Painting by Kenneth Steel (1950

Painting by Kenneth Steel (1950)

In this brief summary it is intended to lay out the basic history of Sheffield Castle and attempt to give some idea of the nature of the structure. This account is compiled from information currently available in published form and that gained through preliminary archive research by this author of which significantly more can yet be undertaken. Given adequate resourcing a much more detailed picture could be compiled by using a wider range of archival sources. It is hoped that this short account will help to dispel the myth that “there was nothing in Sheffield before the steel industry” and that nothing can be gained from further archival/desk-based research.

The Domesday Book points out that Waltheof, Earl of Huntingdon, had his headquarters somewhere in the Sheffield area. Various sites have been proposed for this (Burnt Stones, Stannington, etc). Some have suggested Sheffield town centre as a possible location, pointing out that Norman lords would build their castles on a site already seen as a power base. They would point to Wallingford as a prime example. Here a Norman castle was constructed in the same location as the southern base of the royal houscarls. Armstrong certainly refers to a possible “Saxon level” at the Castle but the pottery he identified as Anglo-Saxon has since been reclassified as belonging to a later period. From this, it has been suggested that the Castle site could potentially go back to Waltheof and beyond, given that some pottery fragments purported to be Roman were also found during Armstrong’s excavations. This evidence for earlier activity on the Castle site requires testing by further archaeological investigation. If earlier remains do exist, then the Castle site may yet yield an even richer and more complex history of the town.

The first Norman Lord of the Manor was Roger de Buisli, one of William I’s main supporters during the invasion. He was one of a small group who contributed over fifty ships to the task force. Following the suppression of Waltheof’s rebellion, his execution, and the ‘harrowing of the North’, De Buisli received extensive lands in the Hallamshire area. This is not the point to engage in a discourse on his actions and land holdings. Suffice it to say that he controlled most of South Yorkshire, holding the honour of Tickhill in addition to Sheffield.

South Yorkshire has a large number of motte and bailey castles. The majority appear to have only ever been of earth and wood. At least four though were fortified in stone: Conishorough, Peel Hill in Thorne, Tickhill and Sheffield. As South Yorkshire was Earl Waltheof’s power base, the majority of these castles are assumed to have their origins during or after the harrowing of the North, their purpose being to impose Norman authority on a potentially turbulent area. If the first of Sheffield’s castles dates from this time then that was presumably its primary purpose.

De Buisli’s estates passed to Robert de Bellesme (Head of the powerful Montgomery family). Whether he held Sheffield directly or at all is open to debate. The weight of evidence suggests that he did, but it is not established with certainty. It was he who built the first stone defences at Tickhill. If De Buisli did not fortify Sheffield, and the honour was held by De Bellesme, it is likely that the latter would have done it. During the wars between Henry I and his elder brother Robert Curthose (Duke of Normandy), De Bellesme supported Robert and, as a result, his estates in England were attacked by Henry’s supporters. In 1103 Tickhill was burnt to the ground by the Bishop of Lincoln. Lloyd Powell’s excavations within the Keep confirm this (the results are in a report lodged with SYAS).

What is certain is that by the early Twelfth Century the honour had passed to De Lovetot, and Sheffield was permanently split from Tickhill. It was De Lovetot who constructed the first recorded bridge over the Don (at Lady’s Bridge) and the first church that we know of. During their hegemony there are references that imply the existence of a castle but they are not definitive evidence. Further research could determine this one way or another.

Sheffield passed from the De Lovetots into the hands of the De Furnival family. There is definite documentary evidence for the existence of a castle during the early Thirteenth Century. De Furnival was one of King John’s most ardent supporters. One of the pieces of evidence for the Castle is a letter from John alluding to it, and another is a land grant. The letter and others like it would allow us to build up a picture of life in the medieval town. It was during the De Furnival occupancy that the initial Castle and town of Sheffield were destroyed. In 1266 D’Eyvill (one of Simon de Montfort’s supporters) devastated Sheffield. It is this act that creates the “destruction layer” referred to by Armstrong (1930). This represents the demolition debris, and plotting its location (where it survives) across the city centre could provide a useful indication of the extent of the medieval town. The De Furnivals then received a licence to “crenellate” (the first Castle having been unlicensed). It is the remains of this second Castle that people are most aware of.

At this point it is worth sounding a cautionary note. It is not impossible that the first Castle contained some stone structures. Therefore we should be aware that stone remains need not be from the later, Thirteenth Century Castle.

This second Castle was constructed in stone. It was the centre for the De Furnival family. From them it passed to the Nevilles of Fauconbery who held it for one generation. We assume they had little impact in the area, being preoccupied with events on the Anglo-Scottish border. However, further research may prove that this is not the case. The next holders of the honour were the Talbot Earls of Shrewsbury. It became a major centre of this powerful family, the most famous of whom was John “The Butcher” Talbot, the commander of the English forces in France during the final stages of the Hundred Years War. He met his fate in the last battle of that conflict at Castilon in 1453. His family maintained possession of the Castle for many years. Most famously they held Mary Queen of the Scots there for several years. These facts are very important, showing firstly that the Castle was large and luxurious enough to be the home of England’s most prestigious aristocrat (John Talbot), and secondly that it was fit to house a Queen not only securely but also in royal splendour.

From the Earls of Shrewsbury the Castle and honour passed into the ownership of the Dukes of Norfolk, who remain to this day the Lords of Sheffield (Baron de Furnival). It was during the English Civil War that Colonel Beaumont held the castle for the Crown. In the absence of any chance of relief he surrendered the Castle to Parliament after a short siege. The fact that it had been held by Royalists led to its destruction.

From the scant archival sources consulted so far, it is possible to say the following:

A financial document states that the Castle consisted of two “wards” containing “diverse buildings”. It states that it stands at the confluence of the Don and Sheaf. Most importantly it states that the Castle has an area of over four acres. This gives it an area over three times the size of Conisbrough and around a third again that of Tickhill. The Castle was a very large structure. The area currently allocated (under the Castle Market) is far too small. From other documents it is possible to get some idea what the “diverse buildings” were.

I – Porch of the Great Hall
II – Great Hall
III – Covered Way from Hall to “Great Chamber”
IV – Large Dining Hall
V – Wardrobe
VI – My Lord’s Chambers
VII – My Lord’s other Chambers
VIII – Tower Chambers
IX – Porter’s Lodge
X – Dungeon (from the French “Doujon-Keep”)
XI – Buckhouse
XII – Brewhouse
XIII – Wash house
XIV – Kennel

Numbers I–X must be within a strongly-fortified ward that was both secure and of a high standard.

These sources also refer to repairs made to the Castle including the main fabric of the Castle and the moat. They also refer to repairs to the Castle’s grange house and stables. They further allude to repairs to the Castle’s plumbing and mention:

I – The Great Gate of the Castle (and so presumably at least one lesser one)
II – The Great Tower
III – The Tower by the Buckhouse

The demolition account throws further light on the nature of the Castle’s fabric. We find references to:

I – The Hall
II – The turret
III – The old buckhouse (so there may have been a new one)
IV – The old kitchen
V – The little kitchen
VI – The round tower
VII – The square tower
VIII – The gate house
IX – The new bridge
X – The stables
XI – The chapel
XII – The dunjon

Another source mentions the tower that overlooks the river. Yet another source refers to the lesser gate. We are also told that before and below the Castle stood the small fort that guarded the gate and the river crossing. The Civil War garrison (which must have been confined within the defensive ward) consisted of “two hundred foot, a troop of horse and five guns and their crews”. This cannot be fewer than 360 men (excluding non-combatants).

The above is a basic outline of what we know from the few sources that it has been possible to consult so far: there are many more sources still to be studied. The Castle was obviously very large (over four acres), and comprised fortified wards endowed with towers and other substantial buildings. This research is a very brief summary of a two-week archival search, but it is clear that a detailed and extensive documentary search would be of considerable value prior to the demolition of existing buildings and intrusive archaeological investigations taking place.

Lloyd Powell


A history — 14 Comments

  1. This is a wonderful clear account. Are there other documentary sources still to be examined? There does seem to be confusion in what I have read as to whether documents were taken away or destroyed during the civil war or possibly afterwards. How much Manor records survive?

  2. Very interesting, really building a picture in my mind previously lacking. Though much is mentioned of source material it appears that there is more to be researched, that in the fullness of time will more accurately tell the very fascinating story of Sheffield Castle.I continue to read with interest.

  3. The author/authors touch on aspects that have only recently come into focus.Ie its regional context within South Yorkshire.
    A major problem with the castle site is placing it in in its original geographical context- such has the area’s original topography altered due to later rebuilding in the nineteenth/twentieth centuries.’Sheffield Castle is sited on the Coal Measures terminal of the Don monocline with naturally defensive slopes afforded by low cliffs cut by the River Don on the North and the River Sheaf to the East.From a topographical study of this triangle of land it appears that slight dry valleys exist along the lines of Dixon Lane and also Waingate, etching out a core defensive zone.To the south of this, a finger of land, highlighted by historic boundaries of highways and tenements, can be detected bordering Haymarket, Fitzalan Square[formerly Bakers Hill]Pond Street and Shude Hill. These contours were dominant in the mind of the early medieval castle builders who chose this location for the the erection of Sheffield Castle and new development of a planted town off the West[Hart]. All this, together with the sandstone outcrop on which the Castle or Castles, were erected is difficult to envisage in the teeming crowds of early Twenty First Century Sheffield.The possibility that the castle that fell to fire and sword in 1266 contained stone structures is one that only recently came into the thinking of those interested in Sheffield castle while the ‘little fort before the gate’ is most likely a Civil War defensive structure.Interesting stuff.Ron,FOSC.

  4. It is difficult now to envisage or realise why Sheffield Castle was such a significant site, but two examples may help. First, it was large enough to accommodate Mary Queen of Scots and her entourage at a location which was not only large enough and defensively adequate, but so far from the coast that neither the French nor the Spanish could consider “springing her” as they might have at a location near the coast or Scottish border. Secondly, it dominated the first effective crossing of the Don as it came down from the Trent and Humber. Any army wanting to travel south/north up the east side of the country had few crossing points available. Michael Wood justified his siting of Brunanburh near Tinsley on the grounds that an army (Northumbrians/Vikings)looking for a crossing point to move south to meet Athelstan could not have done so any further east in Saxon times, and two hundred years later the river was still a major barrier. As late as the Civil War, Sheffield Castle in Royalist hands controlling Lady’s Bridge was highly inconvenient for Parliament, and rather than just put a hole in one curtain wall they opted to eradicate it.

  5. Interesting stuff John but perhaps De Lovetot was swayed by more prosaic reasons for locating his motte and bailey where he did.The site of Waltheof’s ‘aula’ perhaps?

  6. Speaking of motte and bailey’s- I was up at Bailey Hill in High Bradfield last week.A mysterious place but the story of the site of Sheffield Castle is full of mysteries.
    Take the stone coffin up at Manor Lodge for instance.The one referred to by Hunter.If found on the Castle site its the earliest recorded artifact and the largest one.

  7. We can safely say that the Talbot Castle was the third Castle to be built. This is because at the death of Thomas Furnival (in 1332) the castle is listed and valued, but it’s worth absoulty nothing! If you read this document right it shows that some kind of plague (not the Black Death as that didn’t start till 1349) had devasted the population. Several things are valued not just the Castle, but they are worth next to nothing mostly due to a shortage of man power. There’s even a forge mentioned that if working would be worth £70, but again is worth nothing. There’s another document for a death of another Furnival in the 1400’s and the Castle is still worth nothing. So when John Talbot got the estate he would have have had the Castle rebuilt, for I can’t imagine him living in a Castle which must have been so bad that it wasn’t worth a Penny.

  8. This is great. Nice to see a really thorough, comprehensive guide to what we know about Sheffield Castle(s) so far! The history of it seems very dramatic, it must have been a castle of some importance at the time of Mary Queen of Scots and Talbot’s era, it’s a great shame that so little is known about it, especially amongst Sheffielders!

  9. Am aflat aceasta pagina, dupa ce am cautat despre A history
    | Friends Of Sheffield Castle pe Google. Se
    pare ca informatia dvs e foarte valoroasa, mai ales ca am mai gasit
    aici si despre ora, ora exacta, lucruri interesante si folositoare.
    Mult succes in continuare!

  10. Chatsworth house was built by William Cavendish and his wife Bess of Hardwick. Her last marriage was to the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury who family held Sheffield Castle. Whilst he had Mary in his care they did at times go to Chatsworth.

  11. By the time of Queen Mary’s imprisonment by the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, the tudor manor house had been built by the 4th Earl and the Talbot family had moved to this more comfortable place. Was Mary held in the castle or the manor house?

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