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Tattershall and Bolingbroke: A Tale of Two Castles

by Mary Cook

Tattershall CastleNothing quite prepares you for the breathtaking sight of sunlight on rosy medieval brick -- not when that brick has been fashioned into a storybook castle keep.

Tattershall Castle, at Tattershall, a village in the historic county of Lincolnshire, is on the A153 road between Sleaford and Horncastle, about three-and-a-half miles from Woodhall Spa. Henry VIII (1491-1547) said of the county of Lincolnshire that it was "one of the most brutal and beestlie of the whole realm." But today it's arguably one of the most beautiful, with much of its heritage sensitively preserved.

"An Englishman's home is his castle," the well-known saying goes. But in the case of Tattershall Castle, an Englishman's castle was his home. The castle, on the site of an earlier one built in the 13th century by Robert de Tateshall, was raised between 1433 and 1443 by Ralph Cromwell, Lord Treasurer to King Henry VI. An Agincourt veteran, he had inherited the estate in 1419. This is no cozy family home but a manor house, fortified and double-moated to impress -- an affirmation of power. And Cromwell was recognized as being among the most powerful men of his time.

The keep is all that is left of the castle today. Built in a square formation, it has a hexagonal tower at each corner and stands more than a hundred feet above ground level. If you climb the 150 steps to the battlements, it's said that on a clear day you can see Boston "Stump" -- the distinctive truncated tower of St Botolph's Church, Boston, about 14 miles away -- and Lincoln Cathedral, about 17 miles away.

Cromwell was a philanthropist whose work lives on in Tattershall where he founded a church, a college for the education of the church choristers, and a row of almshouses -- all forming part of the castle complex.

The church and almshouses still grace the landscape to this day. In fact the almshouses were renovated in the late 1960s. Dedicated to the Holy Trinity, the church boasts a fine medieval glass window and a prized collection of brasses. Near the font is a plaque marking the grave of Tattershall's famous local resident, "Tom Thumb," who was just 18 inches tall and died in 1620, aged 101. His tiny house can be seen on the roof of another, larger house in the village. The college, a splendid example of Gothic architecture in the perpendicular style, is now a ruin. Those walls that remain "perpendicular" have been shored up with modern brick.

Tattershall Castle

Cromwell died childless. Little has been recorded of the castle's history after his death except that the property reverted to the Crown and later passed into the hands of successive Earls of Lincoln.

Despite the appearance of having been built for warfare, Tattershall Castle saw little English Civil War action, as it was garrisoned for Parliament throughout most of the conflict, though it was captured and briefly held by the King's men in 1643. Having fallen into disrepair over the centuries, it was eventually bought in 1911 by Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, who restored the keep in 1914. One of his more significant improvements was to reinstate the Gothic fireplaces that had been taken out to be sold abroad. On his death in 1925, Lord Curzon bequeathed the property to the National Trust, which now opens it to the public on designated days from March through December.

Nowadays Tattershall Castle is still making a lasting impression with its displays of medieval tapestries, stained glass and massive pieces of old oak furniture. Heraldic symbols remind us of Cromwell's elevated position as Henry VI's Treasurer. Peacocks roam the extensive grounds and have been known to bring traffic to a standstill by wandering through the village. Both moats are home to wildfowl and other wildlife. Visitors can buy coffee and souvenirs in the National Trust shop or take a picnic in the grounds. And changes to licensing laws in recent years mean you can even get married in the castle keep.

There are further reminders that we're living in a modern age when airplanes take off and land at the Royal Air Force base at nearby Coningsby, home to the Battle of Britain Flight -- a fleet of World War II aircraft, lovingly preserved and flown on ceremonial occasions. But nothing can detract from the medieval magic that is Tattershall Castle!

Bolingbroke Castle

Bolingbroke Castle can be found eleven miles north-east of Tattershall in the Royal village of Old Bolingbroke. Originally just "Bolingbroke," it was later given the "Old" prefix to distinguish it from "New" Bolingbroke, a village built by local landowner John Parkinson in the early 19th century as part of a threefold ambition to sink a coalmine, to build a "city" and to plant a forest.

Bolingbroke CastleIn contrast to Tattershall Castle, Bolingbroke Castle is a total ruin, with only the lower portions of the main walls visible. But while there's little to see at Bolingbroke, there's plenty to feel. Its mossy stones are steeped in history. Their brooding presence hints heavily of the Plague and ancient acts of bloodshed. It's not hard to visualize what the castle must have looked like when you trace the outline of the 12-foot thick walls. Vestiges remain of five towers and a gatehouse. It would surely have been a magnificent building in its day. A lifting mechanism found during excavations show that there must have been a drawbridge over the moat.

Unlike most castles, Bolingbroke didn't command a high vantage point. The stone fortress was founded in the 13th century by Sir Randulf de Blundeville, Earl of Chester. A powerful and politically active man as well as a soldier, he was created Earl of Lincoln 1217 for his services to the Crown.

When Randulph died, Bolingbroke Castle passed to his nephew by marriage, John de Lacy, who also became Earl of Lincoln. On his death, the castle was inherited by his daughter Alice, who was married to Earl Thomas of Lancaster. Thomas's life ended in execution, so when Alice died there was no immediate heir to the estate. Bolingbroke then passed to Henry, brother to Alice's first husband.

Henry's daughter Blanche married John of Gaunt, who became the 1st Duke of Lancaster. The castle was the birthplace in 1366 to their son, Henry Bolingbroke, later to become King Henry IV. Blanche died there of the Plague, aged just 24.

Once he was made King, Henry never returned to the home of his birth and the castle was neglected. As it was built mainly of local sandstone, which was not very durable, it soon fell into disrepair. Of the five towers, only the King's Tower, which was rebuilt between 1444 and 1556, remained habitable, along with the gatehouse. A survey in 1632 stated that the King's Tower was the only one still capable of being repaired. And even that had fallen into decay by the time of the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642 which saw the castle brought into service as a Royalist stronghold against the Parliamentarians, nicknamed Roundheads from the shape of their protective headgear.

The castle was held by Royalist troops but came under siege and surrendered after the Parliamentary victory in 1643 at the Battle of Winceby, three miles to the north. The small, brief battle was bloody but strategic in securing the county of Lincolnshire for Parliament.Today, there is nothing to show for the conflict but a memorial stone marking the scene of the battle.

Although victory was finally claimed by the Parliamentarians in 1651, there were fears of a Royalist resurgence. To avoid the possibility of recapture, the castle was rendered indefensible on an order from Parliament somewhere around the middle of the 17th century. A survey of 1654 describes Bolingbroke Castle as "demolished". The last remaining walls collapsed in 1815.

Today the pleasant but unassuming village has little to show of its proud Royal heritage, though the fabric of the castle lives on in some of the local cottages, stone from the site having been salvaged by villagers for building purposes. There is little danger of Bolingbroke's history being consigned entirely to the past, however, as the English Civil War Society exists to stage reenactments of Civil War events. In 2003 the society performed an authentic reenactment of the Siege of Bolingbroke and the Battle of Winceby, marking the 360th anniversary of those events.

Where to Stay and What to See

Visitors wishing to see Tattershall and Bolingbroke would do well to make Woodhall Spa their touring base. Situated about 20 miles south east of the city of Lincoln, it's a quaint "stage-set" of a town that grew up after curative waters were accidentally discovered in the early19th century, giving Woodhall its spa status.

Woodhall's attractions include a cottage museum, which houses the Tourist Information Centre. Displays outline the history of the spa, together with that of the world-famous "Dambusters," the elite 617 Squadron of the Royal Air Force, whose officers' wartime mess was to be found in the Petwood Hotel. A magnificent plantation of pine and beech woods serves as a backdrop to the town. There you'll find the quaint Kinema in the Woods, England's only back projection cinema. It opened in 1922 and in its heyday was patronized by Royalty.

Related Articles:

Boston of the Fenlands and Its Stump, by Lisa Agnew

More Information:

Tattershall Castle

The English Civil War

English Civil War Society

Woodhall Tourism Information:

Mary Cook has been freelancing for nearly 17 years, and has published numerous articles, short stories and poems in print and online publications. Her primary interests are humor, self-sufficient living, and the craft and business of writing. She lives in the county of Lincolnshire, "arguably one of the most beautiful and historic areas in the UK," and was a reporter for a regional paper for more than five years, during which time she provided most of the editorial content for the paper's annual tourist guides.
Article and photos © 2006 Mary Cook


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