Wisbech Castle

Wisbech Castle was a stone to motte-and-bailey 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, it probably replaced an earlier timer and earth complex. [1] The layout 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.[2] 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.

Building on the site of Wisbech Castle

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* listed status on 31 October 1983 and the vaults Grade II listed in 1969.[3]


Medieval periodEdit

The Doomsday Book makes no mention of a castle at Wisbech.[4]

King John travelled from Lynn to Lincolnshire via Wisbech, and stayed at the castle on 12 October 1216.[5]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.[6]

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.[7]

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

King Edward visited the castle in 1292, 1298, 1300 and 1305.[8]

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 [sic] toads and other venomous vermin he was so inhumanely gnawed that his life was despaired of".[9]

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.[10]

In 1348, a gallows was erected in Gallow Marsh.[citation needed]

In 1350, John de Walton was lodged in the castle accused of trespass and rebellion.[11]

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.[12]

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.[13]

‘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’.[14]

The Constable's dwelling was a hall, which was newly 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, a new Floud Gate and a new water gate were erected and a new pons tractabilis(Bridge) towards the church.[15] 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.[16] 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 a 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.[citation needed]

In 1443, the houses and chambers called Le Dungeon are allotted to the Constable.[citation needed] In 1473 Simon Oldmedow, of Lynn was the plaintiff in a case against the constable of Wisbech castle and the bailiffs of Wisbech. The complaint that he was being imprisoned at the instance of Thomas Goche, Edmund Pepyr and John Richeman, Corpus cum cause. The record is held at the UK National Archives at Kew.[citation needed] In 1476, the prison was repaired.[citation needed]

During 1478–83, the Bishop's Palace was constructed of bricks measuring 11 inches in length and 2.5 inches thick with a dressing of Ketton stone. The property's cellars and foundations can still be seen. The palace was extended by Bishop Alcock.[2]

In 1513, the dovecote was completely destroyed.[citation needed] In 1515, a prisoner George Carman, saddler was the plaintiff in a case against the gaoler of the bishop's of Ely's prison in Wisbech Castle. He was being continually imprisoned in defiance of a writ of Corpus cum cause and subpoena, the record is kept at the National Archives, Kew.[citation needed]

16th centuryEdit

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.[17]

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.[18]

In 1580 the bishop was enjoined to put the castle "in order and strength" to receive prisoners, and the first were received in October.[7] 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.[19]

In 1583 a prisoner, Dr Andrew Oxenbridge, is recorded as taking the oath of supremacy.[20] In 1584 it was suggested that the number of prisoners be limited to twenty.

In 1584 John Feckenham (aka John Howman) died in the castle. Imprisoned in the Tower of London during the reign of Edward VI, he was made Abbott of Westminister by Mary Tudor but 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.[21]

During the reign of Elizabeth I while the seat of the bishopric was left vacant, the Queen's halmote court to dealt with cases such as the surrender (transfer) of land at 'Stowecroft', 'Sybbilsholme', 'Harecrofte' by Jacomina Robinson to her son John Crosse in July 1586.[22]

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.[23] Philip Strangeways was one of the missionary priests imprisoned at Wisbech at the end of Elizabeth's reign.[24]

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.[25]

Dr Francis Young's research indicates that there were at least 111 prisoners.[26]

17th centuryEdit

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 escaping from the castle and recapture, he was martyred at Lancaster in July 1600.[27] A fellow prisoner in Wisbech Castle was Dr. Antony Champney.[28]

William Chester was Constable from 1605 until his death in the castle in 1608; he was buried in St Peter's churchyard.[29]

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.[30]

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.[31] The use of the castle for recusant prisoners ceased in 1627.[32]

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[2] 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.[33] 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.[2]

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'.[34]

John Thurloe esq,(Secretary of State) of Lincoln's Inn, Middlesex purchased the manors of Wisbech Barton, Elm and Todd St.Giles and the 'castle estate', sold off some property, demolished the bishop's palace, and then built and furnished a mansion, aka Thurloe's mansion (demolished by Joseph Medworth c1816), just before the Restoration of the Monarchy, after which his house and estates in Wisbech were repossessed by the Bishop of Ely.[35][36] Jonas Moore's Mapp of the Great Levell of the Fens (1658) shows the town with a church and a large building surrounded by a moat, Thurloe's coat of arms is one of those nearby. [[William Dugdale noted that a lock at the Horseshoe (on the River Nene) erected in an earlier phase of the drainage work, which cost 'cost £7000 at least' had since been 'pulled down, as useless, and is disposed of to Mr. Secretary Thurloe, towards his building of that fair new house in Wisbech, which stands where the old Castle was'. [37]He also built a property (or properties) nearby for his sons.[38]

In 1664 Matthew, Lord Bishop of Ely was liable for 24 hearths, in 1662 it had been 25, one later being pulled down.[39]

Henry Pierson (died 1664), born in Wisbech was the first post-Restoration tenant to lease the castle from the Bishop of Ely.[40]

The Southwell family were tenants for over 100 years.[41]

18th centuryEdit

The household goods of Mrs Edwards were auctioned at the castle on 8 July 1724.[42]

'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.[43]

In 1778/1779, the Italian author and poet Giuseppe Marc'Antonio Baretti (1718–1789) resided with Edward Southwell and his family living at the Castle for about a fortnight. Afterwards, he published a series of letters Lettere Familiari de Giuseppe Baretti including a description of his Wisbech visit, including attending the race meet and a theatre performance. [44]

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.[45]

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.[46]

19th centuryEdit

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".[47]

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.[48]

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 17 October 1827.

The Rev.W.Holmes ran a Boarding School at the castle for young gentlemen from about 1830 until the 1840s.[49][50] By 1842 F. Ewen's name also featured in the adverts.[51] By 1884 the school was advertised as a Boarding and Day School of Rev.W.Holmes & Son.[52]

Charles Boucher of the Castle is reported to have broken his arm.[53]

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[54]

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.[55]

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.[56]

Mr FW Bradley of the Castle married Miss May Langley, youngest daughter of Mr J Langley, of Primrose Farm Tilney at Tilney All Saints on Wednesday, 11 September 1889.[57]

20th centuryEdit

At the turn of the century The Castle tenant was still the 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.[58] In the 1920s the lawn was laid out as a lawn tennis court. [59]He remained in occupation as a tenant of Lord Peckover for 48 years until 1935. At this time there was still a statue of Mercury (from the garden of Thurloe’s Castle) above the vaults in the garden. [60].

In 1955 excavations on the site of Messrs. Keightley's new building in the Market Place revealed evidence of a wall and extensive moat, in which were found pottery, leather sole shoes, slim fitting with long pointed toes and an early 15th century gilt spur.[61]

Mrs F C D Fendick bought the property in 1957. Her husband Tee Gordon Fendick, M.A. LL.B. Wrote an article 'Wisbech castle: Past and Present' published in 1960 [62] in it, he refers to the building's secrets, including a bricked up space between two rooms. After his death 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 (2020) the base for the 'Wisbech Words' and 'Wisbech Stanza' 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). [63] George Anniss lived on site in the 1970s and carried out research leading to the publication of A History of Wisbech Castle.[64]

The Castle was used as a Professional Development Centre, providing a venue for meetings and training.

21st centuryEdit

The castle has been used as a location for television and film drama. Following the BBC's 1999 David Copperfield 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.[65]The report was published in July 2010.[66] The Wisbech Castle Community Archaeology Project was 'Highly Commended' in the Best Community Archaeology Project category at the 2010 British Archaeological Awards.[67] 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).[68]

It was registered as an asset of community value.[69]

In February 2018, Wisbech Town Council acquired 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.[70] 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.[71]

There have been school visits, and the property is licensed for civil weddings.[72]

Constables of the CastleEdit

  • 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
  • c.1609–1619 Rowland Bradford
  • 1633 Matthias Taylor, Esq[73]


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Further readingEdit

  • Watson, William (1827), History of Wisbech
  • Watts, William (1833), The History of Wisbech, with an Historical Sketch of the Fens
  • Walker & Craddock (1849), History of Wisbech and the Fens
  • Reynold, P (1958), The Wisbech Stirs, London
  • Gardiner, F.J. (1898), History of Wisbech and Neighbourhood 1848–1898
  • Anniss, George (1977), A history of Wisbech castle, E A R O
  • Wisbech: One of the 'gem' towns of England, Charles N.Veal & co, 1980
  • Atkinson, T.D.; et al. (2002), "Wisbech: Recusants in the castle", in Pugh, R.B. (ed.), A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4, City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds, London: Victoria County History, pp. 252–253
  • "Welcome to Wisbech Castle", Wisbech Castle (Cambridgeshire County Council), 2010, archived from the original on 15 July 2015
  • Farrer, William; Brownbill, J., eds. (1911), "Townships: Cheetham", A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 4, London, pp. 259–262

External linksEdit

Coordinates: 52°39′51″N 0°09′36″E / 52.66423°N 0.16011°E / 52.66423; 0.16011