Wisbech: Castle

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4, City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.

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'Wisbech: Castle', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4, City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds, (London, 2002) pp. 251-252. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol4/pp251-252 [accessed 19 April 2024]


The castle, not mentioned in Domesday Book, is traditionally said to have been first built by William the Conqueror after the submission of Hereward. (fn. 1) It may have been granted to the see of Ely at its formation, but the original headquarters of the episcopal estate in Wisbech, from which the manor ultimately took its name, must have been on the site of Barton Farm on the opposite side of the river. The earliest dated evidence of episcopal tenure of the castle is in the vacancy of 1215-19, when it was entrusted in turn to Ralph de Normanville and Robert de Cantia, and to Richard (Poore), Bishop of Salisbury. (fn. 2) King John stopped there on 12 October 1216 on his last journey. (fn. 3)

Edward I visited it in 1292, 1298, 1300, and 1305. (fn. 4) From the late 13th century the building was mainly used as a prison and as a place for holding the bishop's courts. John de Lacy, a clerk, was pardoned after breaking out of the prison in 1291, and in 1315 Richard Lambert of Lynn, illegally imprisoned in Wisbech Castle, was so inhumanly gnawed by toads and other venomous vermin that his life was despaired of. (fn. 5) In 1350 a commission of oyer and terminer was issued when a prisoner, John de Wilton, was rescued by Christine and John de Wilton, his mother and son, and others; as a result of this the older John was outlawed. He was stated to have assaulted the bishop's bailiffs, threatened the constable and besieged the castle, so that a large garrison had to be maintained and the business of rent collecting and management of the bishop's property was at a standstill. (fn. 6) Another commission was issued in 1360 when many evildoers escaped to Walsoken and took sanctuary in the church there, from which they were rescued by other felons. (fn. 7)

The duties of the constable included the custody of the castle and its prisoners, the conduct of the courts, and in some cases at least the stewardship of Barton manor. (fn. 8) In the latter half of the 14th century the constable was entitled to perquisites as follows: a hall by the gates, chambers on both sides of the hall and over the gates, the easement of a kitchen and stabling for three horses. He had a salary of 20 marks yearly and robes for himself and his deputy, or 40s. in lieu, 40,000 turves, 12 cartloads of hay, and straw and a bushel of oats daily for the three horses. (fn. 9) The 20 marks had been paid as early as 1298-9, when the robes were valued at 53s. 4d. (fn. 10)

A long series of account rolls of the castle bailiff exists side by side with those of Wisbech Barton manor. The division of duties between the two officials seems to have been one of function, the castle bailiff being responsible for the legal, as the Barton bailiff was for the economic side of the manor. The castle accounts show the profits from manorial perquisites-assized rents (over £100 a year to the end of Henry VI's reign, then reduced to a fixed sum of £68 11s. 11d.), fisheries (which produced £10 to £15 a year), mills, markets, and fees of court. These last, serving as the court did for the whole of Wisbech hundred, were a valuable source of revenue at about £30 a year on average. The profits of the castle bailiff were considerably greater than on the Barton manor, rarely less than £100 a year and sometimes more than double that amount. (fn. 11) In the 15th century the castle fell into ruin, and was rebuilt during the episcopate of Bishop Morton (1479-86). (fn. 12)

During the brief reign of Lady Jane Grey, Robert Dudley, later Earl of Leicester, seems to have made Wisbech his headquarters, while attempting to win over the town of Lynn to her cause. (fn. 13) On 14 (fn. 14) and 24 (fn. 15) July 1553, however, Thomas Carwell, Edmund Beaupre of Outwell, and John Dethick were ordered to take possession of the castle for Queen Mary and make an inventory of its contents. The neighbourhood seems to have been somewhat disturbed at this time, for on 22 July 1553 the Privy Council dispatched a letter to 'Mr. Repps' 'for the staye and appeasynge of the inhabitants of the Ile of Elye' (fn. 16) and ten days later Beaupre warned the Council of a proposed assembly of 5,000 persons on Tilney Smeeth (Norf.), who intended to 'take all gentelmen into their rule and custody until redress were had of their wrongs done at the Queen's Majesty's hands'. (fn. 17)

During the reign of Elizabeth the castle was used as a prison for Roman Catholic recusants (see below), after which it again fell into disrepair. Bishop Andrewes (1609-19) spent £2,000 on it, (fn. 18) and Bishop White (1631-8) a smaller sum, (fn. 19) and it was used as a residence by most bishops until the Civil War. In return for £550 Andrewes made an agreement with Matthias Taylor and Rowland Bradford, constables of the castle, to accept a fixed salary of 40 marks a year, without any perquisites in kind. Bradford later claimed the full fees and perquisites, amounting to £94 a year, but got no satisfaction from Bishop White and only £10 a year from Bishop Wren his successor. Bradford alleged that Wren had failed to keep the castle in good repair, thereby enabling four prisoners to escape. (fn. 20)


  • 1. Matt. Paris, Chron. Majora (Rolls Ser.), ii, 7; Walker and Craddock, Hist. Wisb. (1850), p. 209; V.C.H. Cambs. ii, 47.
  • 2. Rot. Litt. Pat. (Rec. Com.), i, 128; Cal. Pat. 1216-25, 122.
  • 3. Rot. Litt. Pat. (Rec. Com.), i, Introd. It is possible that the loss of his baggage occurred between Walsoken and Wisbech, where the road from Lynn along the sea bank crossed the Well Stream. The writer is indebted to the late E. J. Rudsdale for this suggestion.
  • 4. P.R.O. Round Room, Itin. of Edw. I (TS).
  • 5. Cal. Pat. 1281-92, 434; 1313-17, 318.
  • 6. C 47/50/6/975 Cal. Pat. 1348-50, 383-5. It is permissible to connect these sudden outbreaks of violence with the contemporary feud between Bishop Lisle and Lady Wake (D.N.B. xi, 1223), and with the depressed state of Wisbech in the middle of the 14th century.
  • 7. Cal. Pat. 1358-61, 485; 1361-4, 533.
  • 8. e.g. between 1538 and 1544 Thomas Megges held both offices (C 1/983/44-48).
  • 9. Cal. Pat. 1358-61, 43; 1385-9, 460; 1399-1401, 534. The conditions were the same in 1446 (Ely Dioc. Remembrancer, Nos. 208, p. 181; 229, p. 131).
  • 10. S.C. 6/1132/10 and /13.
  • 11. Bp.'s Mun., Ely, D 7.
  • 12. Bentham, Ely, 181. No trace of this building survives; it is said to have been of brick, like Morton's work at Hatfield and later at Lambeth, and the contemporary rebuilding of Buckden Palace by Bishops Rotherham and Russell.
  • 13. H. J. Hillen, Hist. Lynn (1907), i, 279. The writer is indebted to the late E. J. Rudsdale for drawing attention to this episode, and for most of the references.
  • 14. Acts of P.C. 1552-4, 302-3.
  • 15. Ibid. 415.
  • 16. Ibid. 301.
  • 17. Hillen, Hist. Lynn, i, 280.
  • 18. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. (1898), 13.
  • 19. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1638-9, 211. It seems to have been the custom of the bishops at this period to demand £400 from the executors of their predecessors for dilapidations.
  • 20. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1635-6, 69; Hist. MSS. Com., 4th Rep. App. 67.