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The history of Sheffield’s long-lost castle

Wooden and canvas castle at Lady’s Bridge.
Wooden and canvas castle at Lady’s Bridge. his was made for the visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales to Sheffield in August 1875.

From the Arctic Monkeys to the quality of its steel, the city of Sheffield is known around the world for its musical and industrial heritage. However, its long-lost castle – which was once among the most powerful political and cultural centres in medieval England – deserves a place in the history books as well, according to archaeologists.

In Sheffield Castle: Archaeology, Archives, Regeneration, 1927-2018, written by Professor John Moreland from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology, Professor Dawn Hadley from the University of York’s Department of Archaeology, and Ashley Tuck and Mili Rajic from Wessex Archaeology. the castle’s impressive history – largely unknown or ignored up until now – is brought to light for the first time and is placed right alongside some of Britain’s greatest castles.

The book, published by White Rose University Press, is the first time that findings from all of the major excavations at the castle – conducted in the 1920s, 50s and 90s – have been published in one place. It also contains the results of the most recent excavations of Sheffield Castle led by Wessex Archaeology in 2018.

This new, definitive account reveals that Sheffield Castle played a major role in local, national and international affairs in the medieval era, and shaped the development and topography of modern day Sheffield.

Importantly, the book is available as an Open Access monograph, free to read online or download. The archives on which the book is based will also be freely available via the Archaeology Data Service. The team behind the book believe this material belongs to the people of the city and they are now able to share it not only with the local community but globally, bringing new audiences to this historical place.

Now the archaeologists are calling for the castle and Sheffield’s significance in the Middle Ages to contribute to a new identity for the city, which can be celebrated in the redevelopment of the Castlegate area of Sheffield city centre. The team is working with Sheffield City Council to explore how best to use the city’s new-found medieval heritage in future regeneration.

Professor John Moreland from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology said: “Sheffield is seen by most people as the Steel City, but what our research makes clear is that the city has a deep history that dates right back to the Middle Ages. Unfortunately since the castle was largely destroyed following the English Civil War and multiple developments have been built on its site ever since, this rich medieval history of the city has largely been forgotten or ignored.

“While we should certainly celebrate the city’s rich industrial heritage, our studies have revealed Sheffield’s importance on the national and international stage, well before the steel boom. This deep history reveals the persistence of Sheffield as a place of some importance over centuries.

“With the Castlegate area of the city being earmarked for redevelopment, we now have a once in a lifetime opportunity to use heritage as a resource to redefine Sheffield’s identity not just as a place with a rich industrial heritage but also as a city with a deep history reaching back into the Middle Ages. This rich heritage is the key to a regeneration of Castlegate which is both imaginative and ambitious.”

rofessor Dawn Hadley from the University of York’s Department of Archaeology added: “Our analysis of the archives from the 20th-century excavations has enabled us to tell the story of the changing contexts in which urban excavation has been conducted over the course of almost a hundred years. We show how archaeological priorities and methods have changed, as have the regeneration agendas with which the archaeologists were engaged from the 1920s onwards.

“We have digitised the archives and made them freely available to all via the Archaeology Data Service, safeguarding their future for generations to come; we hope researchers and members of the public across the world will be inspired to find their own stories in the archives. We are also delighted to publish the book open access, free to read online and download, enabling university-led research to reach the widest possible readership.”

Milica Rajic, Sheffield Castle project manager from Wessex Archaeology said: “Sheffield Castle has been one of our most exciting projects over the past few years – it’s rare to have the opportunity to uncover the history of a monument deeply ingrained in the city’s identity. Through our excavations we have been able to offer a more coherent narrative for the castle, adding to a long history of investigation on the site, and finally reveal answers to some of the burning questions and long-held myths surrounding it.”

Ashley Tuck, Sheffield Castle site director, Wessex Archaeology added: “We now have evidence to support the presence of a motte, and we know that there was activity on the bank of the River Don in late-11th to 12th centuries. The best preserved remains from our 2018 excavation date from around the 13th century and I was delighted to recover iron smelting slag from this period here in the City of Steel. We are delighted to be part of a wider programme of public dissemination, enabling the community to freely access and engage with their local history.”

Sheffield Castle was a Royalist stronghold during the English Civil War. Such was its strength and reputation, Parliament ordered for it to be completely destroyed in 1646.

Material from the castle was then incorporated into buildings across the city, such as Bishops’ House, Carbrook Hall and Norton Hall.

The castle’s site was later covered by a mixture of steelworks, slaughterhouses and pubs until new market complexes were built in the 1920s and 1950s.

The excavations which accompanied these developments were led by a tax collector, a cutler and a local authority surveyor – local people recovering and preserving their own history. The objects and records from these excavations are now cared for by Museums Sheffield on behalf of the city.

The markets closed in 2013 and the site has remained empty ever since.

Sian Brown, Head of Collections at Museums Sheffield, said: “Sheffield Castle is a source of enduring fascination and this project has provided a fantastic opportunity to re-contextualise and reimagine the site. It’s been great working with the University of Sheffield and the project partners; as well as using the Archaeological Archives we care for to help shine a light on this often neglected part of the city’s history, we’ve also grown our own understanding of this important part of Sheffield’s museum collections.”

The Friends of Sheffield Castle, a group of volunteers, formed in 2013 and has worked to protect and promote the archaeological site of Sheffield Castle for the benefit of the people of the city. They have since formed a strong partnership with the University of Sheffield and with Sheffield City Council.

The University of Sheffield’s Castle project, led by Professor Moreland and Professor Hadley, began studying the castle’s remains and history in 2014, in collaboration with Sheffield City Council, the Friends of Sheffield Castle and Museums Sheffield.

Martin Gorman, Chair of the Friends of Sheffield Castle, said: “We are all looking forward to the release of the book with the castle, the site of the castle and the story of Sheffield now all being in one place. We hope to maximise the potential of this for future generations.”

The University’s project focused on the archives from the excavations of the 1920s, 50s and 90s, stored in Museums Sheffield. The results, published for the first time in the new book, demonstrate the value of such unpublished archives, not just for reconstructing the past but also as a resource to inform future regeneration.

The team’s new reading and interpretation of the archives, along with findings from the excavations carried out by Wessex Archaeology in 2018, reveal that there is no evidence for an Anglo-Saxon settlement on the site of Sheffield Castle – despite previous claims.

Findings from the research reveal how earlier claims that an Anglo-Saxon hall had been built on the site were likely a result of contemporary and political circumstances – a desire to see Sheffield’s origins as Anglo-Saxon rather than Norman.

The excavations by Wessex Archaeology in 2018, commissioned by Sheffield City Council, located a substantial mound of redeposited alluvium which the team believes is almost certainly the remains of a classic motte and bailey castle from the Norman period. This is the first archaeological evidence for the earliest Sheffield Castle, probably dating no later than the mid-12th century.

These findings suggest the first castle would have been one element in a classic Norman town, with a market to the west, and a church further up the hill.

The archaeologists believe that the gatehouse consisted of two D-shaped – rather than round – towers, with a chamber above, similar to the castle at Rhuddlan in Wales.

Findings from the project show that the castle’s curtain wall survives close to the gatehouse, with a further small section to the west. It is probable that large stretches still survive on the northern edge of the site overlooking the River Don, and it’s possible that some of the eastern wall also survives, according to the researchers.

Also, for the first time, the team has placed the archaeology and history of the castle in its wider medieval landscape, with a particular focus on its relationship with a medieval deer park and associated hunting lodges in the south-east of the city, including Sheffield Manor Lodge, which still stands today.

The researchers have now provided a detailed archaeological and historical account of Sheffield Manor Lodge, long associated with Mary, Queen of Scots, including its use as a late medieval banqueting house and hunting tower.

An inventory made during Mary’s incarceration in 1582 provides significant detail about daily life in the Lodge, including the presence there of early scientific equipment including a tin still, an alembic, serpentine and glasses.

The researchers highlight the fact that not only was Gilbert Talbot, 7th Earl of Shrewsbury who resided at the castle, a noted patron of early science, but his daughter Alethea (born in Sheffield in 1585) was the author of one of the earliest printed books of technical and scientific material in England to be attributed to a woman – making her one of England’s first published female scientists.

Aside from the archaeological research, the castle project has also included collaboration between the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology and its School of Architecture. This collaboration has been critical in framing the research on Castlegate and helping Sheffield City Council plan for the future regeneration of the Castlegate area of the city.

Students from Sheffield’s School of Architecture have been using the castle’s history – uncovered by the archaeologists – to develop visions for the future of the city through the school’s Live Projects initiative. The project’s approach is one in which heritage-informed regeneration creates a sense of place, and in which wellbeing and belonging are critical.

The book is published by White Rose University Press and is available to read online and to download for free. The Digital Archive can be accessed at:

This digital volume, along with a Print on Demand physical version, will be officially launched at an event on Saturday 26th September 2020 at the University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind. The event will be live-streamed so audiences can join from anywhere in the world.

The book has been made possible thanks to a generous donation in the Will of the late University of Sheffield alumna Pamela Staunton, and with the support of funding from the University Libraries of Sheffield and York.

Access to the archives from past excavations was generously provided by Museums Sheffield.