High on a hill overlooking the South Downs, Arundel Castle is one of Britain’s most spectacular
The chalk downs that roll through the county of West Sussex to the south coast of England are softly, gently stunning: the foundation for some of the most beautiful natural landscape in Britain, ending in brilliant white cliffs around Eastbourne.
Commanding this vista from its spot on the hillside just a few miles from the sea is Arundel Castle: a vast, fortified stately home which has for centuries been the seat of England’s premier aristocratic family. They are the Fitzalan-Howards: earls of Arundel and dukes of Norfolk. The castle is still their family home and a monument to some of British history’s most turbulent and iconic periods.
Like most of England’s great castles, Arundel was founded after the Norman Conquest of 1066, when William the Conqueror crossed the English Channel to claim victory at the Battle of Hastings and set about subjugating England, parcelling it up into giant fiefdoms for his allies.
The lush countryside surrounding Arundel was given to William’s friend and counsellor Roger de Montgomery, becoming part of a vast network of estates which made Montgomery one of the richest men in the realm. By today’s standards he would have been a multi-billionaire, and to protect his newfound riches he built castles, including the first one to exist in Arundel.
Castles were the hubs of Norman power and, whenever war broke out in England, they became the focus of political and military attention. Arundel’s first great moment in history came during a 12th-century civil war known as the Anarchy, when two cousins – Matilda and Stephen – fought over the English Crown for nearly two decades. In 1139, Matilda stayed at Arundel Castle, narrowly escaping capture by the enemy army camped outside. As you explore the oldest part of the castle, you can look around the room in which Matilda (may have) slept, transporting yourself back to those bleak, war-torn days of which medieval writers lamented: “It was as if Christ and his saints were asleep.”
More gloriously medieval are those parts of the castle that showcase its link to a later conflict: the Hundred Years War, which raged between England and France in the 14th and 15th centuries. There are whole rooms filled with suits of armour and weapons typical of the medieval battlefield. In a sense, the castle itself is a testament to the war booty that was accumulated by the 10th Earl of Arundel, Richard Fitzalan, who fought alongside his comrade and friend King Edward HI and was richly rewarded for his efforts: when the earl died in 1376, he left £30,000 in coin (worth many millions of pounds today) in one of the castle’s towers.