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.