Unlocking the Mystery of the Lincoln Castle Lock-Up

Drawing from their brand new title, Lincoln Castle Revealed, expert archaeologists reveal the mystery behind the 18th century gaol hidden within this medieval castle.

Dismissing long-held myths in just five-minutes, scroll down for a sneak peak at this cutting-edge new book.

When we think of medieval castles, we think of power, justice and punishment. The fascination of where people were incarcerated and punished looms large in the minds of castle visitors, young and old. Tales of the dungeon and execution have always formed part of a tour of Lincoln Castle and it has quite a pedigree at the site. Medieval documents describe prisoners, their alleged crimes and punishment in florid detail. The 13th-century Cobb Hall and its gloomy lower floor with trapdoor and iron rings in the walls has always met all the expectations of a medieval torture dungeon. The old 18th-century gaol boasted a circular pit where inmates were made to lie like sardines and were prodded with a pitchfork, and the Victorian prison is well-known for the horror of enforced solitary confinement under the so-called separate system. But just where in the castle the medieval gaol was has long been a mystery.

Reconstructed plan through Observatory Tower, showing the gaol cells.

New research on Lincoln Castle has finally put this mystery to rest. Lincoln Castle Revealed presents the results of 15 years’ of archaeological research on the fabric and below-ground archaeology of Lincoln Castle. The castle retains a full circuit of medieval walls, three medieval towers – all very different in character – and two magnificent gates. Despite having been the subject of study for generations and enjoyed as a visitor destination since the mid-20th century, many myths and mysteries persist about how the various parts of the castle functioned. The whereabouts of the castle gaol or dungeon is one of the more enduring. The recent research programme has identified the Observatory Tower as a rare surviving example of a purpose-built gaol tower.

The origins of the Observatory Tower and its motte lie in the first half of the 12th century when Earl Ranulf, descendant of the hereditary castellans, required another tower in addition to the ageing shell-keep, the Lucy Tower, built by his mother Countess Lucy. During the Anarchy, Ranulf supported King Stephen and received his permission to build a tower in the 1140s. The Observatory Tower motte was erected first, burying part of a great Norman range and encasing the deep foundations of the new tower and the lower part of its new motte in stone. Atop the motte, Ranulf built, or at least started, a formidable lordly tower with massive foundations to receive what must have been intended as an impressive edifice. No more of the appearance of Ranulf’s tower can be gleaned. Ranulf died in 1153 and King Stephen died the year after and was succeeded by Henry II. Henry’s reign was long and he spent time removing so-called ‘adulterine’ castles erected during the years of the Anarchy. Henry also reorganised gaols across the counties, in 1166 issuing an order at the Assize of Clarendon for the county sheriffs to build gaols. At Lincoln, the sum of money involved was small, but this may be because Ranulf’s motte and tower provided a ready-made site.

Ground plan of the gaol tower.

What little remains of the early fabric of the Observatory Tower tells an intriguing tale. The exterior was austere – a grim, rectangular block – with little by way of windows to provide natural light and no fireplaces. The internal layout is also revealing – the ground floor is divided into a series of three small rooms with doors secured from the outside and all served by one latrine chute. The lack of architectural embellishment or comfortable living and the three, small ground floor rooms are hardly consistent with lordly living. A coroner’s account of a prisoner dying at the dining table suggests that the gaol also had space for communal dining, likely on the first floor, where the gaoler was also probably housed.

All this evidence has long since been overshadowed by works to the tower undertaken in the early 19th century by gaoler John Merryweather. Merryweather enjoyed a comfortable apartment within the Georgian gaol, and undertook a range of works to the castle buildings and grounds in order to gentrify the spaces. He built a summer house, a bathhouse, although this was quickly requisitioned by the authorities for prisoners to use, and kept peacocks in the grounds. He also used prison labour to ‘restore’ the Observatory Tower adding crenellations and the circular turret on top of the tower. Later works by the County Surveyor, E J Willson, also included the creation of arrow-slits and mock Gothic window openings. Merryweather’s turret was ostensibly so that the castle grounds and prisoners within it could be viewed, but it may also be where he studied the stars at night. From lordly tower to county gaol to star-gazer’s turret, the mystery of Lincoln gaol can be put to rest at last.

Lincoln Castle Revealed
By Jonathan Clark, Justin Garner-Lahire, Cecily Spall and Nicola Toop

This book tells a new story of the royal castle of Lincoln in the north of England, how it was imposed on the late Anglo-Saxon town, and how it developed over the next 900 years in the hands of the English king or his aristocratic associates, leaving us a surviving monument of three great towers, each with its own biography. Led by FAS Heritage, archaeologists, architectural historians and a large cohort of the general public have combined to produce a revealing and accessible account of the story of Lincoln Castle and a reborn historical attraction for the city of Lincoln.

9781789257359 | Hardback | Oxbow Books | £25.00
Available to order through Oxbow Books

Jonathan Clark is a buildings archaeologist and architectural historian who has spent much of his career researching, recording and analysing medieval castles, houses and monasteries across the British Isles. He has been researching Lincoln Castle for over 20 years and is Lincoln Cathedral Archaeologist.

Justin Garner-Lahire is the managing director of FAS Heritage, an archaeological research practice founded in 1993. He has excavated extensively on medieval sites in England and Scotland.

Cecily Spall is a senior archaeological researcher in FAS Heritage who has excavated, studied and published numerous medieval stratified sequences in Britain, famously at Portmahomack, Easter Ross where she was the leading co-director.

Nicky Toop, who studied the early medieval Irish Sea region for her PhD, is a long-term researcher at FAS Heritage, involved in archaeological and documentary research at castles and monasteries such as Eilean Donan Castle and Byland Abbey.