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The history of Tattershall Castle

Artwork by Samuel Buck depicting the East front of Tattershall Castle completed in 1726
The East front of Tattershall Castle by Samuel Buck, 1726 | © National Trust Images/Mike Williams

Delve into the history of Tattershall Castle, a magnificent medieval tower proudly rising from the flat Lincolnshire fens; a survivor of conflict, decay and restoration. Learn about the people who helped shape it and make it the place it is today.

The first castle at Tattershall

In 1231 Robert de Tateshale received a licence from King Henry III to build a crenelated manor house out of stone at Tattershall. His castle consisted of a great hall, kitchens, gatehouse and a chapel defended by a curtain wall surrounded by a single moat.

Lord Cromwell inherits Tattershall

Lord Cromwell inherited Tattershall Castle in 1419. When he became Lord Treasurer of England in 1434, the small stone castle was no longer grand enough for his new position, so Cromwell set about renovating the castle and building structures in a newly fashionable and expensive material – brick. He commissioned the Great Tower and multiple lodging buildings designed for local dignataries, and made the decision to place the new buildings amongst the old ones.

In order to build the Great Tower behind the original Great Hall, Cromwell 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.

To house over 100 servants at his remodelled castle-cum-palace, Lord Cromwell needed to create even more room and thus the route of the existing moat was significantly extended.

Expanding the castle and moat

Surviving pages of the castle’s building accounts were transcribed and translated from Latin in 1943. While the accounts aren’t complete, the pipe roll for the year 1434–35 details the new ditchwork. 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’, and digging new ditches linking the river to the castle. There was also the task of digging a second moat at the castle by creating ‘a new ditch called le Wardike on the west side.’

The work was further enhanced by the planting of hedges and the embedding of bundles of sticks called ‘hegyng kiddes’ (Hedging kids) to stabilise and protect the banks.

The dramatic double moat

The double moat at Tattershall was not only a defensive feature, it was also a theatrical statement. When visiting Tattershall, visitors 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 to make people walk for longer than necessary in order to view his imposing masterpiece, the Great Tower, from different angles.

Although we can’t be entirely sure of the moats’ intended use, there are some intriguing steps going down into the inner moat behind the Guardhouse. This suggests that at one point the moats, which are linked to the local river, were either a means of delivering supplies into the heart of the castle or they were an opportunity to share a pleasant boat ride with loyal friends or savvy business partners, taking a turn around the new brick tower.

A view of the east and north fronts of the Great Tower at Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire, with the moat in the foreground
The Great Tower at Tattershall Castle | © National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

Tudor Tattershall

Upon Lord Cromwell’s death, and without a direct heir, the castle passed into the Crown’s possession who subsequently granted it to loyal and familial subjects (Edward IV, Henry VII, Margaret Beaufort, Henry VIII, Henry Fitzroy and Charles Brandon all owned the castle during this period).  

In October 1537, King Henry VIII was seeking divorce and in order to make this a reality the King was forming a new Church of England and severing ties with Rome. In Louth, a protest began against the suppression of the Catholic religious houses which quickly escalated to 40,000 commoners marching on Lincoln.

Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk (and the King’s best friend) was chosen to lead the forces sent to quash the rising. The task was given to Brandon primarily because his new wife, Catherine Willoughby, was a member of the Willoughby de Eresby family who owned vast areas of the county. The protesters dispersed before Brandon arrived, but once in Lincoln Brandon quickly tried and executed the ringleaders.  

Tattershall is gifted to Brandon

On 4  April 1537, as a vote of thanks for his assistance in stopping the ‘Lincolnshire Rising’, King Henry gifted Tattershall Castle to Brandon. He was instructed to relocate to Lincolnshire in order to keep the county in check and Tattershall Castle became his new base of operations.

Charles Brandon turned the castle into a Tudor palace and installed the Tiltyard to practice jousting. Under his ownership the castle became a place of wealth, power and beauty once again.

Brandon was so taken with Tattershall that in the event of his death he requested burial in Holy Trinity Church (next to the castle and still open to visitors most days of the week). Henry VIII ignored this request and buried Brandon with much expense and ceremony at St Georges Chapel in Windsor Castle; a true sign of the level of friendship the pair shared.

The castle was then inherited by the Clinton family who became the Earls of Lincoln, living here for 120 years.

How was the castle decorated?

Very little documentary evidence survives to show how the castle was decorated and furnished over the years. There are some scraps of information in the form of an inventory made in 1551 that states some of the fabric items were removed from Tattershall following Charles Brandon’s death in 1545.

The list contains Turkish carpets, sumptuous bed hangings, woollen blankets and numerous tapestries (including a piece with the story of Moses, a piece of ‘Our Lady’ and 12 pieces called the ‘Ragged staffe’ depicting the months that use the heraldic symbol associated with Warwick as a border motif).  

Also mentioned in the inventory is a tester for a bed ‘of the richest purple velvet, roses and percullesses’, i.e. the Tudor rose and the portcullis. It’s therefore assumed that this bedding was left from the period when Margaret Beaufort, King Henry VII’s mother, was owner of the castle.

A view of the moat at Tattershall Castle, with two small bridges crossing the moat and a view of the Guardhouse and Church of the Holy Trinity in the background
A view over the moat at Tattershall Castle | © National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

The decline of Tattershall

In 1643 a large part of the castle was destroyed or damaged during the Civil War. The Royalists, led by the Earl of Newcastle who was sweeping across Lincolnshire, attacked the castle and left only the Great Tower intact.

After the King’s defeat, Parliament ordered the demolition of the entire castle. The Earl of Lincoln appealed to Parliament to spare the Great Tower and due to his repeated pleas, the demolition order was overlooked.  

Abandonment and gradual decay

In 1693 the last Earl of Lincoln died, and the Fortesque family inherited the castle but never lived in it as they lived primarily in Devon. The castle was abandoned and became derelict and ruinous. All the floors collapsed, the windows were broken and the moats were filled in. The ground floor of the Great Tower became a cattle shed!

During this time the castle became a popular tourist destination as a romantic ruin. In 1910 the Fortesque family sold the castle to an American consortium and, to raise additional funds, the fireplaces were ripped out and sold to an American collector.  

Lord Curzon restores the ruin

In 1911 Reverend Yglesias of Holy Trinity Church (next door the to castle) contacted Lord Curzon of Kedleston to help save the castle from destruction. Lord Curzon bought the castle and, guided by the principles of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, he reinstated the fireplaces and restored the buildings that remained.

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 restoration, Mr William Weir, identified 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, the moats you see today are a best guess. More precise judgement was hindered by the land that was not in Lord Curzon’s ownership. The course of the moat is thought to have passed underneath the farm buildings to the south west of the Great Tower but as Curzon didn’t own the farm buildings, the outer moat had to be redirected. Lord Curzon intended his newly restored moats to be a glassy surface that literally reflected the beauty of the castle remains.

Sharing the castle with the nation

In August 1914 the castle was opened as a visitor attraction. When Lord Curzon died in 1925, Tattershall Castle was bequeathed to the National Trust in his will, and has remained open to visitors ever since.  

The rescue efforts of this Lincolnshire landmark prompted the first piece of buildings conservation legislation in the world; shaping the future by protecting the past. The 1913 Ancient Monuments Consolidation and Amendment Act forms the basis of our heritage protection laws that helps charities like the National Trust to conserve buildings, places and spaces for everyone, for ever.

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