Guide to Medieval Lincoln

One of England’s oldest towns, Lincoln has a very interesting medieval history. This guide will point some of the historic sites in Lincoln and describe the role of the town in the Middle Ages.

The origins of Lincoln go back to the 1st century BC, when a Celtic settlement existed on the site, which is thought to have named Lindum, after a local pool. During the 1st century AD, Roman soldiers built a fortress here and developed a settlement for army veterans. The town was then called Lindum Colonia and for the next couple hundred years its fortunes rose to the point where it became a provinical capital. But with the decline of Roman presence in England, the town also declined, and was almost abandoned by the 5th century.

Lincoln started to regain its former glory with the settlement of Vikings in the 9th century, and in 1068, two years after the Norman Conquest, William I ordered a castle to be built on the site of the former Roman settlement. In the year 1141 the town was the sight of the First Battle of Lincoln, where King Stephen was captured by Robert, Earl of Gloucester.

By 1150, this town was considered to be one of the wealthiest in England, having a vibrant trade in cloth and wool. Lincoln was home to one of the five most important Jewish communities in England.  In 1255, the local community accused the prominent Jews of Lincoln of the ritual murder of a Christian boy (known as ‘Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln’) which ended with 18 Jews being executed.

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During the 13th century, Lincoln was the third largest city in England and was a favourite of more than one king. It also became caught up in the strife between the king and the rebel barons who had allied with the French, which was an ongoing result on the baron rebellion against King John. It was here that the Second Battle of Lincoln was fought in 1217, where the forces loyal to young Henry III, led by William Marshal, defeated a French and Rebel army.

The fourteenth century saw a decline in Lincoln’s fortunes, and the city is now home to about 100 000 people.  Tourism is one of the major economic activties.

Medieval Sights in Lincoln

Lincoln Cathedral – No other English cathedral dominates its surroundings as does Lincoln’s. Visible from up to 48km (30 miles) away, the central tower is 81m (271 ft.) high, which makes it the second tallest in England. The central tower once carried a huge spire, which, before heavy gale damage in 1549, made it the tallest in the world at 158m (525 ft.).

Construction on the original Norman cathedral was begun in 1072, and it was consecrated 20 years later. It sustained a major fire and, in 1185, an earthquake. Only the central portion of the West Front and lower halves of the western towers survive from this period.

The present cathedral is Gothic in style, particularly the Early English and Decorated periods. The nave is 13th century, but the black font of Tournai marble originates from the 12th century. In the Great North Transept is a rose medallion window known as the Dean’s Eye. Opposite it, in the Great South Transept, is its cousin, the Bishop’s Eye. East of the high altar is the Angel Choir, consecrated in 1280, and so called after the sculpted angels high on the walls. The exquisite woodcarving in St. Hugh’s Choir dates from the 14th century. Lincoln’s roof bosses, dating from the 13th and 14th centuries, are handsome, and a mirror trolley assists visitors in their appreciation of these features, which are some 21m (70 ft.) above the floor.

Lincoln Castle - A short walk from the cathedral, this 900-year-old fortress was once one of the most powerful strongholds in medieval England. Lincoln Castle dates from the time of William the Conqueror in 1068. Nothing remains of his original fortress. On one of the mounds where the original castle stood is the Lucy Tower dating from the late 12th century. The East Gate also dates from the 12th century. The castle came under siege in the wars of 1135-54 and again in 1216-17. During the 19th century, it functioned as a prison. You can see the Prison Chapel with its self-locking cubicles; these cages kept prisoners from seeing each other. Inside its exhibition rooms is displayed one of only four surviving copies of the Magna Carta. Much of the appeal of a visit here involves walking along the top of the wall that surrounds the fortress, overlooking the castle’s grassy courtyard, the city of Lincoln, and its cathedral.

Medieval Bishop’s Palace – On the south side of the Cathedral, this site was the headquarters of the biggest diocese in England during the Middle Ages. Launched in 1150, it held great power until it was sacked during the Civil War in the 1640s. Allowed to ruin over the centuries, it has been opened to the public, who can explore its ruins, including an intact entrance tower, a public hall, and a vaulted undercroft. You can also wander its grounds, taking in panoramic views of the city itself.

Roman remains are scattered around the cathedral quarter, for example behind the cathedral are the excavated remains of the Roman east gate, and on the north side of the castle at the junction of Westgate and Bailgate are the excavated remains of a Roman well amid the walls. Walking along Bailgate, notice the circles of old stones in the modern road surface – these are the original foundations of roman pillars which lined this route, Ermine Street which stretches from London to York.

Jew’s House – One of the earliest extant town houses in England. It lies on Steep Hill in Lincoln, immediately below Jew’s Court. Dating from the mid-twelfth century, the building originally consisted of a hall at first floor level, measuring approximately 12 by 6 metres, above service and storage spaces at ground level. Part of the facade survives; the elaborately carved doorway, the remains of two Romanesque double-arch windows and much of the stonework on the upper storey. The site now houses a restaurant.

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Part of the Lincoln Cathedral now open to the public

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