A castle or fort has stood on the present-day site of Shrewsbury Castle since Anglo-Saxon times, and Shrewsbury’s old-English name – ‘Scrobbesbyrig‘ – means ‘Fortified-place-in-the-Scrublands’
Shrewsbury Castle as it now stands is the product of many eras and many restorations. It was built on high ground connecting two branches of a loop of the River Severn, which surrounds Shrewsbury, and it dominates the only landward approach to the town.
A castle as such was first constructed here by order of William the Conqueror in 1067 – a very early date and one which reflects the importance of the location on the turbulent border with the independent principality of Wales. Whatever was on the site, it withstood a siege by the Welsh and Edric “the Wild” in 1069, though the town itself was burned down.
Most of the lands of Shropshire were given by William I to his kinsman Roger of Montgomery (1022-94), one of the king’s greatest military leaders, who had been created Earl of Arundel in 1067. Additionally created Earl of Shrewsbury c.1074, Roger developed the site as a major “motte and bailey” fortress and it served as his base for operations into Wales and during his rebellion against William Rufus in 1088.
Although comparatively small in many respects (since the loop of the Severn added a natural band of defence to the town), Shrewsbury Castle was one of the great Marcher (border) fortresses which bounded the frontier with Wales from Chester in the north via Shrewsbury, Hereford and Worcester to Chepstow in the south. As such, it played a major role in local affairs. It was designed as the centre of a military and administrative zone on the Norman frontier with Wales.
Domesday Book (1085) records that no fewer than 51 houses (out of approx 250-300 in the town) were leveled to make way for the enlarged Shrewsbury castle and a further 50 recorded as “waste” may have been cleared for the construction of the outer bailey and to give clearance round its walls. At any rate, the construction of the Norman castle represents a massive intrusion into a small Saxon town and a probable source of great animosity. After Roger’s death in Shrewsbury Abbey in 1094 (where he had become a monk at the very end of his life) his eventual successor, his son Robert of Belesme, allied himself to the wrong side during Robert of Normandy’s unsuccessful revolt against Henry I in 1102 and Shrewsbury castle and all the family’s lands were forfeited to the crown. Shrewsbury Castle remained a royal possession until 1565 and again from 1660-1686 when granted to Francis Newport, formerly the royalist Lord Lieutenant of Shropshire and later Earl of Bradford.
The first real evidence of reconstruction in stone dates to the 1150s and the reign of Henry II (1154-1189), traces of this earliest work remaining in the lower levels of the inner bailey walls, the lower floor of the Great Hall and the main gateway.
The town was attacked twice by the Welsh, in 1215 by Llewellyn the Great (which actually resulted in the construction of the town’s circuit of sandstone walls) and in 1234 (when Frankwell was burned), and it was a garrison and focus of military operations during the various Welsh Wars of the 13th Century.
The castle was seized by William Fitz Alan, lord of Oswestry and Clun, on behalf of Queen Matilda during the civil war between King Stephen and his Queen and was besieged by Stephen himself in 1138; after it had fallen, it is recorded that about a hundred of its defenders were hanged from the battlements. It was visited by King John, by Henry II on several occasions (e.g. in 1216) and by Henry III on three occasions between 1220-1241; it was also involved during Simon de Montfort’s rebellion against Henry III in 1264-65. Important negotiations with Welsh leaders were held in the castle in 1220, 1241 and 1267 and perhaps more significantly, Edward I visited the town in 1267 and again when he used the castle as a major base for his operations into Wales in the campaigns of 1277 and 1282.
After 1300, with the subjugation of Wales, Shrewsbury’s military function rapidly declined, though Welsh border raids continued as late as 1409. Gradually falling into a dilapidated state – recorded as such as early as 1336 – parts of it were certainly used as a prison in the Middle Ages and there are periodic references to royal payments for repair – though its walls, towers and hall were reported to be near collapse in 1443. Presumably because of its poor state, Shrewsbury Castle played little part in the great civil wars of the 15th Century (“the Wars of the Roses”) and remained in this state until the late 16th Century; John Leland’s Itinerary of c.1540 describes it as “muche in ruine” and the famous Burghley map of Shrewsbury c.1565 shows the Hall as a roofless shell and the castle’s inner buildings in ruins.
In 1565, the ruined castle was leased by Elizabeth I to a wealthy local wool and cloth merchant, Richard Onslow and he began converting the castle into a private residence, adding a third floor, with its massive wooden ceiling, to the Great Hall. In 1596, the site was granted to the Burgesses of Shrewsbury.
Re-fortified in 1642 for the Civil War, at considerable expense to a reluctant town, the castle was further strengthened by Lord Capel, appointed Lord Lieutenant in 1643 and by Prince Rupert in 1644. Nearby houses were pulled down, to give a clearer field of fire to the north, the town walls and its gateways were strengthened and repaired and near the castle itself additional wooden palisades were erected and outer defensive ditches were dug. After all this, the castle withstood only a brief and inglorious siege. In February 1645, it was besieged by a Parliamentary force from Wem, supported by the garrison of Moreton Corbet, under the experienced Rhineland mercenary Colonel William Reinking. Through probable treachery, a Parliamentary force was able to enter the town itself, piercing the town walls via St. Mary’s Water Gate, and there was a brief fight in the town square, when eight men were killed – two parliamentarians and six royalists. The town’s fall left the castle in an isolated position and it immediately surrendered, probably without firing a shot, on March 12th. Interestingly, a smaller “fortalice” guarding the approaches to Welsh Bridge in Frankwell actually held out for a little longer! The garrison, under the gravely ill Sir Michael Earnley, was allowed to march out to the royalist stronghold of Ludlow Castle, though certain important gentlemen and officers remained as prisoners.
The loss of the town and castle was a major blow to the Royalist cause in Wales and on the borders and the date of its fall was celebrated in Parliamentary circles as “a day of celebration”. The castle was strengthened (partly with materials from the slighted Shrawardine and Apley castles) and remained under a Parliamentary garrison of about 100 men throughout the rest of the Civil Wars. It was involved in the brief Royalist uprisings of 1655 and 1659 but after 1660, the newer works were slighted and ditches filled in and by 1686 its ordnance, arms and ammunition had been removed and many of its outer fortifications pulled down.
The castle was surrendered by the town council to the new King Charles II in 1663 and was immediately given by him as a reward to one of the royalist Lords Lieutenant of the county during the Civil War, Sir Francis Newport. Thereafter from 1663 until after the first world war, the castle was used as a private town residence, firstly by Sir Francis Newport, later created 1st Earl of Bradford, and his descendants through the 18th Century, then by Sir William Pulteney, MP for Shrewsbury from 1775. A full-scale reconstruction and repair was undertaken in the 1780s-90s by the County Surveyor, the famous Thomas Telford, on behalf of Sir William, who was reputedly the wealthiest commoner in England. The Great Hall was partitioned into a number of smaller, elegant rooms, with great “gothick” windows piercing its northern walls, and the main entrance restored on the lower floor. Much of the castle as it now stands is in fact the result of this reconstruction and 19th Century repairs.
For much of the 19th Century, the castle was leased out and was the home of the Downward family but after World War One, with the death of the last Downward residents, it ceased to be inhabited and in 1924 was purchased by Shropshire Horticultural Society and given as a gift to the Borough. The Great Hall was cleared of its interior partitions and smaller rooms and was used as the borough Council Chamber into the 1970’s, with the mayor’s dais and Zutphen bell (which was used to call meetings to order) still in situ to recall this element of the castle’s past.
In 1985, the castle became the home of the collections of the Shropshire regiments – the 53rd (Shropshire) Regiment and 85th King’s Light Infantry, the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry (1881-1968), the Shropshire Yeomanry, the Shropshire Royal Horse Artillery and their associated Militia, Volunteer and Territorial units.
In 1992, the castle and museum were fire-bombed by the Provisional IRA, causing considerable damage to the main hall but thankfully very minimal damage to the Collections – relatively speaking.
HRH Princess Alexandra re-opened the Museum on 2nd May, 1995, and the Trust began to build the collections of the Shropshire Regimental Museum.
In September 2019, the Museum changed its name to the Soldiers of Shropshire Museum to better reflect the Army’s heritage in the County from the point the regiments lost their county name.