• Michael Smith, Author, Translator, Printmaker

Bolingbroke Castle, Lincolnshire - a wonder in the fens


Bolingbroke Castle is an unusual six-sided castle in the south of Lincolnshire, situated just as the land begins to rise from what would once have been almost a boundless view of reeds and fenland. While today little survives above the foundation courses, in its time it must have been a striking and impressive building of the highest quality...

History of Bolingbroke Castle

Bolingbroke Castle is first heard of in the thirteenth century in 1232. On the death of Ranulph de Blundeville, Earl of Chester and Earl of Lincoln, the castle was transferred to his sister, Hawise, before eventually passing to the crown.

The castle became a seat of significant importance when it passed to John de Lacy as new Earl of Lincoln, a leading adviser to Edward I; Edward himself visited Bolingbroke in 1292. After passing through several hands it was eventually absorbed into the Duchy of Lancaster and became the property of John of Gaunt in the fourteenth century.

Usurper king...

This is the time when the place achieved a significance far greater than its size might suggest for it was here that Gaunt’s son, Henry, was born. This is Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV; the Usurper King.

Despite being the place of his birth, Henry never visited Bolingbroke again once he became king. Yet the castle remained important and still played a part in English history by serving as a prison between 1422-4 for Charles Duc d’Orleans, who was captured at Agincourt.

Civil war...

Although a centre of local administration, the castle began to decline during the Tudor period; despite surviving the English Civil War it was reported as being demolished by 1650. The remains of the ruins were gradually depleted in the following century.

An engraving of the castle from the early nineteenth century shows a shard of one of the towers projecting still some two storeys but everything else has gone; this remnant is reported to have collapsed in 1815.

In 1949 the castle was transferred to the Ministry of Works and it was only in comparatively recent times that the stonework of the foundations were revealed once more to visitors to enjoy.

Description of the ruins

So much of the castle has disappeared except for the foundation courses that it is hard to imagine today how Bolingbroke must have looked in its heyday.

Indeed, because the land where it lies is relatively flat, and because the builders chose to build in these lowlands rather than the higher ground to the north, the prospect of the castle today is somewhat underwhelming.

A castle in the reedy fens...

Yet the location once more compels us to imagine the castle in a particular landscape. Situated as the ground begins to rise at the edge of the vast expanse of the coastal fens, it must have appeared as a magical place, rising above the reeds in its own waterlogged landscape. It may have possessed a mysticism not unlike Chretien de Troyes’ Grail Castle of the Fisher King in his unfinished masterpiece Perceval.

The design was compact: a six sided "enclosure" castle built on level ground and surrounded by a wet moat. A single wall, some twelve-sixteen feet thick with towers at intervals of around 100 feet surrounded the courtyard, which measured approximately 250 feet across. The castle is relatively unusual, for its time, in not having a keep. Approximately 126 castles of this "enclosure" type are recorded in England.

A Cheshire connection...

Architecturally, the towers resemble those in particular of Beeston in Cheshire (built too by Ranulph). Despite this, the location – on flat land – enabled its architect to be more experimental, more artistic, in his choice of design. The castle reminds me of Holt on the river Dee, a castle of even greater compactness than Bolingbroke, no doubt due to the rock on which Holt stands and was built around. Bolingbroke had no such restrictions imposed on it and, as such, would have presented itself as a well-proportioned architectural statement of wonderful balance.

The gatehouse, perhaps, is the feature which most resembles Beeston, with Its flat-backed rounded front twin towers flanking a cobbled entrance passage. Having said this, at each apex of the castle are towers of similar plan, two of which feature outlet chutes from garderobes; that to the Kitchen Tower being of a higher decorative quality and possible indicating a noble residence in the upper floors.

While most of the towers still have considerable masonry foundations, that to the east has long since been robbed out, giving the impression that the castle had five sides rather than six. While all the towers were orginally rounded, that to the south-west - the King's Tower - was modernised in the fifteenth century and is polygonal.

Interesting decorative technique...

We might imagine the castle to have been finished in white lime wash. However, the masonry, largely of dark brown, porous Spilsby greenstone, is interspersed at regular intervals with large blocks of white Ancaster limestone which appear to argue to the contrary.

It is hard to imagine this feature being plastered or painted over. It is not known whether other rows of these white blocks featured in the upper layers of the wall but, if they were, the finished building would have been striking and designed to impress.

Excavations revealed a series of internal buildings built against the curtain walls although none of these features remain above ground for the visitor to see.

To the south of the castle, there is a large field - most likely the original bailey to the castle - known as the “Rout (or Raught) Yard, a name used in Lincolnshire in former times for an area where unclaimed livestock were kept. Within this there are a series of earthworks, including a rectangular enclosure, the origins of which – whether of domestic or military use – are obscure, although possibly related to the siege in the Civil War.

To the north, the church of Saints Peter and Paul, is a fragment of its former self. Though rebuilt by John of Gaunt (the north aisle retains an attractive arcade), the church was considerably damaged during the Civil War; leaving the somewhat truncated remains we see today.

Further Information

Historic England listing here

English Heritage ancient monument history and plan here

About the author

Michael Smith is an historian, printmaker and translator of fourteenth century Middle English poetry. His translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was published in 2018; he is currently translating the Alliterative Morte Arthure, a poem written during the time of Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke. You can support this book as a named patron here

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© 2020, Michael Smith, all rights reserved

Original linocut prints, books  and greetings cards featuring a range of mediaeval themes including: the Battle of Agincourt; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; King Arthur;;Stonehenge; Viking art; Saxon art; the Sutton Hoo helmet; medieval animals; castles; medieval myths and legends; historic monuments and so much more!

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