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This afternoon, thanks to Heritage Open Days and Wisbech Town Council, I had the opportunity to pay my first visit to Wisbech Castle, which is arguably the single most important recusant site in England – yet also one of the most overlooked. Today, Wisbech Castle is unrecognisable as a castle from the outside; the building known as the castle is a large Regency villa built by Joseph Medworth in 1816, at the centre of an elegant circle of Georgian houses. However, in the garden of Medworth’s villa are vaults that pre-date the Regency house and survive, at least in part, from the castle that preceded it. The original castle was founded by William the Conqueror and later passed into the possession of the bishops of Ely. Bishop John Morton began rebuilding the castle, which had fallen into disrepair, in 1478, and it was the castle built by Morton and his successor John Alcock which became the Elizabethan and Jacobean government’s principal prison for captured missionary priests from 1581. This was because Wisbech was then an isolated island between the Fens and the Wash, located in a staunchly Protestant area. Back in 2015, in an article for the Wisbech Society, I determined that at least 111 Catholic prisoners were confined at Wisbech, most of them priests. I also wrote about Wisbech Castle in this 2015 article for the Cambridge Antiquarian Society.
Wisbech Castle was the prison of Thomas Watson (1515-84), bishop of Lincoln, who was the last bishop in England still in communion with the Apostolic See at the time of his death in captivity. Other famous prisoners included the last abbot of Westminster, John Feckenham (d. 1584), the Jesuit leader William Weston (c. 1550-1615) and his opponent Christopher Bagshawe (1552-c. 1625). The conflict between Weston and Bagshawe and their respective supporters split the Catholic church in England and was known as the ‘Wisbech Stirs’, with Weston’s supporters advocating the Jesuit policy of no compromise with the Protestant regime while Bagshawe’s supporters sought limited toleration for Catholics. The government’s policy of confining priests at Wisbech in order to isolate them backfired, however, since lay people constantly travelled to Wisbech to receive instruction in the Catholic faith from the priests, including young men intent on training for the priesthood themselves. Notoriously, the priests converted some of the local people, and local people conspired to assist the escape of several priests. The prison had become an unofficial seminary.
Today, unfortunately, the vaults were not open (although I was able to take a photo from the entrance). However, I was able to see one remarkable relic of the medieval castle, a jumble of stained glass fragments set in a modern window of the Regency villa that apparently come from the castle chapel. Most of the fragments are pieces of architectural frames, along with a number of heads of angels. However, one fragment depicts hands holding the crowned head of a king while another (apparently depicting a stained glass window within a window) features the emblem of St Edmund (crossed arrows behind a crown). Yet another fragment appears to show a man in a boat holding an axe. It seems highly probable that these are all part of a window that originally depicted scenes from the life of St Edmund – specifically, the arrival of the Danes and the miraculous rejoining of Edmund’s head and body after the discovery of the martyr’s head. A display at the castle suggests that the chapel may have been dedicated to St Edmund, and while this may be a little too much to claim on the basis of the evidence, there was clearly a cult of St Edmund associated in some way with the castle. It is interesting to speculate on whether this glass was still in situ in a chapel at the time when the priests were imprisoned in the castle, and whether they looked at it and identified their own plight with the sufferings of St Edmund.