Friday, May 19, 2017

Exploring the Archives: Sheffield Castle - the city’s lost landmark

Artist's impression of Sheffield Castle in 1060
Students in the School of English at the University of Sheffield are provided with the opportunity of taking a work placement as part of their degree programme.  This year Mollie Littlewood is working with us at Sheffield City Archives and Local Studies Library.  She is writing a series of blog posts highlighting the city’s fascinating archival treasures. This week she took a walk down to Castlegate to try and better understand a document she found in the archives...
Map data copyright 2017 Google
On the site next to Wilkinson's, Castle Market stood from 1965 to 2015; it was named after the building that was once in its place. Over 900 years ago on this same spot next to the River Don, the first earth and timber castle was constructed by William De Lovetot. This wooden castle, along with most of the town was destroyed by John de Eyvill’s forces in 1266. King Henry III granted permission for it to be rebuilt in stone in 1270, and this stone castle formed the centre of the structure which survived until the 17th century.

Plan of Sheffield Castle about 1700 (drawn
in the 1930s)
Sheffield Archives holds a document dated 16th November 1586 which details the inventory of armour held at the castle at that time. According to the document the castle held various weapons and pieces of armour. These included pistols, firearms, muskets and haldberds (a combination of spear and battleaxe). The castle stored armour for the horsemen and footmen which included ‘Jacks and plat coattes’ which were a sleeveless coat or tunic worn by foot soldiers and coats of plate armour, a kind of light armour first used in Germany called ‘Almann Revett’. There were also pieces of armour for protecting specific parts of the body;
Gorget - a piece of armour for the throat
Curiass of proof - a piece of armour consisting of breast and back plate made of tested metal
Morryan - a kind of helmet without beaver or visor 
Poldrens’ - shoulder plates
Scules’ - skull caps made of metal
Splents’ - overlapping pieces of steel in armour often used for the knee and elbow to give flexibility
Vambracis’ - a piece of armour protecting the forearm from the elbow to the wrist.

Sheffield Castle excavations recorded by J.B. Himsworth.
Shoe found in Castle Moat.
Western Park Museum exhibits items from the Sheffield Castle including fragments of jugs, cooking pans and plates that would have been used by ordinary people. The museum also has items that would have been found in the castle armoury including stone and iron cannonballs, a lead musket ball and an iron spur that would have been worn by the horsemen.

Inventory of armour at Sheffield Castle
dating from 1586 (Sheffield Archives)
Despite the Castle’s vast armoury, this did not prevent it being severely damaged in a parliamentary siege during the English Civil War in August 1644. The castle was able to withstand the siege for several days because of its 18 feet deep moat and walls that were two yards thick. However, two larger cannons were brought in and caused major damage to the castle walls.

Two years later on 30th April 1648 the House of Commons resolved that Sheffield Castle should be made untenable. The order was carried out that same year and the stone and various effects were sold to local people for building material, meaning that the body of Sheffield Castle is perhaps still standing in fragments and spread across the city.

Stones from Sheffield Castle
The document detailing the inventory of armour at Sheffield Castle is also fascinating in itself. It is now over 400 years old. There is evidence of where the edges have at one time been folded and pieces have been ripped away. However the ink has not faded and the writing is still clear, although the style of handwriting is difficult to read.

The handwriting used in this document is a specific style of handwriting that was developed in the 16th century because of the new diversity of uses for writing. What was demanded was ‘a universally acceptable style - one which could be written quickly and read everywhere without difficulty - a handwriting for the ordinary man.’ Of course this handwriting is now practically illegible to the 21st century lay person, however at the time it was introduced to create a standard handwriting that did not represent an individual, as handwriting normally does, but that looked consistent whoever was writing it. This type of handwriting was called ‘Secretary’. There were three types of Secretary handwriting; engrossing, upright and sloped. Sloped style had no consistency between the different letters and it was influenced by the consistent slope of italic hand. Engrossing secretary, or ceremonious hand, had regularity in design, a consistent uprightness, absence of linking strokes between the letters and a contrast between different strength of strokes.
Read today some of the letters can be mistaken for a different letter, for example the e and the c in upright secretary look very similar. The letter h bears no resemblance to the way we write the letter h today, but looks closer to the letter g or S as it begins with a loop and is finished off with a deep curving swirl underneath. The letter p is written in one continuous action and often looks like an x. The letters a, c, and g are sometimes begun with ‘a long straight stroke, inclined to the right and rising high above the line of writing’. The letters can be difficult to distinguish from one another making the handwriting difficult to read.
Coloured reconstruction of the castle (from Brightside
and Carbrook Co-operative Society Annual Report 1968)
Although at first glance this document looks impossible to engage with, when you begin to learn about the style of handwriting and how the different letters are formed it becomes slightly clearer. I know I felt an achievement when I began to recognise and was able to read these 400 year old letters and words within the document. Along with the incredibly helpful transcription this document detailing the inventory of armour in Sheffield Castle in 1586 is a gateway into exploring the inner workings of the castle, but also a glimpse into 16th century life in this city.

Mollie Littlewood

The Inventory of armour in Sheffield Castle, 1586 is available to view at Sheffield Archives upon request.  Please quote the reference number: JC/919.  A transcript is available on the Archives catalogue:
For more information on the Sheffield Castle site see:

For a full list of sources at Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library relating to Sheffield Castle, see our comprehensive Study Guide: