The Legend of Caversham Castle

I love discovering a new local legend that takes me down a new historical rabbit hole.

I was working in Caversham and happened to mention to my colleague about Anne Beauchamp apparently having been born in Caversham Castle. As she was a resident of the area, I looked up, hopeful for some fact or at least recognition of the magnificent castle that once stood here. But there was nothing but a shrug. 'I didn't even know Caversham ever had a castle', she said. 

So I did some searching and lots of reading, and while there's no doubt that somewhere once called Caversham Castle did exist, what it looked like and where it once stood is less certain. 

It's believed that the castle once stood on the site of today's Caversham Park (not Caversham Court Gardens). The earliest reference to it is from William Marshal, the knight who lived here and even governed England from here as regent, in the early thirteenth century. It's said that he died here, in his seventies, on 14 May, 1219. 

Edward I, in 1275, was recorded in the Calendar of Close Rolls as being at Caversham in early February of that year. It makes sense that he would have stayed at this building, as it had previously served, as centre of state business and was large enough for his retinue.

There's another mention of the castle in John Rous' work The Rous Roll, created in the late fifteenth-century. It is an illustrated history of the Earls of Warwick, and ends with the family's claim to royalty: Anne Beauchamp's daughter Anne Neville crowned and enrobed, standing next to her her husband, Richard III. Rous, who knew the Warwicks and was known to them, states that Anne Beauchamp was born at Caversham Castle in 1426. David Nash Ford confirms that the house that once had affairs of early Medieval government held in its walls was later owned by the Earls of Warwick. He goes further to state that Richard Neville (The Kingmaker) was said, by local legend, to have proposed to Anne on Caversham Bridge. All good. So there's evidence that Caversham Castle was in use in the 1200s, and was still in use as a home in the fifteenth century. 

At some point, according to Gatehouse, the house was remodelled in the sixteenth century, having been bought by Sir Francis Knollys, although the work was done by his son. It is unclear how much of the original building survived, but it may have been that at least three hundred years after it was built, it was in a state of needing repairs and modernising.

Moving on to Charles I and the Civil War era, Caversham Castle is supposed to have been the place the king was confined by Parliamentarian soldiers. Phil Pilley, in The Story of Bowls - From Drake to Bryant, states that Charles even played bowls on the green near the River Thames while here. 

This is where the history of the castle gets a bit shady. A journal from 1926 (The Education Outlook) states that Caversham Castle, 'or Caversham Manor as it was formerly called, was a handsome structure situated on the Oxfordshire Hills overlooking the Thames. It occupied the site of an ancient mansion, which was burnt down in the reign of George I. It was restored and burnt down again in 1850'. It goes on to say that this was the site of The Oratory School at Caversham Park, and that the chapel next to the main building was apparently saved. 

So we have an early Medieval building, dating to around the late twelfth, early thirteenth century that was lived in by subsequent families but was burnt down somewhere between 1714-1727. With no trace of the building surviving today, what might it have looked like? 

Overwhelmingly, it seems that the ancestral home of William Marshal wasn't a castle in the style of Ludlow or Warwick. It is most likely that it was, as mentioned by the Education Outlook, a manor house that was fortified. We can then imagine Caversham Castle might have looked similar to Stokesay Castle, with its stone foundations and timber upper floors and roof. It was a substantial home, recorded in 1494 as having a moat, and Gatehouse suggests that it was also more of a manor house, but may have been altered by William Marshal with military features. It also states that its location may have been closer to St Peter's Church, but this is only based on the idea that manor houses enjoyed close relationships with the local church. There was in fact already a large house alongside St Peter's Church, in Caversham Court Gardens, and its layout can be seen today.

Stokesay Castle, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

I could find no surviving drawings or plans of the old Caversham Castle (or Manor House), which is unusual in itself, seeing as it stood for centuries, however there is clearly contextual evidence that the home once stood.

Rous certainly called the property a 'castle', but it is highly likely that it was a grand manor house. There is no archaeological evidence too, for the building at all, in the area of Caversham Park and Dean's Farm. This could mean that the house was largely of wooden construction and nothing remains underground. Any stone from it may have been used to build the subsequent houses on the site in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, therefore removing Medieval evidence that could be analysed today. It would certainly be intriguing if further archaeology could ascertain not only the location but the remains of the home of William Marshal, The Greatest Knight and part of Caversham's historic legacy. 

Liked this? You might also like The Women of Reading Abbey, Medieval Trial by Combat at Fry's Island, Reading and The Lost Medieval Chapel on Caversham Bridge

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Phil Pilley, The Story of Bowls - From Drake to Bryant, Stanley Paul, London, 1987, p74

Berkshire History, David Nash Ford: (accessed 11 October 2023)

The Education Outlook, 1926,

Gatehouse, Caversham Castle: