An anniversary 800 years in the making

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The heritage skills centre was added as part of the castle’s refurbishment. Photo by Richard Nevell, CC-BY-SA 3.0.

When you have an 800-year anniversary coming up, you can’t claim to be short of time to prepare. That’s why Lincolnshire County Council have spent years planning and implementing the refurbishment of Lincoln Castle. The castle houses one of just four surviving originals of the first time Magna Carta was issued. As such, it can expect a lot of attention in 2015, especially round the anniversary of the charter.

Preparations were announced about this time three years ago. The aims were to repair the curtain walls, create a new display room for Magna Carta and restore the post-medieval prisons. This was all done with an eye towards driving up visitor numbers (it would be interesting to see the starting figure but I can’t find that information).

As it happens, the renovation and building work meant archaeologists were asked to investigate the area and check what the potential impact would be on archaeological deposits. This led to the discovery of a Saxon church, complete with a sarcophagus burial. Even this couldn’t delay the project, which it seems will finish on time.

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The Observatory Tower being renovated in 2013. Photo by Richard Nevell, CC-BY-SA 3.0.

The final stage of the work has seen the castle closed for three-months and it re-opens to the public on Wednesday 1 April.

What I have found most impressive is the planning that has gone into it. From the start, the public has been kept in the loop and artists impressions have helped people understand how the castle will look, especially important when an otherwise impressive site is shrouded in scaffolding and green netting. It was made early on that the castle would be closed for a set period, but that it would be better once reopened. Even while the work was going on, visitors were still allowed in and the usual events took place such the Lincoln Christmas Market and classic car shows. Almost business as usual.

The total cost for this project? £22 million.

A new future for Leicester Castle

A brick building

The great hall at Leicester was once part of the castle. Photo by Helen Wells, CC-BY 2.0.

On the quiet, Leicestershire has quite a good line in castles. There’s Kirby Muxloe, Ashby-de-la-Zouche, and if you don’t mind 19th-century architecture masquerading as something else Belvoir Castle stands on the site of a Norman fortification. Despite this, not many people know that the city of Leicester has its own castle.

Nestled in the corner of the Roman city near the River Soar, the castle was built in the 11th century. It was held by the Earls of Leicester until 1265 when Simon de Montfort was defeated at the battle of Evesham, and the castle came under royal control. As tends to happen, later urban development has disguised the castle. You wouldn’t know it to look at its reworked exterior, but the great hall dates from the 12th century. In fact when Leicester Castle was slighted in the 1170s after the Earl of Leicester rebelled against Henry II, the hall was left untouched. That’s where my particular interest lies.

It is the great hall, where the Parliament of Bats was held in 1426, that is the subject of some recent news. In a nice piece of historical symmetry, a recent development has the effect of bringing De Montfort back to the castle.

Rather than this being another internment along the lines of Richard III (who will be buried in Leicester in late March), the university bearing the earl’s name has leased the great hall from the city council and will be turning it into a business school.

As recently as 1992 the building was used as a courthouse, but since then it’s struggled to find a use. While I was a first year undergraduate student (back in 2007) at the University of Leicester as part of one of our modules we were split into groups and asked to come up with proposals for ways of using and maintaining Leicester’s historic buildings. My group was given the great hall; I don’t entirely recall what we suggested (probably a museum of some sort) though I do recall that one of our early ideas was to turn it into a venue along the lines of Laser Quest!

There are two highly encouraging aspects of the news. First of all is that the hall will be open to the public. This has been a rarity in the recent past. Secondly, De Montfort University will restore the building, helping to preserve a structure while regularly appears on English Heritage’s At Risk register.

Good news all round.

For more on Leicester Castle Levi Fox’s history of the site, written in the 1940s, is a good place to start.

Funding for Newark Castle?

A ruined building

The ruined courtyard of Newark Castle, looking towards the gatehouse.

In July 2013 I was travelling across the country for work. This involved changing at Newark; the name rang a bell but as I hadn’t been there before I didn’t think much of it. I was scheduled to wait at the station for an hour but I had a good book to keep me company so I didn’t mind much.

Walking into the waiting room I suddenly realised why I recognised the name. One wall was entirely taken up by an enormous black and white photo of a castle. Newark is a quiet town, and the castle is a ten to fifteen minute walk from the station. Unsure how much time I would have, I ran all the way there.

In that short visit I felt like I discovered a jewel. Newark is a wonderful ruin. From across the canal it looks splendidly complete, but from the east you appreciate how good a job Parliament did in demolishing the castle in the 17th century. My post-graduate research focusses on slighted castles – the likes of Newark itself, though it falls outside my time period. It has a very impressive gatehouse, which I’m dying to explore, and a fascinating history which includes the death of King John.

Since that summer day on which a train journey was transformed from mundane to fun, I’ve had a soft spot for Newark. So it was with no small amount of pleasure that I read the news of plans to turn the castle into a tourist attraction with a visitor centre. It perhaps isn’t the most famous of castles, which is a shame given its history and surprising given the way the picturesque way it mixes ruin with remains. That said, it manages 150,000 visitors a year which is nothing to complain about. The intention is to spend £800,000 which will cover  turning the gatehouse into a visitor centre and opening the tower next to it to the public. Hopefully there will be something about the excavations carried out by Pamela Marshall.

Something which stuck out is that the exhibits will cover crime and punishment in Norman England. Three of my interests overlap at Newark: slighting, gatehouses, and prisons. Newark has four oubliettes – underground prisons accessed only from the ceiling. Oubliettes are unusual enough in England, but four is downright peculiar. County towns had a special role to play in administration and law enforcement. My hope for Newark is that the displays avoid sensationalising the imprisonment angle as you might find at Warwick.

It is interesting that it currently costs £70,000 to maintain the castle. I don’t have much of a yardstick to give that context, but it would be interesting to know how that’s spent. I sincerely hope they get the full funding, and that more people can enjoy Newark Castle. I’ll be making time to revisit myself.

For some photos from my visit to Newark Castle, click here.

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