Discovering Devizes Castle and the town’s museum

Wiltshire MuseumThe Civic Society’s summer outing was to the Wiltshire Museum – the newly adopted name of what for some years had been the Wiltshire Heritage Museum and for many years more generally known as the Devizes Museum. The new name was intended to stress the Museum’s county-wide role as part of a learned society founded in 1853 (the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society), without in any way belittling the Museum’s younger sister museum, the free-standing Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, founded in 1860.

When I was Chairman of the Trustees for the Museum for three years I kept trying to undermine the general strange view of geography long held in Corsham, that London was much closer to Corsham than Devizes was. None of the 30-odd intrepid travellers from Corsham who made their way to Devizes on the 26th June had been to the Museum before. They were very impressed by it.

The party was addressed by David Dawson, the enthusiastic Director of the Museum (who had given a lecture to the Society at the Pound a few weeks before), and were shown around the impressive new Prehistoric Gallery, recently completely redesigned quite magnificently. The Museum proclaims that it has the best Bronze Age exhibit in the country, better even than the British Museum. The way they are laid out is quite outstanding.

It is a remarkable fact about Corsham that we are in the centre of a triangle of excellent museums – the town museums in Trowbridge and Chippenham and the county museum in Devizes. The two town museums are well funded by their respective town councils; the philistine Wiltshire Council provides a mere £35,000 a year for the county museum. In 2014 our summer outing was to the Trowbridge Museum, and on the 24th June 2016 we shall complete our triangulation by visiting Chippenham Museum.

Devizes Castle

Devizes CastleThe March meeting of the Civic Society was privileged to listen to a very interesting lecture by Tim Tatton-Brown, FSA, the distinguished archaeologist and architectural historian, well known for his writings on various cathedrals and castles, particularly Canterbury and Windsor and Westminster. He brought his sharp and irreverent eye to bear upon the castle at Devizes.

It is well known that Devizes, like Salisbury, is a medieval ‘new town’, though originating in its castle rather than its cathedral. The castle built by Bishop Roger of Salisbury in the 1120s became a spectacular affair, one of the grandest castles in Europe, soon to play a crucial role in the civil war that involved Matilda, in residence there, the only Holy Roman Empress (by marriage) who aspired to be Queen of England (by inheritance).

The borough of Devizes grew up around the castle, its plan still determined by the dominating castle. The castle itself was demolished by the order of Cromwell in the 1640s. The present building is a Victorian recreation, presently owned by a mysterious lady alleged to be a Princess of Thailand.

No archaeology has ever been undertaken on this important site, neither the castle, its walls, nor its large park. Many aspects of the castle and indeed the town of Devizes remain unexplained. Tim Tatton-Brown discussed this all quite brilliantly.

Dr. Negley Harte

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Comment on this article