If FROGs were surveying the Thames riverfront over four hundred years ago, and were standing on the south bank outside present-day Tate Modern, they would have recorded a large structure with turrets and a water gate.
This was the building known as Baynard’s Castle. The original Baynard’s Castle was a Norman structure on an inland site, but this was demolished about 1276 to enable the Black Friars to extend their monastery. The castle on the waterfront was therefore the second building to go by the same name, a factor that has created some confusion for historians, archaeologists, and the compiler of the Baynard’s Castle page on Wikipedia, which is highly misleading.
The waterfront castle first makes its appearance in history when its existence is implied in a 1338 reference to a “tower on the Thames by the place called ‘Chastel Baynard’”. Following a serious fire in 1428 it was rebuilt on reclaimed land by Humphrey Duke of Gloucester youngest child of Henry IV and brother of Henry V.
On the death of Duke Humphrey in 1447 it came into the ownership of Henry VI who granted it to Richard Duke of York. In 1452, the Duke of York was disarmed and placed under house arrest there – after which he swore never again to rebel against the King – and in the following year the building was first referred to as Baynard’s Castle. The next significant date is 1483, when a group of noblemen met Richard Duke of Gloucester in the Castle. The Duke of Buckingham presented the petition and in Shakespeare’s words proclaimed him King Richard III; “I salute you with this royal title: Long live kind Richard, England’s worthy king!”.
On the death of Richard III in 1485 Baynard’s Castle passed into the ownership of Henry Tudor, who between 1500 and 1501 transformed it into a royal residence
for the entertainment of any prince or great estate
On his accession and marriage in 1509, Henry VIII gave the Castle to his bride Catherine of Aragon, and King and Queen were taken by boat from the Castle to Westminster. It continued to be an important royal palace until the Great Fire destroyed all of the building, except for one turret that survived for about another sixty years.
The remains of Baynard’s Castle then stayed under ground until 1972, when the construction of a new dual carriageway road and flyover on the north bank prompted a major rescue excavation. This was led by one man, Peter Marsden, who had arrived at the Guildhall Museum in 1959 as “a young amateur” and had then found himself in charge of archaeological coverage of most of the City rescue sites.
By 1972, when the Baynard’s Castle site was threatened with destruction, he had already successfully excavated a number of sites, including the Huggin Hill and Billingsgate Roman bathhouses. The work, on the largest open area in the City ever to be available for excavation had to be done in a matter of weeks, which meant calling upon vast numbers of volunteers. A period of frantic activity produced so much post-excavation work that the excavation has never been fully published. When the archaeologists had left the site, completion of the construction work then left the area completely covered with new roads and modern buildings, and the foundations of Baynard’s Castle disappeared from view once again.
Just look though today’s eyes, and think how in centuries past the turrets of the royal palace of Baynard’s Castle, rising vertically from the waters of the Thames, would have completely dominated the north side of the riverfront.