Sir Richard Abberbury rebuilt Donnington Castle after he had received the necessary royal licence in 1386. Edward VI stayed here in 1552, and Queen Elizabeth granted the castle to the Earl of Nottingham, Baron Howard of Effingham, in 1600, as a reward for services in the Spanish Armada.
Please see below for the story of the gallant defence of the castle by Colonel Sir John Boys during the second battle of Newbury during the Civil War of 1644.
The great Gate House remains to almost its full height and is one of the finest examples of fourteenth century military architecture in England. It is built of flint with stone dressings and consists of three main storeys with tall circular flanking towers on each side of the main gateway.
The archway of the gate is four-centred with a label. The string-courses are ornamental with grotesque heads. The walls have been pitted in a number of places by the cannonballs fired during the sieges and brick patching has been necessary in places.
A cottage which was built on to the back in the 19th century has been demolished. The entrance way on the ground floor has lovely and intricate stone vaulting springing from attached shafts. A newel stair in the southern flanking tower leads to the upper floors. The first floor has a large square-headed window retaining some of its tracery. A number of important buildings were formally attached to the west side of the gate-house which probably included the great hall on the first floor, and in the wall are several doorways, fireplaces and windows.
The foundations of the curtain wall can be traced to the west, and the castle was originally some 150 feet long and 93 feet wide. Works of preservation have been carried out by the Department of the Environment.
The siege of Donnington Castle
At the time of the Civil War the castle was owned by John Packer, whose sympathies were with Parliament. Given the crucial strategic position commanding the crossroads of the main routes north-south and east-west, King Charles I was determined to have it under a loyal custodian. Therefore before returning to Oxford after the first battle of Newbury in 1643, he installed a garrison of the Earl Rivers regiment, some 200 foot, 25 cavalry and 4 cannon, under Sir John Boys. This gallant commander was to prove more than worthy of his sovereign’s trust in him.
Around the castle Sir John constructed elaborate diamond shaped earthwork defences for his artillery, in the style of the ‘star fort’ fortifications of contemporary warfare. These impressive defences, though much overgrown, can still be seen.
The castle was therefore well prepared to meet an assault by a parliamentary force under General Middleton when it arrived in July 1644, to begin a siege which was to last for some twenty months. Having rejected surrender terms Boys proceeded to beat off an assault and then stage a sally which inflicted over a hundred casualties on the Roundheads. The assault became more serious in September, however, with the arrival of heavy siege artillery which in a constant twelve day bombardment did serious damage to the fabric of the castle but still did not prevent the cavaliers from mounting another counter-attack and driving the besiegers back with great loss.
The relief of the castle had been one of the King’s main objectives when he arrived in Newbury in October 1644. Donnington inevitably became one for the key positions during the Second Battle of Newbury and Boys and the men of Earl Rivers regiment added to their exemplary service. Boys was given responsibility of the artillery and was wounded after the battle as the Roundhead siege closed in again. According to Lord Clarendon it is at this point, with the Roundhead army massed before him, that Boys responded to the threat that failure to surrender would leave no stone left standing with the famous retort ‘He was not bound to repair it, however he would, by God’s help, keep the ground.’
The fact that the King returned to Donnington to pick up his artillery and defied them to give battle, must have added to the Roundheads exasperation. The King stayed overnight with his champion at Donnington before bidding what was to be a final farewell. The siege was to go on but there were to be no more serious assaults. Boys eventually received a personal order to surrender from the King who was about to give himself up to the Scottish army at Southwell.
So it was that in April 1646 Sir John Boys marched his gallant defenders out of the castles ruins, with colours flying and drums beating – the full military honours which he and they so richly deserved.