The castles that lie beneath our feet

Throughout the last thousand years castles have evolved from projections of power over a region and places of refuge and law, to large houses with mock crenelations. Oundle is surrounded by a surprising number of castle sites, and many of them have been important strategic and practical bases of operations during significant domestic upheavals over the course of history.

Fotheringhay castle is just north of Oundle. It was built during the reign of William II by Simon de Senlis, 1st Earl of Northampton and 2nd Earl of Huntingdon. His mother-in-law was the niece of the Conqueror. His widow married Prince David of Scotland, later the King of Scotland.

The castle remained as a holding of the crown of Scotland until 1294 when it was seized by Edward I. In 1377 it was granted to the son of Edward III, Edmund Langley, who became the first Duke of York. At his death it passed to his nephew Richard, whose son Richard III was born there. It was later granted as dower to the wives of Henry VII and VIII. Perhaps most famously, the castle was used for the imprisonment, trial, and subsequent execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587.

The castle was once substantial, with two chapels, a great hall, chambers, and a gatehouse over a drawbridge. By 1625 the castle had fallen into disrepair, and around 1635 it was demolished with stones removed to build other projects in the village, including Castle Farm. The remains of the original motte and bailey are in good condition. The site is privately owned, with public access allowed.

Very little is known of the history of Wadenhoe castle. The remains now form several mounds on the slope up to St Michael and All Angels Church. There is debate as to whether it was actually a castle as there is no mention of a medieval castle in any meaningful records. It has been referred to as a disused quarry and some describe it as a “fortified site and settlement remains”. Eighteenth century historians referred to the site as that of a castle known as Castle Close. There is evidence of a limestone rampart around the spur, and it is believed that the ramparts date to before 1066. The castle was of little importance throughout the Plantagenet reign as it was part of a deer park. The site is scheduled as a monument of national importance.

Lower Benefield
Located on private land with restricted view from the church, Benefield Castle is a ringwork fort; an Anglo-Saxon design which consisted of a dry moat surrounding a wooden palisade. The exact date of the castle’s completion is unknown, but it is not mentioned in the Doomsday Book. Modern estimates are that the castle was built during the 1139 civil war between King Stephen and Margaret, also known as the Anarchy. In this civil war Benefield sided with Stephen as Margaret was seen as a foreign invader to England, receiving most of her support from Aquitaine and England’s other holdings in France. The remains are a scheduled monument by Historic England. We know that it existed at least in 1208. By 1298 it was called an “old castle” and by 1315 it was referred to only as “the site of the castle”. By the early 1700s only a small part of wall was still standing and nowadays the site has been reduced to a slightly raised rectangular mound surrounded by a wide ditch.

A motte and bailey castle was erected in 1132, and then was rebuilt nearby in stone in 1264 during the reign of Henry III by the wealthy Berengar le Moine family with four corner towers and a large gatehouse. It then passed from the Manor to the Abbotts of Ramsey with whom it remained until the dissolution, and was then granted to Sir Edmund Montagu in the 16th century. It was used during the civil war as a royalist arsenal. After the war, the family built a manor house in the adjacent grounds. The castle was most probably used as a farmyard and walled orchard during the 1700s and 1800s, with access coming from a break in the west wall. In 1920 a tennis court was created within the castle walls. In 1938 it was purchased by the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, after passing from the Duke of Buccleuch’s estate.

An eighteenth century view of Barnwell Castle by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck, pubished in their series of antiquities.

The substantial remains of the castle are a large quadrangular walled court, with four circular towers at the corners; three of the curtain faces remain. On the southeast side the grand gateway still exists with two pointed arches and an opening for the portcullis, flanked by two circular towers. It remains in private ownership and is listed as a Scheduled Monument of national importance. In 2018, Historic England listed the condition of Barnwell Castle as “poor”, and entered it on its Heritage at Risk Register.

Known as Hymel Castle, it was built after the Norman conquest by the Engayne family. Earthworks suggest it may have been a motte and bailey, or ring and bailey castle. It was demolished in 1200 to make way for a priory. John Leland, the sixteenth century historian who travelled across the country, wrote that it was a castle “ontylle such tyme that one of them for lak of children of his owne began a priory ther”. The abbey was dissolved by 1536 during the dissolution of the monasteries and the buildings turned into a residence. A long curving bank is all that remains of the former bailey rampart.

Charles Bryant
June 2022