Cambridge has three council wards whose name means “castle”. The Welsh word for Cambridge means “Castle on the Granta”. We have a Castle Hill. There is a Castle Pub.
A reasonable question for any visitor to ask would be: “where the fuck has the castle gone?”
But you won’t find it – because our castle is actually a mound. The Castle fell over and we stopped rebuilding it. That’s because it’s a lovely mound but it was a fucking awful Castle.
When our local heritage industry talks about the Castle we mostly talk about the view (which in practice is to talk about everything in Cambridge except the castle).
This is a shame. Our Castle is something unique.
Cambridge Castle is the worst Castle that has ever been built in the history of the world.
Did you know that our Castle was successfully captured 100% of the times it was attacked?
And that’s not even what makes it the worst Castle. It fails by every possible metric you could conceivably use to measure a Castle.
Firstly let’s look at the location.
Castle Hill is the highest point above sea level in the city – so the top of Castle Hill seems like an obvious place to build a castle. It IS a great place to build a castle. Or I suppose it is – we’ll never know because the Norman’s decided that “half way up castle hill” was the more obvious location to build one.
In their defence they were probably just following the desire-path of history. The Romans had a fort there and so too the Anglo-Saxons. But the Roman fort extended from the top of the hill to the bottom and followed an obvious logic (they could see the whole area AND project military control over the river AND protect the town which was inside the walls). The Roman fort was also never supposed to withstand a serious siege. The town of Duroliponte was, at best, the Roman equivalent of a motorway service station.
AND when the Romans abandoned it and left the sub-Roman Britons in charge, it immediately fell to East Angles.
Who built a fort that Immediately fell to the Mercians.
Who lost it to the Danes.
(Because 100% of the times it was attacked – it fell.)
But the Normans just went right ahead and built a castle there anyway.
It (and the town) were then sacked in 1088 by Robert of Normandy.
And again by Geoffrey de Mandville during the Anarchy.
The town was successfully sacked during *both* Barons Wars (in which it was discovered the Castle was so far away from the town that you could burn the whole of Cambridge without ever coming within range of the defenders arrows).
Now a historian might say that I’m being unfair and deliberately misunderstanding the point of the Castle. The primary function of a Norman castle was not to defend the town – but to police it. They built a castle halfway up the hill and outside the city gates in order to control the Anglo-Saxons.
And that strategy was about as effective as most bike-locks in Cambridge. In 1381 the peasants ransacked the town, released prisoners from the gaol (which was inside the castle), pillaged several colleges, Barnwell Priory, and burned all the books they could find. The Sheriff of Cambridge was powerless to stop them (or possibly on holiday) and eventually the Bishop of Norwich had to come and put down the revolt.
The other function of the castle was supposed to be as luxury accommodation for the King. Who visited once – complained that it smelt of horses – and then stayed in Barnwell Priory or a College on every subsequent visit.
When Cromwell fortified the city he destroyed all the bridges apart from Clare Bridge (notable for being nowhere near the fucking castle). There’s some speculation as to why he thought this minor bridge next to a college would be an easier place to mount a defence than his castle – but the answer is obvious:
Cambridge Castle is the worst Castle in the world.
Cromwell did garrison men in the castle - they almost starved to death despite the fact that the castle was never attacked and wasn’t under siege.
It then enjoyed a brief afterlife as a gaol (from which prisoners frequently escaped) and is now the site of the city council offices.
Which is appropriate because the Castle in Cambridge has never been a symbol of Royal power and untouchable authority. It is no Tower of London. It is a symbol of bumbling ineptitude, short-sightedness, and a perennial ongoing shambles.
It is a symbol of freedom.
A spot where you can see the whole city and meditate on the fact that ours is a civilisation predicated on bungling incompetence. Where we survive by happy accident – and no force manages to suppress us for long.
It isn’t just a nice view. It is a constant reminder that authority is a bit of a joke – and our city largely ploughs on anyway.
It’s a great place to feel at peace with the fact that the current occupants of the site cannot make the local transport work.
It isn’t just a nice view. It’s the Worst Castle in the World. We should be proud.