Dukes of Suffolk, who expanded the castle and extended its walls. Donnington Castle was seized by the Tudors because of charges brought against its owners and it fell into neglect and disrepair. It is believed that both Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, stayed in the castle when they visited the area. By 1640 the caste was owned by the Packer family who supported the Ironside or Parliamentarian cause.
Distinctive gatehouse of Donnington Castle, England (nickos / Adobe Stock)
After the First Battle of Newbury, the Royalists (Cavaliers) captured the castle. They realized the strategic importance of the fortress and greatly extended it and also constructed star-shaped earthworks so that their cannon could fire at the besiegers. The earthen works had several platforms that enabled the defenders to rain down cannonballs on the attackers. It had scarps or very steep embankments which prevented the attackers from reaching the walls of the castle.
The Ironsides besieged the castle in 1644, but the small Royalists garrison held out for a year and a half. In 1646, the Royalist garrison left the castle as part of a truce and took their weapons with them. The Parliamentarian forces tore down the walls of the castle and some of its towers, leaving only the gatehouse intact.
The much-reduced fortress was returned to the Packer family, who rebuilt some of the walls. Donnington Castle remained in their possession until the 19 th century. At present, it is managed by English Heritage.
The Remains of the Once Lavish Donnington Castle
The castle is in the parish of Donnington in West Berkshire. It was built on a natural redoubt and it is situated on the north-east of a ridge. The original builders dug a trench around the castle to provide extra protection and this can still be seen. At the south-east of the castle where the ridge falls away, is a double bank and a ditch, installed to protect what was regarded as a weak point in Donnington’s defenses.
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1825 plan showing the 14th‑century Donnington Castle surrounded by the 17th‑century star-shaped defences. (Public Domain)
The current walls are only 1 and a half feet high and date from the 20 th century. They were designed to give the visitors a better idea of the original form of the castle, which measured 67 feet (20 m) in length and 108 ft (33 m) in width. Sadly, four medieval round towers were destroyed when the Parliamentarians pulled down the walls.
The original courtyard which once held barracks, kitchens and a great hall can still be seen as well as the well-preserved English Civil War ramparts that date to the 1640s. These embankments in the shape of a star rise to a height of almost 6 feet (1.8 m).
The centerpiece of the castle is the gatehouse, one of the most remarkable structures of its kind in England. It is three stories high with two cylindrical towers on either side. Each tower contains narrow slits which were used by archers to rain arrows down on attackers. The battlements on one of the towers have been severely damaged, evidence of the damage caused by cannonballs. The large, square window in the center of the gatehouse, which was added in the 17 th century. The entranceway through the gatehouse has a finely vaulted ceiling and carved gargoyles sit on bands of stone which curve around the exterior of the towers.
Although much of the castle is a ruin, a distinctive newel post in one of the towers retains some of its original ornamental trimmings. Several buildings attached which were attached to the west tower and the foundations and fireplaces can still be seen.
Visiting Donnington Castle
The site is some two miles (3 km) from the town of Newbury near the village of Donnington which has plenty of accommodation. There is a car park at the location, and it is open during day-light hours. Several tours visit the castle as well as other sites in southern England.
Top image: Donnington Castle near Newbury in West Berkshire Source: Piotr / Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan
Godwin, H. (1874). XXIX.—On Donnington Castle, Berkshire. Archaeologia, 44(2), 459-479
Liddle, P. (1977). 8 ‘A late medieval enclosure in Donnington Park’. Trans. Leics. Arch. & Hist. Soc, 53, 8-29
Money, W. (1894). The Civil War in Berkshire, 1642-46. Journal of the British Archaeological Association: First Series, 50(2), 110-124