The Postern Gate is the only part of Northampton Castle that still stands. Within a fortified structure, a postern gate is usually a concealed or secondary entrance; allowing inhabitants to enter or leave without being detected. Today, the gates archaic regality overlooks a bus stop; incongruous as it rubs shoulders with the CAD of the train station and the University of Northampton offices. Construction of the castle, commissioned by Simon de Senlis; first Earl of Northampton, commenced in 1084 and was probably completed around 1089. The castle was an important seat of government during the reign of Henry II. Thomas Becket was tried by Henry’s council at the castle in 1164 and escaped sentence, apparently disguised as a monk. I’ve always liked to imagine that the Postern Gate was the doorway he left by. A hundred years later, during the Baron’s War, Simon de Montfort controlled the castle until the garrison was defeated by the forces of Henry III and Prince Edward (future Edward I).
During the ensuing four hundred years, the castle’s ownership changed hands many times. By the end of the English Civil War in the Seventeenth century, the structure was falling into disrepair. Charles II ordered it to be dismantled in the early years of his reign. Northampton, always a royalist town (King John gave Northampton its first charter) switched allegiance during the conflict to the parliamentarian cause. This act of rebellion is considered to have influenced Charles’s decision. In the 1860’s, the Victorian rush to progress, saw what was left of the castle raised to the ground so the age of the train could begin.
Yet for some reason the Postern Gate; a concealed doorway, a secret passage was selected to stand. It was due to be pulled down a few years ago when the bus lanes were reconfigured but public petitioning won the day. Like many Northampton folk, I have often been incensed by the way the town's history and culture have been swept aside to appease the power of the free market, and then assuaged with a perfunctory plaque. In many ways the Postern Gate represents that power: Northampton Castle, like all the concentric structures built after the Norman Conquest, were designed to remind the inhabitants of these islands of their subjection and feudal obligation to a class of people who felt themselves to be superior. Opposed as I am to any form of oppression, it is sometimes difficult to reconcile my fascination with this particular period and my romantic need for historical connection. Over the years, stopping on my way to town and placing my hand on the stones, I’ve been able to enter a secret portal of my own. Perhaps that’s enough.