How a group of enthusiasts are raising awareness of the long-lost Northampton Castle

Marie Dickie at the site of the old Northampton Castle near Black Lion Hill.
Marie Dickie at the site of the old Northampton Castle near Black Lion Hill.

STANDING on a small mound of earth and peering down on the Northampton station car-park below, I imagined myself as a king or queen visiting the town in days gone by.

No, I hopefully hadn’t gone barmy or been taken over by megalomania, rather, the place where I was standing, at the top of St Andrew’s Road, is believed to have once been the home of the old castle’s Great Hall.

Part of the 11th century Northampton Castle site, this is thought to have been the location of Thomas Becket’s fateful trial in 1164.

Marie Dickie, who chairs the Friends of Northampton Castle, showed me around the area, which is sadly now littered with the odd piece of rubbish, as well as a defaced sign explaining what great history once unfolded there.

The group actively campaigns to do all it can to make people aware that, although many of the visible remnants of Northampton Castle were destroyed when the railway station was built in 1879, the history and archaeology should be valued a great deal more than they currently are.

The group was founded following on from a project in which local young people made a video exploring the history of the Spring Boroughs area.

Marie said: “These things led to a county group of people who had an interest in the heritage of the area and who liked how the young people had responded to it. We started talking to Northamptonshire County Council about getting some plaques in and now there are four.”

But the work did not end there, and members of the group have since been involved in an ambitious “heritage gateway” proposal which they hope will eventually become a reality in the castle area of Northampton.

Marie explained: “We have worked up to a place where we have put a proposal together to show ‘this is what could be done, this could be a heritage gateway.’”

The hope is that eventually some archaeological remains could be uncovered from the Great Hall site, and a park area, herb garden and interpretation centre could be created to give visitors arriving at the station a sense of the site’s history.

Marie said: “We are thinking in terms of having the archaeological remains of the Great Hall exposed in some way.

“It might be that not much of it can be taken to the surface but they could pick out the Great Hall where Thomas Becket was tried, and have some sort of small park around about the mound. We have also talked about a herb garden as I think there is room.”

The group is also hopeful that a developer will eventually be able to demolish the Castle House building, which they believe is an important part of the historic site.

Friends member John Dickie said: “They are all very confident the station will be developed and there has to be a heritage element to it. People will see something that can excite and interest everyone.”

Today the Friends will be holding medieval “revels” between 1pm and 6pm at Chalk Lane car park, to celebrate the castle history, with entertainments including a craft fair, children’s games, a maypole, musicians and storytellers. A specially brewed Castle Ale from Frog Island Brewery will even be available from the Black Lion and visitors to the event are invited to dress up in medieval costume.

John said: “We are calling it May Day revels and we are trying to bring people into the area to give them a sense there is a castle there.

“Our archaeologists know where the wall would have been and we will show people where the castle walls were.”

Recently the Friends group also launched an exhibition at the Northampton Museum & Art Gallery in Guildhall Road, entitled Northampton has a Castle.

Running until May 28, the display gives details about some of the group’s achievements and includes artefacts from the castle site, such as iron keys, pieces of stone wall, and manacles believed to date back to its use as a prison.

Marie said: “It was nice that the opportunity came up as the Northampton Museum are doing a series of people’s galleries and we jumped at the opportunity.

“Northampton Museum has so many pieces of the castle, racks and racks of it, and they have also got some remarkable small finds from swords to buckles and manacles, and it looks like all of them would have been in use at the castle.

“It was a mint at one point and there are Northampton coins in there too.

“We hope people will have a look at that as it is about trying to give people a notion there was a castle here.

“A lot of children and families don’t have any knowledge about the castle but it was very solid and substantial at one time.”

CASTLE HISTORY

Built towards the end of the 11th century under the stewardship of Simon de Senlis, Northampton’s castle became an important seat of power and was believed to have been the favourite castle of King John, who visited about 30 times.

The Royal treasury was moved to the castle in 1205 and became home to a mint creating coins of the realm.

The first Battle of Northampton took place at the castle site in 1264 between the forces of Henry III and Simon de Montfort.

One of the most famous events associated with the castle’s history was the trial of Thomas Becket, who fled and was later murdered at Canterbury Cathedral.

Throughout its early history, the castle became a location for parliament, trials and feasts and was an important political location within the country.

By the mid 16th century the castle is believed to have been in partial ruins and a lot of the building was destroyed by Charles II as retribution for the Northampton’s support of the Parliamentarians during the Civil War.

More of the castle was destroyed in 1879 when the railway station was built. Some artefacts discovered from excavations at that time are now at the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery. The most recent excavations at the site took place in the 1960s.

More information about the castle’s history and the Friends of Northampton Castle group can be found at www.northamptoncastle.com