Bolingbroke Castle – a brief history

Bolingbroke means “the home by the brook of Bulla’s people” and is a fifth or six century Saxon name, referring to the stream that still runs through the village of old Bolingbroke today. Before this, in Roman times, marshland and inlets from the sea may have reached right up to the foot of the wolds here so it is possible that there was a very early settlement thereabouts, next to a convenient access point from the sea to the dry uplands. Saxon earthworks rise above the village and a C12th settlement, possibly a Norman motte and bailey castle, was built on Dewy Hill, which overlooks the present castle. The village was mentioned in the Domesday Book as having a church, three mills, 70 acres of meadows, a market and annual fair, but it is with the building of the medieval castle that the village’s prosperity really took off.

How the castle may have looked in the thirteenth century. All reconstructions courtesy of the English Heritage Education Department.

Bolingbroke Castle was constructed around 1220-30, the earliest written references to it being in 1232 and 1243. It was built by Randulph de Blundeville, Earl of Chester (and Earl of Lincoln from 1217) on the flat land surrounded by hills on three sides. This indicates that defense was only part of the purpose of the castle, since siege engines could at a pinch bombard the walls from these hill sides. It was however, a strong place, with a deep moat around 100 feet across enclosing a walled area 250 feet in diameter. The curtain wall was 12 feet thick and further defended by five towers and a gate house. There was no keep, in common with Beeston Castle, also built by the Earl at roughly the same time. He also built Chartley Castle. Probably lime washed like other castles of the era, Bolingbroke would have looked magnificent in its heyday.

This cut away reconstruction drawing how the Kitchen Tower and the other towers functioned.

Excavations have found a lifting mechanism for a bridge over the moat into the gate house, and there was a postern gate (effectively, the back door) in the Auditor’s Tower. Outside the castle, there was an outer bailey or “rout yard”, used for corralling beasts and grazing. The yard is still surrounded by a low bank and narrow ditch beyond on two sides. Features resembling fish ponds are also present and if so, these would have provided the inhabitants of the castle with fresh food. The large earthwork in the centre of the rout yard is however almost certainly post-medieval, and probably a fort built to defend the castle during the siege of 1643 (see below). Outside the castle was the town. This eventually became one of the chief market towns in the county. The annual fair was held on St. Peter’s Day, with a weekly fair on Tuesday.

On Randulph’s death the castle passed to his niece’s husband, John de Lacy, who later also became Earl of Lincoln. On his death the castle became the property of his daughter Alice and her husband, Earl Thomas of Lancaster. He was executed in 1322 and once Alice died in 1348, there was no immediate heir so Bolingbroke became the property of her first husband’s brother Henry.

Earl Henry’s daughter Blanche married the famous John of Gaunt in 1359, who thus joined the Lancastrian family, becoming 1st Duke of Lancaster. He and Blanche lived at the castle in the 1360s and 70s, although she sadly died there of the plague on 12 September 1369, age 24. John was a very wealthy and powerful figure and was loyal to his nephew Richard II. This secured many favours including permission to finally marry his beloved mistress Katherine Swinford, just three years before his death and giving legitimacy to their four children. Katherine’s tomb is in Lincoln Cathedral.

This was how the castle may have looked in the fifteenth century, with the Great Hall to the left and the kitchens to the right.

John and Blanche’s son Henry – later King Henry IV – was born at Bolingbroke Castle in 1366. Unfortunately, unlike his father, he did not enjoy the trust of the King. Exiled by Richard II in 1397 for quarrelling with the Duke of Norfolk, his estates were seized by the King on John of Gaunt’s death. The enraged Henry plotted his revenge, which he achieved in 1399 when he returned to England and took Richard prisoner. The King was deposed and horribly killed in 1400, clearing the way for Henry of Bolingbroke to be crowned King Henry IV. He became the first King linked to the House of Lancaster and reigned through skill and brute force, surviving various attempts on his life.

Henry IV never visited the castle again before he died in 1413, but it continued to be used as an administrative centre for the Lancastrian dynasty, although it played no part in the Wars of the Roses in the mid to late C15th.

Bolingbroke gradually became a backwater and by Tudor times the auditors only visited the castle once a year to review the accounts. It simply wasn’t the place to be seen living in any more – with new mansions all the rage – so the castle became very dilapidated. By 1600 four of the towers were uninhabitable, the main domestic buildings had gone and only the gatehouse and the King’s Tower (rebuilt in a fashionable octagonal shape between 1444 and 1456) were still in use. A late-era Henry VIII Groat was found within a cobbled roadway leading up to the gatehouse, showing that some repairs were however still being made. Nonetheless, in 1636 a survey found that all of the towers were effectively beyond repair.

The King’s Tower as it may have looked in the fifteenth century.

But history had not finished with Bolingbroke Castle. Although no longer a desirable home, as well as militarily obsolete due to the power and range of modern artillery, it was still a relatively strong place when the civil war broke out in 1642 and this was to lead to its only real moment of glory. The next summer, a great Royalist army under the Marquis of Newcastle bore down from the north, throwing garrisons into the towns and castles that were captured. 200 men were placed into Bolingbroke Castle in September of that year, securing the surrounding countryside for the King. However, Newcastle’s advance eventually faltered and he retreated back the way he had come, leaving the garrison at Old Bolingbroke, supported by the stronghold at Newark, to resist the inevitable Parliamentarian counter attack from Boston. The garrison strengthened the castle and may well have built an earth fort in the rout yard at this time, making an all out assault costly for an enemy. A siege began on 9 October, bringing about the Battle of Winceby on the 11th, when the relief force from Newark was destroyed in a half-hour battle by Parliamentarians commanded by Oliver Cromwell and Sir Thomas Fairfax. Despite this disaster, the castle held out until 14 November, when it surrendered. http://www.old-maps.co.uk/oldmaps/large_ind.jsp

Although final victory was achieved over the Royalists by the Parliamentarian forces in 1651, there were widespread fears of uprisings and the use of castles by rebels or malcontents. It was therefore decided to render many such places militarily indefensible by blowing up or knocking down the defenses. Accordingly, in 1652 Bolingbroke Castle was “slighted”, with a section of curtain wall and much of the upper walls removed and thrown into the moat. Henceforth, the place could have no military value. Some of the stone was “liberated” by the townsfolk and surviving cottages in “The Row” are built from it.

After the civil war, Bolingbroke lapsed back into obscurity. By the C18th the castle wasn’t noteworthy at all, although included on Jared Hill’s map of 1719 (right). Thomas Quincy wrote in 1772 that “near this place (Keal) is Bullingbroke, an inconsiderable town, in which there is nothing to be seen but a pottery for coarse earthenware”. Indeed, the one enduring activity in the town was pottery, an industry that began in the C15th and did not decline until the early C19th. Even today, fragments of Bolingbroke Ware often surface during gardening in the village.

New Bolingbroke was built a few miles to the south in the early C19th, so to avoid any confusion the original village was renamed Old Bolingbroke. Although the rights to the market were transferred to New Bolingbroke in 1821, the village still had a thriving community including many local businesses – a butcher, baker, grocer, blacksmith, wheelwright, millers (both water and wind), tailor, builder, cobbler, coal merchant, carrier, plumber and painter, along with the post office, ropery and two pubs. In fact, the population increased to 947 in 1871 (see map, left, c.1890-91) before declining during the C20th, hastened by the coming of the railway to nearby Spilsby. By 1992 the number of residents had fallen to just 249 and is probably not much more than 200 now. A limited amount of new building may at last reverse this trend, although with the exception of the Post Office and Black Horse pub, all the shops have long gone. In World War Two, RAF bomber crews from nearby bases including East Kirkby often drank at the village pubs, and a large corrugated tin building (which still exists) was used as a cinema.

By the C19th, much of the castle had disappeared under the turf. The highest remaining portion of stonework – from the gatehouse – fell down in May 1815. The Duchy of Lancaster placed the site into the guardianship of the Ministry of works in 1949 and they undertook a major project to uncover the remains in the 1960s. The Ministry of Work’s successor English Heritage handed the castle over to the Heritage Trust of Lincolnshire in 1995, and it remains open to visitors throughout the year. With parts of the curtain wall standing as high as 18 foot and the moat still wide if silted up on one side, Bolingbroke Castle is still an impressive monument to the medieval age.

Howard Giles


Old Bolingbroke, by Sophie C Ellis. Published privately in 1994.
A short Guide to the Royal Village of Old Bolingbroke Castle and Church, Old Bolingbroke Parochial Church Council, 1998.
Notes from the Heritage Trust of Lincolnshire
East Lindsey District Council leaflet