The History of Rockingham Castle
Visitors to the Castle will immediately understand why William the Conqueror ordered a Castle to be built here. With its magnificent views across the Welland Valley this stronghold was crucial in helping William subdue his new kingdom. As well as a fortress, the Castle was an important seat of government; the Great Council of Rockingham being held here in 1095.
Many medieval Kings came to Rockingham Castle. Richard the Lion Heart played host to his Scottish counterpart here and his unpopular brother John came frequently to hunt in Rockingham Forest. Indeed on his last journey north John left his treasure chest in the Great Hall, giving rise to the legend that his crown jewels are buried at Rockingham and not in the muddy wastes of the Wash.
Henry VIII granted the Castle to Edward Watson, ancestor of the present owner James Saunders Watson, who converted the medieval fortress into a comfortable Tudor house. His portrait hangs in the Hall alongside Mary Boleyn, the sister of one of Henry’s unlucky wives. Queen Elizabeth I’s portrait also hangs there surrounded by her Courtiers Cecil, Howard and Dudley.
Originally a Royalist stronghold, Rockingham Castle was taken by Cromwell’s Roundheads and then besieged by the King’s troops. Although its defences held out against repeated assaults the Castle’s owner Lewis Watson lost much of his wealth and never really recovered from the trauma of the war. Appropriately Rockingham was the setting for the BBC TV series “By the Sword Divided”, which portrayed the turmoil caused by the war.
Rockingham was in its heyday as a Victorian mansion, filled with Richard and Lavinia Watson’s family, friends and the servants required to look after the Castle and its inhabitants. The Watsons entertained here in style and among their guests was their great friend Charles Dickens. Dickens often performed in his own plays in the Long Gallery and drew inspiration for Chesney Wold in his novel Bleak House.
The castle remains the centre of an agricultural community and is still home to the Saunders Watson family. The family’s collection of 20th Century pictures adds a particularly personal contemporary flavour.
Poised above the Welland Valley with fine views of five counties the ramparts enclose 12 acres of sweeping lawns, formal and informal gardens set among the medieval fortifications. There is a circular Rose Garden on the site of the old keep and a magnificent wild garden in the ravine below containing over 200 species of trees and shrubs, many rare.