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CHER Number:01926
Type of record:Monument
Name:Wisbech Castle

Summary - not yet available

Grid Reference:TF 461 095
Parish:Wisbech, Fenland, Cambridgeshire
Map:Show this site on map

Monument Type(s):

  • FORT (English Civil Wars - 1642 AD to 1651 AD)
  • ARCHITECTURAL FRAGMENT (Medieval - 1066 AD to 1539 AD)
  • CASTLE (Medieval - 1066 AD to 1539 AD)
  • CHAPEL (Medieval - 1066 AD to 1539 AD)
  • MOAT (Medieval - 1066 AD to 1539 AD)
  • TOWER (Medieval - 1066 AD to 1539 AD)
  • PRISON (Medieval - 1066 AD to 1539 AD)
  • DOVECOTE (Medieval - 1066 AD to 1539 AD)
  • GARDEN (Medieval - 1066 AD to 1539 AD)
  • COUNTRY HOUSE (Post Medieval - 1540 AD to 1900 AD)

Associated Finds:

  • BROOCH (Medieval - 1066 AD to 1539 AD)
  • SHERD (Medieval - 1066 AD to 1539 AD)

Associated Events:

  • Evaluation at Wisbech Library, 2008 (Ref: WIS LIB 08)
  • Community Excavation Project at Wisbech Castle, 2009 (Ref: WIS CAS 09)

Full description

4. The first fortification of this site was built by the orders of William I in 1086. It was of stone, and the buildings covered 2 acres, the whole area of the castle being 4 acres. A sketch plan of the castle made in 1794 when the site was finally cleared shows that it was nearly circular in form and probably belonged to the motte and bailey type. In 1236 it was badly damaged by a sea flood and was rebuilt only to be dismantled before the close of Henry III's reign. Through building operations in the C15, C17 and C19 all trace of the earthworks of the original castle have gone. It is said to have had a moat 40ft wide towards the town, and this is clearly shown on the 1794 plan round the northern side of the Inclosure fronting the market place.

10. It seems to be generally agreed that the first castle consisted of no more than a strongpoint constructed of timber and turves. It is quite possible that a structure of this kind existed at this place in Saxon times as a defence against the Danes. However William I erected a 'Castle of stone at Wisbech', the date for which has sometimes been given at 1071, but no mention of a castle here appears in the Domesday Book (1086), so it seems that the castle dates from 1087, the last year of the reign of William I. This was a very considerable building as indicated by its use and the recorded visits of important personages.
Although so little now remains, the pattern of the town centre clearly indicates the shape and extent of the original castle. A well still exists 'in the dungeons' within the garden of the present house. Once dug such a well usually remains, with some relining at intervals, and from its central position within the site it seems probable that the Norman Keep stood here. A 'high, strong wall' enclosed an area of about four acres. This wall was probably rebuilt towards the end of the C15 and part of an ancient wall remains along the passageway from Love Lane to Castle Square. When the Castle Almshouses in Love Lane were demolished and an excavation made in September 1971 for drains, the foundation of a massive wall was exposed adjacent to the pathway. The wall was cleaned out to a stepped base some 4ft 6in below ground level. The wall is 22in thick and is made of bright red bricks measuring 11in by 5,5in by 3in. The lime mortar which appeared to contain micaceous sand and chalk had become so hard that in a small portion of the wall which had to be removed the bricks usually broke rather than the mortar. The walls of the present bungalows, adjacent to the path, stand on this ancient foundation which no doubt dates from the rebuilding by Bishop Morton or his successor, Bishop Alcock towards the end of the C15.
On the town side of the Castle wall there was a deep ditch or moat said to be 40ft wide. Excavations on the site of Tesco's on the Market Place gave proof of the existence of the castle wall and the extensive moat, the gradual filling in of which seems to have extended into the C16. JE Bridger in the Annual Report of the Wisbech Society 1956, records finds made during these excavations and the more interesting specimens are preserved at the Wisbech and Fenland Museum.
In a paper read by Alex Peckover on June 8th 1897 at the Castle, we read:
"of a chapel, garden and dovehouse within the enclosure and of the moat being cleaned out in 1404. Some years ago a massive wall of large lumps of ragstone was found on the S side of the Crescent, and in the Museum is a Norman capital dug out of the Castle moat and possibly belonging to the Castle Chapel".
It can be seen that very little physical evidence of the original Norman Castle remains, but we do have a fair amount of documentary information even if it is short of detail about the actual building. One small clue may be derived from a complaint made in 1577 against the Bishop of Ely (Ric Coxe - Fenland Notes and Queries, 3, 1895 - 1897, L Gaches):
"With lettinge Wisbitche Castill utterly to goe to ruinne and pullynge down and selling all the leade and timber of the keepe of the said Castill."
To this the Bishop answered "The house of the Castle is not decayed, but ther standeth in the middste of the Castle yarde an olde little rounde towre wch in old tyme had divers lodgings in it after the maner of groce buildinge wch was used in those daies and was sore decayed within, long and many yeres before I cam to this seie in Bishop Weste, Bishop Goodericke and Thirlbie'styme that noe man durst go into it, nether was occupied, as I suppose this hundred yeres. I at ther erneste requestes caused theinner parts to be pulled down wch remayned (for a great part was fallen before) but lefte the Towre stande wholy which in verie deede dothe make as faire a showe of the Castle still as ever was."
The 'little rounde towre' referred to was therefore much earlier than Bishop Morton's time and was possibly the keep of the Norman castle and was probably used over a very long period as a jail. Accounts are given of some early prisoners, eg Richard Lambert of Lynn, illegally imprisoned in 1315, who "was so inhumanly gnawed by toads and other venomous vermin that his life was despaired of". There were also many royal visits, by John, Edward I and Edward IV. Weddings etc took place in castle chapel.

9. Single sherd of late Medieval pottery found from a large deposit from the upper filling of the Castle moat, recovered during contractors' work in 1955. The deposit dates generally to the late C15 and early C16. The group is composed of predominantly Grimston and Bourne types and the sherd can be seen as an obvious outlier, probably reaching the important port of Wisbech through a traded consignment.

11. Pottery group from the castle moat: This group, including the large quantity of pottery, leather and some metal and glass was recovered from the upper levels of the filled in moat during contractors work in 1955. No archaeological record was kept of the circumstances of the discovery, though photographs taken at the time show the group to be homogenous, lying in the upper levels of the filled in ditch. There is no historical dating for the group though the pottery would suggest a late C15 - early C16 date. The pottery is a useful group in that the predominant types cone from areas to the north west and east of Wisbech, from Bourne and Grimston respectively. (General Bourne types, Grimston types, Sgrafitto (only two vessels in the group) miscellaneous red wares, Fine wares: Cistercian, Tudor Green, Netherlands Maiolica, Flower vase, Miscellaneous types Dutch Imports, Imported stonewares) Parts of the castle were moved to various buildings in the town.

13. The castle was still standing at the time of the English Civil War, when it was refortified and a total of £11.2s.6d was spent of repairing the drawbridge. A further redoubt was built at Horseshoe Sluice. The castle was perfectly situated to defend Cambridgeshire from Crowland, and also blocked the route of Royalist forces trying to relieve the siege of Kings Lynn in 1643. After the war the defences were slighted, and in 1658 John Thurloe (Secretary to the Commonwealth Government) built a fine mansion on the site. This was demolished in the early 19th century to make way for the current building.

15. An evaluation was undertaken in July 2008 recorded deep stratified remains some 3m deep at Wisbech Library. The earliest deposits dated to the early medieval period, possibly relating to the castle moat, as part of the original moat itself or as an associated function. In turn, this was overlaid by post medieval deposits including two brick walls built directly on top of one another, thought to relate to the Georgian development of the site around the castle, particularly the introduction of a Baptist chapel on the site in 1803 and its later expansion in 1835.

16. Archaeological investigations were undertaken along with a series of archaeology themed events as part of a Community Excavation at Wisbech Castle during 2009 and 2010. The excavations at the site ran for fourteen consecutive days from the 16th to 29th September 2009. This was preceded by non-intrusive site surveys including geophysical ground penetrating radar and building recording of the vaults on the 2nd and 3rd July 2009. The investigations were run by Oxford Archaeology East and funded by Cambridgeshire County Council through a Your Heritage Grant (Heritage Lottery Fund).

The site occupied by the current Wisbech Castle built in 1816 has been the location of other significant buildings for nearly 1000 years. The first building, a Norman motte and bailey castle is thought to have been constructed around 1097, this was replaced by a palace for the Bishops of Ely in 1478 which was itself demolished and replaced by Thurloes mansion in 1656, elements of Thurloe's Mansion survive in the present building (also known as Wisbech Castle).

This aim of this investigation was to find any evidence of the remains of the Bishops Palace or other related structures as little written or documentary evidence remains. Four trenches and forty 1m by 1m test pits were investigated located in four different areas of the site: the lower gardens, the vaults, the upper garden and in the memorial garden. The trenches were located over targeted areas identified as anomalies and possible walls in the geophysical survey. The test pits were spread out across the site in search of any other archaeological evidence or remains. The trenches revealed the remains of walls, demolition rubble, large ditches and pits as well as flood silt layers dating to the period of the Bishops Palace. The test pits were used to identify the continuation or absence of rubble layers and structure remains as well as looking for the continuation of the vaults from above ground in the upper gardens and memorial garden. Test pits in the vaults gave an insight into structural techniques as well as potential evidence of an earlier structure pre-dating the vaults. Sequences of flood silts were also recorded in the vaults which are early medieval in date.

17. There may well have been five castles on the present site. The first one would have been a primitive structure of turves, with no stones involved. After 1066 William the Conqueror established the mark of his authority in every important place, and the town of Wisbech was deemed worthy of a stone fortress. In 1236, both Town and Castle were swept away in a terrible inundation. The Castle remained in ruins for the better half of a century and then was rebuilt and became one of ten castles, palaces and manor houses attached to the See of Ely. In the times of persecution, Wisbech Castle became a state ecclesiastical prison, incarcerating Catholics in the reigns of Elizabeth, James I and Charles I and Protestants in that of Queen Mary. Since Wisbech was a Cromwellian area the Caslte, by now in a state of terminal dilapidation, was sold in 1658 to the Right Honourable John Thurloe, Cromwell's Secretary of State. He had the ruined castle demolished and replaced it by a most elegant house designed by Peter Mills, a pupil of Inigo Jones. At the restoration, Thurloe's Mansion reverted to the See of Ely and was occupied by members of the Southwell family over a period of 105 years. In 1792 it was put up for sale, and purchased by Joseph Medworth, a former Wisbech Charity boy who had succeded in business. He offered it for sale to the Corporation for the use of the Grammar School, but they declined. Believing that they were waiting for his demise in hopes of a lower price Medworth had the mansion demolished. Using much of the same materials, he managed to replace it by the more pedestrian building seen today(2000).

Sources and further reading

---Bibliographic reference: Renn, D.F.. 1968. Norman Castles in Britain. p. 349.
---Bibliographic reference: Wilson, D.M.. 1964. Anglo-Saxon Ornamental Metalwork, 700-1100, in the British Museum. p. 114.
---Article in serial: Moorhouse, S.. 1974. A distinctive type of late medieval pottery in the Eastern Midlands: A definition and preliminary statement. PCAS 65 pp.46-59..
---Bibliographic reference: Taylor, A.. Castles of Cambridgeshire.
<1>Article in serial: RB Dawbarn. 1879. JBAA 35. p. 59 - 67.
<2>Article in serial: Clark, G.T.. 1881. Arch J 38. p. 268.
<3>Bibliographic reference: Salzman L.F. (ed). 1938. The Victoria County History of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely. Volume 1. 323, (ill).
<4>Bibliographic reference: Salzman, L.F (ed). 1948. The Victoria County History of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely. Volume 2. 47.
<5>Bibliographic reference: Pugh, R.B. (ed). 1953. The Victoria County History of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely. Volume 4. 251 - 254.
<7>Map: 1968. OS 1:2500 map.
<9>Article in serial: Moorhouse, S.. 1974. A distinctive type of late medieval pottery in the Eastern Midlands: A definition and preliminary statement. PCAS 65 pp.46-59..
<10>Bibliographic reference: Anniss, G.. 1977. A History of Wisbech Castle. p. 2-4.
<11>Bibliographic reference:
<12>Unpublished document: S Marshall. 1997. The Parish Church of Wisbech.
<13>Bibliographic reference: Osborne, M.. 1990. Cromwellian Fortifications in Cambridgeshire. p.34-5.
<14>Leaflet: Unknown. Wisbech Castle: A Brief History.
<15>Unpublished report: Phillips, T.. 2008. Wisbech Library, Wisbech, Cambridgeshire. Archaeological Evaluation Report. Oxford Archaeology East Report 1048
<16>Unpublished report: Fletcher, T.. 2010. Archaeological excavations at Wisbech Castle, A Community Archaeology Project: Community Excavation Report. Oxford Archaeology East Report 1137
<17>Bibliographic reference: The Wisbech Society. 1998. Wisbech - Forty perspectives of a Fenland town. 9.

Related records

MCB17292Related to: Possible bastion at Horseshoe Sluice, Wisbech (Monument)