Marlborough mound is prehistoric barrow

Marlborough MoundThe 62-feet-high mound on the grounds of Marlborough College has been used as a motte for a Norman castle, the foundation of a royal hunting lodge and an early Romantic 18th century garden for the Seymour family. Legend has it that Merlin was buried under that mound, that the name Marlborough itself was a corruption of “Merlin’s barrow” (it’s listed in the Domesday book as “Merleberge”).The Victorians were so enamored of the idea that they adopted it as the Latin motto of the city: “Ubi nunc sapientis ossa Merlini?” meaning “where now are the bones of Merlin the wise?”

The Marlborough Mound Trust, an organization founded by a Marlborough College alumnus in 2000 dedicated to the preservation of the mound, recently sponsored an excavation to investigate whether tree roots are damaging the mound structure. The research returned four coring samples of charcoal which, since charcoal can be radiocarbon dated, have for the first time provided an absolute date of 2400 B.C for the mound. That’s the same approximate date of its “big sister,” Silbury Hill, a 120-foot-high Neolithic chalk mound just five miles away and Europe’s largest manmade prehistoric hill.

The samples prove it was built at a time when British tribes were combining labour on ritual monuments in the chalk downlands of Wiltshire, including Stonehenge and the huge ditches and stone circle of Avebury.

History students at the college will now have the chance to study an extraordinary example just a stone’s throw from their classroom windows. Malborough’s Master Nicholas Sampson said: “We are thrilled at this discovery, which confirms the long and dramatic history of this beautiful site and offers opportunity for tremendous educational enrichment.” […]

Jim Leary, the English Heritage archeologist who led a recent excavation of Silbury, said: “This is an astonishing discovery. The Marlborough mound has been one of the biggest mysteries in the Wessex landscape. For centuries, people have wondered whether it is Silbury’s little sister, and now we have an answer. This is a very exciting time for British prehistory.”

This means that the Norman castle motte wasn’t built fresh by the Norman invaders, but rather was a reuse of a prehistoric structure. As far as we know it’s the only Norman motte to have recycled a pre-existing artificial mound. The castle and thus the mound would thereafter play an important historical role for the Plantagenet kings. In 1209 King John called a great assembly of all Englishmen, from baron to peasant, to Marlborough Castle where they were made to swear fealty and to do homage to John and his son Henry, then but two years old. John had been excommunicated by Pope Innocent III that year, and England was under the interdict. The Oath of Marlborough was meant to secure his and his heir’s position, and is notable for the vastness of its reach. John’s paranoia didn’t stop at his barons.

Engraving of Marlborough Mound from 'The Ancient History of Wiltshire', 1812-1821Henry would grow up to become King Henry III, and he too would make history at Marlborough Mound by calling Parliament to the castle and passing the Statutes of Marlborough in 1267, four chapters of which are still valid law. Since the Magna Carta was repealed and only reissued in 1297, that makes the Statutes of Marlborough the oldest piece of extant law in the United Kingdom.

After that, the castle declined in importance, becoming a hunting lodge and then being allowed to decay, but the mound and the estate remained property of the crown until Henry VIII gave it to his third wife Jane Seymour’s brother Edward, 1st Duke of Somerset. It remained in the Seymour family for generations. The 6th Duke demolished the old Seymour house next to the mound and built a new one in 1711. His son Algernon and his wife lived there. They’re the ones who created the early Romantic garden complete with grotto.

In 1750 the Seymours leased the house as a coaching inn which was a fashionable retreat for the rich and powerful until the 19th century when trains would make coaching obsolete. In 1843 the house and the mound were purchased by Marlborough College.