A walk around Castle Bytham

Castle Bytham  is a village in Lincolnshire, England, located 9 miles (15 km) north of Stamford and 9 miles (15 km) west of Bourne.

Village Sign

At one time the village was an important commercial centre for the surrounding agricultural communities, but it is now largely a dormitory village, although a number of farming families remain with a much reduced workforce.

Before the Norman invasion of 1066, the manor  was owned by Morcar, King Harold’s brother-in-law, and nearby Morkery Wood, is named after him. The name Bytham was first recorded in 1067 and comes from the Old English word “bythme” meaning broad valley, or valley bottom The Domesday Book of 1086 records the village name as “West Bytham.”

William the Conqueror granted the manor at Bytham to his half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, who probably erected the motte, or castle mound.

In 1224 the castle was held by William de Forze 3rd Earl of Abermarle, when King Henry III, aided by William de Warenne, 5th Earl of Surrey, besieged and destroyed the castle. It was burnt again during the Wars of the Roses two centuries later, and by the 16th  century, it was described as ruinous.

THE OLD SCHOOL

Situated behind  St James Church is The Old School, which was built in 1860,  and extended in 1890 and 1908. It was originally known as Castle Bytham Charity School, and later as Castle Bytham Endowed School. The school was transferred to Kesteven County Council on 16 May 1928, becoming Castle Bytham Council School, and it became Castle Bytham County School c.1947. The school was closed on 17th  July 1988,

Front door to the Old School

THE NEW CASTLE INN

Built around 1650 of local limestone, this Grade II Listed building features in the Good Beer Guide. The interior is an atmospheric mix of old oak beams and period furnishings, with the walls hung with antique prints, tapestries, heritage memorabilia from the village’s past, and some of the original deeds to the pub. The Castle was known for much of its life as The Three Tuns. An earlier Castle Inn was demolished in about 1959.

The Castle Inn

When Boris Johnson called time on pubs during the Covid pandemic, Will Stanton and Sue Farley, who run the Castle Inn sprang into action to open a village store. An outhouse at the pub which had been an antique bookbinder workshop was cleared out painted and converted into what is now a traditional 1960’s style village shop.

The new shop

WAR MEMORIAL IN CHURCHYARD OF ST JAMES’S CHURCH

This Grade II listed War Memorial erected is constructed of limestone ashlar, comprising a Latin cross with decorated arms set atop an octagonal, broached column with a plain moulded capital, mounted upon a square base and plinth. On the east face of the plinth is a slate tablet inscribed ‘SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF THE MEN OF THIS PARISH WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES IN THE WAR 1939-1945’ followed by their names. The memorial is located in the north-west corner of the churchyard, just west of the church’s entrance.

War Memorial

CHURCH OF ST JAMES

The Grade I listed St James Church is situated just up from the Castle Inn and was probably founded in Norman times. The church is unusual in that it has a north entrance said to have a door on the devil’s side. It has a sundial dated 1774 on the south side, inscribed with the pun “Bee in Thyme”. There are interesting memorials in the churchyard including a poetic epitaph for a local blacksmith. Inside the church is another unusual focal point, the ancient belfry-ladder which is made from the old maypole and marked “THIS WARE THE MAYPOUL 1660” and is thought to have been used to celebrate the restoration of Charles II.

In 1816, landowner John Coverley gave the church a splendid 20-light chandelier, perhaps in thanksgiving after Waterloo. But there is also the suggestion that it was given as a simple memorial and took the form of a light as John was known to be losing his eyesight.

St James Church

BYTHAM CASTLE

Built upon a natural spur projecting into the valley of the River Tham, Bytham Castle was a significant motte-and-bailey fortification. It was surrounded by a sophisticated water management system creating a series of water features for economic and defensive reasons.

The origins of Bytham Castle are uncertain but it is possible the site was founded by Odo, Bishop of Bayeux in the late 11th century. However, the first recorded reference is not until 1141 when it was owned by William le Gros, 1st Earl of Albemarle, and Earl of York. Through the marriage of his daughter – Hawise, Countess of Aumale – it passed to William de Fortibus, 2nd Earl of Albemarle. His son, also called William, held it during the First Barons War and although he had been a signatory to Magna Carta ultimately supported King John during the conflict. Following that King’s death in October 1216, he supported Henry III including fighting at the Second Battle of Lincoln (1217). William soon fell out with the new regime however – which was dominated by Hubert de Burgh – and in 1220 he refused to obey orders to surrender Rockingham and Sauvey Castles. Both were forcibly retaken by the Crown and in 1221 William rose up in revolt. Henry III mobilised Royal forces against him, besieging and capturing Bytham Castle. Although William was eventually reconciled with Henry, Bytham Castle was granted to William de Colvile. The Colvile family, restored the Castle and lived there until the late 14th century. It was then occupied by Lady Alicia Basset, ‘Lady of Bytham’. Lady Alicia was said to be the wealthiest woman in Britain and was the grandmother of Henry V.

In the 15th century it fell into decline and by 1544 was in ruins; it was subsequently dismantled for building stone and by 1906 no stonework was visible above ground

Throughout the 11th and 12th  centuries, Bytham Castle would have been an earth and timber fortification. It is possible that William de Fortibus had commenced rebuilding some of the structure in stone but, if so, it was nevertheless substantially rebuilt by its new owner. Once completed it was a significant structure with a huge shell keep dominating the summit of the 18m motte. Internally this had several rectangular buildings arranged around a central courtyard possibly with a donjon, a type of  tower or Keep,  in the southern section. A small mound of similar height to the east of the main motte, which was connected by a narrow causeway and occupied by a hexagonal tower, has been interpreted as an internal barbican. An ‘L’ shaped inner bailey, divided into two courtyards, was located to the south/east of the motte and contained all the ancillary buildings associated with such a settlement including brewhouse, bakehouse, kitchen and stables. An outer bailey was established between the stream and the motte although this seems to have lacked any defences suggesting it was simply used as pasture. The entire site was surrounded by extensive water features controlled by dams and sluices for both defensive and economic needs including fishing, powering mills and provision of fresh water. The system of channels, drains, ponds and sluices were created on the original course of the River Tham.

To the north and west of the motte and bailey is a depression known as Castle Yard, created by channeling the river across the valley floor. South of the castle are the remains of a fishpond divided into two tanks by a central island. These former water features are now dry, as are several secondary, small pools.

Castle Site

The present river channel was built in the medieval period as a leat to carry water away from the castle when the water level rose to high.

Southwest of the castle is a bank that the only remaining feature of a medieval wall built to defend the settlement that grew up beside the castle.

The castle was clearly highly regarded for in the late 14th century John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster chose to raise his children at Bytham including Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV). He later did the same with several of his younger children including John, Duke of Bedford and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Nevertheless the castle declined in the 16th century and was reported as ruinous by 1544. It was subsequently plundered for its stone leaving just the earthworks and foundations seen today. Regrettably there is no public access onto the castle mound itself.

John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and founder of the Plantagenet line of rulers is my 20th Great Grandfather.

The remains of the motte and bailey castle at Castle Bytham survive in good condition. Part excavation of the site in the 19th century demonstrated the high level of survival of structural and artefactual remains while leaving the majority of deposits intact. The castle itself is of a particularly rare type in having an internal barbican, one of very few examples in this country; the construction, occupation and siege of the castle are well documented and provide the opportunity to identify specific archaeological deposits with recorded historical events. The water control system and settlement defences associated with the castle are outstanding in Lincolnshire and survive in excellent condition, having been relatively unaltered since medieval times. The archaeological relationships between the complementary elements of the castle will show us how a high status establishment of this type functioned, both as a defensive system and as an economic, social and symbolic force in the local and regional landscape.

Castle Motte
River Tham
Village pond

3 thoughts on “A walk around Castle Bytham

  1. The old Castle Inn was demolished in about 1959. THis needs re-wording: “…when an earlier Castle Inn was destroyed by fire in 1976 the inn was renamed…”

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