I didn’t really realise that our county town of Taunton, a favourite place to visit, had a castle that was of such historical importance… well, I knew there was a castle but that was about it. I’d seen the Castle Hotel, very grand and with a great restaurant, apparently, and I knew that the county museum was housed in old buildings which had been the castle, but I didn’t think much beyond that.
Yesterday we went on a post-Christmas visit to the town, for my daughter to go shopping and for us to go for a walk. We walked along the river which was in full flow travelling very quickly because of the flooding, and red from the soil which had washed into it by the rain. It was a lovely bright late December day, and the willow stems were a brilliant yellow in the sunlight.
Although we’d walked along here before, it had been in summer when the trees were full of leaf and we had never noticed the castle over what seemed to be a mill-race heading down to a weir. In the sunshine, easily visible through the leafless trees was he walls of the old castle.
Apparently there has been a castle in the area, though not necessarily on this site since about 710, that’s 1,300 year ago! It was King Ine and his wife Queen Æthelburg of Wessex who built the castle – but it would not have been a stone edifice as we imagine a castle to be now. It was destroyed several years later and then it seems that a minster was built by Queen Frithugyth, wife of King Æthelheard – he may have been Ine’s brother-in-law, but it was all a long time ago and records are not as clear as would be helpful to us in the twenty-first century!
The first fortification as we would recognize it was commissioned by William Gifford who was Chancellor to the king, Henry I, four hundred years later. It really became a castle as we would understand it during the first civil war, between King Stephen and his cousin the Empress Matilda; it was similarly used during the second Civil War five hundred years later where it was held by the Parliamentarians.
It’s last moment of historical fame, or infamy more likely was when the Great Hall was used for the Bloody Assizes following the Monmouth Rebellion, so-called for obvious reasons, held by Judge Jeffries. Bloody Judge Jeffries sentenced more than five hundred people were brought to trial and nearly one hundred and fifty sentenced to death – by burning, beheading or hanging and quartering. Bloody times indeed.