Carisbrooke Castle

Novelist, Vanessa Hannam, who has a house on the Isle of Wight, takes a tour of Carisbrooke Castle , which provided the inspiration for her latest novel.


To understand the dramatic role the Isle of Wight has played in English history it is essential to visit Carisbrooke castle. As you walk up the steep incline to the moated and gated entrance, you will find yourself in a place with a strong sense of living history.


Although most of the original building fell into ruin in the eighteenth century, much of the original medieval construction is still visible. In 1066 Willim Fitzosbern,  a relative of William the Conqueror cast his eye over the Isle of Wight, realizing the strategic importance of the Island with its proximity to mainland Britain and its lush green beauty and productive land.   Having been appointed Lord of the Island (a title he held from 1066 to 1071), with considerable foresight he looked for the perfect site upon which to build an impregnable fortress.  Imagine his delight when he found Carisbrooke. Climbing the hill, he would have looked north, south, east and west and seen the Island set out in all its beauty.   Beneath him was Newport , the very centre of the Island, a flourishing port on the Medina River providing a convenient access for trade, provisions and men. With typical Norman efficiency he constructed an indestructible edifice, with stone walls and a keep.


I n 1100 Richard de Redvers became lord of the island, and his family connections endured until 1293. Water was always a problem in the castle and the rain water collected in the keep ran out in 1136.   Whilst the occupants were thus impeded,   the castle fell to King Stephen, under whose aegis a well was dug which took two years to complete. Stephen’s claim endured well into the reign of Henry 11.

carisbrooke_image007 Thirty years later The Pipe Rolls record visits by Henry’s beautiful and discerning wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, left, formerly married to King Louis VII of France . She considered the castle one of her favourite residences and spent time there with her children and a prolonged period after the birth of her last child.

Records indicate that the castle eventually reverted to the De Redvers family One hundred years later when the Black death was beginning it’s remorseless cull of a third of the population of Europe,  Countess Isabella de Fortibus, below, inherited the Lordship of the Island from her brother Richard de Redvers and in 1262 decided to make the castle her home.


Many legends tell of the grandeur with which she lived at Carisbrooke where she held court in great luxury, even installing glazed windows, a rarity at the time. But Isabella had no heir and in 1293 Edward 1, having fallen in love with the place on a visit, rushed to her deathbed and convinced her to sell it to him for the ridiculous sum of six thousand ducets ( about four thousand pounds in today’s money) thus the castle became a royal residence.

About this time the importance of the castle became clear with rumours of a French invasion and from then on the castle was regularly attacked. In 1377 a near victory for the French was narrowly avoided when the French Commander was killed by the skilled use of an English crossbow by the legendary  Peter de Heynoe . T he comparatively peaceful lives of the Islanders were put on alert which continued unabated until the battle of Waterloo .

image004In 1583 Captain of the Island , George Carey, right, was so alarmed that he began a new fortification and artillery.  Because of the threat of the Spanish Armada he installed a wheel in the form of a treadmill to bring up the water, it was worked by prisoners or slaves. Much later in 1694 there is the first mention of the donkeys    although they had probably been used for some years . These much loved creatures still do short demonstrations to the delight of the public.



image006More than five hundred years later the castle was again to play a pivotal role in the life of the Monarchy. On a wet windy November night in 1647 Charles 1 escaped from Hampton Court where he was a prisoner of Parliament and sought refuge at Carisbrooke, mistakenly thinking the Islanders would protect him. “Oh gentlemen you have undone me, by bringing the King to the Island ” said the Governor of the castle the valiant 26 year old Colonel Hammond,(shown left with the King).


His words proved   prophetic: his sympathy for the King led to his removal from Carisbrooke following which he was sent by Cromwell to the political grave yard of Ireland .


At nearby Nunwell Park the Royalist Sir John Oglander, (right) head of one of the Island ’s oldest families, summed up the situation in his diary “I verily believe the King could not have come to a worse place for himself and where he could be more securely kept.”



It was from the castle that the King’s, (above, in a drawing believed to have been done during his imprisonment there ) last attempts to negotiate his survival ended in his execution at Whitehall in January 1649.

In July 1650 the most poignant events took place at Carisbrooke. Following their father’s death two of the King’s youngest children, 15 year old Princess Elizabeth and eight year old Henry Duke of Gloucester were cruelly imprisoned at the Castle. The clever and sensitive little Princess, already in delicate health, announced that if she were to be sent to that “cruel place” where they had visited their beloved father in the final stages of his own imprisonment, she would die and indeed, within two weeks, she did.    Her body was hurriedly and ignominiously removal to an unmarked grave behind the chancel of the old St Thomas Church in Newport .   Her final resting place is now marked with a brass plaque by the altar steps. In 1854 when the church was rebuilt, Queen Victoria presented a sculpture by her favourite artist Marochetti to mark the place.


Princess Elizabeth’s brother remained a prisoner for another two years until Parliament finally released him to his mother, Henrietta Maria, in France .

The story of these two tragic children was to be the inspiration for my most recent novel The Hostage Prince. One freezing January afternoon, having visited the castle and the room where the little Princess died, I happened upon a candle-lit service in the chapel.   It was sung in Gregorian chant and attended by Royalists from all over the world, to commemorate the murder of Charles 1st on January 28 th 1649 . As we listened to the evocative words and music I began to consider the possibility of a girl, a servant   who must have been with the children throughout their ordeal.   Research did not reveal such a girl, only an older woman, not the stuff of heroines on which to base a historical novel. So I invented her, I called her Lizzie Jones. Two months into the story, in an obscure piece of research, imagine my joy when I found reference to an Elizabeth Jones who remained with the children throughout their time at Carisbrooke. For me this was the start of an exciting journey in which I found both villains and heroines. As a writer I had won the lottery.

image014 The Hostage Prince by Vanessa Hannam is Published by Severn House available to order through any book shop.