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When Guildford Castle Fell To The Invading French 800 Years Ago This Week

Published on: 10 Jun, 2016
Updated on: 10 Jun, 2016

 An 800-year-old milestone was passed on Wednesday this week (June 8) marking the date when Guildford Castle was surrendered to a French invading army. It appears to be something of a forgotten story. There has not been a peep about it from Guildford Museum, and Philip Hutchinson – custodian of Guildford’s Castle Keep, and who leads his Guildford Ghost Tour – admits on the Guildford Past & Present Facebook group page, that the date slipped his mind too. However, GAVIN MORGAN of the Guildford Heritage Forum knows about it, and here recalls the story.

The Great Tower, or keep, of Guildford Castle.

The Great Tower, or keep, of Guildford Castle.

This year marks the anniversary of a little known invasion of England by the French in 1216. In his book Blood Cries Afar, Sean Mcglynn has told this story properly for the first time and it features several references to Guildford.

800 years ago dastardly King John, the villain of the Robin Hood stories, was on the throne of England. This was the man, who according to a local Guildford legend, chased a young woman into Silent Pool where she drowned.

These tales may be fictional but the image of John they portrayed was deserved. He took away lands and castles from barons, removed their inheritance and left people to die in dungeons.

By 1215 the barons were in revolt and forced him to meet with them in London in January that year. It was the prelude to civil war and following the meeting John came to Guildford for a couple nights on his way to Winchester. By June he had been forced to accept the terms of a peace treaty – Magna Carta.

Few expected John to obey the terms of Magna Carta and true to form John restarted the war. This time he had the upper hand and in a panic the barons invited Louis, the son of the French monarch, to invade.

It was 150 years since William the Conqueror had invaded but this time there was to be no battle of Hastings. John was near the coast when Louis invaded in late May and he went into full retreat.

The south east of England in medieval times was even more densely wooded than it is today and there were limited routes for an army to use. The North Downs was therefore an ideal highway.

A few days after the invasion people of Guildford would have been aware that something was up as John passed through the town with his retinue of knights.

Louis headed for London which was controlled by the barons. There he received a rapturous welcome. Twelve of the country’s twenty bishops welcomed him as defender of the church.

There was a procession to St Paul’s where the Mayor of London greeted him. Louis swore an oath on the gospels and promised to be protector of the laws and rights of his new vassals. He behaved very much like the rightful king.

Louis did not stop long and on June 6 he led his army south while another went into Essex. He arrived in Reigate the following day where he found the castle abandoned.

An alternative view of Guildford Castle, taken by local professional photographer, Anna Saverimuttu. Anna will be running a summer photography workshop for complete beginners on Saturday, 4th June at the Yvonne Arnaud theatre, teaching people how to master their digital SLR cameras. To book a place, email or call 01483 571119. More details can be found on her Workshops page at

An alternative view of Guildford Castle, taken by local professional photographer, Anna Saverimuttu.

Then he moved to Guildford on June 8 which surrendered immediately. Farnham initially closed its gates but then it too surrendered as the French started to lay siege. It was not until Louis reached Winchester on June 14 that he met with any resistance. It fell after a ten day siege.

Across the summer Louis strengthened his position and by July about a third of the country was under his control. He wrote to Alexander of Scotland who assisted by invading from the north while Louis’s armies pursed John into the midlands. England was crumbling into Louis’s hands and in October he probably could not believe his luck when John was suddenly taken ill and died.

For the second time in 150 years an army from France had successfully invaded England. Everything was going Louis’s way and by now two thirds of the barons were on his side. His new enemy, John’s successor, was a nine-year-old boy whose only protection was a very old knight, long passed retirement age. This knight had spent a lifetime manoeuvring his way to the top of the political establishment. There was very little incentive for him to risk his estates and the lives of his family on a hopeless cause.

But this knight was William the Marshall, the greatest knight of his age. He had fought alongside Henry II and ridden with Richard the Lionheart on crusades. He had a reputation for utmost loyalty. Having served three kings he chose to risk everything serving one more. The fight for England was on.

Louis returned to France to raise more money. Meanwhile Henry was crowned at Gloucester Cathedral. In a highly significant move Magna Carta was then reissued.

It was a bold idea that transformed the young Henry from the son of an oppressor to the champion of baron’s rights. It was this, and subsequent reissues of Magna Carta, that would turn it from a failed legal document into a symbol of English liberties. It worked, and some barons started to drift back. But there was still a French invader to defeat.

Guildford Castle with the recently discovered original battlements picked out with render

Guildford Castle with the original battlements now picked out with render.

On April 26, 1217 the people of Guildford would have witnessed two armies on their doorstep. Louis returned from France and marched across the North Downs.

At Guildford he paused and was joined by a second army from London. They then marched west. Many battles and sieges lay ahead but the tide started to turn.

There are castles all over England which can tell the story of their involvement in the war of 1216-17. The first decisive defeat for Louis was at the battle of Lincoln. It was not a knockout blow. Louis still held London and organised a French fleet to bring reinforcements up the English coast.

On August 16, 1217 the people of Guildford once again woke to the news that an army was coming. This army had William the Marshall at its head and it was on its way to the coast.

At the battle of Sandwich the French were decisively defeated in a gruesome sea battle. Louis was isolated, paid off and sent back to France. The boy, William the Marshall had protected was crowned Henry III in Westminster Abbey.

William the Marshall did not live long to enjoy his retirement. He died two years later and at his funeral in the Temple the Archbishop of Canterbury described him as the “greatest knight there ever was”.

The significance of this story has possibly been overlooked by historians. Some suggest the barons would never have accepted Louis as king and regard this as a footnote in history.

But Henry III’s reign was to be an important one for English democracy. Had William the Marshall abandoned him, had Louis murdered the boy then the story of English democracy might have been very different.

As for Guildford, it may well have played only a bit part in an epic story but it too would have been affected if Henry had not lived.

He was a great builder and spent a lot of money on Guildford Castle, turning it into a small palace.

He stayed here many times and it was here that his grandson, Prince Henry died.

His wife founded the Friary in Guildford in memory of her grandchild.

Today Guildford Castle stands as a proud ruin but as we remember the 800th anniversary of the French invasion perhaps we will imagine it and appreciate it in new ways.

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Responses to When Guildford Castle Fell To The Invading French 800 Years Ago This Week

  1. Philip Hutchinson Reply

    June 11, 2016 at 11:42 am

    To be fair to me, I think you’ve done me a disservice here. I know – and knew – very well that the 8th was the anniversary. I created a thread on the Facebook page to state that I had just remembered the date (I hadn’t seen Gavin’s piece by that time) but had forgotten on the day in question, and that GBC had completely ignored it. The comment above reads like I was unaware. Having run that building for 22 years, I would like to think I know better than that.

  2. Aubrey Lehay Reply

    June 11, 2016 at 1:45 pm

    When at Northmead School I do not recall any of this being taught. And our history teacher was probably an eyewitness to the last French incursion.

    Mind you,imagine my surprise when first visiting America to learn that there had been a successful independence movement conducted over here!

  3. Margaret Jackson Reply

    June 12, 2016 at 9:12 am

    Thanks for highlighting this exciting story. On Heritage Open Day, September 10 this year, you can find out about medieval life in the time of King John and the French bid for power in England.

    Visit Castle Green for an outdoor living history display by Historia Normannis Guildford. Meet knights, ladies of the court, freemen and barons of the realm.

  4. David Pillinger Reply

    June 13, 2016 at 3:09 pm

    Fascinating! never knew any of this. Great to have got into the Dragon lately!

  5. John Whitbourn Reply

    June 14, 2016 at 12:46 pm

    To counter the impression that this area was completely supine in the face of foreign invasion, people might care to be reminded of the South’s very own, but alas largely forgotten, Robin Hood figure, ‘Willikin of the Weald’, who organised highly effective guerrilla-style hit and run raids against the French.

  6. Anne Reply

    June 15, 2016 at 6:11 pm

    Great story! Thank you for telling it as I never knew the French took Guildford.

    Amazing as this week the problems with the British and Russian fans in France.

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