Cambridge Castle was built by William I in 1068 to secure the area during the rebellion of Hereward the Wake. It was unsuccessfully besieged by Matilda’s forces during the Anarchy. Later, during the First Barons’ War, the castle was seized by French forces. The structure was substantially rebuilt in the late thirteenth century but it was not maintained and soon drifted into ruin.
Castle Hill, the site of the later medieval fortification, was occupied during the Bronze and Iron Ages. Following the Roman invasion (AD 43), the army built Ermine Street as a key line of communication between London and the north which ran directly through western Cambridgeshire. This by-passed Cambridge itself but, following the Boudica rebellion in AD 60, the military sought to secure the area and built a fort on Castle Hill which was connected to Ermine Street by Akeman Street. It was rebuilt in the AD 70s but thereafter was abandoned by the military and was converted into a town (called Duroliponte) which thrived due to the road access and the proximity of the River Cam. By the fourth century AD, the Roman military was struggling to cope with Danish and German seaborne raiders who used the navigable waters of the river to target the town. Limestone walls were erected to provide defence.
Following the withdrawal of Roman military forces in the early fifth century AD, Cambridgeshire was invaded by Angles. The county was divided amongst different tribes until conquered by Mercia in the late eighth century AD. Cambridge remained under Mercian rule until AD 875 when it was occupied by the Viking commander Guthrum who incorporated the site into the Danelaw and fortified it. However, in AD 905 King Edward the Elder of Wessex invaded and took control of Cambridgeshire. By AD 921 a fortified burh (town) had been established at Cambridge. These defences, which may have re-used the line of the earlier Roman defences, consisted of an earth and timber rampart fronted by a ditch that enclosed an ellipse shaped area backed by the River Cam on the west side. By the mid-tenth century Cambridge had grown to become one of Eastern England's largest towns.
Cambridge Castle was built by William I in 1068 concurrently with nearby Huntingdon Castle to anchor Norman rule against the rebellion of Hereward the Wake. He had risen up against the Normans due to the imposition of a Norman Abbot at Peterborough who had subsequently dispossessed many native English of their lands in favour of Norman immigrants. With the support of King Sweyn of Denmark, the threat to William I's regime was significant but a peace was agreed with the Danish King and thereafter William defeated the native rebels. This first castle at Cambridge was an earth and timber motte-and-bailey fortification built on a spur of high ground (now known as Castle Hill) to the north-west of the River Cam. The mound itself was topped with a timber palisade whilst its base was surrounded by a wet ditch. Extending to the north was the bailey. The Domesday survey of 1086 recorded that 27 houses were destroyed to make space for the castle.
Upon the outbreak of the Anarchy in 1139, the civil war between Stephen and Matilda over the English succession, Cambridge Castle was garrisoned for the former. However, in 1143 it was attacked by Geoffrey de Mandeville, an ally of Matilda, from his bases in Fens. The attack prompted Stephen to build Burwell Castle to contain Mandeville and it achieved that aim; the rebellious baron was killed besieging the new structure. No further attacks were made on Cambridge Castle for the rest of the war.
In the late twelfth century the castle predominantly served as an administrative centre. Repairs were made by both Henry II and King John but their efforts were focused on the hall and court facilities rather than the defences which remained out-dated timber structures. This proved a costly mistake as in 1216, during the First Barons' War, Cambridge Castle was quickly taken by Prince Louis of France who had become the leader of the Baronial faction. After Louis was defeated and paid off in 1217, the castle returned to the Crown and minor upgrades were commissioned. These were evidentially sufficient for the castle withstood a rebel attack during the Second Barons' War (1264-7). The town walls were rebuilt at this time including adding the King’s Ditch, a substantial trench that protected the eastern side of the town.
Rebuilding in Stone
The castle was finally rebuilt in stone by Edward I from 1284, much later than most other fortifications. However, with many other calls on Royal revenues, particularly for castle building in Wales, the work received limited funding and took over fourteen years. The end result broadly mirrored the layout of the earlier timber castle. The motte itself was enhanced and topped with a circular stone keep as a direct replacement for the former timber palisade. The bailey itself was enclosed with a substantial curtain wall, broadly rectangular in plan, with circular towers on each corner. A gatehouse, complete with barbican, controlled access. The work was never completed although it had progressed sufficiently far to host a visit by Edward I in 1294.
Edward's Castle was neglected by his heirs and soon fell into ruin. By 1441 even the administrative buildings were reported as ruinous and Henry VI ordered the castle's Great Hall to be demolished to provide stone for building King's College and Trinity College chapel for the University. Plundering of the stone continued in the subsequent century and by 1604 the only part of the castle still standing was the gatehouse, which was utilised as the county gaol, and the ruins of the Keep.
During the seventeenth century civil war, Cambridge was a Parliamentary stronghold and one of the founding counties of the Eastern Association; an organisation for administering and raising a Parliamentary army to fight the King. With neighbouring Lincolnshire being contested by the two sides, the (ruined) castle was taken over by Parliamentary troops and augmented by earthwork bastions to provide defence for the town. Fifteen houses were demolished outside of the castle's walls to give a clear field of fire and a brick barracks was constructed within the bailey. However, the defences proved unnecessary as Cambridge saw no action during the war and, along with so many other fortifications, was slighted beyond repair in the subsequent years although both the motte and the gatehouse, the latter still serving as a prison, were spared.
The gatehouse continued to serve as a gaol until the early nineteenth century. However, the increasing number of inmates meant a new facility was required and so between 1802 and 1807 a purpose built facility was erected in the castle's bailey after which the gatehouse was demolished. The new prison remained in use until 1915 but was then shut down with Bedford and Holloway prisons being used instead. The prison block was demolished in 1928 and replaced with the Cambridge County Shire Hall. Today all that remains of the castle is the earth motte.
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Cambridge Castle consists of the (much mutilated) motte of the Norman fortification. The mound is freely accessible and offers good views of the surrounding area. The Town Walls have been obliterated.
Cambridge Castle and Town Walls. The town defences were established in Roman times, rebuilt by the Anglo-Saxons in the tenth century and refreshed again by Henry III in the 1260s. The line of these defences enclosed an ellipse shaped area protected on the east by Town Walls and on the west by the River Cam. Cambridge Castle was raised on the other side of the river and dominated Magdalene Bridge, enabling it to control the crossing into the town.
Motte. The motte of the Norman castle survives but has suffered extensive alterations in later periods most notably the Civil War.
Counter Castles. During the early years of the Anarchy, Stephen sought to contain Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex within his stronghold in the Isle of Ely by building a variety of fortifications. These protected the major settlements at Cambridge, Huntingdon and Saffron Walden.
County Hall. View from the motte towards the County Hall, a structure built within the castle's bailey in the late 1920s.
Cambridge Castle is found off Castle Street adjacent to the Cambridge Shire Hall. It is not sign-posted. There is a car park adjacent but it is restricted to permit holders. Alteratively, numerous other parking options are available nearby with the closest being on-road parking on Chesteron Road (shown below).
Car Parking Option
Chesterton Road, CB4 3AL