Today, Christchurch Castle consists of two ruined buildings, the keep on the motte and the Constable’s House on the bank of the mill stream. The latter is one of the gems of Christchurch and it should be on the itinerary of everyone with an interest in the Norman period as it is a superb example of Norman domestic architecture.
Richard de Redvers, who died in 1107, was given the manor and borough of Christchurch by Henry I in or soon after 1100, and it is usually written that he built the first castle which was a motte and bailey castle, but there is no proof of this so it could have been built at an earlier date. The first castle would probably have had wooden buildings and a timber palisade, for there is no evidence of any datable masonry earlier than c.1160 and the earliest documentary evidence indicates that there was definitely a castle here in the 1130s. The castle was built inside the old Saxon burh overlooking the lowest crossing point of the River Avon.
Circa 1160, a stone-built house, usually known as the Constable’s House, was built in the bailey on the bank of the mill stream. The ground floor, lit by four slit windows, was used as a storeroom. On the upper floor, reached by an external flight of steps and an internal winding staircase, were the hall and solar. The hall was lit by five recessed two-light windows; those in the north and east walls retain their external ornamental carving, while the taller north window also has decorative carving on the inside as it was above the high table.
Between the two windows in the east wall can be seen the site of the fireplace, whilst above it is a beautiful cylindrical chimney, one of only five Norman chimneys surviving in England and one of the three oldest in the country. In fact, it is the only one of these three that still has its house attached to it! Documentary evidence from another Hampshire site led me to suggest in 1990s that originally the building could have been roofed with Devon slate.
During the first half of the 13th century the sanitary arrangements were improved by the construction of a garderobe tower over the mill stream, the lower part of which can still be seen. Later on, a watergate was cut through the east wall, giving direct access to the stream, where there was probably a wooden wharf. Documentary evidence indicates that this must have been in existence by about 1260.
The dating of the remains of the rectangular keep with its truncated corners is difficult. These chamfered corners led me to suggest that it could belong to the last third of the 12th century when experiments were being carried out to eliminate right-angled corners. If this is correct, it would probably be post 1179 as the period 1162-1179 was a period of minority in the Redvers family. A close examination of the remains indicates that the lower arch in the east wall was the probable entrance.
Evidence exists to show that the motte was heightened after the completion of the keep, possibly to provide artillery platforms on the north and south sides of the keep with circumstantial and documentary evidence indicating that the spring of 1645 was the most likely date.
The castle was the scene of military activity in 1147 during the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda, and again during the 17th century civil war when it was initially a Royalist castle. Because of this it was slighted in about 1652.
The castle at Christchurch was built following the Norman Conquest, initially as a timber and soil motte and bailey with a water filled ditch leading from and to the Saxon Mill Stream. A castle was built at Christchurch probably for several reasons.
The Saxons had made the town a defended settlement with a ditch and a wall topped by a palisaded fighting platform about 880, to keep Viking pirates out. Around 1010 this wall was repaired with an iron stone oyster shell mortared face against the threat from Canute who later became King.
Other local Saxon Burghs – walled settlements – were at Wilton, Southhampton and Wareham. The Normans also built castles at Southampton and Wareham, like Christchurch, inside the town. At Old Sarum they built a castle inside an iron age fort. Hence the Normans were attracted to existing settlement sites in these places. Probably in order to overawe the local population.
The Norman castle was to defend the feudal family and retainers of the Lord of the Manor, rather than to defend the local inhabitants. The castle at Christchurch was also capable of being the military base from which to enforce the New Forest laws, circa 1074. Henry the First gave the castle to his cousin Richard de Redvers in 1100. It was the de Redvers family who became Earls of Devon and built the luxurious Constables Hall circa 1150.
The castle at Christchurch controlled the Harbour and the river access inland via the rivers Avon and Stour. In particular the castle protected Sarum and later Salisbury from attack up the Avon. Possibly the strong and costly stone keep was built for this reason, circa 1300.
The Earls of Salisbury took over the Manor when the line of the Earls of Devon died out in 1293. The massive walled Keep may have kept Christchurch safe from attack in the Hundred Years War. This war saw other places like; Southampton, Lymington, Poole and Wareham burnt at different times.
The castle had lost importance by Tudor times when Henry the Eighth built a wood and earth blockhouse by 1539 and a stone artillery fort at Hurst by 1544. Both places were manned by the men of Christchurch Hundred.
However the Civil War saw Christchurch Castle still in military use. It withstood a close siege in January 1645. After the war it was slighted and walls pulled down to avoid its reoccupation by Royalist supporters. Hence the castle had military potential for some 600 years and the site has survived for over 900 years.