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CHER Number:01775
Type of record:Monument
Name:Burwell Castle


Earthworks of a twelfth century incompleted castle and the site of thirteenth century chapel

Grid Reference:TL 586 661
Parish:Burwell, East Cambridgeshire, Cambridgeshire

Monument Type(s):

  • CASTLE (12th century - 1101 AD to 1200 AD)
  • CHAPEL (13th century to 16th century - 1201 AD? to 1539 AD?)

Associated Events:

  • Excavations at Burwell Castle, 1935
  • Geophysical and topographical survey, Burwell Castle, 2014

Protected Status:

  • Scheduled Monument () 1015596: Burwell Castle
  • SHINE: Earthworks of a twelfth century incomplete castle and the site of a thirteenth century chapel at Burwell

Full description

A rectangular moated site of some strength, with traces of outworks. A castle was almost certainly constructed by King Stephen during the Anarchy. Now pasture known as "Spring Copse".
4. Excavation by TC Lethbridge 1935. Three distinct periods:- (a) Roman finds - see Rn 01755a, (b) The castle proper. This was never completed and the peculiarities previously thought to represent a siege works are merely due to the incomplete excavation of the moat, which never held water, and soil dumps. Clunch walling (recently reduced by fire brigade exercises) remained of a small keep or gatehouse. It was probably in taking this castle that Geoffrey de Mandeville received the wound from which he died at Mildenhall in 1144. (c) In 1246 the Abbot of Ramsey asked the Bishop of Ely if he might consecrate a private chapel in his manor of Burwell. This is probably represented by fragments of painted glass with part of its leaded framework, a graffito MARIA in a piece of dressed clunch and a part of a window frame with mason's mark XO. Finds in CAMM.
5. This site is called Spring Close and is situated immediately to the W of Burwell Church at the end of the village. In its present form (see plan) it consists of a large rectangular moat, averaging 20ft wide at bottom, and 9ft deep, isolating an area 200ft by 125ft which now carries no traces of buildings, although until a year or two back the NE corner exhibited some remains of rubble walling, now destroyed. On the S side a small brook forms the boundary of the site and rises close by. This was undoubtedly intended to fill the moat. Certain large mounds on the outer edge of the moat on the northern and western side have long been a crux for Cambs archaeologists, together with the considerable mass of material in the bottom of the moat at the NW corner. The slight cuts leading from these mounds down into the moat have been interpreted as stations for catapults and the mass in the moat as the remains of and assault bridge. It is known that in 1143 Stephen ordered that building of a series of castles in this region to control the marauding Geoffrey de Mandeville, and this was one of them. Geoffrey attacked Burwell Castle in 1144 and received a fatal wound. It was formerly believed that the various features referred to above were remains of siege works connected with this attack, but recent excavations carried out by Mr. TC Lethbridge, FSA, have shown that the castle was never finished and that the mounds are merely undistributed spoil heaps from the excavation of the moat, the small cuts being the runways up which the material was carried, while the obstruction in the moat is a mass of unexcavated chalk, a feature which was encountered in other places, especially along the N side of the island. It was also shown that very little building had been completed when the attack came. The curtain wall had been carried a little way round the eastern and southern sides and a small gatehouse had been begun, which probably controlled a bridge crossing the eastern part of the moat, but the whole thing was fragmentary. The castle site was raised some 5ft by the dumping of spoil and was divided across the middle by a slight depression, the purpose of which is unknown. It seems clear that when de Mandeville's death made the scheme of defence, of which Burwell Castle was intended to be a part, no longer necessary the completion of the castle was not carried through. From the restricted size of the area defended by the moat it is clear that the final result could hardly have been a motte and bailey castle, but rather a rectangular courtyard defended by a curtain wall, with perhaps a keep in the middle or at one end. The wet ditch is of quite disproportionate strength and is reminiscent of later medieval developments in military engineering.
8. Burwell Castle lies immediately W of the church, on chalk at about 35ft above OD. The castle stands on ground sloping gently W to the fen edge; it overlooks open ground to the N, S and W, but on the E of the church, on higher ground, must have always dominated the site. In 1143 Earl Geoffrey de Mandeville, who had fallen from power, seized the Isle of Ely and from this base proceeded to devastate the countryside. In an attempt to contain him King Stephen fortified a number of posts on the edges of the fens; Burwell Castle was one. It was constructed partly on land already occupied by the village of Burwell. Traces of crofts and of two houses which were demolished to provide space for it remain N and NE of the castle. Sherds of Stamford ware, found under the castle during the excavation in 1935, may have come from these earlier houses. In August 1144 Earl Geoffrey 'came with his army to attack a certain castle which had been newly built at Burwell' (Chronicon Abbatiae Ramsiensis (Rolls Series, 83, 331)). While reconnoitring the position de Mandeville was wounded by an arrow fired by one of the garrison and died a few days later. The siege ended and the castle was abandoned. The excavations of 1935 exposed a stone range running the full length of the E side of the enclosure and returning along part of the S side. The building projecting slightly E near the centre of the range may be identified as the chapel, and the range on the N, with two latrine chutes in the thickness of the wall, probably contained the Abbot's camera on the first floor. The castle consists of a generally rectangular enclosure, 260ft by 160ft and between 5ft and 15ft high above the bottom of the surrounding ditch. The interior of the enclosure is uneven; the E and W ends slope towards the centre. Field evidence and excavations indicate that this uneven nature is the result of spoil dumping from the moat in order to construct a raised platform, a process which was never completed. A gap in the middle of the S side of the enclosure is apparently where spoil from the moat was brought on to the platform until work was abandoned. On the E side and along the E part of the S side of the enclosure, the excavators found clunch footings of an outer wall and a diagonal buttress at the NE corner. Slightly N of the centre of the E side the foundations of a small rectangular building (1 on plan) were discovered; it measured 21ft by 15ft internally and had walls 5ft-6ft thick with an outer facing of flint nodules. It projected 3ft-4ft into the moat beyond the E wall and terminated with diagonal buttresses. In this wall, partly screened by the northern buttress were outlets of two garderobe chutes. Until the early 1930s a length of curtain wall about 8ft high stood near the NE corner. The enclosure is surrounded by a large moat, between 80ft and 100ft wide across its flat bottom. Low terraces, 6in - 1ft high, exist in the ditch on the N and S sides of the enclosure and a larger and more irregular one along part of the W side. Two of these were tested by excavation and proved to be of natural chalk, indicating that the moat was never completed or filled with water. The area immediately W of the moat is occupied by a large mound, 12ft high at its N end, with an uneven surface sloping towards the S. This mound is a spoil heap of material which was dug from the moat and allowed to remain. Its uneven appearance is the result of dumping small loads which were brought from the moat by way of two shallow cuts or hod runs in the side of the moat. (a and b on plan). Further dumps were intended S of this mound in order to form a dam and fill the moat, but this was not completed. On the N side of the moat is a larger spoil heap 8ft-10ft high in the centre and at its N end, but 2ft-3ft high at its E end. The scalloped appearance of its N edge is the result of dumping spoil brought out of the moat along hod runs which remain as shallow depressions across the sloping surface of the mound (c,d and e on plan). Immediately N of this spoil heap and bounded on the N by a low bank running E-W are four, perhaps five, rectangular closes delineated by low banks and shallow ditches. At their S ends three of these are overlain by the spoil heaps and must therefore be earlier than the castle. They appear to be the outer ends of long closes, familiar in deserted sites of Medieval settlements and are probably the only visible remains of the houses removed to make way for the castle. E and NE of the moat are slight earthworks which may be the sites of two buildings. NE of the moat (f on plan) is a raised platform, roughly U-shaped; a sunken platform on its E side is bounded by low banks and subdivided into two parts. E of the moat (g on plan) are the damaged remains of what is probably a Medieval long house, 50ft by 30ft overall, with a sunken rectangular interior divided into two by a low cross bank. Further E (h on plan) are the remains of what may have been a small embanked enclosure, perhaps half of which has been cut away by a sloping trackway, leading down into an old quarry. In the NW corner of the site are two rectangular dry ponds (j on plan) linked by a narrow channel, while another channel links the W pond to the Mod stream, S is uncertain. Beyond the ponds to the N is a series of indeterminate ditches, banks and ponds extending for about 100 yards. Their date and purpose are unknown. The excavators in 1935 also found fragments of Medieval stained glass and part of the leaded framework, as well as two pieces of dressed clunch, one with a graffito ascribed to the C14, the other apparently part of a window jamb.
9. Burwell Castle (A Spedding 23/11/1983, CUCAP AP LG 65 used)
10. The monument lies towards the southern end of the village of Burwell, immediately to the west of St Mary's Church. It includes a motte castle believed to have been constructed (but left incomplete) in the mid 12th century, the remains of an earlier settlement supplanted by the castle, and features related to a manor belonging to Ramsey Abbey which was later established on the site. Also included are traces of a Roman building found during sample excavation of the motte in 1935.
The castle is thought to have formed part of a chain of defences constructed by King Stephen's forces in 1143-4, in order to contain the rebel Earl of Essex, Geoffrey de Mandeville, who had seized the Isle of Ely and made a stronghold in the fens. It is of unusual design, formed by the excavation of a broad flat bottomed moat to leave a rectangular island some 35m by 60m across. The surface of the island is uneven, the east and west ends rising c.4m above the base of the ditch, and sloping toward the centre. Evidence from TC Lethbridge's excavations suggests that this appearance resulted from an unfinished platform using spoil from the moat, which itself retains low terraces or shelves of unexcavated natural chalk. This incomplete state may be linked to a reference in the Cartulary of Ramsey Abbey which records that de Mandeville brought his army to attack a castle 'newly built at Burwell' in August 1144. De Mandeville is thought to have been wounded by an arrow shot from the ramparts and, with his death shortly after, the castle may no longer have been required.
The bulk of the material from the moat forms two large mounds flanking the outer edges of the north and western arms. The irregular appearance of these mounds indicates an accumulation of small loads and even the hod runs remain evident. The northern mound overlies the southern parts of three rectangular enclosures within a line of four or five such features defined by shallow banks and ditches. These are interpreted as the curtilages of medieval houses, part of a settlement (perhaps belonging to Ramsey Abbey) abandoned when this relatively elevated position was appropriated for the castle. Structural evidence suggesting further settlement remains extend across the open pasture to the north, and further enclosures can be seen to the east of the castle where earthworks marking the foundations of two rectangular buildings, probably long houses, are visible.
A section of clunch walling stood to a height of some 2.5m along part of the eastern edge of the island, until destroyed whilst testing the village fire hose in the late 1920s. Lethbridge's excavations revealed more of the foundations of this structure which proved to be part of a narrow range running the length of eastern arm and half way along the southern side of the island. Near the centre of the eastern range stood a small rectangular building projecting slightly over the line of the moat and supported by diagonal buttresses on this side. The walls did not enclose the entire island, and are unlikely to be related to the period of the castle's construction. It is more probable that the range formed part of a later manor of Burwell held by the Abbot of Ramsey who, in 1246, was licensed by the Bishop of Ely to erect and oratory therein. Fragments of painted glass and part of a leaded window frame were found during excavation, probably identifying the small structure in the eastern range with this chapel. Fragments of dressed stone, including one inscribed 'MARIA' also support this conclusion. Two latrine chutes in the wall of the range to the north imply a chamber perhaps the Abbot's camera, on the first floor.
A series of fishponds run to the north west of the castle, following the stream course which flows through the southern arm of the moat from the springs to the east. These may be contemporary with the occupation of the later manor, or with the settlement which preceded the construction of the castle. The clearest example lie approximately 30m north west of the moat forming a pair of rectangular depressions linked together and to the line of the stream by partly infilled channels. Further depressions, less well defined, continue along the stream course for approximately 100m, separated by low banks and scarps and flanked to the east by a broad and shallow ditch. Evidence of occupation in the Roman period was discovered during Lethbridge's excavations, including a section of rubble wall footings and a cobbled surface towards the western edge of the island. Part of a ditch containing tile and Romano-British pottery was found towards the eastern side of the island, and the old ground surface (buried by the mound on this side) was found to contain a quantity of painted wall plaster.
11. The remains of the castle earthworks are in good condition, see 25in survey. There is no surviving masonry. No traces of the Roman building or chapel were noted. Although the site was supposedly never completed, the moat almost certainly held water.
12. A rectangular moated site of some strength with traces of outworks of uncertain character. One fragment of rubble wall remains. The castle was almost certainly constructed by King Stephen during the Anarchy. Geoffrey de Mandeville met his death when attacking it in 1144. Interior 61m by 38m, height from bottom of ditch varies from 2.5m to approximately 5m. Grass covered irregular earthworks with some hawthorn scrub. Entrance appears to be to S. Moat approximately 17m wide, to S is dry, reeds to W. Brambles encroaching in E arm. Strong outer work to E approximately 3m high. A secondary moat appears to enclose a possible bailey with earthworks standing to 75cm. Several areas of ditch and bank badly churned by cattle.
13. SMC for the plantation of hedges.
14 & 15. Section 42 agreement for geophysical survey to be carried out.
16. An analytical survey of the archaeological earthwork remains, in addition to magnetometer and earth resistance survey demonstrated that the castle was constructed on the site of a Romano-British temple complex and the subsequently developed into a pre-Christian ritual site and early medieval assembly place. Survey has confirmed the existence of a curtain wall extending the sides of the raised castle mound. The geophysical survey revealed evidence of the enclosure bank and ditch as well as some ridge and furrow on a broadly east to west alignment.

Taylor, A., Castles of Cambridgeshire (Bibliographic reference). SCB19242.

<2> Clark, G.T., 1881, Arch J 38, p. 268 (Article in serial). SCB1046.

<3> Clark, G.T., 1889, Arch J 46, p. 201 (Article in serial). SCB1058.

<4> Lethbridge, T. C., 1936, Excavations at Burwell Castle, Cambridgeshire. PCAS 36: 121-33 (Article in serial). SCB16889.

<5> Salzman, L.F (ed), 1948, The Victoria County History of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely. Volume 2, 19-20 (Bibliographic reference). SCB14649.

<6> Lethbridge, T.C., 1950, Byzantine Influence in Late Saxon England. PCAS 43: 2-6, p. 2 (Article in serial). SCB10313.

<7> Renn, D.F., 1959, Mottes: A Classification. Antiquity 33: 106-12 (Article in serial). SCB752.

<8> RCHM, 1972, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the County of Cambridgeshire. Volume II. North-East Cambridgeshire, 41-42 (plan) (Bibliographic reference). SCB13360.

<9> Untitled Source (Aerial Photograph). SCB16777.

<10> 1997, Monument Number 29382 (Scheduling record). SCB16779.

<11> JB, 1972, OS field notes (Unpublished document). SCB16774.

<12> Paterson, H, 1982, Fieldwork notes 1982 (Unpublished document). SCB16688.

<13> Scheduled Monument Consent documentation (Scheduling record). SCB18066.

<14> Hoskyn, K., 16/6/2005, Letter re Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 - Section 42 (Unpublished document). SCB19284.

<15> Hoskyn, K., 18/8/2005, Letter re Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 - Section 42 (Unpublished document). SCB19461.

<16> Wright, D. Fradley, M. Trick, S & Creighton, O, 2014, Geophysical and Topographical Survey report: Burwell Castle (Unpublished report). SCB46585.

Sources and further reading

---Bibliographic reference: Taylor, A.. Castles of Cambridgeshire.
<2>Article in serial: Clark, G.T.. 1881. Arch J 38. p. 268.
<3>Article in serial: Clark, G.T.. 1889. Arch J 46. p. 201.
<4>Article in serial: Lethbridge, T. C.. 1936. Excavations at Burwell Castle, Cambridgeshire. PCAS 36: 121-33.
<5>Bibliographic reference: Salzman, L.F (ed). 1948. The Victoria County History of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely. Volume 2. 19-20.
<6>Article in serial: Lethbridge, T.C.. 1950. Byzantine Influence in Late Saxon England. PCAS 43: 2-6. p. 2.
<7>Article in serial: Renn, D.F.. 1959. Mottes: A Classification. Antiquity 33: 106-12.
<8>Bibliographic reference: RCHM. 1972. An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the County of Cambridgeshire. Volume II. North-East Cambridgeshire. 41-42 (plan).
<9>Aerial Photograph:
<10>Scheduling record: 1997. Monument Number 29382.
<11>Unpublished document: JB. 1972. OS field notes.
<12>Unpublished document: Paterson, H. 1982. Fieldwork notes 1982.
<13>Scheduling record: Scheduled Monument Consent documentation.
<14>Unpublished document: Hoskyn, K.. 16/6/2005. Letter re Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 - Section 42.
<15>Unpublished document: Hoskyn, K.. 18/8/2005. Letter re Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 - Section 42.
<16>Unpublished report: Wright, D. Fradley, M. Trick, S & Creighton, O. 2014. Geophysical and Topographical Survey report: Burwell Castle.


Lethbridge Excavating at Burwell Castle © Cambridge County Council. Click to open in a new window.

Lethbridge Excavating at Burwell Castle © Cambridge County Council. Click to open in a new window.