We fell in love with Lincoln when we visited. With its beauty, history, culture and delicious food, there wasn’t really much not to like! However, the highlight of our stay was Lincoln Castle. Let me tell you why.
It was William the Conquerer who decided to build a splendid cathedral and castle almost next to each other in Lincoln. You feel quite spoilt when you look from one to the other – views aren’t normally this magnificent – and only a short trip through the marketplace separates the two.
So, the castle was built almost 1,000 years ago by William, as part of his strategy to keep control of the north of his new kingdom. Located at the top of a hill, its huge size made it clear that the king meant business.
Over the years the castle has seen all sorts of historic happenings, from the capture of King Stephen in 1141, to the withstanding of a 40 day siege during the reign of Richard I. The castle was besieged again in 1217 and in 1644, during the English Civil War.
The 1217 siege took place during the civil war which followed the signing of the Magna Carta and Lincoln Castle boasts one of only four copies of this famous charter. Even more impressively, the castle has an original Charter of the Forest (basically a later version of the Magna Carta, reissued in 2017 with some extra clauses). This is the only place in the world where both of these famous documents, one more than 800 years old and the other not far off it, can be seen on display, side by side.
When you enter Lincoln Castle (the grounds are free, but you have to pay to go inside the buildings), you have a few options. You could start by walking around the walls, but I’m going to suggest going directly inside to see the Magna Carta, which is held in a brand new vault.
You enter this by crossing an old Victorian exercise yard (used when the castle was in another guise, as a prison). Keep going down some stairs, past a really gorgeous display of Barons’ shields, and you are there.
We’d recommend that you start by watching the introductory films. There are two of these and while one explains the story of King John and the reasons behind the signing of the “great charter”, the other looks at its significant over the many years since. It’s really quite moving to see how it had a huge influence on so many different people from so many countries.
We thought these films were very well done and actually gave you the information and historical context needed. We have been to many historical places, and found ourselves dismayed by all the glitz and interactivity offered without also offering any basic explanation of why you might want to be there. The Magna Carta films were far better than this.
After the films we made our way to the darkened room where the documents were on show. I found these fascinating, but if you have younger children, they may not be overly engaged (how interesting can documents be?). Still, it’s worth showing them, if only so they can say they have been. There aren’t many more famous pieces of parchment (oh, and you could drop in an interesting fact: that Lincoln Cathedral’s Magna Carta was being exhibited at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 when World War II started. The document was kept safe at Fort Knox until the end of hostilities and returned to Lincoln in 1946.)
After visiting the Magna Carta centre we went to see the chapel, which is truly remarkable. It’s a Victorian chapel, built when the castle was a Victorian prison. Those in charge had a very specific idea of how to stop criminality – it was called the “separate system.”
The idea was that mixing together led to the spread of dangerous ideas. Because of this, prisoners were kept isolated, in their cells, while exercising and at meals. The aim was for them to think about what they had done and to repent.
Because of the regime, the prisoners were also kept apart when they went to pray, and that means the chapel is particularly unusual – it’s the kind of place that stays in your head long after you’ve visited.
This is because there aren’t pews, and instead the chapel is made up of separate cubicles, each with a door to separate prisoner from fellow prisoner (protecting them from contamination). This “separate system” chapel is the only one of its type in the world.
It felt very strange being shut in these narrow cubicles. All you could do was face ahead, where, of course, in the past you would have listened to the Chaplain each week.
The chapel isn’t all that’s left of the castle’s Victorian phase. You can also visit the main part of the old prison and into the cells too.
These have been very cleverly done for visitors, with some containing the type of activities prisoners would have got up to (you can have a go at the tedious task of picking oakum – separating strands of rope) and others which screen videos of real people’s stories and ask what kind of punishment viewers think they should get.
You can find out about the lives of the governor or surgeon and read about the punishments people were given when they misbehaved while inside (for such crimes as being “insolent.”). You (or your children) can also dress up as a prisoner or member of staff
Lincoln Castle is not the kind of place for a quick visit, but I can only see that as a positive. It also contains a remarkable sarcophagus, and the courthouse is still a working building, where Lincoln Crown Court hears criminal trials.
But I think I loved the walk around the ramparts the best. We were blessed with gorgeous weather and collected our audio tours before we set off. These were excellent and we all enjoyed walking around at our own pace and finding out such a lot about the history of this old fortress (visited by Henry VIII with his bride, Catherine Howard, in 1641). It’s not often that you can see a castle from 360 degrees.
The views were brilliant, especially from the castle’s east wall battlements which you look straight across at the soaring spires of the Cathedral. It is also possible to stand just where public hangings were once cheered on by the crowds below and go down into the dungeons.
Further along you can also go up, to the observatory tower (not for those who don’t like heights) and walk through the Lucy Tower, which was a burial ground for prisoners hanged at the castle. It’s a quiet place now, and we all sat down for some contemplation.
We really enjoyed our trip to Lincoln and loved Lincoln Castle. It was terrific to see its many guises over the years, to gaze upon the Magna Carta, walk into that very odd chapel and marvel at the views. And we would definitely return!
Lincoln Cathedral is open every day from 10 to 5pm (from October to March, it closes at 4pm). The Medieval Wall Walk costs £5 per adult, £3 for children, or £13 for a family (two adults and up to three children), while an all inclusive ticket for the castle (including ghte prison, Magna Carta and Medieval Wall Walk) cost £12 per adult, £7.20 per child or £31.20 for a family. This includes a free return visit within six months. As I mentioned it’s free to go into the grounds and we saw lots of families there playing, many who had obviously taken a picnic. This seems a great idea and could well be a lovely way to spend a few hours.
We’ve joined up with The Weekly Postcard. Head over there for some more travel posts with great views!