Capturing Cambridge
  • search
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
Cambridge from castle Mount - G F Sargent mid 19th century

Cambridge Castle

History of Cambridge Castle

View from Castle Hill

The Saxon settlement was originally within. the ramparts of the Roman fort. It is known that there was some destruction during the conflicts between the kingdoms of Mercia and East Anglia. In 634AD the Mercian king Penda conquered the East Anglians at the site. The venerable Bede mentions the site when he describes the monks from Ely coming in 695 in search of a suitable coffin for the founder ofvtheir monastery, St Etheldreda. They are said to have found a coffin at the foot of Castle Hill in ‘a waste chester called Grantacaester’ i.e. the Roman camp next to the Granta, the old name for the River Cam. (Peter Bryan, ‘Cambridge – The Shaping of the City’ 2008, p.12)

The motte remains of the castle built by William the Conqueror in 1068 to control the river crossing. It lay within the stone walls of the Roman town. In the process 27 houses were demolished. A stone bailey was rebuilt in stone by Edward in 1294. It seems to nave been surrounded by wet moats.

Cambridge Castle historical map

By 1367 the castle was already in a defective state although even in 1585 attempts were made to retain the curtain wall. By 1606 the S.W. gatehouse was the only complete building left because of its use as a prison.

In 1643, because of Cambridge being the headquarters of the Eastern Counties Association, the Bailey works were reconstructed as a bastioned trace fort. In 1647 the new defences were slighted but three bastions remained.

Cambridge Castle by James Essex 1740. L to R: medieval gatehouse, Cromwellian barracks, Elizabethan law courts (Shire Hall)

Between 1802 and 1847 a new octagonal County gaol designed by G Byfield was built. In 1842 the SW gatehouse was pulled down to make way for the Court House, itself demolished in 1954. In 1932 the new Shire Hall was built on the site freed by the demolition of the County gaol.

Documents about the castle’s role as a prison can be found here:

Cambridge County Gaol and House of Correction

Cambridge Castle 19th cent.

There is a Wikipedia entry.

The following map from 1895 shows the probable line of the Roman wall and ditch. Peter Bryan’s map in ‘Cambridge – The Shaping of the City’ 2008 places the Roman Military Fort within the area formed by Castle Road at the SE, Castle Street at the NE and Shelley Row at the SW.

Cambridge Castle 1895 suggested plan


Do you have any information about the people or places in this article? If so, then please let us know using the Contact page or by emailing