Updated on 1 July 2013 by Admin
This little-known castle site was once an important estate centre for the Bishop of Lincoln who was the ‘Lord of the Manor’ in Sleaford between 1124 and 1139. It is not on high ground, where one would expect a castle to be, but was built in an area of flat fen. However, the low lie of the land would have made it very hard for an enemy to approach unseen.
For most of its history, the Castle was principally a manor house rather than a military stronghold. It was used to store the produce from the Bishop’s land, administer his estates and provide accommodation for him when he visited the area. It may even have replaced an earlier moated manor house on the site.
A large pond, formed by damming the River Slea at the end of Westgate, stood immediately beyond the castle gates. This was the source of thatch and rushes, fresh fish for the Bishop’s table and power for a two-wheeled watermill behind the dam. An orchard, just outside the castle walls, provided fruit for the inhabitants.
The stone has been taken away and recycled for other buildings in Sleaford, but 450 years ago it was a fine defended structure with stonewalls and a high square stone keep. Newark castle was also built for Bishop Alexander and is thought to be similar design.
450 years ago you would have crossed the drawbridge over the inner moat. This would take you to the gatehouse with its two portcullises, which you had to go through to get to the inner bailey.
Unless you were an important visitor you would more likely have stopped in the outer bailey. This would have been a lively hub of animals and people with carts carrying grain, legumes, reeds and rushes as their dues to the bishop.
Besides the Bishop of Lincoln, the castle occasionally played host to royal visitors. King John brought the castle to prominence by spending one of the last nights of his life here, after the disastrous loss of his baggage train in the Wash in 1216. he already was gravely ill and after one night at Sleaford, he managed to struggle on to Newark castle where he died a few days later. Henry VIII may have held a Council here when he visited Sleaford with his Queen, Katherine Howard in 1541.
Throughout the castle’s history it was never attacked. However, during the civil war between King Stephen and Queen Matilda in 1139, the bishop was forced to hand over his keys to the castle as the king was not sure of his loyalties. Something similar happened in the 1320’s, this time under the orders of King Edward II.
The castle passed into the hands of the Duke of Somerset in 1544. In 1555 it was said to be still defensible and inhabitable. Soon afterwards it passed into the hands of the Crown and began to fall into disrepair, starting with the timber and lead roof being taken.
The process of decline continued under the ownership of the Carre family. In 1604 it was described as ‘the late fair castle’. Some of the older buildings in Sleaford such as the ‘Manor House’, on Northgate, claim to have been partly built with the stonework from the castle. The last remaining piece of stonework still remains in the Northeast corner of the site.
The outline of the Tithe Barn can still be made out on the Southern end of the castle. Measuring 40 x 15 metres it was said to be the largest barn in the county and makes one realise the importance of the castle as an agricultural storage area.
Those who farmed the surrounding fields had to pay rent to the Bishops of Lincoln, who owned the land – this was called the tithe system. What exactly was paid depended on the status of the person within the feudal system. The very poor had to pay by working some of the time on the Bishop’s land; other wealthier citizens could pay off their debts in money; another way to pay off the Bishop was to serve as a soldier or do guard duty at the castle.
A cattle shed and hay loft were attached to the barn. The circular earthwork to the east of the barn is thought to be a dovecote where pigeons and doves were kept to provide meat for the Bishop’s table.
Today the castle site can be accessed from Castle Causeway and the area is managed to encourage wildlife.