04 Sep Defiance and Destruction – The Seige of Castle Bytham
On the 2nd February 1221, the 13 year old King Henry III sent an order to the Mayor of Lynn for 2000 fathoms of rope to be sent by boat to the town of Deeping.
The rope was to be escorted by two honest men, its purpose: to pull the siege engines which were at the same time being summoned from Nottingham Castle, and headed to Castle Bytham.
This was the summation of years of civil unrest and open rebellion from a once trusted Baron – William de Fortibus.
Just months after the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, both King John and the Barons had breached many of the conditions, and the country was once more at war.
The castle at Bytham had been seized by King John in 1216. Lands, property, and titles which at that time were held by William de Colvile were handed to de Fortibus, a favoured supporter of King John.
A matter of months later King John was dead. His nine year old son Henry inherited a much diminished Kingdom, torn by civil war.
The young Henry III was swiftly crowned and given over to the care of the famous Knight William Marshal, with a council of 13 nobles to act as regent.
It was a time of violence, uncertainty and shifting allegiances. Some of the Men who had stood with King John in 1215, were now siding with the revolting Barons and supporting the claim of Prince Louis of France.
By 1217 Prince Louis had control of many strategic locations including Westminster Abbey – the Pope however favoured Henry, and would not allow Louis the crown of England.
With more than half of the country in rebel hands, Henry and his ministers forced the issue at the Second Battle of Lincoln.
The rebel forces were defeated, and as part of the peace treaty that followed the battle, many of the lands and titles seized by King John were to be returned to their original holders.
Among the lands to be returned were those belonging to Willam de Fortibus: Rockingham, Mount Sorrel (both in Leicestershire) and Castle Bytham.
Furious at the order, de Fortibus refused the King and his government. Despite repeated demands to give up the land, he began further fortifying his castles and stockpiling weaponry and food, often raiding nearby towns and villages to do so.
In May 1219 de Fortibus was excommunicated by the Church, and the Barons of England were threatened that they too would be excommunicated if they, or any of their men, offered him any assistance, supplies or support.
Despite this he still refused to comply with the King’s orders, and on the 28th June 1220 the boy King himself led an army to the gates of Mount Sorrel demanding de Fortibus quit.
An army at the door proved persuasive and William gave up Mount Sorrel and Rockingham, but not Castle Bytham.
By now Willam de Fortibus was not the only Baron unhappy that lands and titles they felt were hard won had been stolen back from them. The peace between the King and his Barons was a fragile one.
It was Christmas 1220 when Willam de Fortibus showed his hand, leaving the Royal Court without the King’s permission to return to Castle Bytham.
He began work further fortifying the castle, and gathered other rebels and armed men to defend it.
Within a month he had attacked other local towns including the Deepings, which he laid to waste, kidnapping local men and holding them to ransom. He had also prevented any merchant and tradesman trading on his lands around Stamford without his consent, charging them a fee for a pass, all of which added to his coffers for war.
When news reached the King and his governors, it was clear that de Fortibus’ actions could not be tolerated. Defying an unpopular order was one thing, but raising an army against the King could not be ignored.
The King, his regents, and his army marched from London on the 28th January 1221. Messengers were dispatched to summon the fighting men of other baronies, and taxes were levied. To leave no doubt that this was a Royal army, Henry travelled with his throne.
On the 5th of February the King arrived at Stamford, where he sent to York for all the money in the treasury to support the siege.
The next day, Henry, his army, and his siege weapons were at Castle Bytham, but William de Fortibus was not. He had escaped to York leaving Vasallus Foillis in command of the garrison.
This was not to be a protracted affair. It took less than two weeks for the siege engines to be constructed and the timber built castle to be destroyed.
With no place to find shelter the rebels fled the castle and were killed or captured. King Henry ordered the Castle to be burnt, and later paid John de Standon 23 shillings and 8 pence to ensure that none of the structure was left standing.
William de Fortibus quickly appealed to the Archbishop of York, and the Pope for their forgiveness and backing, after securing both he gave his submission to the King, and remarkably – although his lands and titles were seized, he and all the barons that supported him were given a full pardon.
As restitution to the Church, de Fortibus paid for the foundation of the Friary of St Mary and St Nicholas in Stamford. Like many lords who found themselves out of favour with the Church, he pledged to fight in the Crusades – he died on Good Friday 1241 while travelling to the Holy Land.
After the siege, Castle Bytham was returned to William de Colvile. He rebuilt and modified the castle, this time from stone.
The last resident of the castle was Lady Basset, grandmother to Henry V. By 1544 the castle was in ruins, the stone slowly robbed away to build walls and homes in the surrounding villages.
When the castle site was surveyed in 1906, no stonework remained in the ground.
Today earthworks are all that remain of the much disputed fortress at Castle Bytham.
Note: The castle remains can be viewed from a public footpath which runs adjacent to the earthworks, however there is no public access onto the castle mound itself.
Weiler and Rowlands (2017), ‘England and Europe in the Reign of Henry III (1216-1272)’, Routledge
Carpenter,D (1990), ‘The Minority of Henry III’, St Edmundsbury Press Ltd
Purton, P.F. (2009), ‘A History of the Early Medieval Siege, c.450-1220’, The Boydell Press
Wild, J. (1871), ‘The History of Castle Bytham’, Henry Johnson
Historic England, ‘Castle Bytham Castle, associated town defences and ponds – List entry summary’
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1014681 as accessed 27/2/18
Heritage Gateway ‘Castle Bytham and Surrounding Earthworks’ Lincolnshire HRE record
http://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=MLI30059&resourceID=1006as accessed 27/7/18
CastlesFortsBattles, ‘Bytham Castle’ http://www.castlesfortsbattles.co.uk/midlands/bytham_castle.html as accessed 27/7/18