Review – Sheffield Castle: archaeology, archives, regeneration, 1927-2018

5 mins read
John Moreland and Dawn Hadley, with Ashley Tuck and Milica Rajic
White Rose University Press, £35
ISBN 978-1912482283
Review Richard Hodges

Sheffield Castle is a rare archaeological treat put together by a university team working with local authorities and professional archaeologists. It is about a place that has topographical and historical meaning thanks to recent well-designed rescue excavations and sleuth-like digging into myriad archives. More than this, it is a book that lends a new and, in these times, much-needed identity to a great Yorkshire city that – apart from avant-garde musical bands and the odd film like The Full Monty (1997) – has been struggling to come to terms with its post-industrial history.

Beautifully illustrated, this book sets out to define the origins of this great if enigmatic castle, its form, its estates, and, for Tudor buffs, a celebrated episode when Mary, Queen of Scots, was ‘in residence’. The first image of the castle is on Gough’s Map of c.1360 when, together with a church, it amounted to Sheffield. Whether it had Anglo-Saxon antecedence is a matter of debate. The property itself is likely to have a Norman-period fort that, by the age of Edward I, was a worthy peer of the Welsh castles of Conwy and Harlech. This may explain why Elizabeth I in the 1560s chose it as a prison for her Scottish cousin. Little under a century later, it passed between Royalist and Parliamentarian hands in the English Civil War before being deemed untenable (as a stronghold) by the House of Commons in 1646. A slew of documents, besides the evidence of the new excavations, reveal how in 1649, along with Pontefract Castle and Montgomery Castle (Powys), the great fortress was comprehensively demolished at a cost of £208 8s 8d. A century later, as depicted on Ralph Gosling’s detailed early city map, the castle had been reduced to open ground overlooking the rivers Don and Sheaf. Slaughterhouses were then erected over part of the earlier fortress. In 1819, Sheffield’s first antiquarian, Joseph Hunter, lamented ‘the once proud castle… was but a heap of shapeless ruins, every year doing something to complete the destruction which the axe of violence had begun.’ Just over a century later, the (local) Hunter Archaeological Society, prompted by the intention to build the Brightside and Carbrook Co-op here, appointed A Leslie Armstrong to pursue salvage excavations. With these assiduously managed excavations began the story that forms the heart of this book, bringing it up to the present day.

No less fascinating than the rich topographical story and material remains is the role of local archaeologists and Sheffield City Museum staff in helping to make sense of this history. In particular, the chapter on the ‘gifted amateur’ Leslie Armstrong’s pioneering investigations in the later 1920s is surely one of the most original pieces of research on British archaeology in years, closely paralleling – it appears from these pages – what R E M Wheeler and the London Museum were famously doing in the capital.

The most-rewarding section of Sheffield Castle is devoted to a social history of the later industrial city, when it was the steel capital of the world. Looking positively towards the future – in regeneration – the book closes with the plans to explore new media to situate the castle’s story in the contemporary civic mind. Its regeneration is being tied to business ventures and new community action groups, echoing Armstrong’s support a century ago. The authors conclude: ‘we very much hope that the knowledge of the past, and the lessons to be learned from it… will help to fill that space with an iconic development that contributes to the future vitality and identity of the city, as the castle itself once did.’

This book illustrates the impact archaeological research in archives and trenches can have on a great city, helping create a purpose for a viable post-industrial future. Were prizes offered for impact in archaeology, this project and book would be a winner, surely a scintilla of hope for university departments of archaeology in an otherwise uncertain future.


This review appeared in CA 372To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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