Desborough Castle is a little-visited scheduled ancient monument on the edge of a housing estate on the south side of the Wye Valley, between West Wycombe and High Wycombe. From the castle there is a steep drop into the valley below, and so it has clear views in both directions along the valley. The Golden Ball, with its associated Iron Age camp, can clearly be seen, as can the town of High Wycombe. The site has been used for thousands of years and the valley has been an important routeway through the Chilterns from at least the Bronze Age.
Today, the main part of the monument is not, as widely believed, the remnants of a hillfort, but is a medieval ringwork castle with an east-facing entrance. A large 12 feet deep ditch and a 16 foot high bank run right around the area, which is now covered in trees. A lynchet in the open area around it runs roughly parallel to the ringwork defences and follows the contours of the hill. Part of the castle was excavated in 1968 by C. Saunders, who found the ploughed-out remains of large rampart and ditch fortifications. However, although the excavation was unable to date the lynchet, it is probably Late Bronze or Early Iron Age due to its construction and size, and so these are probably the remains of a Bronze or Iron Age hillfort.
A variety of chance finds in and around the castle gives us some idea of how long people have been using the area. The oldest is a Mesolithic flint axe, but other worked flints have been found both on the surface and during a 1987 dig that excavated the area in front of the entrance (Records of Bucks vol 30). The flints date to the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age. Most finds from the dig were medieval but some were a surprise, such as Roman roof tiles and pottery, which imply there may be a yet undiscovered Roman building nearby.
The dig concentrated on the level ground between Rutland Avenue and Booker Lane. Five trenches were dug and under deep plough soil they found a variety of earthworks, including a 5m wide ditch and postholes from a simple farm building. Also uncovered was a large linear feature that was 12m wide and at least 2.75m deep. The diggers couldn’t reach the bottom for safety reasons but, although unconfirmed, it seems likely that it was a massive ditch that protected the area on its weakest side by cutting off the spur of the hill to form an outer bailey. On the west and north sides the ground falls steeply into the valley below.
Over the years other unusual artefacts have been uncovered, including two Greek coins. One, a gold coin bearing the image of Phillip of Macedon (Alexander the Great’s father), was donated to the British Museum. The other was a bronze coin from Ambracia (a Corinthian colony in western Greece), dating between 238 and 168 BC. An Iron Age brooch and a Roman coin were also found but perhaps the largest discovery of all was referred to by Delafield in 1743 as “an entire stone window frame like in ancient churches”. All traces of this window have disappeared, as has any building surrounding it. Delafield also reported that in the interior of the ringwork there were foundations, bricks and medieval roof tile. Mr Watts in the 1950s also saw foundations and a tile hearth within the earthwork. Today, nothing can be seen amongst the trees and undergrowth.
It was Delafield who first mentiond the name Desborough Castle – previously it was simply known as “the Roundabout”. Desborough, however, was the name of the original Saxon Hundred and the castle site has been identified as the moot or meeting place for the Hundred court. Indeed it has been suggested that the small remaining mound on the west side of the castle, which was subsequently cut across by the ringwork ditch, was the mound used as the moot. There is the possibility that it is also the remains of a Bronze Age barrow.
The castle lay in the manor of West Wycombe and was occasionally mentioned in the manorial rent records. In 1350 “John ate Castel” died there from the pestilence and in 1389 there were tenements in Dustleburgh. Other names for the area were Chasteleye, Castle field, Castel Garden and Dusteburgh Meadow.
It seems that the ringwork was built in the Norman period and it may have been a siege castle at the time of the Anarchy (the Civil War between Stephen and Matilda 1135-1154). However, the earliest pottery found dates to the early 12th century – later than one would expect if it was contemporary with the construction of the Castle. As it was part of the manor of West Wycombe it would have been owned by the Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester and King Stephen’s brother and greatest ally. He is known to have built seven castles during 1138 and Desborough could easily have been one of them. It must have been an impressive sight perched up on the hillside with its massive ditch and bank, presumably topped by a palisade.
From the records it is known that Stephen was “apud Wycumbam in obsidione” (i.e. “in the siege at Wycumbam”) at some time during the Civil War. It is most likely that he was there to lay siege to the motte on Castle Hill, which belonged to Brian Fitz Count, one of Matilda’s most important supporters. From the hillside Stephen and his followers were in an ideal position to control the valley and the road to Oxford and Wallingford, as well as to observe the activities in Maud’s Wycombe castle.
The archaeological dig, the manorial records and the Pipe Rolls (the records of the Royal exchequer) seem to indicate that the castle was abandoned in the early thirteenth century. The animal remains and the pottery found show the occupants were high status, as does the evidence for large buildings within the ringwork, but nothing can be certainwithout further excavation.
Finally, as the castle became ruinous the outer defences were deliberately filled in to provide arable land for a local farmer – and they were used this way until the demand for homes became overwhelming and much of the area was covered with housing. Fortunately, the castle and the grassy slope have been left as open space for us to enjoy and explore.
by Rose Palmer