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Wisbech castle is believed to have been a motte-and-bailey castle 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 as on the line still marked by the Crescent . The Norman castle, reputedly was destroyed during a devastating flood of 1236, the original design and layout is still unknown. It was rebuilt in stone in 1087.[1] In the 15th century repairs were becoming too much for the ageing structure, and it was decided to create a new building, starting 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.

Building on the site of Wisbech Castle

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



Mediaeval PeriodEdit

King John travelling from Lynn to Lincolnshire came by way of Wisbech and stayed at Wisbech 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. Finding the location of this incident and the lost treasures has been the cause of the activities of treasure seekers even in recent years. [2]

The castle and town of Wisbech were swept away in a storm in 1236.[3]

Edward I visited the castle in 1292, 1298, 1300 and 1305 [4] In 1315 Richard Lambert of Lenne (Lynn), 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] In 1350 John de Walton was lodged in the castle accused of trespass and rebellion.[6]

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.[7]

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. 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]

16th CenturyEdit

During the reign of Queen Mary (1553-1558) Protestants were imprisoned here during her pursuit of the restoration of Roman Catholicism in England and Ireland. William Wolsey and Robert Piggott after a period of incarceration were removed and later burnt at the stake. [8]

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 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 1583 a prisoner Dr Andrew Oxenbridge is recorded as taking the oath of supremacy. [9] In 1584 it was suggested that the number of prisoners be limited to twenty.

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.[10] Philip Strangeways was one of the missionary priests imprisoned at Wisbech at the end of Elizabeth's reign.[11]

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

17th CenturyEdit

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 3 sons and 5 daughters and 22 grandchildren survived him. [12]

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. [13] The use of the castle for recusant prisoners ceased in 1627.[14]

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 caused the Castle and town to be re-fortified [1] with outposts at the Horseshoe Sluice & Leverington. The soldiers stationed to defend the town were commanded by Colonel Sir John Palgrave and Caotain 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. [15]. In 1643 the castle was used to secure the river Nene frontier and block any attempt from 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 to pay 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 the 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 expressing the concerns the town's residents had 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'. [16]

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.[17][18] He also built a property (or properties) nearby for his sons.[19]

Henry Pierson (died 1664), born in Wisbech was the first post restoration tenant to lease the castle from the Bishop of Ely. [20]

The Southwell family were tenants for over 100 hundred years. [21]

18th CenturyEdit

An Act of 1793, 33 Geo.III.,..53 empowered the Bishop of Ely to sell the castle. James Lord, bishop of Ely put up the castle for auction in 6 lots at the Rainbow coffee house, Cornhill, London on Wednesday, 13 November 1793. Joseph Medworth as the highest bidder for all six lots totalling £2,305.[22]

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".[23]

19th CenturyEdit

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

In March 1864 the castle was sold at a public auction for £1,300 to Mr William Peckover, F.S.A.and later passed down the family. [24]

20th CenturyEdit

Mrs F.C.D Fendick bought the property in 1957 and following the death of her husband Mr Tee Gordon Fendick,M.A. LL.B. in the 1960s, passed 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 was used as a Professional Development Centre, providing a venue for meetings and training. School visits took place and the property is licensed for Civil Weddings. [25]

It has been registered as an asset of community value.[26]

In recent years The Castle has been used as a location for television and film drama. The BBC's 1999 David Copperfield and Atlantic Films, 2008 Dean Spanley both utilised 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 July 2010.[27]

The Wisbech Castle Community Archaeology Project was 'Highly Commended' in the Best Community Archaeology Project category at the 2010 British Archaeological Awards. [28]

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); initially meeting at The Castle before moving to Mendi's restaurant on the Old Market. [29]

In February 2018 Wisbech Town council took out 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.

Constables of the CastleEdit

  • 1246 William Justice
  • 1262 Simon de Dullingham
  • 1308 Richard de Halstead
  • 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 Thomas Hobart
  • 1525 Walter And Miles Hubbard
  • 1531 Thomas Megges, Arm
  • Sir Richard Cromwell
  • 1605 William Chester, Sen, Esq
  • c1609-1619 Rowland Bradford
  • 1633 Matthias Taylor, Esq [30]


  1. ^ a b c d Mike Osborne (2013). Defending Cambridgeshire: The Military Landscape from Prehistory to Present. The History Press.
  2. ^ F.J.Gardiner (1898). History of Wisbech and Neighborhood. Gardiner and co.
  3. ^ a b "Cambridgeshire HER". Heritage Gateway.
  4. ^ A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Vol 4, City of Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds. Victoria County History. 2002. pp. 251–252.
  5. ^ W.D. Sweeting, ed. (1900). Fenland Notes & Queries Vol IV.
  6. ^ Wisbech Society (1975). 36th Annual Report.
  7. ^ George Anniss (1977). A History of Wisbech Castle. EARO.
  8. ^ F J Gardiner (1898). History of Wisbech and neighbourhood 1848-1898. Gardiner & Co.
  9. ^ W.D. Sweeting, ed. (1900). Fenland Notes & Queries Vol IV.
  10. ^ Polle 1909.
  11. ^ Farrer & Brownbill 1911, pp. 259–262 cites Misc. (Cath. Rec. Soc.), i, 110; ii, 278, &c.
  12. ^ Wim Zwalf (1997). The parish church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Wisbech. the Wisbech society.
  13. ^ R.W. Ketton-Cremer (1969). Norfolk in the civil war. Faber & Faber.
  14. ^ Atkinson 2002, pp. 252-253.
  15. ^ William Richards (1812). The history of Lynn p108.
  16. ^ R.W Ketton-Cramer (1969). Norfolk in the civil war. Faber & Faber.
  17. ^ Thomas Birch, ed. (1742). "The life of John Thurloe Esq., Secretary of State". A Collection of the State Papers of John Thurloe, Volume 1, 1638-1653. London. pp. xi–xx.
  18. ^ "Wisbech Society - Town tour".
  19. ^ "Gentlemens magazine". googlebooks. Retrieved 13 February 2019.
  20. ^ anonymous (2015). Wisbech Society 76th Annual Review. Wisbech Society.
  21. ^ Robert Bell (2001). Wisbech a photographic history of your town. Black Horse Books.
  22. ^ W.D. Sweeting, ed. (1900). Fenland Notes & Queries Vol IV.
  23. ^ William Richards (1812). The history of Lynn vol I p95.
  24. ^ F.J.Gardiner (1898). History of Wisbech and Neighbourhood. Gardiner & co.
  25. ^ CCC 2010.
  26. ^ "Community Right to Bid". Fenland District Council. 19 February 2016. Retrieved 31 December 2018.
  27. ^ Fletcher, Taleyna (1 May 2010). "Archaeological Investigations at Wisbech Castle: A Community Archaeology Project".
  28. ^ "British Archaeological Awards - British Archaeological Awards".
  29. ^ "Welcome to Fenarch". Fenland Archaeological Society.
  30. ^ William Watson. A history of Wisbech.

Further readingEdit


External linksEdit