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Thursday, April 15, 2010
In the 11th century the sea came up to the shore at the fenland town. Before land reclamation and altering of river courses, the estuary came up to what is now the Horse Fair. That made Wisbech a strategic spot. In the aftermath of Hereward the Wakes revolt, William the Conqueror acted to tighten up security in this vulnerable area; Herewards Danish allies had been able to sail deep into the interior. It is likely a wooden motte and bailey castle went up initially, replaced by a stone construction, though it is not mentioned in the 1087 Domesday Book. Nothing remains of the castle except a well now in the storage cellar below a later building. The castle and moat contained an area of four acres, there was a gate and drawbridge at what is now Museum Square. A walk around the site of the moat today traces the extent of what is now The Crescent close to the market place.
Despite its importance Kings John and Edward I visited it was vulnerable to flooding from the sea, something that worsened in the 13th and 14th centuries. By 1487 it needed pulling down, and new owners, the bishops of Ely, put up a palace there. Bishop Morton, Henry VIIs tax collector and inventor of the notorious Mortons Fork, supervised the building of a palace made of stone from near Stamford. Among its other uses it was an ecclesiastic prison, most notably under Elizabeth I when recusant Catholic priests and other dissidents were housed there. It seems their conditions were not bad; what looks like subterranean dungeons are in fact a storage site. Instead they were under a kind of house arrest, and spent much of their time in internal theological dispute; this later became known as the Wisbech Stirs. Alumni of this incarcerated college were future Gunpowder plotters Robert Catesby and Francis Tresham, who were better treated than unlucky Richard Lambert of Lynn who, in 1315, was said to have been gnawed by toads and other venomous vermin while held at the castle.
Very little, except some salvaged decorated glass. In the Civil War Oliver Cromwell, fearful Wisbech would go over to the Royalists, had the palace dismantled. His Secretary of State (a cross between Chancellor of the Exchequer and spymaster) John Thurloe took on the task. A new house was built in 1656, of which only the extensive storerooms survive. A picture painted by Algernon Peckover shows us how the house looked, an elegant mansion complete with chimneys, a status symbol in those days. After the Restoration in 1660 it reverted to the bishops of Ely, who were occasional visitors. They leased it to local families, the best known of whom were the Southwells who occupied the mansion for a century. It was in poor condition though by the time the bishops sold it.
Time for a true eccentric to enter the story. Joseph Medworth is believed to have been a Wisbech boy who made good in the building trade in London. Returning home with a grand vision for the town he bought the whole site for 2,305. Medworth was a colourful character; he had children by two of his housekeepers as well as a wife, and was denounced by the vicar of next doors St Peter and St Pauls Church. Undeterred Medworth began developing the current Crescent site in all the Georgian elegance we see today. It was part of his plan for Wisbech, including a sweeping road from Kings Lynn into the town and the pulling down of the old grammar school in Hill Street. To this end he offered the castle and grounds for 2,000 to house the school. Rejected by the burgesses and, seemingly in a fit of pique, he pulled the mansion down and put up his own house the current building.
Medworth cannibalised the materials, and a lot cropped up in neighbouring buildings. Some of the oddities of the current house stem from Medworths Heath Robinson approach to building; for example some window shutters were converted to use in a door. For all his eccentricity he was generous; fond of his children, he also built almshouses in Love Lane. On his death in 1827 he was buried a stones throw away in the churchyard. The castle was bought by the Peckover banking family and let tenants included a piano-playing dentist. It was Alexandrina Peckover, last of the family, who gave part of the site to the borough for a garden, while the house was sold to the last Chief Education Officer of the Isle of Ely, Gordon Fendick. On his death in 1969 his wife gave the castle to the local education authority.
Visitors and staff have spoken of a strange atmosphere in a downstairs parlour well, a site a thousand years old ought to be haunted!
The house and garden is owned by Cambridgeshire County Council and is a resource for schools who visit the castle for hands on role play sessions and other activities. It is used for meetings, training and as a wedding venue. It opens to the public on Tuesdays during school term.
Tel: 01945 584056
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