Knepp Castle, Sussex, by Michael Ray

A few weeks ago, the grounds of Knepp Castle, Sussex, were open to the public for the first time under the National Gardens Scheme.  The castle is situated in the parish of Shipley famous for the Limoges casket stolen from the church in 1976, the grave of John Ireland, the composer, and Kings Land windmill once the residence of Hilaire Belloc, now better known as the home of TV’s Jonathan Creak.  The house called Knepp castle was built  by John Nash in 1808-9 for the Burrell baronets and it is now the home of Sir Charles Burrell, the tenth baronet.  It is a stucco-covered building in the gothick style with a large circular tower and four smaller ones.


I was looking around the gardens and across a steep ha ha separating them from the park  designed by Humphrey Repton when I became conscious of an eye-catcher in the distance; the remains of the medieval castle of Knepp.


Knepp castle was built by the Braose family who held one of the six rapes of Sussex, that of Bramber with its caput at Bramber castle.  As a castle,  Knepp was not noted before 1210 but King John stayed at Knepp in 1206.   John was friendly with William de Braose but, when John turned against William murdering his wife and child, the Braose lands were forfeited.  Perhaps the castle was originally more of a hunting lodge than a fortress and John returned to it again on several occasions.

Queen Isabella spent eleven days there in 1215.  Money was spent on the moat in 1210 and the building itself in 1214.  During the unrest during and after the negotiations for Magna Carta, Roland Bloet had the custody of the castle.  In May 1215, he was told to destroy the castle and to move to Bramber.  But he did not carry out this order and, in October, he was ordered to surrender it to Giles de Braose, the brother of William who was the Bishop of Hereford.   A year later its destruction was again demanded and William Marshal captured it in 1217.   Once again, it is likely that the castle has remained intact.

The Patent Rolls show that the young Henry III was a visitor to Knepp in 1218.  He was there again in 1234 and 1235 after it had been in the custody of Peter de Rivaux.  Rivaux’s custody came during the ascendancy of his kinsman, Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester, who was the head of Henry’s government from 1232 until 1234.  Astonishingly Rivaux was made sheriff of twenty-two counties and he was also granted the lands and marriage of the heir of John de Braose which is how Peter came to hold both Knepp and Bramber.  He lost both castles in June 1234 when des Roches fell out of favour.  For a while they were in the possession of Richard of Cornwall but William de Braose, the son of John, came of age around 1245 and regained possession of Knepp and Bramber.  Knepp castle seems to have been inhabitable until at least the sixteenth century.

The Fine Rolls provide additional evidence of Henry III’s visits. In August 1218, the castle was to be returned to the Braose family in the person of Reginald de Braose.   Henry himself as a ten year-old, was there on 7 September 1218, having been in Winchester, fifty miles away, two days earlier.  Whilst at Knepp, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, as Guardian of England, witnessed six entries.  They related to Leicestershire, Staffordshire and Shropshire, Essex, Nottinghamshire and two involved Northamptonshire.  The first concerned the delivery of lands whilst the second was in favour of Michael, a royal servant who gained custody of lands in the King’s hands because of debts owed to King John.  The third was a record of a grant of a writ pone to the Abbess of St Mary de Pré, Northampton for her legal actions against the Vipont family.  The fourth dealt with the lands of another man who was indebted to King John.   The remaining two recorded the  granting custody of more lands at the King’s pleasure.  These lands may have come to the King due to unpaid debts.  After this activity and a day later, the King and the Marshal and their party moved the twelve miles to Bramber.

Today all that can be seen of the old castle is a wall built of 25 metre thick, Horsham stone-covered rubble.  It is 11 metres high and 9.5 metres long and was probably part of the Keep.  The ruins were stabilised by Sir Charles Burrell before 1825.  The Victoria County History states that it is built on a natural mound and that most of the early buildings were probably made out of wood and thus easily destroyable.  The Department of the Environment and later Nairn and Pevsner, believed that it was once a Norman motte and bailey castle with a Norman keep.  The remains of round-headed windows would appear to point to an origin for the keep earlier than the thirteenth century and possibly as early as the eleventh.   A closer view of the castle can be seen at

Michael Ray

July 2013

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2 Responses to “Knepp Castle, Sussex, by Michael Ray”

  1. Rosemary Blaise says:

    Your really ought to check your facts!
    There is no evidence that Humphrey Repton was ever near the place and certainly did not design that landscape at Knepp. Ditto Capability Brown.
    Also, Knepp and Shipley does not appear in Domesday. Therefore Knepp cannot be Norman.
    The twaddle in the Victorian History and on Knepp’s website was manufactured by the Burrells in Sussex to give themselves a history which is fictional. I should know; I have done their real history.

  2. Richard Cassidy says:

    For the record, readers may be interested to see what the Victoria County History has to say about Knepp castle:

    VCH Sussex

    It would appear that the first reference to it is in the 1210 pipe roll.

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