old knepp castle

Written and researched by Dr Annabelle Hughes

sketch of what the Knepp ruin might have looked like 

It stands on a mound like a broken tooth, occasionally surrounded by water. Most people who use the A24 Worthing to Horsham road will know the ruin at Knepp, although few will know it really was a castle, and fewer still of its dose association with one of England's notorious monarchs - King John.

Although there is no positive evidence for its existence before the early 1200s, it was almost certainly built before then by the lord of the Rape of Bramber, William de Braose or his son' Philip, as one of three fortified sites lying north of Bramber. All of these sites were important centres for hunting, and there is a reference in about 1154 to William de Braose enlarging his park at Knepp . In 1181 there is a reference among the Templar records to the ‘old park beyond the stream which bounds Shipley towards the north’. To the south it met Stock Park (at Dial Post) and Hookland, also described as a park.

William de Braose was at King Richard's death bed in 1199, and at first was one of John's trusted barons In 1206 William offered hospitality at Knepp1 while the king was preparing an expedition to France. Just two years later, he fell foul of John's notoriously suspicious nature and infamous cruel streak3. His wife and heir were starved to death in prison and he was hounded to death in exile in France.

The king's disagreements with the Pope also came to a head in 1208, when the whole realm was placed under an interdict, and John was personally excommunicated in the following year. 'From January 1209 until John's death at the end of 1216, Knepp was forfeit to the Crown, and there are at least eighteen royal letters concerning the castle, its hunting park and woodland.

The king stayed at Knepp three times between 1209 and 1211, while he was raising money for yet another unsuccessful attempt to regain his lands in Normandy. Nine royal carpenters were sent to carry out repairs in 1210, and a chimney was constructed. He stayed again in early 1215, when his queen, Isabella of Angoulême, stayed on for nearly a fortnight.

Roland Bloe6 was John's agent for Bramber, which included Knepp, and most of the correspondence was addressed to him. During 121 2-1215, Bloet had to receive and organise a dozen chief huntsmen on various occasions with their mounts, hounds and assistants, and deal with the carcasses from the hunts7. He was also responsible for repairs to the buildings, stew ponds and park fencing. In 1214 and 1216, instructions and carpenters were sent to select timber and construct siege towers for campaigns at Dover, and in 1215 Hugh de Neville, the king's Chief Forester, was put up during his journey from Marlborough to Winchester, to replenish the treasury with 10(K) marks.

In April 1215, the barons began their rebellion and towards the end of the year, as John was trying desperately to gain support, he ordered the return of confiscated property, including Knepp, to the de Braose heir, Giles, Bishop of Hereford. Unfortunately the bishop died before this was done, and the constable at Knepp, Godfrey de Craucumb, was directed to restore the castle to the King's agent Months later, as John faced both his own rebels and an imminent French invasion force, Bloet was ordered to burn the buildings and destroy the castle. In the light of were they repairing the castle walls, or 'winning' some stone for other purposes?12 There was still sufficient material left in 1762 to be worth taking for the new turnpike road from Horsham to Steyning.

Over the centuries residents in the parish must have been aware of the aristocratic comings and goings at the castle, but probably were more directly affected by the hunting and felling activities around it. They must have been involved in providing food, drink and other services to the household, and the names of the huntsmen in chief-Wido, Wyot, Nigel, Gilbert de Montibus, John de Beauchamp, Alberic de Capella, Richard Pincun, Richard de Brademar and Henry fitz Baidwiust have been as familiar to them as football stars are to sports' enthusiasts today.

Henry fitz Baldwin was described more specifically as 'keeper of hounds', and directed hunting with boar hounds in 1214, and this makes a recently discovered reference more significant. In 1220, a keeper of the king's dogs held land at Bagshot. He is named as Hubert Hoppeschort, father of Ralph. It cannot be too far-fetched to conclude that hunting may have brought members of this family to West Grinstead. The name is so distinctive that Simon Hoppeschort who paid tax in 1296 with Richard, and again in 1327 and 1332 must have been a descendant of the royal houndsman, the same family who then built the house now called Hobshorts. Even a conservative estimate could place that building towards the end of the 1300s.

The evidence indicates that the park extended north as far as the parish boundary-the gate at Crockhurst may have been what became known as Cripplegate. In 1326 there were 1000 acres with a further 71 acres of mainly arable with some meadow land being added by 149& In 1295 there were hares, rabbits, pheasants and heron, there was a mill in the park in 1326, and William de Braose made a grant to John of Ifield of pasture for cattle, swine and other animals before 1330.

In the early 15OOs the Duke of Norfolk, successor to the de Braose, carried on a tradition by making a gift of does to the archbishop and the abbess of Syon. In 1529 ninety4hree head of deer died of murrain, and twenty years later the park was still enclosed with a pale14; by 1610 it had been disparked and enclosed foragriculture.15The walls around the castle had been excluded from maintenance m 1399, when they were presumably no longer needed for defence. In 1775 Grose16 made rather superficial comment: 

  "so completely has been the work of demolition in the instance of this castle, that a reasonable conjecture cannot be hazarded from a view of the ruins themselves, as they then appear, of its original form and extent. Enough only remains to enable us to pronounce that here was once a castle" 

Writing in 1870, Turner pointed out that the 'demolition' for the turnpike only began in 1762, and that enough traces should have remained to form some idea of the shape and size of the construction, within the circular moat which enclosed about 2 acres. A reproduction (1852) from a sketch made about fifty years earlier by Petrie17 shows details of two doorheads on the ruins.

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