Worcester Castle and the Curse of Urse D’Abitot

d'Abitot coat of arms

Arms of d’Abitot from a cathedral manuscript. Reproduced by permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)

When William the Conqueror emerged victorious from the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the hard work had only just begun; a battle victory does not ensure a successful conquest. He had won the crown of England, but in order to retain it he would have to keep his realm secure from uprisings and invasions. Shortly after the Norman Conquest, William ordered a series of castles to be built in English cities across the country. One such castle was built at Worcester in 1068 and 1069, where it sat in a good defensive position on the eastern bank of the River Severn.

Castle side view from plan

A side view of Worcester Castle motte. Reproduced by kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)

It was a motte-and-bailey castle typical of those being built in the same period. A motte (earthen mound) abutted the bank of the river with a timber keep on its brow. To the east of the motte lay the inner bailey, a fortified enclosure protected to the east and the south by the castle ditch; today the site is occupied by the King’s School. To the north of the motte and the inner bailey was the outer bailey, which today we would recognise at the site of the College Green.

Castle Mound

The Worcester Castle motte in the early nineteenth century. Reproduced by kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)

William ordered the castle to be built by Urse D’Abitot, a Norman man who had come to England shortly after the Conquest. Although his family does not seem to have been prominent in Normandy, Urse soon gained a reputation in Worcestershire for his acquisitive nature – a trait some would deem as ‘greed’. He was made Sheriff of Worcestershire and constable of the new castle. This was a powerful office as the sheriff was responsible for collecting taxes and presiding over the shire court, as well as having the ability to raise an army on behalf of the king.

However, the construction of Worcester Castle was somewhat controversial. The outer bailey cut across the grounds of Worcester Priory – and, to make matters worse, across the monk’s cemetery. William of Malmesbury notes in his twelfth century chronicle that Archbishop Aeldred of York, who had previously been Bishop of Worcester, uttered this curse in response to Urse’s disregard for the Cathedral:

Thou are called Urse. May you have God’s curse.

Aeldred’s were not the only feathers ruffled by Urse’s acquisitions in the late eleventh century. Writing a century later, Giraldus Cambrensis says that Urse was cursed by Bishop Wulfstan after Urse attempted to have him overthrown as bishop.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Saint Wulfstan. Reproduced by permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)

It does not seem as if the curses found their mark. Urse died in 1108 and was succeeded as Sheriff of Worcestershire by his son, Roger d’Abitot; his ancestors, the Beauchamp family, held the office, and consequently the control of the castle, for around 200 years. However, 1217 did finally see some redress for the Priory. The Worcester Cartulary, a collection of charters and writs kept by the Priory, notes that in Easter 1217 the bailey of the castle – on the site of the old cemetery – was restored to Bishop Silvester, while the moat of the castle was retained for the king’s use. This greatly reduced the military threat of Worcester Castle and loosened the control of the Beauchamp family on the city.

Demolition of Castle

Demolition of Worcester Castle Motte in 1826 recorded in a drawing from the Cathedral collection. Reproduced by permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester cathedral (U.K.)

From around this time onwards, Worcester Castle was used as the county gaol. In the sixteenth century the walls of the outer bailey were quarried for stone and the motte was used to keep animals. When a new county prison was built on the north side of Worcester in 1814, the castle was given back to the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral. The motte was gradually levelled and the gaol demolished – all that is left now of the castle is the stone gatehouse that provides entry onto College Green, known as the Edgar Tower.

 

Rosie Pugh

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