Lincoln Castle has stood for nearly a thousand years on the city’s hilltop. Built by William the Conqueror after the Norman Conquest, it is one of the best-preserved castles in the country, and a window into centuries of enthralling history. Inside the grounds you can see one of the four surviving original copies of Magna Carta, a Victorian prison preserved to show its operating conditions, and spectacular views of the city and surrounding countryside from atop the medieval walls.
So, how do you visit Lincoln Castle? Whether you’re looking for a family day out, some solo sightseeing or a romantic couple afternoon, this guide will help. We explore the origins of the castle, why it’s so special, and everything you need to know before visiting.
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Lincoln Castle: a brief history
The 21st century will mark the thousandth anniversary of when William the Conqueror came to Lincoln and commissioned a castle to be built on its high hill. After leading the successful invasion at the legendary Battle of Hastings, he wanted to strengthen his defences against a perceived threat from Scandinavian settlers in the north of the country. Without delay, he ordered castles to be built in several strategic locations, including York, Nottingham, Durham and… Lincoln!
It wasn’t the first time the hilltop site had been utilised for defence purposes. With roots stretching back to Roman times, Lincoln was already one of the most important cities in the country. The Romans had previously built a fortress on the spot that William earmarked for the castle. According to the Domesday Book, some 166 Saxon homes had to be demolished to clear the way for the castle’s construction.
The castle in times of war
Lincoln Castle has provided the stage for some pivotal moments in English history. As you might expect of a centuries-old structure built for war, it has witnessed many battles and sieges.
The First Battle of Lincoln in 1141 was the first notable skirmish at the castle. King Stephen was captured here by his cousin, Empress Matilda, and taken to Bristol. He was later released in exchange for Matilda’s half-brother, Robert of Gloucester, and restored to the throne – ending her short reign.
Conflicted erupted again at the Second Battle of Lincoln in 1217. Two years earlier, King John had reneged on agreements made in Magna Carta, sparking a chain of events that spiralled into civil war. Northern barons rebelled against the crown, joining forces with King Louis of France. But the battle at Lincoln Castle proved crucial. Led by Nicola de la Haye, Royalists defended the stronghold against French forces. Had they been unsuccessful, King Louis may have become king of England, and Magna Carta lost to history.
The final battle at the castle came at the Siege of Lincoln amid the English Civil War in 1644. This time, Royalists came out on the losing side, after being overcome by Parliamentarian forces.
The castle has welcomed many royal visitors over the years, but for some it has been a curse. King John stayed at the castle a fortnight before his death in nearby Newark. King Henry VIII visited with his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, not long before she was executed for infidelity.
Eleanor of Castile, the wife of King Edward ‘Longshanks’ I, set off for Lincoln from London in 1290, but never arrived. She died just 50 kilometres short of completing the journey. Overcome with grief, Longshanks had a series of memorial crosses erected from Lincoln to London, the final one giving its name to Charing Cross.
The remnants of the first ‘Eleanor Cross’ can be seen in the grounds of Lincoln Castle today. There is also a replica of her Westminster tomb a few minutes’ walk away inside Lincoln Cathedral.
Unique castle architecture
Lincoln Castle is not quite your typical medieval castle. Some of its features make it stand out from other fortifications around the country. In particular, it is one of only two castles in the UK to have two mottes rather than one. (The other, in case you’re wondering, is Lewes Castle.)
Lucy Tower is one of the most distinctive quirks of the castle. It was added to the structure in the 12th century, replacing a previous wooden keep. The tower is the castle’s second motte, and acted as its main keep and last line of defence.
A castle of many uses
The castle has been in constant use since its first fortification was completed in 1068, and has been adapted for multiple purposes. It was used as a court from the very beginning as well as a stronghold. An Assize Court built on the grounds in 1823 is still used today by Lincoln Crown Court for criminal trials.
Famously, the castle was repurposed as a prison during Victorian times. The facility was used for the separate system, a particularly harsh form of imprisonment during the 19th century which saw inmates kept in solitary confinement. All everyday activities, from exercise to worship, were done in complete isolation.
Lore suggests that the castle has also been used for astronomy. The Observatory Tower is believed to be named after John Merryweather, an early 19th-century prison governor who was an enthusiastic astronomer and liked to stargaze from the top of the tower.
Lincoln Castle on the screen
Fans of Downton Abbey might recognise the castle’s Victorian Prison from some famous scenes on the TV show. Back in 2012, it was used as the filming set for York Prison, where John Bates was imprisoned for murder. For more stuff like this, check out our rundown of fascinating facts about Lincoln.
Lincoln Castle facts at-a-glance
Things to see and do at Lincoln Castle
Whether you have just a fleeting half-hour to spare or whole afternoon at your disposal, the time can be well spent at Lincoln Castle. Let’s take a look at what you can pack into your itinerary.
Explore for free inside the castle grounds
The main grounds of Lincoln Castle are open to the public with no entry fee. During lockdown restrictions, the grounds are open for anyone living locally to exercise between 10am and 4pm. In the summer season, from April to October, the opening hours are 10am–5pm.
On sunny summer days in normal times, the grounds make for a perfect picnic location. There’s plenty of open grass to find a spot and soak up the surroundings. You can wander freely and see the exterior of the castle’s main features. Look out for historic relics around the grounds, such as the Eleanor Cross remains, located inconspicuously near the gift shop.
There is no document in the history with greater fame than Magna Carta, and few anywhere in the world are more important. It provided the basis for English law as we know it today by establishing the principle that all people including the king would be subject to law, and guaranteeing individuals the right to justice and a fair trial.
Magna Carta was signed by King John in 1215. Only four original copies exist, and one of them is kept beneath Lincoln Castle in the David PJ Ross Magna Carta Vault. (Two are kept in the British Library, and the other at Salisbury Cathedral.)
In 1217, two years after the signing of the original document, it was re-issued along with a second document known as the Charter of the Forest. Originals of the two documents can be seen side-by-side in the castle’s vault – the only place in the world where they are kept together. A third guest document is sometimes displayed alongside them, alternating at various times through the year.
A cinema screen shows a short film telling Magna Carta’s story in a separate room within the vault.
The Medieval Wall Walk
The Medieval Wall Walk is always our highlight when visiting Lincoln Castle, and one of our favourite things to do in the city. The castle’s impressive curtain wall stands fully intact, spanning half a kilometre around the its circumference.
Walking the entire circuit on the top of the wall gives a unique perspective of the castle’s various features, narrated by an audio guide along the way. Looking outwards, you can enjoy an unrivalled view of the city and its surroundings. In particular, look out for the stunning elevated perspective of Lincoln Cathedral. This experience is an absolute must if you only have a day or two in the city.
The wall walk is accessible via a lift or spiral staircase.
The Victorian Prison at Lincoln Castle is a relic of one of the most grisly periods in the city’s history. The prison was used as part of the ‘separate system’ of the 19th century, a harsh regime that kept inmates isolated. The idea was that confinement would force prisoners to reflect on their ill deeds and repent, while also preventing bad influences from spreading among them.
During the 30 years the prison was operational, children as young as eight were incarcerated in its cells. Executions were also carried out at the castle, and the graves of seven hanged prisoners can be seen in Lucy Tower.
The prison has been carefully refurbished and maintained to show its operating conditions. Exploring its cells and various inner features, you can witness how the separate system worked in practice. Short videos tell anecdotes of famous inmates, and you can dress up in various prison attire.
One striking example of the separate system is the prison’s chapel. It is designed with tiny individual cells separated by wooden panels, so prisoners would only be able to see the chaplain, and not see or communicate with one another. You can even climb up to the pulpit to see the room from the chaplain’s perspective, staring down onto the individual cells. It is the only chapel of its kind in Europe.
Events at Lincoln Castle
The castle hosts a variety of events throughout the year, from special summer family activities to illuminating light shows in winter. A Heritage Skills Workshop in the grounds also hosts learning sessions on crafts such as blacksmithing, silversmithing, woodwork and stained glass.
You can find details of the upcoming events programme on the Lincoln Castle website.
How to visit Lincoln Castle: practical information
Inspired to take a trip to the castle? All that’s left is to plan the finer details. In this section we cover all of the logistics for visiting Lincoln Castle.
Getting to Lincoln Castle and parking
Lincoln Castle is one of the most dominant skyline features on the city’s hill. Only the cathedral stands taller. Both are located in the uphill area, also known as the Cathedral Quarter, a vibrant part of the city filled with independent shops, pubs and restaurants.
The grounds cover a sizeable area, and can be accessed by the main gate in Castle Square. It’s easy to reach by foot from the main rail station and bus station, although it involves an uphill trudge! Simply walk to the top of the High Street, continue up the Strait and Steep Hill, and the castle entrance is on the left when you reach the square.
If you are driving, there are several car parks nearby. The closest are on Castle Hill (LN1 3AA), St Paul’s Lane (LN1 3AL), Westgate (LN1 3BG) and The Lawn (LN1 3BU). You can find a full range of car parks in Lincoln on the City Council website.
The Castle Hill car park, which is the closest to the main gate, also has spaces to lock up bicycles.
As mentioned above, the castle’s grounds are free to enter and explore. For seeing the various highlights, there are three main ticket options. The latest prices are as follows:
- Medieval Wall Walk: adults £10, concessions £9, children £5.50, family £25.50.
- Day ticket (includes the Medieval Wall Walk, Magna Carta and Victorian Prison): adults £14, concessions £13, children £7.50, family £35.50.
- Annual Pass (unlimited entry for a year including access to events): adults £35, concessions £33, children £16, family £86.
There is no entry fee for children under five years.
The castle is open all year round except for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day.
During normal times, the opening times are 10am–5pm from 1 April to 26 October, and 10am–4pm from 27 October to 31 March.
Covid safety measures
While Covid restrictions apply, the grounds are open 10am–4pm and can only be used for exercise once a day. The Medieval Wall Walk, Magna Carta Vault and Victorian Prison are closed until further notice. Other measures are in place to ensure safety, including one-way systems, maximum capacity limits and the option to provide test and trace details.
Facilities on site
The castle grounds have a shop and café on site. Read to find more options nearby to try the local food…
Places to eat and drink near Lincoln Castle
The castle is in one of the best parts of the city for pubs, restaurants and cafés. These are some of our favourite options nearby:
- Bells Tea Shop: a quaint tea room set in a Grade II listed building at the top of Steep Hill, near the castle entrance.
- The Wig & Mitre: a traditional pub serving local and international cuisine, a few steps away from the East Gate.
- Jews House: a fine-dining restaurant set in a historic 12th-century building, a short walk down Steep Hill.
- The Prince of Wales: a friendly pub on nearby Bailgate with a beer garden and a tasty menu of comfort food.
- The Strugglers Inn. a favourite local pub outside the castle walls with a warm atmosphere and excellent cask ales.
Where to stay near Lincoln Castle
Some of Lincoln’s best hotels are located close to the castle. Here are some to choose from:
- The Castle Hotel: as the name suggests, this hotel is close by – luxury accommodation in a Grade II listed building.
- White Hart Hotel: another luxury option, located right between the castle and cathedral.
- Tower Hotel: a stylish boutique hotel a short walk around the corner from the castle.
- Pemberton House: self-catered accommodation inside one of the city’s most iconic Tudor buildings.
You can also check out our guide to the best guest houses and bed & breakfasts in Lincoln.
Been to Lincoln Castle already? Tell us about it in the comments below.
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