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  • Writer's pictureDoug Chapman, MA

A Brief History of Castle Hill in Cambridge

What is Castle Hill?

Castle Hill is a grassy hill in Cambridge where the city’s medieval castle once stood.

Castle hill Cambridge

Onewhohelps at en.wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Castle Hill History

The mound visible here is all that remains of the site of Cambridge Castle, the principal fortification of the city in the Middle Ages and a major location for centuries afterwards. It occupies one of the oldest inhabited parts of Cambridge and overlooks the original crossing point of the river at the modern Magdalene Bridge. It’s a reminder of a period in which the city was an important trading crossroads and market town with a high strategic value, and speaks to the importance of the often neglected military history of Cambridge.

The mound is the highest point in this famously flat city, and today its principal use is to offer one of the most pleasant views of Cambridge available. Looking across the river over Magdalene College, you can spot King’s Chapel and the University Library in the distance, and gain an appreciation of the overall layout of the city centre. The hill stands adjacent to a quiet little park set away from the crowds of central Cambridge, and few signs of its former grandeur remain. This hill has watched over the city since before the university was established and the skyline grew ever more crowded with the spires of new colleges and churches. It offers a direct link to a Cambridge that would have looked very different from the city we know today.

View of Cambridge from Castle Mound

Cmglee, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The original castle was constructed here by William the Conqueror in 1068 near existing Anglo-Saxon fortifications. The castle was expanded by King John but later captured by the rebelling barons in the First Barons’ War, although it held out against them under Henry III in the subsequent Second Barons’ War. Henry reinforced the castle with a large ditch and used it as a military base, but it was under Henry’s son, Edward I, that the castle reached its zenith. He embarked on a project of modernisation and expansion, but his plans for it were never fully achieved and the building later fell into neglect and disrepair. It was described as a ruin by the 15th century, and some of its stone was eventually used in the construction of colleges like King’s, Trinity and Magdalene. The castle had a final role to play when it was refortified under Oliver Cromwell in 17th century as a stronghold in the then solidly Parliamentarian city of Cambridge, but it has since been reduced solely to the hill, to the view that it continues to command, and to the echoes of its past.

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