Lincoln Castle revealed

Words by:
Mike Webster
Featured in:
April 2015

Following an extensive restoration project spanning a five-year period, Lincoln Castle is about to be revealed to the world in all its new found glory.
The whole scheme has been more than ten years in the planning, with the unveiling targeted to coincide with the anniversary of Magna Carta. Since 2011, a staggering £22 million has been invested in the biggest and most prestigious facelift the Castle has ever known.

The intention is that, now all the renovation work is complete, it will become a world-class visitor attraction. Expectations are that it will draw people from all over the world in order to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, and the 950th anniversary of the Castle in 2018. With 1,000 years of history, there is an enormous amount to recall and thanks to the work and research that has been done, much of this will be revealed.

The undertaking has been one of enormous dedication and achievement, not only for the teams of engineers and architects who carried out the work but for all the departmental organisations that helped to bring the project to bear too. Stonemasons, joiners, lead workers and roofers have all applied their skills to this exciting venture along with groups of researchers, historians and archivists, all of whom have unearthed priceless items of castle history hitherto totally unknown.

A grant of £12 million has been provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund together with funds supplied by the European Regional Development Fund and Lincolnshire County Council. Other donations included £1.4 million through the generosity of David Ross, chairman of the David Ross Foundation, which helps children and young people discover their strengths through a wide range of world-class opportunities in education, sports, arts and the community. The newly created subterranean vault to house the Magna Carta and Charter of the Forest documents has been named the David P J Ross Magna Carta Vault in honour of his foundation’s gift.

The six-acre castle complex site is owned by Lincolnshire County Council and, from its inception, the overall refurbishment and restoration plan was to include provision for several new buildings and a major renovation of the original buildings and walls. An award-winning specialist Heritage Skills Centre was built and opened in 2013. The first new building within the Castle for 150 years, it was built to a very high specification and has proved to be an inspirational facility at which to acquire new expertise. This was always intended to provide the skills needed by the next generation of craftspeople so vital for maintaining our heritage buildings stock. A marked skills shortage formed the catalyst to build the new Skills Centre within the Lincoln Castle site.

Lincoln Castle was of course intended to be a very solid statement of William the Conqueror’s power. The city then ranked third in importance in the land and this is no doubt the reason for the fortress portraying such visibly apparent aggression.

With the walls went ditches, prominent on the west side, but those on the north and east sides were filled in during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Of the two gateways, the west side one was originally thought to be the most important but this was abandoned during the later medieval period. The east gate opposite the Cathedral then took over in importance.

There are a number of towers along the walls, the Lucy Tower, probably late twelfth century but with nineteenth century modifications, being a notable one. The north east tower, named Cobb Hall, dates from the thirteenth century and many stone cannonballs were discovered here during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Over the course of time, the medieval walls had degenerated to a very poor state, such that serious weatherproofing had to be carried out both to the walls and to the paths and walkways. This in itself became problematic, for after 2011, due to the use of lime mortar and the ongoing bad weather conditions over two successive winters, the work was frequently put on hold.

Even the Castle gates proved to be a headache for the building workers. Being so narrow, it was often impossible to deliver materials through them and when the base for the Heritage Skills Centre was being set down, a special method of delivery had to be adopted. A twenty-eight-hour non-stop operation saw forty-seven lorries full of concrete outside the Castle with the contents all being pumped through a tube!

Now, for the first time and after four years of construction, there is a complete circular wall walk available with an audio guide. A team of twenty-four stonemasons made all this possible whilst at the same time repairing the original damaged stonework. The finished walk now affords breathtaking views across the city and beyond from points which have never before been accessible to the public.

Archaeology too has played a major role in the project, highlighting the many ways that this development has been a journey of discovery into our past.

Lincolnshire County Council began an extensive programme of archaeological research with the advent of the project in 2006. As the work and research went on, knowledge of the site increased in leaps and bounds. With the preliminary exploratory work involving the wall walk, archaeological digs were commenced in the Lucy Tower. A blocked-up doorway was found, which was later removed to make way for the circuit of the walls.

English Heritage became involved, with an enormous dig to a depth of four metres in the Eastern Courtyard, on the site of the then proposed Magna Carta Vault. Completed in July 2013, this revealed the Victorian and Georgian drainage systems. Other discoveries from this dig include remains of a medieval stable block and a millstone fragment, giving rise to the theory that there was once a horse mill in the castle.

Another dig took place in the Mason’s Yard which uncovered the remains of a previously unknown church, said to be at least 1,000 years old. With it was discovered a cemetery containing the complete skeletons of four men, three women, two teenagers and a child. A stone sarcophagus, also found, is proving to be of immense interest due to its rarity, dating from late Saxon times. The stone coffin contains a skeleton and other grave goods.

It is thought that the stone church was constructed at a time between the departure of the Romans and the advent of the Saxon era. The human remains have proved to be of immense interest to archaeologists and historians alike, and they have formed the basis of much ongoing research into the Castle’s past.

One of the Saxons found, dubbed ‘Lincoln Castle Man’, is now the subject of a full facial reconstruction by Caroline Ebolin, a lecturer in medical and forensic art at the University of Dundee. DNA profiling is ongoing too and all the results will be made available as they come on stream. It is intended that all the items found during the digs will be kept on site and eventually installed in a permanent onsite exhibition.

News about the latest discoveries continued to break throughout the entire operation, within this, one of the oldest Norman castles in the land. The original structure dates back to 1068 when William I had it built – only two years after the Conquest. Since then it has experienced and withstood the most turbulent times and has been at the heart of history as it has been made. Who for instance would ever have known that the fight for the English throne was once centred on Lincoln Castle? Or even that John Wesley’s father was once incarcerated within its prison walls. The same walls that have held convicts bound for Australia and witnessed the presence of hangman William Marwood, who invented a more humane method of execution.

As part of the Magna Carta 800th anniversary celebrations, a major exhibition will be held between June and September at various museums across Lincoln including The Collection, the Usher Gallery, Lincoln Cathedral’s Wren Library and Lincoln Castle.

Rare items to be brought together will include pieces from private, national and international collections celebrating the wealth that Lincolnshire has given to the world. Some Lincolnshire historic personalities will range from Hugh of Wells, who was at the signing of Magna Carta, to John and Charles Wesley, Isaac Newton and Alfred Lord Tennyson. The explorers Flinders, Franklin and Sir Joseph Banks will also figure prominently. A Stephen Langton walking trail will be launched which will highlight the most interesting points around the area of Langton’s birthplace.

A full and expansive programme of Magna Carta related conferences and lectures will be given throughout 2015 and full details are available on the University of Lincoln website

The Victorian male prison within the castle complex has been fully refurbished too, and is now fully accessible to the public to be explored in its entirety.

After being extensively researched and reinterpreted it is now revealed, presenting us with a much more detailed history of the convicts who inhabited this place.

Lincoln Castle gaol has been there a long time. It was first documented in the mid-twelfth century but there are extensive records relating to the existence of the gaol in the fourteenth century and by the fifteenth century it was considered to be one of the principal crown gaols in the land.

From the eighteenth century, the importance of the Castle as the County Gaol took on new significance, with major new additions taking place during the nineteenth century. It was at a time when the ‘separate system’ was implemented – a very harsh regime which denied any contact at all between the inmates. It was a relatively short-lived system, with many prisons adopting the policies. The Lincoln Castle structure stands out as being one of the least altered and is a fascinating reminder of this type of system.

The unique chapel gives the fullest and most thought provoking sense of realism; it is the most complete example of the ‘separate system’ chapel in the world. The only other in existence is in Tasmania and this is a reconstruction, since the original was destroyed by fire.

Until recently, only the chapel and the female prison have been accessible to the public. The male prison has now been opened up fully and its histories and hitherto unknown fascinating stories will be told. Research has been unending, with a wealth of material having been unearthed from archives once kept at the scene.

The most detailed accounts have been produced of the prison building, records of court proceedings and prisoner accounts. Together with these, first hand reports and accounts from the staff who once worked there have been introduced into the public domain. Now all visitors will be able to share the human stories from the journals of the Governor, Matron, Surgeon and Chaplain. Together, these histories put us all in touch with life as it then was within the Castle’s confines.

With a Georgian front and Victorian rear, the Victorian male prison is a soaring space with enormous atmosphere. Restoration – even down to original paint schemes and doors – has been total, in order to recapture the building’s former, sombre past. The prison complex now boasts new visitors’ toilets, shops, a cafeė and education rooms on two floors. Interpretation centres are available in some of the cells along with educational films in five others.

The lives of some of the prisoners have been fully researched, presenting a new dimension to the visitor experience. In the women’s section of the prison, there is a special interpretation centre set out in the style of an internet cafe,ėwhere the ‘Castle Explorer’ is available on tablet. Here, in comfort with coffee to hand, the visitor can delve deeper into the history of the Castle by accessing material relating to the restoration, seeing inaccessible areas and learning how the Castle relates to other historic Lincoln sites.

Memories of a visit here will certainly stay with the visitor for a long time to come.

Stephen Langton was born at Langton-by-Wragby, the son of Henry Langton, the Lord of the Manor. The privileged family enjoyed considerable success with Stephen’s two brothers, Simon and Walter, becoming Archbishop of York elect, and knight and crusader respectively. However, Simon’s position at York was quashed by Pope Innocent III.

Stephen was always the rising star and he studied theology at the University of Paris until 1206, initially alongside his friend Lotario dei Conti – Pope Innocent III from 1198. Eventually, the Pope summoned Stephen to Rome and he was appointed Cardinal-Priest of San Crisogono. He also won prebends at Paris and York.

With the continued backing of the Pope, Stephen soon became recognised as the foremost English churchman, which placed him within a conflict between the church and the king. In 1205 the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Hubert Walter, led to a wrangle between the monks of Canterbury as to the successor. They wished to appoint Reginald but the king had opted for his political ally the Bishop of Norwich. Until then it had been the monarch’s prerogative to make the appointment but with the growing power of the papacy, Innocent III demanded that another election take place in Rome and in 1207 Stephen was duly consecrated.

King John, furious at having his powers challenged, proclaimed anyone who recognised Stephen as Archbishop to be a public enemy. The monks of Canterbury, who had since given their support to Stephen were all expelled and Stephen along with most of the bishops in England went into exile in Burgundy, under the protection of Philip II of France.

Pope Innocent III placed England under interdict and in 1208 he excommunicated King John calling for his deposition. With John’s relenting in 1213, Stephen returned with all the bishops. He took up his position in Canterbury, his first task being to grant the king absolution for his wrongdoings in return for the promise that certain liberties afforded to the nobility and the church under Henry I be reinstated.

John reneged on his promise almost immediately as was his usual custom and Stephen, due to the king’s disregard, started preaching against him. He demanded a return to the Charter of Liberties set out in Henry I’s reign eighty years earlier. The claim that King John was perhaps the most hated monarch that England has ever had is widely known. His reconciliation with the church did not take place to save his soul but rather to save his throne. His military exploits on the continent had been disastrous and had led him to try and recoup the enormous cost by more crippling taxation visited upon an already overtaxed population. The levies of tax imposed were at a level never seen before and underpinned by the new laws and practices that Stephen was so eager to have the king repeal.

In 1215, Stephen joined forces with the by now rebellious barons, who were asking for the king to sign a treaty which confirmed the acceptance of their demands. He never encouraged any kind of rebellion against the king but rather worked toward a peaceful settlement. The strategy seemed to work in principle and in June of the same year John travelled upriver to his castle at Windsor where he negotiated, albeit under duress, a sixty-one clause charter composed of concessions. He then rode out to a meadow by the Thames at Runnymede for his meeting with the barons. There, on 15th June 1215, under canvas and sitting on a makeshift throne, he applied his seal to Magna Carta. Immediately afterwards, he returned in a state of great anger to Windsor.

In the short term, the charter was a total failure, as only two months after its signing the Pope had it annulled at the request of John himself. Describing it as ‘not only shameful and base, but also illegal and unjust’ it was this decision by the Pope that precipitated civil war. The barons then decided that their best course of action was to make an appeal to the French for help. They invited Philip’s heir Louis to invade England and seize the crown. In 1216, Prince Louis duly arrived on the south coast and marched his troops on London. He installed himself in the Tower, gaining the allegiance of many of the English barons.

John, now a mere fugitive, was reduced to roaming his own realm and laying waste to all territories not bearing allegiance to him. Burning down towns and villages that refused him aid, he fled across East Anglia, not only contracting dysentery in the process but losing his baggage train as well, during a rushed crossing of the Wash. The legendary loss of the crown jewels along with his complete entourage was to prove symbolic of his total loss of authority.

On 18th October 1216, exhausted, sick and friendless, he died – some say of poison and others of gluttony – soon after reaching Newark Castle. His servants stole his possessions before he was carried to Worcester for burial. Hated and reviled as he was by his subjects, his reign of excessive taxation and terror did prove to be the catalyst for a greater good in Magna Carta.

As the French Prince Louis reached for the English crown, the nine-year-old Henry III was hastily crowned in Gloucester soon after the death of John. His reign was to herald two new issues of Magna Carta in 1216 and 1217.

Theoretically, it could well have been the end of Magna Carta after it had initially been annulled by the Pope. The king was dead and his son and heir was a mere child but it was one William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, having remained loyal to John throughout his reign, who had been appointed to govern the country during the time of Henry’s minority.

It was he who issued the 1216 and 1217 revised editions. In the 1217 edition, clauses relating to the royal forests were taken out and inserted into a new and separate Charter of the Forest. Until this time, ‘Forest Law’ had been very harsh with very severe penalties imposed on anyone found to be hunting or allowing grazing on any common land. King John had been in the habit of taking possession of all common land for himself, declaring it to be ‘Royal Forest’ but with the new Charter of the Forest the penalties were reduced and common land was claimed back from the crown.

There are only two original copies of the Charter of the Forest and Lincoln Castle is the only place where both this charter and Magna Carta can be seen together. It was only after 1217 that the 1215 charter officially became known as Magna Carta or ‘Grand Charter’ and it was reissued on several further occasions, always alongside the Charter of the Forest.

Within a very short time, Louis controlled London and most of eastern England. Lincoln did surrender to Louis’s forces but the Castle held out and it was laid to siege by the French and rebel barons. The Castle’s spirited defence was led by Lincolnshire’s own female constable Nicolaa de la Haye.

The royalist troops under William Marshal arrived at Lincoln and under his great military expertise split their forces into two. He created a diversion at the north gate of the city, Newport, and then entered the Castle through the west gate. This outwitted the Anglo-French forces and after some intense fighting including a barrage of deadly crossbow fire from the Castle walls, around the west gate and around the West Front of the Cathedral they retreated downhill to the lower town. They did try to regroup and return but were met by royalist forces coming down the hill and from the rear and side thanks to Marshal’s ploy of splitting his forces.

Ending up trapped, many of the Anglo-French were slaughtered. Louis retraced his path back to Kent where he experienced his navy’s defeat off the coast of Dover. Returning to France he awaited his due and scheduled path to kingship as Louis VIII in 1523.

As Lincoln had been in league with Louis, the town was pillaged and looted wholesale as the narrow streets became terrorised with mounted royalist forces. The incident has ever since been known as the Battle of Lincoln Fair. It was as decisive as it was bloody and not only did it act as a turning point in the civil war but it has also been considered to be one of the great turning points in English history.

If the outcome at Lincoln Castle on 20th May 1217 had been different, the whole succession of the monarchy would have been different too. In the words of Jonathan Clarke of FAS Heritage, who leads the Lincoln Castle archaeology team, “The 1217 Battle of Lincoln Fair was as important as the Battle of Hastings in 1066 or the Battle of Britain in 1940 – but who remembers it now?”

Following the Lincoln victory, under the advisors to the young King Henry III, the 1215 charter was reissued in his name reaffirming the rights of the people and the limitations of the king’s power in order for peace to return. Right from the beginning, however, Magna Carta has been the subject of ceaseless debate and division over its interpretation of power and justice. It has nevertheless formed a basis for our ideals the world over. It formed the inspiration for the USA’s Bill of Rights and the American Constitution.

The charter went on a tour of the USA in 2014, during which time it went on display at venues such as the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Library of Congress in Washington DC. It was hailed with phenomenal interest throughout the tour partly due to the 800-years-old ‘wow’ factor but also to the emotions stirred by its being the cornerstone of the American democratic process.

Interestingly, this was the first time for seventy-five years that the charter had been on display in the USA. It went there in 1939 for the World’s Fair and was housed in the Library of Congress. It resided in the USA for safekeeping until the end of the Second World War. In February this year it joined the other three 1215 documents when they went on display at the British Library in London. They could all be seen together, albeit for one day only.

All four copies have now been awarded ‘Memory of the World’ status by UNESCO in recognition of their outstanding universal value. High praise indeed, but the encounter at Runnymede all those years ago was not a peaceful encounter born of sweet suggestion. Rather Magna Carta was an agreement bartered in blood and sealed by force. It was reneged on by King John almost immediately and banned by the Pope soon after. It could well have died if John himself had not died in 1216.

Lincoln Castle, so pivotal in this whole Magna Carta story is now, after its major refurbishment, opening its gates and offering to share with the public this most incredible chapter of history.

It has been billed as Lincoln Castle Revealed culminating in ‘The All-New Lincoln Castle Experience’. Surely 2015 will prove to be the most celebratory year in the city’s history. Not only will we have the benefits of the extensive restoration of the Castle but the whole schedule has been so successful in coinciding with the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta – universally accepted as being the most important charter that the democratic world has ever known.

Since the charter first came to Lincoln, it has been kept for safety and security within the confines of the Cathedral but as the Castle renovations have now included a new purpose built underground vault this will now house the most precious document.

Lincoln’s copy of Magna Carta is one of only four original examples, one of the others being held in Salisbury Cathedral and the other two in the British Museum Library. Scripted on a single membrane of parchment in fifty-four lines of abbreviated Latin, the Lincoln copy bears the word ‘Lincolnia’ twice upon the reverse and it has been kept in Lincoln ever since it was sealed by King John.

The new vault has been designed to maintain a suitable environment for the documents, as well as providing the necessary security. The David P J Ross Magna Carta Vault will also house the 1217 Charter of the Forest, one of only two surviving copies. This supplemented the 1215 Charter, dealing specifically with forest law. Lincoln is the only place in the world where both charters are to be seen together.

Alongside the two charters is another display cabinet intended to display a relevant ‘guest’ charter, the nature of which will vary from time to time but which will still have relevance to the Castle and its history. One such charter relates to a request for William to build a Cathedral on completion of the Castle. Others will be supplied from the archives of the Cathedral.

A new causeway approaches the new building housing the vault. It is both dignified and unassuming, having been constructed with neutral materials that do not intrude on the original complex.

A ‘wall of words’ at double height and below visitor height greets everyone on entry. The words relate the full text of Magna Carta on a curved wall. The two passages which carry the most importance are highlighted in gold and designed to catch the light as they proclaim ‘to no one will we sell, to none deny or delay, right or justice’.

A full-height enveloping cinematic auditorium provides a concentrated in-depth account of Magna Carta, the Charter of the Forest and the decisive Battle of Lincoln Fair in 1217 along with a series of films very realistically projected onto a curved 180-degree screen.

In many ways, the story of Magna Carta begins and ends in Lincoln. A local lad, Stephen Langton, destined to be Archbishop of Canterbury, played a key role in the evolution of the charter, along with Hugh of Avalon, Bishop of Lincoln who was a personal advisor to King John. Hugh’s successor, Bishop Hugh of Wells, held enough influence to present the king with such a charter but the king renounced it in favour of civil war. Making for Lincoln Castle, one of only two royalist strongholds, he eventually died at the Bishop of Lincoln’s Castle at Newark. This certainly underlines the fact that Lincolnshire was a major centre of political power during the thirteenth century.

1st – 2nd April – Be the first to experience the revealed Lincoln Castle
3rd – 13th April – Easter Quest and the Victorian Chocolate Kitchen
25th – 26th April – St George’s Festival
3rd – 4th May – King John Returns
23rd – 25th May – Grand Medieval Joust
8th June – Official opening
4th – 5th July – 1,000 Years of Traditional Crafts
25th – 26th July – Grand Tour Royal Pageant
8th – 9th August – Attack the Castle
22nd – 23rd August – Children’s Festival of History
19th – 20th September – The Romans are Back!

Tickets for Lincoln Castle Revealed can now be booked at:

Never miss a copy!

Big savings when you take out a subscription.

VOTE FOR YOUR FAVOURITE IN THE CATEGORY BEST RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR! We need your nominations – Celebrating Lincolnshire’s food, drink and hospitality businesses in our Taste of Excellence Food and Drink Awards 2024. Click here to vote date for nominations 31st August 2024. ... See MoreSee Less