The Lincolnshire countryside is full of natural beauty, but beneath its surface are hidden stories of an eventful history. Remains of once-magnificent structures from Roman times to the Middle Ages are concealed in the unlikeliest of places. Bolingbroke Castle, a 13th-century fortification that has been carefully excavated, was a focal point for many consequential historical moments and is one of the most fascinating insights into the county’s heritage. After being shown around the grounds by Heritage Lincolnshire, in this guide we give a quick history of Bolingbroke Castle and explain how you can visit.
Where is Bolingbroke Castle?
The village of Old Bolingbroke is about as rural as a location comes in the English countryside. Situated close to the threshold of the Lincolnshire Wolds in the East Lindsey district, the village is surrounded by fields and woodland for miles in every direction.
This is the setting for Bolingbroke Castle, which is set within the quiet village. Reaching the site from Lincoln requires a 50-minute drive through the rolling countryside.
Bolingbroke Castle: a brief history
The story of Bolingbroke Castle begins in 1220, when Ranulf de Blundeville, the Earl of Lincoln at the time, returned from the Crusades and ordered its construction.
Hexagonal in shape, and with a central courtyard encircled by its curtain walls and six towers, the castle is typical of defensive structures of its day. It was one of three castles commissioned by Ranulf, but he wouldn’t survive long to see their stories unfold. He died in 1232, with the castle passing into the hands of successive Earls of Lincoln that followed.
The birthplace of a king
It was the following century that saw the castle’s most historically significant period, when its ownership passed to John of Gaunt, who took up residence within its walls.
As the fourth son of King Edward III, Gaunt wielded significant political influence and possessed enormous wealth. During the 1360s he lived in Bolingbroke Castle with his wife, Blanche of Lancaster, who had been born in the castle in 1342.
In 1367, Blanche gave birth to their son, Henry, inside the castle. He thus became known as Henry Bolingbroke, and by the end of the 14th century he would be crowned King Henry IV of England – but not before some drama had ensued.
John of Gaunt was also the uncle of Richard II, who became king in 1377 at the age of ten following the death of Edward III. Gaunt became the young king’s guardian.
The two boys, Richard and Henry, were only three months apart in age, and as they grew together their relationship fractured. Matters escalated to the point where Richard, as king, exiled Henry in 1397. But two years later, while Richard was attempting to put down a rebellion in Ireland, Henry returned from exile in France, seized the throne and had Richard imprisoned.
Civil War and beyond
Bolingbroke Castle was not often the stage for battle, but the First English Civil War in the 1640s changed that for a while. In 1643 the castle was besieged by Parliamentarian forces and eventually taken. Royalists briefly retook it the following year.
At this point, the castle had already been slowly deteriorating, and the ravages of battle took a devastating toll. In 1652, parts of the towers and the curtain walls were deliberately demolished to render the structure unusable. The castle fell into disuse and disrepair, and its last standing section finally collapsed in 1815.
Exploring the grounds of Bolingbroke Castle today
Decades of abandonment saw Bolingbroke Castle recede into little more than a grassy mound. But in the 1960s, archaeologists began to excavate the site. In 1995 the site was taken over by Heritage Lincolnshire, who continue to do an immaculate job of preserving the ruins today.
The remains of the castle stand within the village of Old Bolingbroke, but the site feels separated from the sleepy roads and houses around it, almost by a wall of time.
I was shown around the site by Charlotte from the team at Heritage Lincolnshire, and she gave an eye-opening account that brought its history to life, explaining the royal family dramas and the scenes of battle in far more scintillating detail than I have above.
The hexagonal castle was constructed in a classic medieval style, with circular towers, curtain walls, an inner courtyard and a moat. This design can still be fully appreciated in aerial pictures of the ruins. The main entrance at the gatehouse is one of the best preserved aspects, and as you walk up the slope and between the walls you can imagine how dignitaries might have made ceremonious arrivals in the same spot centuries ago.
While it is only the foundations and the ground floor of the structure that have survived, you still get a sense of how formidable the castle would have been in its day. Walking around the grounds you can peer down into the base of the towers and the rooms within, such as the kitchen.
Around the outside of the castle walls, vegetation has taken over. Pond life and plant life thrive around the old moat, giving the remains a tranquil feel as it returns to nature.
How you can visit Bolingbroke Castle
The grounds of Bolingbroke Castle are open to the public and free to visit. Villagers came and went as we toured the grounds, walking their dogs, while curious visitors also arrived to peruse the ruins.
You can visit during any daylight hours. If you arrive towards the end of the day and happen to catch a colourful sunset, it douses the castle remains in atmospheric lighting.
What to learn more on your visit? You can arrange a tour of the grounds to get a deeper insight into its history by contacting Heritage Lincolnshire.
Have you visited Bolingbroke Castle before? Let us know about your experience in the comments below.
Looking for walks in the area? Check out our guide to a Belchford circular walk in the Lincolnshire Wolds nearby.