Burwell Castle


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1015596

Date first listed: 03-Dec-1951

Date of most recent amendment: 14-Mar-1997


Ordnance survey map of Burwell Castle
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: Cambridgeshire

District: East Cambridgeshire (District Authority)

Parish: Burwell

National Grid Reference: TL 58716 66090


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.

Reasons for Designation

Motte castles are medieval fortifications introduced into Britain by the Normans. They comprised a large conical mound of earth or rubble, the motte, surmounted by a palisade and a stone or timber tower. In a majority of examples an embanked enclosure containing additional buildings, the bailey, adjoined the motte. Motte castles and motte-and-bai1ey castles acted as garrison forts during offensive military operations, as strongholds, and, in many cases, as aristocratic residences and as centres of local or royal administration. Built in towns, villages and open countryside, motte castles generally occupied strategic positions dominating their immediate locality and, as a result, are the most visually impressive monuments of the early post-Conquest period surviving in the modern landscape. Over 600 motte castles and motte-and-bailey castles are recorded nationally, with examples known from most regions. Some 100-150 examples do not have baileys and are classified as motte castles. As one of a restricted range of recognised early post-Conquest monuments, they are particularly important for the study of Norman Britain and the development of the feudal system. Although many were occupied for only a short period of time, motte castles continued to be built and occupied from the 11th to the 13th centuries, after which they were superseded by other types of castle.

Burwell Castle represents an unusual departure from the more standard oval or rounded mottes of this period, although the intended details of its final appearance are difficult to judge from its incomplete state. The castle is, however, well preserved and all the more interesting on account of the unfinished nature of the work. The motte, the moat and the heaped soil outside, contain valuable evidence for the method of construction, and artefacts found in these contexts will provide information regarding the duration of military activity - perhaps reinforcing the documentary references to the part which it played during the period of 12th century civil war known as `The Anarchy'. The imposition of the castle over an existing settlement is particularly interesting, providing significant insights into the nature of society at the time. The earthwork remains of this settlement generally survive well and, through the process of the castle's construction, some areas will be exceptionally well preserved beneath dateable layers of upcast. The evidence relating to the later manor is also highly valuable, demonstrating the continuing tenure of Ramsey Abbey beyond the period of military activity, and providing structural details of the chapel mentioned in the Abbey's cartulary. The fishponds - artificial pools of slow moving water ensuring a constant supply of food and serving as symbols of status in the medieval period - probably belong to this later period of occupation. The partly buried earthworks retain details of the water management system, and the silts within will contain artefactual evidence for the date of construction and duration of use, and environmental indicators illustrating the appearance of the landscape in which they were set. The presence of occupation evidence from the Roman period is also of interest, reflecting the suitabilty of the location for settlement rather than any continuity between this period an the medieval settlement which preceded the castle.


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.


The monument lies towards the southern end of the village of Burwell, immediately to the west of St Mary's Church. It includes a motte castle believed to have been constructed (but left incomplete) in the mid 12th century, the remains of an earlier settlement supplanted by the castle, and features related to a manor belonging to Ramsey Abbey which was later established on the site. Also included are traces of a Roman building found during sample excavation of the motte in 1935. The castle is thought to have formed part of a chain of defences constructed by King Stephen's forces in 1143-4, in order to contain the rebel Earl of Essex, Geoffrey de Mandeville, who had seized the Isle of Ely and made a stronghold in the fens. It is of unusual design, formed by the excavation of a broad flat bottomed moat to leave a rectangular island some 35m by 60m across. The surface of the island is uneven, the east and west ends rising c.4m above the base of the ditch, and sloping toward the centre. Evidence from T C Lethbridge's excavations suggests that this appearance resulted from an unfinished platform using spoil from the moat, which itself retains low terraces or shelves of unexcavated natural chalk. This incomplete state may be linked to a reference in the Cartulary of Ramsey Abbey which records that de Mandeville brought his army to attack a castle `newly built at Burwell' in August 1144. De Mandeville is thought to have been wounded by an arrow shot from the ramparts and, with his death shortly after, the castle may no longer have been required. The bulk of the material from the moat forms two large mounds flanking the outer edges of the north and western arms. The irregular appearance of these mounds indicates an accumulation of small loads and even the hod runs remain evident. The northern mound overlies the southern parts of three rectangular enclosures within a line of four or five such features defined by shallow banks and ditches. These are interpreted as the curtilages of medieval houses, part of a settlement (perhaps belonging to Ramsey Abbey) abandoned when this relatively elevated position was appropriated for the castle. Structural evidence for these dwellings may well remain buried beneath the upcast. Minor undulations suggesting further settlement remains extend across the open pasture to the north, and further enclosures can be seen to the east of the castle where earthworks marking the foundations of two rectangular buildings, probably long houses, are visible. A section of clunch walling stood to a height of some 2.5m along part of the eastern edge of the island, until destroyed whilst testing the village fire hose in the late 1920s. Lethbridge's excavations revealed more of the foundations of this structure which proved to be part of a narrow range running the length of eastern arm and half way along the southern side of the island. Near the centre of the eastern range stood a small rectangular building projecting slightly over the line of the moat and supported by diagonal buttresses on this side. The walls did not enclose the entire island, and are unlikely to be related to the period of the castle's construction. It is more probable that the range formed part of a later manor of Burwell held by the Abbot of Ramsey who, in 1246, was licensed by the Bishop of Ely to erect an oratory therein. Fragments of painted glass and part of a leaded window frame were found during excavation, probably identifying the small structure in the eastern range with this chapel. Fragments of dressed stone, including one inscribed `MARIA' also support this conclusion. Two latrine chutes in the wall of the range to the north imply a chamber, perhaps the Abbot's camera, on the first floor. A series of fishponds run to the north west of the castle, following the stream course which flows through the southern arm of the moat from the springs to the east. These may be contemporary with the occupation of the later manor, or with the settlement which preceded the construction of the castle. The clearest examples lie approximately 30m north west of the moat forming a pair of rectangular depressions linked together and to the line of the stream by partly infilled channels. Further depressions, less well defined, continue along the stream course for approximately 100m, separated by low banks and scarps and flanked to the east by a broad and shallow ditch. Evidence of occupation in the Roman period was discovered during Lethbridge's excavations, including a section of rubble wall footings and a cobbled surface towards the western edge of the island. Part of a ditch containing tile and Romano-British pottery was found towards the eastern side of the island, and the old ground surface (buried by the mound on this side) was found to contain a quantity of painted wall plaster. All fences and fenceposts are excluded from the scheduling although the ground beneath these features is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number: 29382

Legacy System: RSM


Books and journals
Taylor, A, Castles of Cambridgeshire, (1990), 13
Taylor, A, Castles of Cambridgeshire, (1990), 12-13
Lethbridge, T C, 'PCAS' in Excavations at Burwell Castle, Cambridgeshire, , Vol. 36, (1935), 121-33
Lethbridge, T C, 'PCAS' in Excavations at Burwell Castle, Cambridgeshire, , Vol. 36, (1935), 121-33
Lethbridge, T C, 'PCAS' in Excavations at Burwell Castle, Cambridgeshire, , Vol. 36, (1935), 121-33
RCHME, Inventory of Monuments in Cambridgeshire, North East Cambridgeshire, (1972)
RCHME, Inventory of Monuments in Cambridgeshire, North East Cambridgeshire, (1972)
RCHME, Inventory of Monuments in Cambridgeshire, North East Cambridgeshire, (1972)
RCHME, Inventory of Monuments in Cambridgeshire, North East Cambridgeshire, (1972)

End of official listing