Department of Classics and Archaeology

Tattershall Castle: building a history

Project summary

Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire is one of the earliest and most impressive brick structures surviving from late medieval England. Originally built in the early thirteenth century for a local lord, the castle was lavishly rebuilt for Ralph Cromwell, Lord Treasurer of England, between c1434-47. Fitting his important status, Cromwell demanded a magnificent residence which reflected his enormous power and wealth.

From 2016-2020 PhD student James Wright conducted a major archaeological and historical research project on Tattershall and its wider ‘landscape of lordship’, as part of a Collaborative Doctoral Award funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the National Trust.

Tall crenellated tower in red brick surrounded by trees and a large field on one side with a clear blue sky behind
Great Tower at Tattershall Castle



Project goals

Despite its nationally significant architectural importance, Tattershall has remained a largely under-studied resource. The castle was excavated and conserved between 1911-14 under Lord Curzon, and it is one of the earliest examples of a sensitive and informed approach to modern building conservation. However, there has never been detailed research into the property using the full range of techniques available to the modern buildings archaeologist. The current work includes comprehensive standing building survey, historic graffiti survey, dendrochronology, analyses of the wider landscape of lordship, biographical examination of significant characters in the history of the building plus field research on the structures which both influenced the design and were in turn inspired by Tattershall. 

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the current project is a collaborative doctoral award between the National Trust and University of Nottingham. The work is being led by James Wright, formerly of the Museum of London Archaeology, who has previously researched a number of other National Trust buildings including Knole (Kent), Winchester City Mill (Hampshire) and Merton Priory (London). James is being supervised by Dr Chris King, a specialist in medieval buildings, at the University of Nottingham and by Rachael Hall, Consultancy Manager and Archaeologist, at the National Trust.

The new insights generated by the project include a close re-examination of the thirteenth century castle which has demonstrated its close comparisons to castles as far flung as Cheshire, Normandy and the Holy Land. The later medieval architectural influences on Ralph Lord Cromwell and his master builders have been studied alongside the important legacy of the castle - which lasted well into the mid-sixteenth century.

Public outreach

As major stakeholders in the conservation of both buildings and landscapes, the National Trust are keen to make full use of the research to help inform and develop a future management plan for the site. A more detailed picture of the archaeology and significance of the castle will enable a careful balance to be maintained between the varied demands of ecology, arboriculture, commercial activity, events, heritage presentation, below-ground archaeology and the built fabric.

Additionally, the study will become the springboard for new interpretation schemes presented to the general public as visual and written content for new display materials both on and off site. The project has already yielded broader and deeper information which is being relayed via a number of media channels.

One aspect of this is a volunteer project – the Tattershall Historic Graffiti Survey – which was set up in 2017 to record every single instance of graffiti in both the castle and adjacent parish church. The dates, names and symbols scratched into the stone and brick walls covers the entire period of the castle’s history – from medieval builders, to Civil War soldiers, eighteenth-century farm workers and early twentieth century tourists. A team of more than 30 volunteers was enlisted from across Lincolnshire and the midlands were kept busy for many months recording literally thousands of images and inscriptions for posterity. It is an entrancing reminder of how important the site has been for local inhabitants and visitors ever since it first rose from the surrounding Lincolnshire fenland.

Corner of a red brick building with a white-stone framed arched window in one wall, and a double 'v' above a double inverted 'v' in darker bricks on the other wall.

  1. Diaper patterns forming an M and a double VV on the Great Tower at Tattershall

Project team

James WrightChristopher KingRachael Hall

Research partners

National Trust Arts and Humanity Research Council (AHRC)

Partially completed carved drawing of a medieval window in a stone floor, with a ruler next to it to measure the size (approx. 11")
Stone carving at Tattershall Castle. Graffiti design of window tracery carved by medieval masons


  • Wright, James (forthcoming) Tattershall Castle: What Wealth and Power Looks Like, A souvenir guide (National Trust)
  • Wright, James (forthcoming) ‘Tattershall Castle and the Newly Built Personality of Ralph Lord Cromwell’, The Antiquaries Journal
  • Wright, James (March 2019), ‘A Political Hot Topic: Late Mediaeval Fireplaces’, Nottinghamshire Local History Association day school, Ravenshead

  • Wright, James (November 2018) ‘From Clarendon to Cambridge: Great Houses During the Reign of Henry VI’, The Annual Clarendon Lecture, Salisbury Museum

  • Wright, James (August 2018) ‘The Newly Built Personality of Ralph Lord Cromwell’, East Midlands History and Heritage magazine

  • Wright, James (July 2018) ‘Tattershall and Beyond: Elite Architecture in Late Medieval England’, Leeds International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds


Project findings

Overview of Tattershall

The castle is located in what is now a remote area of Lincolnshire, approximately 21 miles south-east of Lincoln, but in the medieval period it was well connected to the coast and the important port of Boston. The first stone castle was built for the regionally important baron, Robert de Tateshale, in the 1230s. Tattershall passed through the Driby and Bernack families until it was inherited, in 1419, by Ralph 3rd Lord Cromwell. The Cromwells were socially rising landowners at a time of great political turbulence initially caused by the minority of Henry VI and, later, his inability to establish strong governance. Cromwell was appointed as Lord Treasurer of England, in 1433, and by the following year had begun an ambitious programme of remodelling at Tattershall which lasted until c.1450.

The building accounts for Cromwell’s great works partially survive, and give a vivid account of the construction process, with materials brought from across Yorkshire, Leicestershire and Lincolnshire. They also record the name of the principal brickmaker, Baldwin Docheman, probably a continental specialist in this new building material from Germany or the Low Countries.

The most impressive surviving element of the castle today is the Great Tower, which rises over 33m high with six storeys capped by battlements and turrets. The research has focused partly on the purpose of this tower, which was not primarily military in function – the windows are too large, there are too many points of entry, and the  machicolations (projections at the top of the tower with holes ostensibly to drop projectiles on the opposition) are more decorative than practical. A detailed survey of the Great Tower has led to new discoveries of decorative brick patterns known as diaper work and heraldic and religious symbols showing that Cromwell was at the forefront of new fashions in architecture at this time. The tower was primarily residential with a lavish suite of private apartments and, above all, it was an architectural statement of the power and lordship of its owner.

Tree-ring dating of Tattershall Guardhouse

There is very little historic timberwork remaining at Tattershall Castle however, the exact date of the floor frame and roof timbers of the ‘Guardhouse’ (now the National Trust ticket office) has long been a mystery. A recent dendrochronology survey by Robert Howard and Alison Arnold of the Nottingham Tree-ring Dating Laboratory for the National Trust has finally established the age of these timbers.

Made of fifteenth century brick, with very fine stone windows and doors, the Guardhouse started off life as a small chamber block for Ralph Cromwell’s retainers in the Middle Ward of the castle. It provided two reasonable sized rooms on ground and first floor, each with a fireplace and en-suite privy chamber. The timber roof structure is a two bay, crown post roof highly characteristic of late medieval Lincolnshire. Other similar examples have been recorded at the Boston Guildhall and at Bailgate in Lincoln.

Timber can be dated by carefully drilling a core from wood which still has traces of the bark or the sapwood which encases the mature heartwood from the original tree. If the bark or sapwood are present then the date that the tree was felled might be established as the final year of growth can be estimated.

It was possible to obtain 21 timber core samples from this building, and of these, 19 were cut during a single felling campaign somewhere between the years 1446-51 - which fits into the final part of Ralph Lord Cromwell’s construction project at Tattershall.




Department of Classics and Archaeology

University of Nottingham
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Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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