The exact date of the foundation of Guildford Castle is uncertain, but it is probably of Norman origin and may well have been built soon after 1066.
It was common practice for the Norman conquerors to build castles in Saxon towns as a means of subduing the local population and these durable, stone constructions remained as a visible reminder of the occupation for later generations, enhancing the Normans’ hold on the popular imagination in later periods.
As the Normans became accepted as rightful kings of England by successive generations, the castle lost part of its role in subduing the local population, but during the 12th and 13th centuries, it gained importance as a royal residence. The reign of Henry III (1216-1272) was a period of considerable building work on the castle, but much of this work was destroyed in a fire which occurred at some point between 1250 and 1253. Rebuilding, however, did take place and the king visited the castle in 1256. During his stay, Henry gave instructions regarding the building of the royal chapel, the queen’s chapel and a number of other chambers. Orders were also given for the redecoration of the hall, which was to be equipped with a new stone porch and a seat for the king decorated with ‘a certain image with beasts’. The wall opposite the king’s seat was to be decorated with a painting of ‘Dives and Lazarus’. This Gospel story, from Luke 16: 19-31, is a parable told by Jesus emphasizing the importance of the rich showing charity to the poor, a moral undoubtedly considered particularly fitting for a Christian king.
The castle’s use as a royal residence declined after the death of Henry III, with many of the palace buildings being almost entirely demolished after 1379. A number of late medieval kings did visit Guildford, however – Edward I, Edward II, Edward III, Edward IV and Richard III – although it is unclear whether they stayed in the castle or the manor house in the park. In 1611, the castle was granted to Francis Carter and remained in his family until 1813, when it was sold to the Duke of Norfolk. The Duke’s successor then sold it to Lord Grantley in c.1843 and his successor sold it to the Corporation in 1886. The castle was then laid out as public gardens. In 2003, the stone tower keep was the subject of intensive conservation work and can now be visited for a small fee. Guildford Museum is situated in the Castle Arch.
M E Alexander, With Ramparts Crown’d: the Early History of Guildford Castle (Guildford, 2006)
R Poulton & G. Pattison, The Royal Palace and Castle at Guildford: its Story as Revealed by Archaeological Investigation, Surrey Archaeological Society (1998)
‘The borough of Guildford: Introduction and castle’, Victoria County History: Surrey (4 volumes, 1902-12), III, pp. 547-560