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The Early Years

For nearly the first 150 years of its history the castle was not sufficiently well-established, nor was any monarch, from William the Conqueror to Henry I, sufficiently relaxed in his occupation of the English throne to make Farnham anything more than a military dot on the map.

In 1204, just four years after King John's succession, Pierre des Roches was the king's choice as Bishop of Winchester. Part of his value to John was his proven reputation as a strong administrator, a “trusty clerk”. Des Roches soon had a firm grip on the income and expenditure of Winchester and it was he who was responsible for building the Shell Keep we see today and many new buildings in the bailey part of the castle such as the Great Hall, kitchen and the bishop’s own private accommodation (the Bishop’s Camera).

Once the castle offered reasonable standards of safety and comfort and its surrounding hunting opportunities could be better exploited, its suitability as a temporary royal residence was established. King John visited Farnham Castle more than once a year, on average, during his reign from 1200 to 1216. And there is little doubt that it was the red and fallow deer, boar and hare in and around the park that attracted the king and many influential guests like him.


By the middle of John's reign his association with Farnham Castle was strong enough to order and pay for horses and greyhounds to be stabled and kennelled here, in readiness for his visits. By the end of his reign King John’s new castle at Odiham became more favoured. His last visit to Farnham was exactly six months before his death on October 19th 1216, and just weeks before Farnham fell into French hands.  

The last Plantagenet kings

In May 1216, many of those who had forced King John to sign Magna Carta no longer trusted him to deliver it. A number of powerful barons invited the French Dauphin, Louis, to join them and take the throne of England in John's place. By the end of May Louis was installed in Farnham Castle, in readiness to take the throne. But on King John's death, in the October, his nine-year old son, Henry, inherited the throne legitimately, and many barons chose to change sides in favour of the young king. 


Louis was removed from Farnham and 'invited' to return to France. Pierre des Roches moved from trusted clerk to the trusted advisor of the new, young King Henry III. 

Henry’s 56-year reign offered him many opportunities to visit Farnham and to hunt here. Some authorities believe he was a guest here on at least fourteen occasions, but it could well have been more. However many times he did visit, it gave the five Bishops of Winchester that he placed in the post a chance to impress him with their individual brands of hospitality.

Whilst Edward II’s 19 year reign (1307-1327) was riven with controversy and, according to legend, ended painfully, we know nothing about any visits he may have made to Farnham. Either side of his reign, both Edward I (1274-1307) and Edward III (1327-1377) stayed at Farnham on numerous occasions. On at least one of those Edward III was accompanied by his Queen, Philippa of Hainault. Even the much-maligned Richard III in his very short reign stayed in Farnham Castle for two days.

The Tudors and the Castle

Judged by the frequency of their visits, there is little doubt that the Tudors - from Henry VII onwards - enjoyed coming to Farnham Castle. We do not know when the large Tudor Wing was added to the Bishop’s Palace, or which Tudor monarchs may have seen it or lodged their staff there, but it was most likely added sometime during the reign of Henry VII, that is before 1509. We do know that at the end of the 15th century Bishop Fox recognised the need for additional accommodation space and added to the entrance tower.

Henry VII’s link to the castle was sufficiently strong for him to entrust the welfare of his first son and heir, Prince Arthur, to Bishop Peter Courtenay (or more specifically his nurse, Elizabeth Darcy) at Farnham. The king’s trust in Courtenay and his staff kept Arthur at Farnham for much of the first seven years of his life. 

Four years after Arthur's birth King Henry VII was blessed with another son, also called Henry. It is very likely that Prince Henry (who would become Henry VIII) visited his brother at Farnham several times. We know for certain that he came to Farnham Castle as king in 1516 and from there wrote a letter to Cardinal Wolsey. At that time the king was 24 years old and not the imposing, obese ruler famously depicted by Hans Holbein. The much-experienced Venetian Ambassador in the same year described Henry:

"His Majesty is the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on; above the usual height, with an extremely fine calf to his leg, his complexion very fair and bright, with auburn hair combed straight and short, in the French fashion, his throat being rather long and thick. He was born on the 28th of June, 1491, so he will enter his twenty-fifth year the month after next. He speaks French, English, and Latin, and a little Italian, plays well on the lute and harpsichord, sings from book at sight, draws the bow with greater strength than any man in England, and jousts marvellously.” 

In short, Henry at that time was just the sort of character that would have enjoyed hunting through the woodland of Farnham and Alice Holt Forest. In 1531 he made grants to “the keepers of the two parks at Farnham, to the deputies and keepers of the Holte and Woolmer and to the keeper of the place at Farnham.” 

Henry was also at Farnham Castle for five days in September 1535.

After Henry’s death in 1547 his 9-year-old son Edward VI lived for only six years. Following Edward's succession, Bishop Gardiner made clear his opposition to the type of protestant state being planned by the king and his advisors. As a result, Gardiner was imprisoned in theTower of London and replaced by the more Protestant-minded Bishop John Ponet. After Edward's death, Ponet was forced to leave for France rather than face execution at the hands the Catholic Queen Mary. 

Mary’s immediate instinct was to reinstate Gardiner as Bishop of Winchester, and in 1554 it was Gardiner that she chose to officiate at her marriage to Philip of Spain at Winchester Cathedral.  Mary arrived at Farnham Castle on June 22nd 1554, together with her entire Privy Council. Matters of State had to be conducted regardless of the planned marriage and associated festivities. On July 11th, presumably after also enjoying the hunting on horseback with greyhounds or hawks, the queen left Farnham for Winchester.  We know that Mary was presented with both greyhounds and a hawk while at Farnham, and that payments were made for shoeing, stabling and feeding her horses. Her love of hunting was well known.

To the most probable relief of her Protestant supporters, Elizabeth I came to the throne only five years after her sister Mary’s coronation. Elizabeth was quick to remove Mary’s choice of Bishop of Winchester, John White, after he had made an ill-judged remark at Mary's funeral, which enraged the new queen. In 1660, Elizabeth gave the bishopric of Winchester to Robert Horne, an enthusiastic supporter of the reformed religion.  Elizabeth visited Bishop Horne at Farnham in 1567 and in 1569.


In 1583 rumours of a Catholic Plot to kill Elizabeth led to her passing the entire summer at Farnham Castle. Bishop John Watson gave up the entire castle to the Queen, her councillors and her courtiers. Given the likely number of followers involved, other venues around Farnham must have catered for those that the castle could not contain. It is believed that, in total, Elizabeth made at least six visits to Farnham.

The Stuarts & difficult times

In 1603 King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England, inheriting Thomas Bilson as Bishop of Winchester from Elizabeth. How James, a keen huntsman, came to know about Farnham Castle and its pleasures we don’t know, but in 1608 he leased the entire castle and all its lands from Bishop Bilson for the bishop’s “entire lifetime”. For James, Farnham Castle served as a hunting lodge and a place for the pursuit of pleasures, one of these being George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham.  

Just one year later, in 1609, a fire broke out in the stables at the castle while James and his wife were asleep.  With the Gunpowder Plot in very recent memory, conspiracy theories of another assassination attempt were rife. Whatever the truth, the situation was deemed to be worrying enough for James to sub-let the rest of the lease. But he remained a frequent visitor, and was reportedly entertained by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes “at great expense” in 1620.


For his son, King Charles I, his only visit to Farnham was not to the castle, neither was it by choice. His stay (at Vernon House, now Farnham Library) in 1648, was on his way back to London from imprisonment on the Isle of Wight to face trial and, ultimately, the scaffold.

Prior to the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and after the bloody Civil War, the castle’s accommodation was in a poor condition, thanks to the ravages of the war and the soldiers and prisoners forced to inhabit it.

George Morley, installed as Bishop of Winchester by Charles II, spent very large sums of money to bring the Bishop’s Palace at Farnham to a high level of comfort and style. He made it fit for a king and Charles availed of it. Charles' plans for a new palace at Winchester were never likely to be funded by a strengthened Parliament,  but both Charles and his brother James (who became James II on Charles’ death in1685) were frequent visitors to Farnham's refurbished Bishop's Palace. Pursuit of deer again proved to be a magnetic lure to royalty and a chance for every Bishop of Winchester to impress his monarch.


But in 1685 Farnham, and specifically the castle, became yet again a stop-over for someone destined for execution. This time it was James, Duke of Monmouth. His rebellion and attempt to steal the crown from his legitimate brother, James II, was defeated. Bishop Peter Mews, even at the age of 66, fought for the victorious James II at the Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685, and was injured in the face. Mews may have been one of many fighting against the Duke, but surely he was one of the least expected, and the last known bishop to enter battle as a combatant. Mews' wounds were as nothing compared with Monmouth's execution, as reported by John Evelyn:

He (Monmouth) would not make use of a cap or other circumstance, but lying down, bid the fellow (the executioner) to do his office better that to the late Lord Russell, and gave him gold; but the wretch made five chops before he had his head off; which so incensed the people, that had he not been guarded and got away, they would have torn him to pieces.”

Georgian and Victorian visits

Our knowledge of the next royal visit skips 80-90 years. There are no accounts of any visit by any of the subsequent Protestant successors to James until those made by George III. In 1778 King George and his entire family, including twelve children, made a spontaneous visit to his ex-tutor, Bishop John Thomas, on his 81st birthday.

The last royal event we know of occurred in May 1860. Queen Victoria was accompanied by Prince Albert at Aldershot and decided to make a surprise visit to Farnham Castle, and to Bishop Sumner. The Queen and Prince Albert arrived on horseback. Others joined her in a procession of carriages. They were received in the Great Hall and then shown the views over the town and parkland, and also the Norman Chapel. Queens Road and Queens Lane in Hale, Farnham bear witness to the route the Queen took on her return journey.

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