Digging Up the Past: Sheffield. (Frontline).(Brief Article)

By Keys, David | History Today, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Digging Up the Past: Sheffield. (Frontline).(Brief Article)


Keys, David, History Today


ONE OF BRITAIN'S GREATEST historic monuments -- a massive, but almost totally forgotten medieval castle -- is being re-discovered beneath what is usually seen as one of the country's least historic cities. New research suggests that the fortress under Sheffield city centre was in medieval times among the largest in England -- almost as massive as the Tower of London itself; although not a single picture or map of it has survived.

Excavations and other archaeological investigations carried out by Sheffield University over recent months have revealed the remnants of huge buildings -- one of which had walls almost two metres thick. The archaeologists suspect that this latter structure was the massive stone castle's multistory great banqueting hall where its late thirteenth-century builder, one of Henry III's most loyal supporters, Thomas de Furnival, would have entertained royalty and fellow barons.

Furnival was, however, not the castle's founder -- for it was originally built around 1100 as an earthwork motte-and-bailey fortress by a Norman knight called William de Lovetot. This first castle was destroyed by Simon de Montfort's supporters (a force under John De Eyville) in 1266.

Up until now this earlier fortress was only known from historical records, but the investigation has revealed the first definitive evidence of it. The excavations have exposed two Norman rubbish pits containing twelfth-century ceramics and animal bones.

The site was ideal for a military stronghold, standing as it did on a sandstone outcrop flanked by low cliffs overlooking the river Don to the north and the river Sheaf to the east.

The castle is thought to have been used in the 1570s to accommodate Mary, Queen of Scots, for part of her time as a prisoner of Elizabeth I.

In the English Civil War it was a royalist stronghold -- falling to Parliamentarian forces in 1644 after a ten-day siege. It was largely demolished in 1648 on the orders of Parliament. Much of the stone work was subsequently sold off to local builders and merchants and any surviving remains were then covered over. …

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