Anybody walking around the castle ramparts, now cared for by English Heritage on behalf of the Duchy of Cornwall, will be aware that this must have been the scene of important events.
Berkhamsted played a crucial part in England's history late in 1066 when, following the Battle of Hastings, the Norman Duke William sought to complete his conquest. The death of King Harold had not been sufficient for him to claim the throne and he set about a campaign of attrition in the countryside to the south of the river Thames.
The Saxon rulers were unable to stop his advance and finally capitulated, parleying with him at Berkhamsted.
Berkhamsted had been an important place in Saxon times, being an ancient Burgh, although it is not thought that a castle existed until William the Conqueror's reign. Soon after his coronation in Westminster Abbey in December 1066, he gave out lands to his supporters. His half-brother Robert, the Count of Mortaigne, was given Berkhamsted and much of the land for many miles around. It is believed that Robert quickly had the castle built in traditional Norman style. A high conical earth tower topped by a wooden palisade formed the main defence. Surrounded by a deep ditch, this must have been impregnable to the armies of the day.
As military techniques improved more permanent structures became essential. Situated close to water, an elaborate triple moat system formed an outer barrier surrounding the curtain walls. The lack of local stone meant that the materials had to be mainly flint but the plentiful chalk would have provided a useful source for burning lime to cement them. Their strength is shown by the extensive amount of walls still standing despite the attempts of Tudor landowners using the castle remains as a quarry.
From 1155-65 the castle was held by Thomas Becket who spent a considerable fortune on re-building it. The only record of its use in warfare is in December 1216 when the castle's defenders surrendered after a three-day siege by Prince Louis of France.
Richard Earl of Cornwall, was one of the prominent owners; as was his son, Edmund, who founded the monastery at Ashridge.
Geoffrey Chaucer is best known as the author of the Canterbury Tales but in his position as Clerk of Works to the Royal Castles, Berkhamsted came under his care. That said, there is no record of his actually having visited. In 1469 Edward IV gave the castle to his mother, Cicely, Duchess of York. She lived there until her death in 1495 after which the castle closed and gradually fell into disrepair.
The walls formed an excellent source of building material. Berkhamsted Place, an impressive Tudor mansion was largely built from the material of the castle by Sir Edward Carey who leased the castle from Elizabeth I. This later became the home of John Sayer, chief cook to James II.