The small remains of Melbourne Castle are at the east end of the town, opposite the end of Potter Street, on a site known as Castle Farm. They consist simply of a piece of ruined wall and the semi-circular foundation of a turret. Traces of possible earthworks beyond are of the slightest character. There seems no reason to believe that there was any kind of defensive castle here prior to the 14th century. (1)
The extant stretch of wall noted by Cox (1) is situated at SK 3889 2522 and attains a maximum height of 5.5m. Foundations exist at SK 3892 2523 but are not recognisable as being associated with a former turret. No earthworks were noted during field investigation. (2)
Castle Farmhouse, its outbuildings and the attached castle walls are listed Grade II. (5)
The known extent of the site of the castle is a scheduled monument known as 'Melbourne Castle fortified manor and earlier medieval manorial remains'. The early 14th century manor was preceded by earlier manor houses dating back to the first half of the 11th century. Although the fortified manor does not survive well as a standing structure, limited excavation carried out in key areas has demonstrated that the buried remains of the manor house and other medieval features are extremely well preserved. This is the case even in areas disturbed by 19th century and later development. Elsewhere, in areas such as Castle Orchard and the gardens and yard of Castle Farm, which have suffered little disturbance since the demolition of the castle in the 16th century, archaeological remains of all periods of occupation are likely to survive intact and in situ. (6)
The castle was probably erected on the site of an earlier manor house, possibly incorporating part of it. It was begun in 1311, when the Earl of Lancaster’s steward, Robert Holland, was granted a licence to crenellate his house. Work probably continued until the execution of the Earl in 1322, at which time ownership of the castle reverted to the crown. Repairs carried out at the end of the 14th century included making windows in the Communal Hall and the Great Chamber, repairing the roof of the Bakehouse with slates, glazing five windows in the Chapel and the Lord’s Closet and repairing a bridge in the castle with new chains. In 1576 it was reported that, although the stonework was in good condition, timber was perished, the lead was thin and full of holes, a stud and plaster kitchen 40ft square was about to collapse and the Privie Kitchen required repairs to slates and to the floor. At around the same time a drawing was made of the castle (reproduced by Melbourne Civic Society 2000). Although it seems fanciful, with numerous chimneys and turrets, comparisons of other castles both surveyed and drawn at the same time suggest the depiction is probably correct in its main features (Usher 1991).
In 1583 a report provides further details on the condition of the castle as follows:
‘Itm. The house is buylded of verie faier ashler covered with lead, with great and spatious roomes, but if an number should be lodged within the same, it will be requisit to make many partitions for the rooms being now great are but few.
Itm. The floures be all of earth and plaister.
Itm. The house being not finished by Thomas Duke of Lancaster whoe buylt the same it is left imperfect at every corner, in such sort as one being upon the leads may as easlie go downe on the outsyde of the house as downe a ladder, which cannot be remedied without great charge.
Itm. There is no base court nor wall about the house so as being out of dors you are in the myre, for it is verie foule and unpleasaunt to walk round about the said house …’ (quoted in Usher 1991).
The castle was surveyed in 1596 to find out whether Francis Needham had taken any materials to build his house. Someone was found to be living in a part of it, but Needham had not broken down any buildings apart from taking 4 or 5 stones from ‘a place which stood like a bar’. A survey the following year found that the castle was being used as a cattle pound. Following its sale in 1604, the castle began to be stripped of its materials. Building accounts for 1629 include ‘getting stone at the Castle in the Foundations’, suggesting that all good quality above ground stone had gone by that time, at least some of it going to build other houses in Melbourne, as well as Melbourne iron furnace (Usher 1991).
A single building is depicted on the site on an early 17th century map, the rest of the area being shown as ‘Castle Orchard’. The building is assumed to represent Castle Farmhouse, now a Grade II listed building. By the late 18th century Castle Orchard had been divided into a number of fields or plots and buildings had been erected on the street frontage. Further development had taken place by 1840, in the form of Castle Mills. Old castle masonry is said to have been used for some of the factory and for three cottages which stood along the Castle Square frontage. (7)