Sherborne Old Castle
once the home of Sir Walter Raleigh
The United Kingdom once had thousands of castles across its lands. Today, many remain, some fully complete and others in ruins. Where am I visiting today? It’s a beautiful June day, and the sun is shining on Sherborne Old Castle. As in my previous castle story, Old Wardour Castle, often old castles were replaced after being destroyed or abandoned over time.
Sherborne Old Castle - the beginning
Originally, Sherborne Old Castle was a fortified 12th. Century bishop’s palace. It was built by Roger de Caen, Bishop of Salisbury. He was one of the most powerful men of the era. He served as Chancellor to Henry 1. He was so well regarded and trusted that when Henry was abroad in Normandy, Roger was the Governor of England. Not bad for a man with humble beginnings and discovered by Henry before becoming King. Roger was the priest of a small chapel near Caen in Normandy. Henry, who heard mass one day at this chapel, apparently was so impressed with the speed Roger delivered it that he enrolled him in his service.
When King Stephen seized power following the death of King Henry, Bishop Roger was well-treated and financially rewarded. Later, Stephen needed money and captured the elderly bishop in June 1139, seizing his land and property, including Sherborne Castle. Bishop Roger failed to win an appeal to a church council and returned home to Old Sarum, a broken old man.
The story of Bishop Roger is fascinating in itself, but I need to move on. As we tour the castle, managed by English Heritage, we can read the information boards. I love a good information board!
Having checked in with the office and shown my pre-booked ticket, I cross over the wooden bridge spanning the moat. The moat is now permanently dry, and later I will walk along part of it and under this bridge. Ahead of me is the impressive gateway. Although the castle is in ruins, the remains of this gateway and walls going off to the left and right do indicate the high status this building once had.
Old Sherborne Castle and Sir Walter Raleigh
In 1592 the name of a very well-known character in English history became attached to Sherborne Castle, Sir Walter Raleigh. For the record, most references today will use the spelling Raleigh. English Heritage prefers to use Ralegh as that is a known spelling by Sir Walter in his own hand. It is also spelt as Rawley and a few other variants. His name is more often pronounced as it sounds in the spelling of Rawley.
Upon passing through the gateway and seeing the areas where the gatekeepers would have been on duty, I entered a large open area. In the centre are the remains of the Great Tower, two chapels and the Great Hall. There is a well that is still visible and securely grated to avoid the danger of anyone falling in. Presumably, it’s a very long drop to the bottom.
Sir Walter wanted to improve this castle, and to some extent, he did. However, he found the process very expensive and spent more time at the hunting lodge across the valley. In 1594 he built on the site of the lodge, and today it is now called Sherborne Castle and Gardens. In 1600 he added four hexagonal turrets, one to each corner of his house, topped with heraldic beasts. The house was rendered rather than left as natural stone. Although called a castle, it is a grand house and not fortified.
Sir Walter’s good fortune ended after his failed trip to find Eldorado. In 1603, the castle and all his property were returned to the crown because Sir Walter attacked the Spanish against the monarch's will. In 1617 it was sold to Sir John Digby. The descendants of Sir John still own and live at the new Sherborne Castle.
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I digress. There will follow an article about the New Sherborne Castle. Meanwhile, back to my tour. The steps leading down to the moat are steep, and at the bottom, there once would have been a jetty. The green fields and farmland ahead were once a lake, and goods used to arrive by water at the foot of these steps. It was undoubtedly a labour-intensive process to get the goods up these steps. After doing this work, I am sure there were many aching backs and bad knees.
The walk along the moat starts at this point and takes me part-way around the castle. I pass under the bridge and notice that there is scaffolding. A notice says the bridge needs repair and will be carried out when the castle closes for the winter. The bridge is a modern addition, but ancient pillars are visible where a drawbridge would have been in place when the castle was built. The moat's walls are now home to many species of plants, and some lovely wildflowers dance in the gentle breeze. There is a flower called Lady Betty’s Pinks. There were none in flower (hence no photos) when I visited; they flower in mid-summer and are named after Queen Elizabeth l.
Why is the castle in ruins? It’s that old issue of the English Civil War. The Parliamentarians under Oliver Cromwell and Sir Thomas Fairfax set out to capture it in 1645. A previous siege had failed to break the Royalist stronghold. This time they succeeded when the castle surrendered in August 1645. It was never to be rebuilt.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Sherborne Old Castle, and now it’s time to head off for the nearby new Sherborne Castle and Gardens. Before I do, it would be rude, on such a warm day, not to buy ice cream from the English Heritage shop. They sell the delicious, award-winning Purbeck Ice Cream. The salted caramel tub of ice cream went down a treat!
I hope you enjoy the photos. If you click on any, they will enlarge in your web browser. Thank you for reading, and you are very welcome to leave a comment.
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