Widened, wet and war-like – the History of the moats at Tattershall

Tattershall Great Tower from the moat

The double moats of Tattershall Castle have gone through various route changes over the centuries. It is much debated whether the moats were a purely defensive feature or had other more recreational uses but when filled with water they are much like the Great Tower, in providing a dramatic statement of Lord Cromwell’s credentials and intent.

A need to expand
When Lord Cromwell became Lord Treasurer of England the small stone castle protected by a single moat and high curtain wall was no longer sufficient and grand enough for his new position. To rectify this lack of building prowess he set about renovating the castle and replacing structures in the newly fashionable and expensive material, brick. He took the decision to keep much of the existing stone structures and located the new buildings, including the Great Tower, in any free space around the old ones. In order to build his new piece de résistance, situated behind the original Great Hall he had the inner moat widened. The Great Tower therefore sits in the moat and its base is clad in stone to prevent the bricks and mortar from eroding. In order to house the 100 plus servants at his remodelled castle-cum-palace Lord Cromwell needed to create even more room and thus the route of the existing moat wasn’t practical and was significantly extended.

Tattershall Castle complex in Ralph Cromwell's time
Tattershall Castle at Lord Cromwell time
Tattershall Castle complex in Ralph Cromwell's time

Documented Dikers
In 1943 the surviving pages of the castle’s building accounts were transcribed and translated from Latin. While the accounts are not complete, the pipe roll for the year 1434-35 does detail the new ditchwork undertaken, the men undertaking these tasks and their total pay over the year. Mathew Diker or Dyker and his staff (Diker meaning a man who digs dikes, ditches or foundation trenches) were paid for altering the existing moats and digging new sections. The ditchworks involved “scouring and emptying the water of the ditches round the said castle,” i.e. the original inner moat, for digging new stretches of ditch linking the river to the castle “hired to make anew 36 rods of ditch, beginning at the river Bain and descending in a straight line through the midst of Tateshale market as far as a certain temporary gate called le Baryate…and so descending as far as the east end of another ditch called le Newdike,”and for digging a second moat at the castle “a new ditch called le Wardike (i.e. Ward Dike) on the west side.” The work also included planting hedges and embedding bundles of sticks called “hegyng kiddes” (Hedging kids) to stabilise and protect the banks. The total payment in 1434-5 for all this ditchwork was £44-19s.-5d. Mathew is still recorded as being on site digging foundations five years later.

Am I seeing double?
Unlike the typical layout of contemporary fortified manor houses, Lord Cromwell’s castle was surrounded by an unusual double moat, joined together by a small link-moat. This arrangement not only isolates the Inner Ward, where the Great Tower sits, separating the Lord from the outside world but also creates two other secluded islands– the Middle and Outer Wards. In order to progress through the castle you would have to pass through three gatehouses (two new brick gatehouses and a thirteenth century stone gatehouse) with lifting drawbridges.

The Tower and the inner ward
The Tower and the inner ward
The Tower and the inner ward

A touch of the dramatic
The double moat at Tattershall was not only a defensive feature, stopping unwanted elements from progressing into the increasingly more important parts of the site, but also was a theatrical statement; when visiting Tattershall the visitor would need permission to pass through yet another gatehouse and experience all the pomp and ceremony that accompanied progression to the next ward. Lord Cromwell also used the double moat as an excuse to make people walk for longer than would normally be necessary and view his imposing masterpiece, the Great tower, from numerous angles. Although we can’t be entirely sure as to the moats intended use there are some intriguing steps going down into the inner moat situated behind the Guardhouse. This suggests that at one point the moats, linked to the local river, were either a means of delivering supplies into the heart of the Castle complex or indeed they were an opportunity to share a pleasant boat ride with friends or business partners, taking a turn around the new brick tower. The one downside to all of this is the unfortunate contents of the moat – all the garderobes or toilets emptied directly into the water…how fragrant.

Plan of the Castle complex
Plan of the Castle complex
Plan of the Castle complex

A naughty edition
During the reign of Elizabeth I the owner of the castle Henry Clinton, second Earl of Lincoln, a most odious and self-pitying man, decided to completely cut himself off from everybody. He ordered a new section of moat to be dug that bisected the castle and church and sadly cut across a graveyard. The Earls home was now completely surrounded by water on all sides. The local population were already fed up with the Earls outrageous and disrespectful behaviour but the act of digging this new section of moat was the last straw: “the said Earl hath taken away a part of the churchyard and putt it into his mote, so that divers were digged up, some green and lately buried, and thrown into the mote to fill up.” It is no surprise that in the last years of his life he moved to his house at Sempringham to avoid the animosity of the population of Tattershall.

The keep surrounded by the inner moat
Tattershall tower surrounded by the inner moat
The keep surrounded by the inner moat

The return of the moats
During 200 years of gentle decline following its abandonment the castle was used by local farmers as an extension of their farm, with the Great Tower being used as a cattle shed and the moats filled in to provide extra space for grazing. When Lord Curzon restored the castle in 1912-1914 one of the main tasks he was faced with, along with repairing the Great Tower, was re-establishing the moat system that was originally installed over 470 years ago. The architect of the castles restoration Mr William Weir, set about identifying the moats width and depth by cutting trenches across the supposed route of the ditches and following the colour and substance of the sediment. Although this was mostly successful (Discovering the foundations of buildings previously through lost was a major boon) the moats you see today are a best guess hindered by the land in Lord Curzon’s ownership i.e. the course of the moat is thought to have passed underneath the farm buildings to the South West of the Great Tower but seen as Curzon didn’t own the farm buildings the outer moat had to be re-directed to an adjacent location. While the moats at Tattershall have had many uses in the past Lord Curzon intended his newly restored moats to be a glassy surface that literally reflected the beauty of the castle remains.

View of the Holy Trinity Church from an angle of the tower
View of the church from the moat
View of the Holy Trinity Church from an angle of the tower

A wet challenge
Unfortunately gravel pits dug close by and stabilisation works to the banks of the river Bain has meant that the local water table has significantly dropped; therefore the moats at the castle no longer retain any water. In order to maintain a necessary level of water in the moats to support the resident wildlife and for Lord Curzon’s aesthetic purpose we have licenced permission from the Environment Agency to pump water in from the adjacent River Bain at no cost. In 2017 we pumped 15,000 Cubic Meters of water into the moats. We pump in water between March and October primarily to aid the life cycles of our colony of great crested newts. Outside of those months we can safely do conservation works on the moat walls and manage the vegetation growth on the moat beds.