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Taunton Castle Estate

TAUNTON lies at the heart of a fertile valley between the Blackdown, Brendon and Quantock hills, cultivated since Roman times if not even earlier. As a town, however, Taunton is Saxon in origin, created to serve the great manor of Taunton Deane which by the tenth century had become the prized possession of the bishops of Winchester. Taunton had a fortification from the early eighth century when Ine, King of the West Saxons, in his push westwards created what was probably a temporary frontier staging post in this area. Its site is not known and it lasted only until 722 when Ine's queen, Ethelburgh, destroyed it, possibly to prevent its use by rebels.

Recent research and excavation have identified an extensive Saxon cemetery beneath the site of the present Castle and Castle Green. This suggests that the Castle area was originally created to provide a precinct for the Saxon minster church, traditionally founded by Frithogyth, wife of Aethelheard, King of the West Saxons 726-40. In this church was later installed a college of secular priests which ministered to the spiritual needs of the inhabitants of Taunton until the early twelfth century. Between 1120 and 1125 William Giffard, Bishop of Winchester 1100-29, converted this college into an Augustinian priory of regular canons and appointed Guy of Merton as its first prior.

Near the minster the bishops may well have had a hall to act as the focus of their great manor and where their courts were held—in essence their manor-house where they and their retainers might stay on periodic visits to their estates. It was civil war which changed all this: the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda. The Bishop of Winchester at that time was Henry of Blois, the king's half-brother, who, disappointed at not being made archbishop of Canterbury, allied himself with the Empress. In 1138 he embarked on an elaborate programme of castle-building on his scattered estates and this resulted in the erection of six castles of which Taunton was one. The first Taunton building was almost certainly the tower of the great keep which must have dominated the town much as the multi-storey car park does today. It stood, though not for long, on what is now the garden of the Castle Hotel. On King Stephen's death and the accession of Henry II, Bishop Henry fled to France and during the following year, 1155, his six castles, including Taunton, were all demolished by the new king. On his return from exile the bishop presumably undertook some form of reconstruction at Taunton but its nature and sequence are not documented. In its later form the keep comprised a rectangular block with five turrets, hall with fireplace and soldiers' chamber.

From 'Taunton Castle: a Pictorial History' by Robin Bush, published by Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society 1988

 

 

   
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