The relatively small town of Sherborne boasts two spectacular ancient structures; the partly Saxon abbey and a 12th century castle named Sherborne Old Castle to distinguish it from a later (16th century) castle-like mansion a quarter of a mile south. The original building was also not a true castle, but rather a substantial, fortified manor, or palace, built by Roger de Caen (died 1139), Lord Chancellor and Bishop of Salisbury; at its peak it consisted of a central courtyard bordered by a keep-tower to the west and two-story ranges on the other sides, beyond which was an unusually large bailey containing several other rooms including kitchens, all surrounded by high curtain walls with an octagonal layout, incorporating three gatehouses and two towers.
The castle was later frequented by Sir Walter Raleigh, and after a period of disuse following his death was reoccupied during the Civil War, but, as was often the case, it was greatly damaged, both during and after; this latter by order of Parliament, to prevent any future use in conflicts. The main surviving components are the southwest gatehouse (the principal entrance), the keep-tower, and the adjacent north and east ranges.
The site is extensive, atmospheric and peaceful, surrounded by lawns and woodland, extending to a sizeable artificial lake, excavated in 1753, separating the ruins from the intact Sherborne New Castle to the south. Beyond, in most directions, the grounds give way to open countryside. The woods, water and meadows make the site a good wildlife location, and springtime sees many colourful wildflowers in the grassy areas.
Sherborne Castle was constructed between 1107 and 1135, as a base from which to administer the western section of the large Diocese of Salisbury; the owner Roger de Caen also managed several other castles in this part of the country including at Devizes, and this the extensive property portfolio eventually led to the bishop becoming too powerful, a potential rival to the king (Stephen), who therefore confiscated all of the buildings, following a brief hearing during June 1139, a few months before Roger's death. The castle remained with the Crown for nearly 200 years, undergoing various modifications and additions, before being restored to the Bishops of Salisbury, in 1337. The next two centuries were relatively uneventful, and the place gradually became less used, until acquired by Walter Raleigh in 1592. He embarked upon an ambitious series of restorations but these proved too complex and so were not completed; instead he began work on the new castle (initially known as Sherborne Lodge), and following his death in 1618 the original site was abandoned. A brief occupation by Royalist forces during the Civil War was ended after a 16 day siege on August 15th 1645, then soon after the conflict the castle was partly dismantled and has remained in a ruinous state ever since. Although most of the curtain wall and some of the central buildings are entirely vanished, what remains is still substantial, and gives a good impression of the luxurious nature of the original, 12th century residence.
Castles, new and old, and are well signposted from various locations in Sherborne town centre; the older building is at the end of Castleton Road, east of the B3145. The official parking place as paid enclosure on the west side of complex, while free spaces are available beside the road a little way back, in the vicinity of a railway bridge. A short walk along a track reaches the English Heritage entrance booth, beyond which the castle is entered via a modern bridge over the original moat, leading to the southwest gatehouse. To the north is a low, triangular, grassy enclosure, thought to have been constructed during the Civil War, as a base for artillery during the siege.
The southwest gatehouse has always been the main castle entrance, and hence was larger than the other two, designed to impress visitors and discourage intruders. The structure is square in cross-section, and was built during the first construction phase, early in the 12th century. Entry is through the arched, ground floor passageway, above which is a large, round-headed window, then in higher still, on the upper two floors, are a pair of rectangular, three-light windows installed during the 16th century modifications. The northwest corner of the gatehouse rises to a slender chimney, also 16th century. The inner (east) wall of the Gatehouse is less complete, having lost nearly all of the uppermost floor. A ground-level doorway leading to a staircase is gated-off, though faded graffiti at first floor level shows that visitors were once able to access at least this area. The gatehouse is positioned at the junction of the west and southwest curtain walls - the exterior of the castle is approximately rectangular overall though each corner is cut-off, creating an octagonal outline. The adjacent walls still rise nearly to the original height, and extend about 50 feet in each direction, but the remainder of the curtain is mostly missing - other surviving sections are three small fragments to the south, one to the east, an 80 foot length either side of the north/northeast corner and another segment to the west, a total of around 300 feet compared with the original perimeter length of 1500 feet. On the opposite (northeast) side of the castle from the main entrance are the foundations of another gatehouse, while the base of a third entrance survives in the middle of the north wall, and from here a long flight of steps leads down to the base of the moat. The steps end in front of a field and lane but at the time of construction the this area was part of a lake, and the steps, protected by a roofed passageway, were used to access a boat landing point. Excavations have uncovered the bases of two rectangular towers at the other two corners of the curtain wall (northwest and southeast), however no trace is visible above ground.
The residential component of the castle lies in the middle, equally spaced from the four main walls; it consisted of a keep to the southwest, linked to ranges on four sides of a square central courtyard. The keep is a three floor tower from the 12th century, the lower-level a basement formed of two parallel, barrel-vaulted passageways, with a 16th century extension to the south, where the floor above is supported by a single, fluted sandstone column with square capital. North of the keep is the west range, seemingly a single room at ground level, and this links to the north range, believed to have chapels on both ground and first floor levels; several ornate windows and blind arch moulding in indicate this was prestigious section of the building. The east range, presumably containing apartments, is somewhat less complete, while the south range, which included a great hall at first floor level, is entirely missing, its position evident only from excavated foundations. Beside the main area are traces of other rooms, to the west, south and east, this latter including the kitchen block; some of the structures are likely to be from the 16th century alterations while others are medieval. There is also a faint outline of a building beyond the curtain wall to the northeast, possibly a stand-alone chapel.