Some castles grew from purely Norman military motte-and-bailey castles, constructed by William the Conqueror’s knights to keep a firm hold on England. Others are later affairs, fortified houses built later in the middle ages or even in the Tudor Age more as symbolic castles than effective defensive buildings. Later still, houses like Elvaston or Bretby had ‘castle’ added in lieu of ‘hall’ for effect.
If one was a member of the medieval elite, with a largish house built around one or even two courtyards, adding defensive works was sometimes felt advisable, as during the barons’ wars in the mid-13th century, or during the wars of the Roses in the mid-fifteenth century. In that case one applied to the King for a licence to crenellate, or to put it simply, to adapt one’s house to make it to some extent defensible. Such houses are usually termed defended manor houses rather than pure castles, and locally included Codnor, Bretby and Melbourne.
There never was a Norman castle at Melbourne. The King had granted Melbourne to the Bishops of Carlisle, a place often made too hot for comfort by marauding Scots, hence the epic scale of the Norman church there. Yet it was not until 1246/1248 that we have evidence for a manor house at Melbourne. In the very beginning of the fourteenth century Sir Robert de Holand, held a manor house there under the ambitious Thomas, Duke of Lancaster of whom he was a leading confidant. He duly obtained a licence to crenellate in 1311 and in 1314 the mason Peter de Bagworth is recorded and undertaking extensive works there, ‘there’ being the area on the SE side of Castle Square at Melbourne, although this work was being done for Lancaster, not Holand himself, that year created a peer by writ of summons.
Indeed, whatever arrangement there was between Lord Holand and the Duke, it was clearly intended to enable the former to reap the fiscal benefits of ownership whilst his master retained control of the site. Indeed, this was the year of the disaster at Bannockburn and for the next four years Lancaster was effectively in control of the government. In 1322, however, the King had his revenge, defeating the Duke at Boroughbridge, although, strangely enough, Holand had deserted to the King just prior to the encounter, thus saving his neck.
What Holand created was a fortified manor house and he was later confirmed in his possession of the manor of Melbourne, held this time from his former mentor’s younger brother, Henry, Earl of Lancaster, again raised to a dukedom in 1351. The Castle is specifically referred to as such in the documentation generated by his death ten years later. The manor and castle passed by marriage to John of Gaunt, also created Duke of Lancaster, and when his son became Henry IV, his possessions were made into a separate principality, called the Duchy of Lancaster which still owns much land in England and especially in Derbyshire.
By this time there was an extensive park, now attached to the Melbourne Hall estate, surrounded by a pale – an earthen bank designed to stop the deer jumping out – still extant in several sections, and equipped with two lodges, one (moated) situated at SK392241 and recorded as in existence from c. 1262 until the late 15th century. There was also a moat and bridge. After Agincourt the castle was developed into a palace-like residence and became the very luxurious PoW camp of the captured Jean, Duc de Bourbon and other notable French prisoners. Poor Duke Jean was there for no less than nineteen years; clearly no one at home was in any hurry to raise his ransom! Their gaoler and the Constable of the Castle was local landed magnate Nicholas Montgomery of Cubley, the younger. It was later granted to Henry V’s French queen after his death in 1422.
A drawing of 1602 in the PRO (subsequently rather well engraved in 1733 for the Society of Antiquaries) shows it to have been embowered with something like a dozen round and square section towers, all embattled, the external walls having plentiful slit windows but high up, one or two elaborately traceried Gothic ones too. A pedimented lantern visible in the midst of the pinnacles seems to indicate the position of the great hall and there was an impressive elaborate door with a crocketed ogee moulding above it in the outer wall, compared by Anthony Emery with that at Mackworth (see last month) and presumably the main entrance, reached by the bridge over the moat. Emery also suggests that it must have been built, like Haddon and Wingfield Manor, around two courtyards and points out that the original drawing (rather than the engravings taken from it) clearly suggests this. In its time it must have been most impressive.
Yet its apogee was brief and, with the French wars at an end, it swiftly became a white elephant although exactly what it was used for in the later fifteenth and earlier sixteenth centuries is not at all clear, but it was still in good repair when the itinerarist John Leland saw it in the early1540s, writing that it was ‘Prety [pretty] and yn meately [very] good reparation.’
Yet under Elizabeth it appears to have become completely redundant. Hence it was referred to in 1576 when it was reported that the castle was in a fair state of decay though the stonework was good. In 1583, it was recommended by the Privy Council that the queen move her cousin, the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots, to Melbourne, and a description of the castle was provided which throws interesting light on its appearance at the time in that it was said to be constructed of lead-covered ashlar, had large spacious rooms that would need to be partitioned, floors of earth and plaster, walls that appear to have needed repointing and rendering since they were described as being too easily scaleable, and no paths or wall about the house ‘so as being out of dors you are in the myre, for it is verie foule and unpleasaunt to walk round about…’.
This description would suggest that, at some point in the later Middle Ages, the curtain wall around the castle had been demolished and that the ward surrounding the main building had gone out of use. In the event, Mary was never moved to Melbourne and the castle ceased to be a residence.
A survey of 1597 reported that it was used as a pound for stray cattle and in that year the park was sold to Francis Needham, a man who was to be knighted in 1617 after having bought an East Anglian estate, and who had already purchased Melbourne Hall and the rectory. The castle itself was sold by the Crown to four speculators, probably to defray the cost of the coronation of James VI and I. They sold it on to the Ashby magnate, George Hastings, 4th Earl of Huntingdon for £4,700; quite why he wished to acquire it though is a mystery – perhaps he wanted it as a replacement for his castle at Ashby. Clearly his son, Henry (5th Earl succeeded 1604) didn’t agree: he instead set about demolishing it, selling its building materials, and indeed, much of the 17th century buildings of Melbourne seem to include stone from it, including, it is said, the hall. Castle farm was already on the site by 1630 according to a survey of that year and certainly incorporates much of its stonework, in some instances, still in situ.
Lord Huntingdon clearly did a very thorough job of pulling it down, precious little remains, most of them in the grounds of Castle Farm (largely built from its fabric as with the farmhouse at Codnor Castle), including a substantial (80 feet long) wall revealed in the later 19th century, but long robbed of its outer skin of fine, ashlared Keuper sandstone. Extensive cellarage was discovered in 1843, recorded as `subterranean apartments’ beneath Castle Farm and `considerable foundation walls…in many parts of the garden’ were recorded by Joseph Deans in 1843 but were back-filled and built over soon afterwards; furthermore, in 1889 W Dashwood-Fane excavated more footings. Indeed, the only clue we have that it was built of such fine dressed stone was in the PRO drawing, until excavations and in the 1960s, 1971 and 1973 and again in 1989 (when Castle Mills and cottage to the south of Castle Farm and orchard were demolished for housing) revealed substantial footings of a tower and other parts still encased in ashlar.
Excavations, carried out in Castle Orchard, revealed a complex of ashlar-faced battered, or sloping, wall plinths, extending southwards from the upstanding wall, which appear to represent the remains of projections or towers and may belong to more than one phase of building. Architectural features include the base of a flight of steps leading up to a robbed-out level, parts of string courses designed to protect walls from rainwater, the respond (supporting column) of a stone door jamb, drainage holes and some 38 mason’s marks. In 1987, the need to disassemble and reconstruct the east end of the lean-to cart-shed on the north side of the upstanding medieval wall led to the discovery of a possible floor and a north-south running wall while, in the same year, the curving stone foundations of a tower or bastion were also found beneath the lean-to, some 32ft to the west where they are now sealed beneath a concrete floor. Some of these were left visible by the then owner of the Farm, John Blunt, and open days are still occasionally run to allow people to see them.
The foundations of the 80ft wall had been noted during the construction of Castle Mills in 1857 when they were reported to be 12 feet thick and were exposed in one of the knitting shops. A second massive east-west wall was identified in 1989, 39ft north of the first wall, together with some less substantial foundations and a possible robber trench. To the east, beneath the 1960s extension of Castle Mills, where mill footings are recorded as having cut through medieval foundations to a depth of 15 feet, a layer of medieval lead-glazed roof tiles was found. A medieval stone-lined well was also found when Castle Mill was constructed and was used subsequently to supply its boiler until it was covered over in 1928. Much of the site is protected as a scheduled ancient monument.
Survey papers from the late fifteenth century in the PRO make it clear that the castle was used as the administrative HQ of the Duchy of Lancaster in the Midlands. Emery states that ‘Melbourne Castle was a key building in the development of late medieval residences in the Trent valley. Its size, maintenance and extension show that it was more than an administrative centre for the Duchy lands in Derbyshire. Its loss therefore represents a serious gap in our knowledge of the area.’
Indeed, considering the importance of the east Midlands as a forcing ground for early experiments in high-built elite residences, one can only concur. Melbourne Castle as developed in the 15th century clearly has a place in the sequence of such buildings with Prior Overton’s Tower at Repton Hall, Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire, the High Tower of Wingfield Manor and Eastwood Hall, leading on to old Chatsworth, Hardwick, Worksop Manor and Bolsover.
Not bad for a lost house.