F) Castle Hill and the Prison

This history trail is narrated by the poet Michael Rosen, with script researched by Helen Weinstein and the team at Historyworks. This recording is part of a series of Cambridge history trails which have lyrics inspired by 'history beneath our feat' performed by local schoolchildren, with poems by the top poet Michael Rosen and songs by the funny team at CBBC's songwriters commissioned by Historyworks. 

The periods of History that cover the story of Cambridge Castle begin with the Romans 2000 years ago and pass through the Anglo Saxons and Vikings to the Normans 1000 years ago then bridge the Medieval period through the Tudors and Stuarts to the Georgian age just before the start of the Victorian era.

The Romans chose to have a camp on the land where the castle mound now sits and there is evidence that there was an Anglo-Saxon execution cemetery because excavation of burials has revealed the skeletons of individuals executed either through beheading from behind, or by hanging. Then there was a prison of some sort on Castle Hill from when the Norman motte and bailey castle was built in 1068 by William the Conqueror. This location was originally seen as ideal because it was at the most northern point at which an army could pass over the Cam from the Eastern Counties to the middle of England. Nearby was the only bridge that crossed the Cam for many miles. It was then called the Great Bridge but it’s now Magdalene Bridge – it was in fact the original Cam-bridge - Cambridge. In William’s wooden built castle there was a dungeon to keep prisoners, as well as the sheriff’s office, and monthly county courts were held here. The Castle was not important in terms of warfare after 1215 and the records of Henry III mention it entirely in connection with royal government and justice.

In the later Medieval times, when the University was established, there were tensions between clerks (scholars or churchmen) and the other inhabitants of the town. Our records are full of accounts of clerks causing trouble, either fighting amongst themselves, or against townsmen. In 1261–4 a group of clerks planned to burgle the house of a Cambridge wine merchant at Hauxton. They were betrayed by fellow clerks, and were caught in the act by the sheriff, who carried their decapitated heads back to the Castle.

Edward I rebuilt the castle around 1289, but that rebuilt castle has also disappeared. Edward himself stayed there on March 24th/25th 1293, the only recorded royal visit.

From the 1340s the gatehouse was the main castle gaol until the end of the 18th century. The Upper floor of the gatehouse was reserved for debtors, criminals were housed below.

In Tudor times there was a survey of the castle telling us that the gatehouse was used as a common Gaol and for the home of the gaoler. The rest of the walls of the castle were in ruins.

An account of the castle from 1802 reports that in the lower gaol there were 4 strong rooms, and in the high gaol there was a kitchen and other offices, and 6 rooms for debtors. Castle Yard was spacious but not secure enough to allow the prisoners to exercise.

Many of the prisoners were debtors, individuals who had been imprisoned for owing money. Theft was also common reason for imprisonment, but there are records of individuals committing more unusual crimes, including a certain John Stallan, who was charged with starting eleven fires in the Great Shelford area, simply so that he could seek a reward for alerting the Fire Office. He was later hanged at the Castle Prison for his crime.

In the early 1800s a new gaol was built, designed by Mr. Byfield and any records for the original castle disappear from sight.


F) Castle Hill and the Prison


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