Devizes Castle, Wiltshire

Feature Sets (2)


The castle at Devizes has a reset arch containing 12th century stones and another smaller one with reused stones. However, despite having been the site of a major Norman castle, these stones originated at St John’s church. They were part of the west façade which was replaced in 1863. In addition to these stones there are the famous wooden heads which may have originated from the castle but equally could have come from another major building in the town or the area. They have been suggested to be 12th century in date, but are probably more plausibly 13th century in date. In addition to the stones found at the castle, a number of buildings in the town contain reset fragments from the castle, such as at 1 St John's Court. 


A motte and bailey castle with a wooden keep appears to have been built soon after 1066 by either Bishop Herman or Bishop Osmund. A fire in 1113 destroyed the castle which was soon rebuilt by Bishop Roger. Just before his downfall in 1139 he appears to have been rebuilding the castle again. Roger also built castles at Sherborne, Malmesbury, Old Sarum and perhaps Kidwelly, as well as the east end of the cathedral of Old Sarum. By 1121 Devizes Castle was sufficiently complete to hold an ordination there. In plan the new, stone castle appears to have followed the overall layout of the earlier wooden one. With Bishop Roger’s fall from grace, the castle passed to King Stephen but it was subsequently taken over by the Empress Maud, and then the future Henry II. This situation was ratified in 1157 and thereafter governors were installed to look after it.

During the reign of Henry III the hall of the castle was rebuilt. John Leland visited Devizes in 1545 and described the castle as follows: 

‘There is a castell on the southe west side of the toune stately avaunced upon an high ground, defendyd partly by nature and partly with dykes, the yere [earth] whereof is cast up a slope, and that of a greate height to defence of the waulle.

This castle was made in henry the first dayes by one Roger Byshope of Salisbyrye, Chauncelar and Treasurer to the Kynge. Such a piece of castle worke so costly ans strongly was never afore nor sence set up by any Byshope of England. The kepe or dungeon of it, set upon an hille cast by hand, is a peace of worke of an incredible coste.

There appere in the gate of it 6 or 7 places for porte colacis, and muche goodly buyldying was in it. It is now in ruine, and parte of the front of the towres of the gate of the kepe and chapel in it were carried, full unprofitably, onto the buyldynge of Master Bainton’s place at Bromeham scant 3 myles of.

There remayne dyvers goodly towres yet in the utter walle of the Castle, but all goynge to ruine. The principall gate that ledithe in to the toune is yet of a great strengthe, and hathe places for 7 or 8 porte colices.’

By 1596 the castle was described as ‘utterly ruinated and decayed, and the walls fallen down for the most part’, yet it proved a formidable fortification during the civil war.  Therefore, after its capture Parliament ruled that it should be slighted and by 1648 its demolition had taken place. The castle appears to have been used as a quarry by the townspeople and by the early 18th century two windmills had been established on the site. In the 1830s the site passed to Valentine Leach who c1840 built the round tower. After his death in 1842, it passed to Robert Valentine Leach who built the current building between 1860 and 1880. In 1863 the west façade of St John’s church was rebuilt, and some of the displaced Norman stones were reused to form ‘The Bishop’s Gate’ in the garden, named in honour of Bishop Roger.


Loose Sculpture

Bishop's Gate

In the garden of the castle ‘The Bishop’s Gate’, named in honour of Bishop Roger, consists of stones from the former west façade of St John’s church which was rebuilt in 1863. The opening consists of two orders with a hood mould and the whole composition is set within a gable. Perhaps this reflects the original arrangement on the west façade. If so, this would fit with buildings influenced by Old Sarum, such as Lullington and Cashel, where doors are set within gables.

The opening of the gateway is 2.09m high and 1.38m wide.

Inside Face of Arch

The inner order of the arch (0.27 m wide) has a roll moulding (0.10m wide) with a chevron pattern moulded with a hollow and roll around it. The outer order consists of three types of chevron; a lateral to the face chevron with beading, similar though more elaborate than the inner order; a frontal to the face, strongly three-dimensional chevron and a three-dimensional chevron that effectively forms a diaper pattern. This order is approximately 0.20m wide and 0.18m deep. The hoodmould is 0.12m wide and projects 0.09m. It is decorated with two lines of small beading. At both ends there are heads, which are reset corbels. The left one is 0.18m high, 0.17m wide and projects 0.15m. It is a crude head with huge eyes and a small snout. The right one is 0.18m high, 0.19m wide and projects 0.19m. It is a large head with almond-shaped eyes.

The right hand side of the jambs have a volute capital for the inner order (0.19m high, 0.20m deep) and a simple scallop for the outer order (0.20m high, 0.17m wide). The shaft diameter beneath the outer order is 0.11m in diameter. The left side of the opening has a simple scallop capital on the inner order which may be 19th century in date but the outer order has an elaborate scalloped capital (0.17m high, 0.19m wide and 0.17m deep). The surface of each scallop is treated as a leaf form echoing the multi-lobed leaves between each scallop. The shaft beneath the capital; is decorated with various, much eroded patterns.

Near the top of the wall to the right of the gable there is a string of cylindrical billet 0.15m high and 0.10m deep. On the left side of the gate the coping stone of the wall is a 0.46m long piece of diaper.

Outside Face of Arch

The inner order is 0.27m wide with a roll moulding (0.10m in diameter) with chevron around it. The outer order consists of voussoirs decorated with a variety of chevron patterns (approximately 0.30m high, 0.20m wide and 0.17m deep). The hoodmould uses the same beaded forms as on the inside face but also includes three stones decorated with an imbricated pattern. At both ends there are reset corbels used as terminals.

On the right jamb there are two volute capitals, the inner one measuring 0.14m wide, 0.12m high and 0.16m deep. The capital of the outer order is 0.14m wide, 0.12m high and 0.13m deep.

To the right of the gate there is a piece of chevron (0.43m long, 0.14m deep) used as a coping stone, while to  the left of the gate there are moulded stones 0.59m long and 0.16m deep.

The Arch of the Porch into Basement

A second and smaller arch of the porch into the basement on the west side of castle incorporates fragments from a Norman building. A number of stones have carvings on them though probably all the voussoirs and main stones of the arch were reused from an older building.

1        A worn stone with chevron on it. 0.23m high, 0.10m wide.

2        A simple chevron pattern. 0.14m high, 0.12m wide.

3        A stone with intersecting circles on it. 0.17m high, 0.11m wide.

4        A chevron pattern. 0.24m high, 0.12m wide.

5        A stone covered with imbrication. 0.14m high, 0.13m wide.

6        A small stone above no.5, decorated with chevron. 0.10m high, 0.12m wide.

7        A stone covered with imbrication. 0.13m high, 0.14m wide.

8        Very worn fragment 0.12m high, 0.11m wide.

Wooden Heads

There are a series of seven wooden heads in one of the apartments in the castle from the roof of a medieval building. They have been dated by analogy to the 12th century but their form, the likely type of roof they may have come from and the fact that they have survived points to a later medieval date.


Fragments found in houses in Devizes seem to originate from surface decoration, predominantly a shallow chevron pattern and an imbricated pattern, similar to the pattern found in the chancel of St John’s church. This suggests that the castle built by Bishop Roger was lavish, like the buildings he erected at Old Sarum and Sherborne.

The reset arch, the Bishop’s Gate, has a decorated shaft which is suggestive of patterns found at Ely and elsewhere in the east of England, rather than in Wiltshire. Bishop Roger’s nephew Nigel was the Bishop of Ely but it is unclear whether this was the route of the influence. Perhaps Old Sarum employed such shafts, which have not survived. 


  • E. Bradby, The Book of Devizes. Buckingham 1985        

  • N. Pevsner, Buildings of England:Wiltshire. Penguin 1985

  • R. Stalley, ‘Wooden Corbel heads at Devizes Castle, Wiltshire’, Archaeological Journal,  1970, 127, pp.228-9

  • H. Stone, Devizes Castle: its history and romance. Devizes 1920

  • Victoria County History of Wiltshire Volume X


Site Location
Devizes Castle
National Grid Reference
SU 001 613 
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales): Wiltshire
now: Wiltshire
now: Salisbury
medieval: Old Sarum
Type of building/monument
Report authors
Allan Brodie 
Visit Date
26 April 1996