Castle Hill Huntingdon has a had a long and varied history, and this summer it will be home to a series of large reenactment events as part of the 2019 festival; with that in mind here is a look at the history of the Huntingdon Castle site.
Establishing a Castle
Castle Hill was originally part of the Anglo-Saxon burh, the fortification around a Saxon town (this is where the word borough originates). Huntingdon was both a strategic and commercial location, situated on the River Ouse which brought both trade and the ever present possibility of ruination and violence. The site of what we know as Castle Hill would quite likely have featured docks and the wooden stockade and moats traditionally used to fortify burhs.
In 1068 this all changed, William I “the Conqueror” returning from York stopped in Huntingdon and gave orders for the construction of a Motte and Bailey castle, which he gave to the Earl of Huntingdon whom his niece Judith had married. Twenty houses and parts of the town’s defences were demolished to build the castle.
The castle was a traditional motte and bailey design with a keep on a hill which was itself surrounded by a walled enclosure. This bailey would have been built with stables, brewery, bakery, storerooms and chapel and the whole site covered 2.5 acres. Despite the investment in time and materials the castle only stood for just over a century, and was besieged twice during a period known as the “Anarchy”.
The Turbulent Twelfth Century
In 1120 a ship floundered and sunk off the coast of France. This sinking of the “White Ship” would have terrible consequences for the fledgling Anglo-Norman kingdom, as aboard the ship was William, the only son of Henry I and grandson of William I. Following his death the kingdom was to be left to his sister Matilda, however when her father died the crown was given to Stephen de Bois, a nephew of Henry I, at which point the “Anarchy” ensued; a period of countrywide civil war.
For Huntingdon it was a particularly bad time — the lord of Huntingdon was David I King of Scotland (husband of Maud from our Historic Huntingdonshire Women blog), who in an effort to expand his control over Northern England supported Matilda. The Treaty of Wallingford, signed in 1144, recognised Stephen as king and David was forced to pay homage to keep control of Huntingdon. During the eleven year period from 1135 until the treaty in 1144 Huntingdon lost over half its taxable value, and worse was to come barely thirty years later…
It is 1174 and Henry II is at war with his own son, who is supported in his rebellion by William I of Scotland. Huntingdon castle declares itself for the rebels and for a long month over the summer finds itself under siege by the king’s army. On the 20th of July, Henry II himself, fresh from his public penance and whipping at Canterbury for the murder of Thomas à Becket, arrives at the castle which wisely surrenders.
Henry II is unimpressed by the lack of loyalty displayed by the area and orders the castle slighted (rendered indefensible), the walls are pulled down and parts of the site razed. During the 1980’s, when constructing Castle Moat Road, three foot of ash was discovered in the archaeological record where the wooden gatehouse was burnt.
Despite Henry’s fit of pique the castle site was not fully destroyed. The chapel still stood and was signed over to Huntingdon Priory in the charter of 1327, the gaol was repaired in 1379 and wardens of the castle were appointed until 16th century, when it seems to have finally fallen into disuse with all civic duties passing on to Cambridge Castle. The rest of the site was given over to agriculture; Henry of Huntingdon commented on a substantial vineyard growing here by the late 12th century.
During the 17th century, civil war once more reared its ugly head, and following the demolition of an arch in the bridge to render it more defensible, the castle site was levelled and made into a gun battery overlooking the river crossing to the east, the rectangular position can still be seen on the river edge of the bailey. The defences were negated when Huntingdon was actually attacked by Charles I in 1645 as he came from the west of the town.
After the civil war the artillery was removed, and the site sunk back into being agricultural land. A windmill was built on the motte site sometime in the late 18th century and was used until 1875, giving its name to the field behind, which is still known as “Mill Common”.
The Coming of the Railway
The mid 19th century was a period of massive railway development across the entire country. This was, however, in no way planned or orchestrated and so individual companies sprung up to link their town to the next with no regulation or oversight. The first railway to Godmanchester was built in 1847 by the Lynn & Ely Railway Company, who linked it onto their St. Ives line. The station was behind the mill on the river. Meanwhile, the first Huntingdon Station was built by the Great Northern Railway Company on the Peterborough to London line in 1850.
As the crow flies between the two stations (via Castle Hill and over the Ouse) is less than a quarter of a mile, yet for 33 years passengers heading east from Huntingdon had to complete their journey by getting a horse drawn coach from the Huntingdon Station to Godmanchester Station. It was only in 1883 the necessary quarter mile of track was laid through the castle site, and even then the line was notoriously unreliable, with trains often having to be pulled by horses, delays of days at a time due to flooding and frequently in the summer the wooden rail trestles catching alight from sparks chucked up by the train engine.
As train lines became increasingly uniform and regularised the obvious flaws in this line came to the fore; the number of weak bridges meant that only light locomotives could be used, and the nature of the landscape with gradients onto flood proof earth banks meant that speed was limited to 40mph — with some sections to only 10mph!
It can be no surprise that the line was closed in the late 1950s with the final train running on the 4th June 1962. At this time the route of the line through Castle Hill was already being earmarked for bigger and better things…
Huntingdon High Street had long had a reputation for being a bottleneck in the smooth running of traffic east to west. By 1959 (the year of the last passenger train on the Huntingdon-Godmanchester rail line) there were 11,443 vehicles surveyed passing along the High Street in a twelve hour period. As well as the delays to traffic, the vehicles posed a serious risk to the safety of pedestrians shopping on the high street or trying to cross the road!
After 77 accidents along the High Street in a year, January 1964 saw a petition started asking for a bypass. It had 6,000 names within the space of a few months and the plans were officially started to bypass Huntingdon town centre. The work started with constructing the ring road, and then the bridging road between the A1 and the St. Ives roundabout, however these had only limited success in reducing the number of vehicles passing through the town, so in June 1972 permission was given to build the bypass which would become the A14.
Original plans to tunnel beneath Port Holme Meadow were dropped after it proved too expensive and so instead plans were drawn up to bridge the Ouse where the railway had originally done so. The designs were subject to serious scrutiny and concerns over maintenance and the ability to expand the road in future were raised and ultimately ignored.
The bypass opened 30th September 1975, however within 13 years it needed repair work costing £4m. In 2016, work was begun on a new A14 bypass to allow the current viaduct to be removed; ironically the route taken is one considered in the 1970s but considered unfeasible!
The history of Castle Hill is the history of Huntingdonshire, the history of East Anglia and even the history of Britain. From Saxon and Viking river skirmishes, through the dynastic wars of England and Scotland, the brutal civil strife of the 12th and the 17th centuries, agricultural developments and those of transport links as part of the industrialisation of the 19th and 20th centuries, Huntingdon Castle has seen it all.
Anon, “Why Huntingdon Castle Was Torn Down”, The Hunts Post, 2011, via: https://www.huntspost.co.uk/lifestyle/why-huntingdon-s-castle-was-torn-down-1-964507
Anon, “Huntingdon Castle”, Castle, First Battles, 2016, via: http://www.castlesfortsbattles.co.uk/east/huntingdon_castle_cambridgeshire.html
Anon, “Huntingdon Castle (Castle Hills): a motte and bailey castle and Civil War fieldwork”, Historic England, 2019, via: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1011712
Akeroyd, A & Clifford, C. “Huntingdon: Eight Centuries of History”, Breedon Books Publishing, 2004, 1st Edition
Akeroyd, A & Clifford, C. “Huntingdonshire Through Time”, Amberely Publishing, 2010, 1st Edition
Catford, N. “Godmanchester”, Disused Stations, 2017, via: http://www.disused-stations.org.uk/g/godmanchester/
Hufford, D “History of Castle Hill’, CCAN, 2007, via: http://huntingdon.ccan.co.uk/content/catalogue_item/history-of-castle-hill-source-david-hufford
Hufford, D et al “Huntingdon Town Trail”, BID Huntingdon, 2011
History Hit, “How a Shipwreck Plunged England Into Anarchy”, History Hit, 2018, via: https://www.historyhit.com/1120-white-ship-sinks-english-channel/
Page, W, Proby, G & Ladds, I. ’The borough of Huntingdon: Introduction, castle and borough‘, in A History of the County of Huntingdon: Volume 2, Victoria County History, London, 1932
Matthew Callen is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.