In 1135 Henry I died without leaving a male heir which led to a civil war, known as the Anarchy, between two rival claimants. Upon the old King's death, Stephen of Blois had taken the throne with the support of most of the nobility. Within a few years though Henry's daughter Matilda had secured the support of her half brother - Robert, Earl of Gloucester - and was challenging Stephen for the throne. His defeat and capture at the First Battle of Lincoln (1141) saw Matilda become dominant and most of Stephen's supporters shifted their support to her including Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex. When Stephen was released later that year Geoffrey seems to have been courted by both camps. Stephen however was unimpressed and ordered Mandeville's arrest in 1143. The Earl was seized and forced to handover Pleshey and Saffron Walden castles. He did so for fear of his life but, when freed, he rebelled establishing his base on the Isle of Ely which, in the medieval period, was an area of firm ground surrounded by waterlogged and inaccessible terrain. Stephen immediately moved against him and built a series of fortifications to contain Mandeville. Burwell Castle was one of these and was specifically intended to stop the Earl raiding into Cambridgeshire and thus threaten the link between the north and London.
Burwell Castle was constructed on a flat platform associated with an earlier Roman site. At the time of the castle's construction the site was owned by the church and hosted a small village but it was simply taken over by Stephen's forces. Although never completed, the castle's intended layout is clear with the defences laid out in a rectangular arrangement, an unusual configuration for Norman era castles and perhaps influenced by the earlier Roman structure. A small motte, presumably for a Keep, was built in the centre of the site. A flat bottomed ditch was sunk around the castle platform and there seems to have been an original intent to use a nearby stream to flood it although neither the necessary waterproofing nor a sluice gate was ever completed. Interestingly the gatehouse and ramparts of the castle were not built in timber but instead constructed with stone. For a fortification built due to a specific and immediate military threat, this was unusual and perhaps suggests Burwell was originally intended as an enduring fortification.
Mandeville besieged Burwell Castle the following year before work on the fortification had been completed. The garrison refused to surrender however and attempts to take it by force resulted in the Earl being struck by a crossbow bolt. Mortally wounded he was carried off to Mildenhall where he died. As he was excommunicated at the time of his death - this act having been done by Stephen's brother Henry of Blois, Archbishop of Winchester - he was denied burial on consecrated ground and so was eventually interned at the Temple Church in London. The rebellion around the Isle of Ely ended with the Earl's death and Burwell Castle became surplus to requirements and was abandoned. The stone ramparts and gatehouse were probably never completed although both were several metres tall (at least a portion was recorded as standing 2.5 metres tall in the 1930s when it was destroyed when testing the local fire hose). Furthermore the planned moat had yet to be lined with clay and accordingly had not been flooded.
After the castle had been decommissioned, King Stephen returned the site to the church and it continued in used as an unfortified manor. In 1246 a private chapel was built within the earthworks for the Abbot. The castle site was purchased by Burwell Parish Council in 1983.
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Burwell Castle consists of the earthworks of an unfinished counter-castle raised by King Stephen during the Anarchy (1139-53) in order to contain the Earl of Essex in his redoubt within the Fenland surrounding the Isle of Ely. Although originally built in stone, the masonry remains have been plundered leaving just the steep earth banks. The ditches, originally intended to be filled with water but never fully completed, are particularly impressive.
King Stephen's Counter Castles. Stephen sought to contain Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex within his stronghold amongst the Fenland surrounding the Isle of Ely. The precise number of counter castles built at this time is uncertain but Kirtling, Lidgate and Rampton are believed to have been raised by Stephen. It is also likely the fortifications along/near the Great North Road at Bassingbourn, Caxton, Knapwell, Ramsey and Swavesey were also contemporary structures.
Castle Platform. The castle site had originally been occupied by a Roman villa and it was perhaps the builders of that structure who flattened the rectangular platform. By the twelfth century a small village existed on the site which by then was owned by the church. King Stephen simply took over the site pressing the villagers into not only building the castle but also demolishing their own homes.
Keep. A small motte was built in the centre of the fort platform and this was intended as the site of the Keep. This structure was built in stone from the start but probably never finished prior to the abandonment of the castle in 1144.
Moat. A deep, flat-bottomed ditch was sunk around the castle platform and was clearly originally intended to be filled with water. However, work on the castle ceased prior to the moat being waterproofed with clay. Accordingly it was never flooded.
Burwell Castle was one of numerous fortifications raised to contain the rebellious Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex who was raiding Cambridgeshire from his stronghold in the Isle of Ely. Work started in 1143 but the following year the Earl was mortally wounded whilst attacking the unfinished castle. With the rebellion defeated, Burwell became superfluous and was abandoned.
Burwell Castle is found within a public park to the south of the village. The site is sign-posted for pedestrians from the High Street and a small car park can be found nearby off Spring Close.
Car Parking Option
Mandeville, CB25 0AG