Owing to the defeat of Bedford Castle – ruined as early as 1224 – there are no castles in Bedfordshire with any masonry remnants, if we leave out the late medieval brick ruin of Someries. Nevertheless, the county does maintain some excellent motte and bailey castles, such as Cainhoe and Yelden.
Bedford was one of the burghs carrying weapons against the Danes by King Edward the Elder, Alfred the Great’s son. It is probable that this county town was saddled with a castle in next to no time subsequent to the Norman Conquest, but there is no actual evidence of one until around 1130, when Payn de Beauchamp held it. In 1138, when besieged by King Stephen, its strong keep and curtain are mentioned, the implication being that they were already of stone.
For the duration of the Magna Carta war the castle was seized by Fawkes de Breaute and became the base for that notorious baron’s misdeeds against his neighbors. In 1224 he overreached himself by abducting one of the King’s justiciars and holding him prisoner here. The young Henry III responded by laying siege to the castle in person, bringing with him a tall siege tower, powerful catapults and a contingent of miners to tunnel beneath the curtain.
Every obstacle was one after another battered down or undermined, and when the keep fell the garrison had to admit defeat. A number of them were hanged but De Breaute himself obtained a pardon. The King ordered the total destruction of the castle, as a result of which the walls were demolished and ditches filled in. Only the oval motte remains, near the bridge across the River Ouse, and even this has been truncated. The site, however, is freely accessible to the public and is a good stop on your castle tour.
Ranulf de Blundeville, the most powerful of the palatine earls of Chester, began Beeston Castle in 1225. Prompted by the King’s growing growing mistrust, he built several strong castles to protect his territories. It is possible that Beeston was intended as an impressive new seat of administration away from the mercantile bustle of Chester. As an experienced soldier and crusader Ranulf clearly appreciated castles built in the new idiom – with round flanking towers and no keep – and the great rock of Beeston provided a wonderful situation for one.
An Iron Age fort occupied this site, two miles south of Tarporley, but Beeston is a product of the time when castle building was approaching its zenith. It occupies a huge sandstone hill rising dramatically out of the Cheshire plain. The castle does not have a keep as such but its compact inner bailey occupies the highest corner of the rock, so the Norman motte and bailey concept had not been entirely forsaken.
The outer bailey follows the contours of the hill and is large enough to gave accommodated a vast retinue. A nineteenth century gatehouse forms the entrance to the site, and some ascent is necessary before the real outer gatehouse is reached. More than half of the outer curtain has disappeared but the long section on the east side of the hill has seven towers, spaced closely together to provide effective flanking fire. These towers are the semi-circular, open-backed variety often found on town walls of this period.
A long ascent through the outer bailey takes us to the summit. A rock-cut ditch of exceptional width and depth, now spanned by a modern bridge, cuts off the inner bailey. A squat gatehouse, perhaps the earliest in England to be equipped with round-fronted flanking towers, guards the entrance. The site commands magnificent views.