Wisbech Castle

Wisbech Castle is believed to have been a motte-and-bailey earthwork castle built to fortify Wisbech (historically in the Isle of Ely but now in the Fenland District of Cambridgeshire, England) on the orders of William I in 1072. This was probably oval in shape and size, on the line still marked by the Circus. The original design and layout is unknown. It was rebuilt in stone in 1087.[1] The castle was reputedly destroyed in a flood in 1236. In the 15th century repairs were becoming too much for the ageing structure, and a new building was started in 1478 under John Morton, Bishop of Ely (later Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of England). His successor, John Alcock, extended and completed the re-building and died in the Castle in 1500. Subsequent bishops also spent considerable sums on this new palace. The Bishop's Palace was built of brick with dressings of Ketton Stone, but its exact location is unknown.

In later Tudor times the rebuilt castle became a notorious prison. The site was again redeveloped in the mid-17th century and yet again in 1816 by Joseph Medworth. A 1794 plan of the 'castle' exists; this only shows the 'castle' as it existed at the end of the 18th century, prior to the development of the site to its current form.

The current building known as 'The Castle' was given Grade II* list status on 31 October 1983.


Medieval period

Doomsday Book makes no mention of a castle at Wisbech.

King John travelled from Lynn to Lincolnshire via Wisbech, and stayed at the castle on 12 October 1216. His baggage train is reported to have got into difficulties crossing a river or estuary and the wagons and contents, including the regalia and other treasures, were lost. In recent years, treasure seekers have tried to find the location of this incident and the lost treasures.[2]

The castle and town of Wisbech were swept away in a storm in 1236, although the castle appears to have soon been rebuilt as a keeper or Constable is named in 1246.[3]

In 1297 John de Drommon, a prisoner, was released to serve King Edward I against the French.

King Edward visited the castle in 1292, 1298, 1300 and 1305.[4]

In 1315 Richard Lambert of Lenne (Lynn), a merchant, brought an action against William le Blowere and others for a conspiracy to imprison him. He had been "thrown in the depth of the gaol of Wysebech among thieves, where by toads and other venomous vermin he was so inhumanely gnawed that his life was despaired of".[5]

The castle tower was repaired during 1332-1333 using six fotmel (approximately 420 lb) of lead, and a year later the bakehouse wall was buttressed using 6,000 bricks.[6]

In 1348 a gallows was erected in Gallow Marsh.

In 1350 John de Walton was lodged in the castle accused of trespass and rebellion.[7]

There were several fisheries belonging to the manor of Wisbech alone, in the 1350s the reeves of Walton and Leverington each sent a porpoise to Wisbech Castle, and the reeve of Terrington a swordfish.[8]

In 1355 a licence was issued to John Boton, vicar of Wysebeche, to marry Hugh Lovet of Lincoln, the bishop's domicellus, and Jane de Pateshalle in the chapel of the Castle of Wysebech.[9]

‘On 23 July 1381 Thomas Arundel, Bishop of Ely, by his letters dated from Wisbech Castle gave directions for the excommunication of those involved in insurrection in Cambridge’.[10]

The Constable's dwelling was a hall, which was new built of free-stone, in 1404, near the gates of the Castle, and the chambers at the ends of the same, and upon the gates. The drawbridge (le Draughtbrigg) is mentioned and the moat around the 'Julie' was scoured out.

In 1409 new Floud Gate and a new water gate were erected and a new pons tractabilis towards the church.[11] In 1410 a new 'Pons tractabilis' towards the church, a chapel within and a bridge without the castle, also a garden and dove house (destroyed in 1531) all walled around and moated.[12] In 1410 Sir John Colvile was the governor or Constable, a steel seal used by him has a representation of a castle in the form of fortress, with circular keep. A wax copy may be seen in Wisbech & Fenland Museum.

In 1414 prisoners taken by the Earl of Dorchester were kept here.

In 1443, the houses and chambers called Le Dungeon are allotted to the Constable.

In 1476 the prison was repaired.

From 1478-83 the Bishop's palace was constructed of bricks measuring 11 inches in length and 2.5 inches thick with dressing of Ketton stone. The property's cellars and foundations can still be seen. The palace was extended by Bishop Alcock.[1]

In 1513 the dovecote was totally destroyed.

16th century

During the reign of Queen Mary (1553-1558) Protestants were imprisoned here during her restoration of Roman Catholicism. William Wolsey and Robert Piggott were imprisoned but then removed and later burnt at the stake.[13]

Queen Elizabeth I passed into law the Act of Uniformity 1558. In 1572 the Privy Council asked the bishop to report on the suitability of the castle for holding papists.

In 1577 Cecilia Samuel was tried, convicted and hanged in Ely for drowning her newborn son in the ditch called the Castell dike in Wisbech.[14]

In 1580 the bishop was enjoined to put the castle "in order and strength" to receive prisoners, and the first were received in October.[3] In October 1580 Roger Goad, Dr Bridgewater and William Fulke engaged in the examination of John Bourne, a glover and some others of the Family of Love who were confined in the castle.[15]

In 1583 a prisoner, Dr Andrew Oxenbridge, is recorded as taking the oath of supremacy.[16] In 1584 it was suggested that the number of prisoners be limited to twenty.

In 1585 John Feckenham (aka John Howman) died in the castle. A former prisoner in the Tower of London during the reign of Edward VI, made an Abbott by Mary Tudor and sent back to the Tower by Elizabeth I. While a prisoner in Wisbech he is said to have paid for a market cross to be erected. Later it was changed to an obelisk, but it was removed in April 1811.[17]

In the last years of the 16th century there were 33 Catholics held prisoner in Wisbech Castle, almost all of them priests, including the Jesuit priests, Christopher Holywood, William Weston and lay brother Thomas Pounde. A quarrel arose among them that came to be known as the "Wisbech Stirs". In the winter of 1594-95 a substantial group (18 of the 33) wished to separate themselves from the rest and adopt a regular communal life. This was largely impossible without appearing to castigate those who did not want to make this change and on account of the limited space. The unwilling minority argued, which only confirmed the others in their resolve, and the separation was carried out in February 1595, but came to an end with a general reconciliation in November of that same year.[18] Philip Strangeways was one of the missionary priests imprisoned at Wisbech at the end of Elizabeth's reign.[19]

Other leading Roman Catholics were imprisoned for political reasons, at the time of the Spanish Armada; Robert Catesby and Francis Tresham may have also been held at Wisbech. Later they were principal conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot.[20]

Dr Francis Young's research indicates that there were at least 111 prisoners.[21]

17th century

John and Robert Nutter were brothers, born in Burnley. After university, both studied at the English College in Rheims before being ordained. Soon after returning to England to minister to recusant communities, they were captured and sent to the Tower of London. Robert was tortured before being forced to see his brother being hanged, drawn and quartered. Robert was eventually released and transported to France, but recaptured on his return to England and sent to Newgate, the Marshalsea and thence to Wisbech Castle. After escape from the castle and recapture, he was martyred at Lancaster in July 1600.[22]

William Chester was Constable from 1605 until his death in the castle in 1608; he was buried in St Peter's churchyard.[23]

There is a memorial to Matthias Taylor, Constable of the Castle in St Peter's Church. During his tenure three Jesuits escaped in 1614 and in 1615 another five escaped custody. His monument states that three sons, five daughters and 22 grandchildren survived him.[24]

In 1616 a priest, Thomas Tunstal, escaped from the castle to Norfolk. Sir Hamon L'Estrange had him pursued and apprehended. He was tried at Norwich and condemned and executed.[25] The use of the castle for recusant prisoners ceased in 1627.[26]

During the English Civil War, after Oliver Cromwell had been appointed governor of the Isle of Ely for his activity in swaying it to the interest of Parliament, he refortified the castle and town[1] with outposts at the Horseshoe Sluice and Leverington. The soldiers stationed to defend the town were commanded by Colonel Sir John Palgrave and Captain William Dodson; and the ammunition, and other warlike stores, were supplied from a Dutch ship, which the Queen had dispatched from Holland for the use of the Royalists, but which had been captured.[27] In 1643 the castle was used to secure the river Nene frontier and to block any attempt by the Newark garrison to relieve the besieged King's Lynn Royalists. The castle was armed with cannon 'Great Guns' from Ely and money from the town paid for ironwork to repair the drawbridge. The garrison at Wisbech was commanded by Lt Col Dodson and carried out skirmishing in the surrounding Fenland. The naval blockade, siege and bombardment brought capitulation from King's Lynn after three weeks. Peterborough was occupied by the Parliamentarians before the capture of Crowland.[1]

Sir John Palgrave commanded a Norfolk regiment at this time stationed at Wisbech. His second-in-command was Sir Edward Askey. In July Torrell Jocelyn wrote to the Speaker of the House of Commons expressing the concerns of the town's residents about the behaviour of their men, and his hope that the recently arrived regiment led by Sir John Holland would do better.

Captain Thomas Pigge of Walsoken was taken prisoner by the Earl of Essex in October 1634 and exchanged at Burghley House 'on a bond of £2,000 never to bear arms again'.[28]

John Thurloe purchased the castle, which he rebuilt and furnished just before the Restoration of the Monarchy, after which it was restored to the Bishop of Ely.[29][30] He also built a property (or properties) nearby for his sons.[31]

Henry Pierson (died 1664), born in Wisbech was the first post-Restoration tenant to lease the castle from the Bishop of Ely.[32]

The Southwell family were tenants for over 100 years.[33]

18th century

The household goods of Mrs Edwards were auctioned at the castle on 8 July 1724.[34]

'Notice To be SOLD, A Very good Milch Ass, with a She-foal a Fortnight old. Enquire at the Castle in Wisbeach', was advertised in the Stamford Mercury on 7 July 1737.

To be sold by auction At the New Theatre (now the Angles Theatre) in Deadman's Lane, in Wisbech on Tuesday the eighth of November, 1791, and the following days. On the death of Edward Southwell, All the elegant and genuine HOUSEHOLD FURNITURE, LINEN, and CHINA, brought from the Castle (his late Dwelling-House) in Wisbech, a sale not being permitted on the Premises.[35]

An Act of 1793, 33 Geo.III c.53, empowered the Bishop of Ely to sell the castle. James Lord, bishop of Ely put up the castle for auction in six lots at the Rainbow coffee house, Cornhill, London on 13 November 1793. Joseph Medworth was the highest bidder for all six lots, totalling £2,305.[36]

19th century

Joseph Medworth was elected Town Bailiff in 1809.

William Richards, in his history of Lynn Vol I published in 1812, describes the castle site. "The detached (castle) buildings have been removed and some elegant rows of houses have been erected.The plan of a large Circus has already also been laid out, about one half which has already been built: when the plan is completed it will add greatly to the pleasantness and beauty of the town. The Castle is still standing, and likely to stand, with what may be called fair play, as long as any of the new buildings, although it has been built now over 150 years, and was, at the time of the sale, stated (even by his lordship, it seems) to be in a decayed and ruinous condition".[37]

In January 1814 the castle was temporarily used by the Seminary for Young ladies run by Miss Diggle and Miss Oldham whilst their property in The Crescent was completed.[38]

The present Regency villa formed the centre of a major redevelopment of the area in 1816; thus the site has been continuously inhabited for nearly a thousand years.

The Castle owner Joseph Medworth died on 17th October 1827.

The Rev.W.Holmes ran a Boarding School at the castle for young gentlemen from about 1830 until the 1840s.[39][40] By 1842 F. Ewen's name also featured in the adverts.[41] By 1884 the school was advertised as a Boarding and Day School of Rev.W.Holmes & Son.[42]

Charles Boucher of the Castle is reported to have broken his arm.[43]

On Friday, 30 October 1846 the Lincolnshire Chronicle paper reports ‘Births’ -‘At the Castle Wisbech on the 15th inst., the lady of Charles Boucher. jun., Esq., of a son[44]

On Friday 24 March 1854 after the death of the tenant C. Boucher the executors (Bridgman, Pope & Baxter) of Joseph Medworth advertised in The Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury for a tenant for the castle, coach house and stables.

In March 1864 the castle was sold at a public auction for £1,300 to William Peckover FSA and later passed down the family.[45]

The will of Chas. Boucher, Esq.,(died December 1865 aged 82)of Wisbech, father of the late Charles Boucher was reported in the press on 10 August 1866.[46]

20th century

Since 1890 or earlier the castle tenant was a dentist F W Bradley. ‘’The Northern Whig’ No 28,517 reported on Tuesday 2 January 1900 ‘Births’ - Bradley December 31, at Wisbech Castle, Cambs, the wife of F.W.Bradley, of a daughter. On 16 May 1903 a chimney fire set the roof on fire at the castle. It took 12 hours to extinguish.[47] He remained in occupation until at least the mid 1920s.

Mrs F C D Fendick bought the property in 1957. After the death of her husband Tee Gordon Fendick, M.A. LL.B. in the 1960s, she transferred ownership to Isle of Ely County Council in March 1969. After a merger this became the Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely County Council, then later Cambridgeshire County Council.

The Castle features in the novels and short stories of John Gordon and other writers and poets. The Castle is currently (2019) the base for the 'Wisbech Words' poetry and literary events.

The castle was to be used as an educational museum for schools. A concealed fire escape was installed. The Fendick Room, previously the drawing room was to be used for meetings of a cultural and educational nature (maximum capacity - 30 persons). [48] George Anniss lived on site in the 1970s and carried out research leading to the publication of A History of Wisbech Castle.[49]

The Castle was used as a Professional Development Centre, providing a venue for meetings and training. There have been school visits, and the property is licensed for civil weddings.[50]

21st century

It has been registered as an asset of community value.[51]

In recent years the castle has continued to be used as a location for television and film drama. Following the BBC's 1999 David Copperfield and Atlantic Films, 2008 Dean Spanley both used the building and the Crescent for parts of their productions.

In September 2009 excavations were carried out on the site by Oxford Archaeology East and local volunteers. The report was published in July 2010.[52] The Wisbech Castle Community Archaeology Project was 'Highly Commended' in the Best Community Archaeology Project category at the 2010 British Archaeological Awards.[53] As a result of the dig, local volunteers formed a local archaeology group – the Wisbech and District Archaeology Society (WADAS) - now FenArch (Fenland Archaeological Society).[54]

In February 2018 Wisbech Town council took a lease from Cambridgeshire County Council and took over the running of the site. The castle project is run by a Castle Management committee of Wisbech Town council and a Castle Working Party of councillors and volunteers.[55] In November 2019 an open day was held at the castle to mark the 10th anniversaries of the 2009 dig and the formation of Fenland Archaeological Society (FenArch). The finds from the 2009 dig, now held by Wisbech & Fenland Museum, were loaned for the exhibition.[56]

Constables of the Castle

  • 1246 William Justice
  • 1262 Simon de Dullingham
  • 1308 Richard de Halstead (or Halsted)
  • 1401 Thomas De Bramstone (Braunstone?)
  • 1408 Sir John de Rochford
  • 1410 Sir John de Colvile
  • 1446 Sir Andrew Hoggard or Ogard
  • 1476 Sir Thomas Grey
  • 1489 Sir James Hobart or Sir Thomas Hobart
  • 1525 Walter And Miles Hubbard
  • 1531 Thomas Megges,
  • Sir Richard Cromwell
  • 1605 William Chester, Sen, Esq
  • c1609-1619 Rowland Bradford
  • 1633 Matthias Taylor, Esq[57]


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Further reading


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