Although now a tourist attraction in the city, Lincoln Castle was originally built by William the Conqueror in 1068 as a place to help maintain power after the Norman invasion a couple of years previously. The site has been undergoing a £22m restoration since 2010, and visitors are able to experience 1000 years of history via the Medieval Wall Walk, Victorian Prison and an original copy of the Magna Carta.
When William and his invading Norman forces reached Lincoln, he encountered a commercial and trading centre with a population in the region of 6,000 to 8,000. At that point in British history, Lincoln was still one of the main settlements in the country. The earthwork remains of the old Roman walled fortress proved an ideal strategic position to construct the new castle that William wanted for the town.
The castle was used as a prison throughout the Georgian and Victorian periods, being built in 1788 and then used for debtors until 1878. It used an earlier form of prison separation, keeping prisoners isolated to encourage them to reflect, repent and reform. As a result, there are many single cells and a special chapel designed to keep prisoners apart – the only original of its kind left in the world.
Until 1868 inmates were publicly hanged in the north east tower, often with use of the long drop, designed to break the neck, rather than strangling the convicts, providing a more humane form of execution. In 1878 the prison was relocated to another site when the castle was left unoccupied.
There are currently three floors of restored prison cells, spread over a male and female wing, providing some excellent insight about the justice system of Victorian England.
After Lincoln was fortified by the Norman forces, the town went from strength to strength, and as it grew, it grew around the castle, meaning it remains at the heart of the city, near the cathedral, although now it no longer exists as either a fortress or a prison.
Today’s castle comprises of two main mounds (mottes). One features an observation tower, and the other a 12th century shell keep and beginnings of the curtain wall. Due to Lincoln Castle’s history, part of remains now include a Georgian building, an eastern gatehouse with two round 13th century turrets and a large western gatehouse.
Guided tours of the castle site are on offer throughout the year, where the castle’s volunteers can provide more details about the history of both the castle and its occupants, highlighting some of the unique features that make Lincoln Castle distinctive.
The walk along the length of the castle’s curtain wall offers fantastic views of the cathedral, city and surrounding countryside. A visit to the prison including the women’s wing and the chapel provides a better understanding use of Lincoln in its more recent past, along with an exhibition which includes the rare opportunity to see one of the four original copies of the Magna Carta sealed by King John in 1215.
Lincolnshire County Council now own and run the castle, and occasionally let out the rooms for function hire, such as for weddings and other events. For day visitors, there is a cafe and shop on site, providing refreshments, lunches and gifts to anyone wanting to discover more of Lincoln’s grizzlier past.