Before I had read any detail about Tattershall Castle, I had seen pictures of its red brick tower and had simply assumed that it was a fake castle, i.e. a modern building constructed in the style of a castle as some kind of folly. This is most certainly not the case as the brick-built section was constructed between the 1430s and 1440s. However, the castle does hover between two distinct times: a period when fortification was necessary for defence and the slightly safer years that followed. As a result, while it would still have been very secure, it was also something of a show house, a place where its owner could entertain guests and dazzle them with a demonstration of his wealth.
This was Ralph, 3rd Baron Cromwell, who was the Lord Treasurer to King Henry VI. Having covered himself in glory on the battlefield, he also married well (i.e. to someone with money!); interestingly, he was also present at the trial and burning of Joan of Arc in Rouen. He was financially shrewd and is said to have used every legal loophole to increase his lands, and with Tattershall he certainly made sure that everyone was aware of his success. The west front of the great tower, which used to be the main approach to the castle, has more ornate, symmetrical windows and is screaming ‘look at my castle’, while the east front is a bit more subtle (just a bit, mind).
There has actually been a castle on this site since the early 13th century but it was Lord Cromwell who really gave it prominence with his status-symbol tower. After his death, it became a gift of the Crown for a while and was occupied by King Henry VII’s mother Margaret Beaufort and then by Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, who was a close friend of Henry VIII. The Earls of Lincoln then took over for a time before the Fortescue family let it decline over 200 years, until it finally reached rock bottom, becoming a glorified cowshed for part of the 19th century.
In 1910, an American syndicate took it on, stripped out the valuable fireplaces and put the rest of it back on the market. It was then that Lord Curzon of Kedleston, who had already acquired Bodiam Castle in Kent, stepped in and bought the castle, before tracking down the fireplaces and buying them back in order to save them from a trip to America. As well as returning the fireplaces, he also restored the absent floors inside the castle, commissioned various stained glass windows and added some tapestries and chests to the upper rooms. The castle was opened to the public in 1914 and was given to the National Trust in Lord Curzon’s will in 1925. It is today presented as it was in Lord Curzon’s time, so the rooms are relatively empty, but the very good, touch-screen audio guide available to visitors also gives you all the information you need about its life under Ralph Cromwell.
The tower (comprising over 1 million bricks) is not the only part of the castle that remains; the moats are still present, although one of them is home to great crested newts at the moment and has had to be left untended so they are not disturbed. An old guardhouse is also left standing and is now home to the shop and small tearoom, while parts of the stable block can still be seen and a few ruined walls and foundations are dotted around the site. The audio guide takes you on a trip around the plot as well as the rooms inside. There is basic information given about each area plus a few extra insights here and there so you can pick and choose what you want to listen to and can dictate to some extent the length of your own tour.
Fortunately for me, though, my tour ended up being a cut above what was generally available. When we arrived, my Mum bumped into a member of the Tattershall staff who she had previously met on a National Trust ‘Housekeeping’ course held at Polesden Lacey in Surrey. As a result, we had the inside scoop, getting some information first hand as well as benefiting from a private viewing of the Dovecote on the second floor, which is normally closed to visitors. This meant that we also got to see Lord Cromwell’s ‘garderobe’, i.e. lavatory-cum-wardrobe, which was a lot bigger than the ones on the servants’ floors with its clothing storage much further away from the latrine. The dovecote is not actually original and was added in around 1700; it used to be open to visitors before too many children decided it would make a great climbing wall (it really would!) It can now be seen through a barred gate – unless, of course, you know a man on the inside!
With regard to other aspects of the building, it is interesting that the higher they are, the bigger the main rooms are. This does not mean that the building is top-heavy, it is simply that the defensive sections around the edge of the central rooms become narrower. Defence is logically less important the higher you get, so while the walls are over 4 metres thick in the basement, they are much thinner on the upper floors. Access to all floors is via a single spiral staircase, albeit a fairly wide one with a carved stone handrail all the way up, but it may still be difficult for some to manage. If you can make it up the 140+ steps, though, I strongly recommend that you do. From the turreted roof, you can see as far as 15-20 miles away, with both the Boston Stump and Lincoln Cathedral visible on a clear day (as you can see from my photos, we had another glorious day for October).
As you go up the stairs, it is also evident that the rooms become slightly more decorative as you move from the public and serving areas to the private rooms of Cromwell and his wife. The recovered fireplaces can be seen on each level, all showing the purse insignia to designate Cromwell’s position as the Lord Treasurer to King Henry VI as well as family coats of arms. The fireplace in the Parlour on the ground floor is apparently one of the most important but is also the most damaged as this was the room occupied by the cattle in the tower’s days as a cowshed. Using it as a convenient place to rub their horns, the animals managed to cause irreparable damage to the stonework around the fireplace. If it’s not children climbing on your dovecote, its cows getting into your fireplace! (Or, in fact, grass snakes in your basement… we had to inform a staff member of the small snake making his way down the steps into the cellars.)
All in all, my visit to Tattershall was a lot longer than I anticipated – largely because we got chatting with both my Mum’s acquaintance and the friendly ladies in reception! The personal touch certainly helps to liven up the visitor experience so Tattershall definitely benefits from its staff. However, beyond the human advantages, it also stands apart from an average castle, thanks to the relatively unique nature of the brick construction and its ornate rather than simply functional appearance. Ruins tend to leave me a little cold and I am generally of the opinion that a castle is just a castle, but there is enough of Tattershall left to make an impression, and to paraphrase George Orwell, I think I should now say that while ‘all castles are created equal, some castles are perhaps a little more equal than others’.
Highlights: The brick tower, the views
Refreshments: Hot chocolate and half a double chocolate muffin; tuna and cucumber sandwich and crisps
Purchase(s): Guidebook, ‘Agent 6’ by Tom Rob Smith (from the secondhand bookshop)