Why Huntingdon’s castle was torn down

EVEN nowadays a royal visit can get people very excited, as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge showed us in Canada just recently.

It was 837 years ago today (Wednesday) that Huntingdon was visited by the King of England, Henry II.

Were happy townspeople waving banners and cheering? I don’t think so. When Henry clattered over the river bridge (still made of wood then) he was almost certainly in a filthy temper.

He was famous for his uncontrollable rages. A few years before he came to Huntingdon one of his tantrums got him into dreadful trouble, when it led four of his knights to murder archbishop Thomas Becket. Europe was deeply shocked and the kings of Scotland and France leagued together to attack Henry’s territories - he ruled a vast empire stretching from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees.

That’s how Huntingdon got involved. King William of Scotland was also the Earl of Huntingdon. While he invaded the north of England and besieged Carlisle, his garrison in Huntingdon castle declared against Henry II.

This was a mistake. Henry was at his best in a crisis. In the summer of 1173 his dukedom of Normandy was attacked by three great armies from the east, the south and the west. Henry defeated all of them.

In July 1174 he returned to England. His went first to Canterbury where he did penance for Becket’s murder by allowing himself to be whipped by all the monks there. He arrived in Huntingdon just a few days later, on July 20, 1174. His back, and his pride, must still have been smarting.

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The castle had been under siege for a while but when the bad-tempered king arrived the garrison surrendered immediately and Henry ordered the castle to be demolished. The royal account books still survive and we know that he spent seven shillings and eightpence buying hooks to pull it down.

Seven shillings was a lot to pay for hooks at a time when you could buy a gallon of fine wine for fourpence. Perhaps some Huntingdon ironmonger was trying to make up for losing the castle garrison, who had probably been good customers over the years.

If so, he started a tradition of problems with defence procurement that continues to this day.