Archaeologists uncover lost history of Sheffield’s medieval castle

  • Researchers uncover history of Sheffield Castle – one of the most significant in the north of medieval England – in the vaults of a museum
  • Castle was home to Sir John Talbot (1st Earl of Shrewsbury), described as one of the last knights of chivalry and immortalised by Shakespeare as the valiant Lord Talbot
  • Mary Queen of Scots was held prisoner in castle for more than 10 years between 1570 and 1584
  • Findings provide important new insights into the birth of Sheffield
  • University of Sheffield archaeologists advise city council on future excavation and urban regeneration plans
  • Sheffield architecture students develop vibrant designs for ‘meanwhile’ use of castle site

An artist's impression of the Gatehouse to Sheffield Castle

Archaeologists at the University of Sheffield have uncovered the forgotten history of one of northern England’s most significant medieval castles.

The study, led by Professor John Moreland, Professor Dawn Hadley and Dr Gareth Dean from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology, in collaboration with archaeological specialists in the city, has found new evidence for the history of Sheffield Castle - in the vaults of Sheffield museum.

Built in Sheffield in the late 11th or early 12th century, the castle played an important role in English history. Mary Queen of Scots, who was regarded by many as the rightful Queen of England, was held prisoner there for more than 10 years, between 1570 and 1584, before she was executed in 1587.

It was home to some of the great families of the time, the Furnivals, Nevils, Shrewsburys and Howards, and Cardinal Wolsey (Archbishop of York, Lord Chancellor and chief adviser to Henry VIII), is likely to have stayed there in 1530.

The castle was a Royalist stronghold during the English Civil War until it fell to Parliamentary forces on 11 August 1644. Its strength and importance were such that Parliament felt the need to eliminate the threat it posed, and, in 1646, ordered its demolition.

Earlier excavations on the site of the castle, particularly those carried out in the 1920s and 1950s, remain largely unpublished.

Funded by a legacy donation from Sheffield Archaeology alumna Pamela Staunton, University researchers together with local archaeological specialists have for the first time studied in detail the finds from those excavations – and are gaining important new insights into life in Sheffield, and in the castle, in the middle ages.

The University of Sheffield-led research team now believes that the creation of the castle was accompanied by the development of a planned town, whose streets still form the core of Sheffield city centre.

The earliest finds from the 20th-century excavations date from the 11th or 12th centuries, and consist of pottery from kilns in Lincolnshire. By the later middle ages some of the castle’s pottery was made in kilns in Sheffield itself, though some was being imported from the Low Countries.

Some of the finds bring us very close to the people of Sheffield – a cobbler dumped waste leather and old shoes into the castle’s moat where they survived to provide us with unique insights into Sheffield fashions in footwear from the 15th to the 17th century.

Professor John Moreland from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology, and Chair of the University’s Castlegate Steering Group, said: “Sheffield is known for steel production and its rich industrial heritage, but its roots lie in the middle ages. If it wasn’t for its demolition following the Civil War, Sheffield’s skyline might still be dominated by its castle.

“When people think about castles from medieval England they tend to think of Lincoln or Pontefract. We hope that our work, and the new excavations due to commence in the Spring of 2018, will make them think of Sheffield instead!”

As well as helping to highlight Sheffield’s medieval heritage, academics from the University are working closely with Sheffield City Council and the Friends of Sheffield Castle – a voluntary group who work to protect and promote the castle site – to use that heritage to help the regeneration of Castlegate, the city’s historic but run-down former heart

As a first step, students from the University of Sheffield’s School of Architecture have submitted designs to the city council for the construction of a temporary ‘Great Pier’ – to attract visitors to the area and to provide a viewing platform to give the people of Sheffield the best possible view of the new excavations.

Also, a team of University of Sheffield archaeologists, architects and computer scientists, in partnership with creative agency Human Studio, have been awarded funding to develop a virtual reality experience of Sheffield Castle.

Professor Dawn Hadley, Vice-President of Arts and Humanities at the University of Sheffield, who is leading the virtual reality project, added: “VR will make it possible to view the medieval castle for the first time in almost 400 years. We hope that this will encourage development plans for Castlegate that place the heritage of the city at the heart of its future.”

Findings from the research on Sheffield Castle are also being fed into undergraduate teaching modules for archaeology students at the University of Sheffield to demonstrate how archaeology can help us to understand the past and build for the future.

Archaeology students at Sheffield have access to one of the largest communities of medieval archaeologists in the UK, with expertise ranging from late Antiquity to the early modern period.

Councillor Mazher Iqbal, Cabinet Member for Business and Investment at Sheffield City Council, said: “This is another great example of how the partnership approach to regeneration in Castlegate is working - in this case with the University, heritage groups and the council each contributing expertise and resources to a common goal.”

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