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How Lincoln's Stonebow played its part in both local and national history...

By Lincolnshire Echo  |  Posted: January 26, 2013

  • Repairs being made to Lincoln's Stonebow in 1935

  • A bus makes its way through the arch in the 1960s

  • The Guildhall on the top floor of the building has been home to the city’s council for centuries

  • Crowds celebrating the new year in 1958

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At the centre of Lincoln stands the Stonebow, a quiet monument to our long past. Many of us regularly walk by, but perhaps fail to notice its ancient architecture. James Baggley takes a look at its significance in our local and national history...


In these busy times it is perhaps not always possible to take a few minutes to stand back and admire its weathered facade but next time you walk past, stop and take a moment to really look at the Stonebow.

You will be in good, and not so good company as you pass beneath its arches. Kings and prisoners have walked this way. In 1541, Henry VIII and Catherine Howard passed through it on their way to the Bishops Palace, where Catherine allegedly committed one of the "indiscretions" that later led to her execution.

Richard II and his Queen passed under the Stonebow on a visit to Lincoln in 1387. He was rallying support in his struggle against the Lancastrian faction.

Richard's sword was presented to the city and is now on display in the Guildhall treasury. It is part of what is believed to be one of the most important civic collections outside of London.

The Stonebow must have made an impression, as in 1390 it was Richard II who ordered the city to construct a new gate, as the medieval gate was in a dire state of repair. It took more than a hundred years to complete but the history of the Stonebow goes much further back than the Middle Ages.

The name Stonebow comes from "stennibogi", a Norse word meaning stone arch. As far as we know there has been a building on the site of the Stonebow on Lincoln's High Street since the Romans put a gate there in the 2nd century.

The original Roman structure consisted of the main gateway in the southern wall of the lower town, through which traffic from the south would enter the settlement. It was probably similar in style to the Newport Arch at the top of Bailgate.

After the Romans left Britain in the 5th century, the gatehouse continued to be used.

In 1237, probably due to its central location, it became the Lincoln Guildhall, a meeting place for the local governors of the city. Before that date there was another Guildhall in the city, although its whereabouts are unknown.

At this time the Stonebow was also used as a courtroom to hear disputes brought by local folk against their neighbours and to hear criminal cases when the king's judges visited the city on assizes.

When Richard II decreed that a new gatehouse had to be built in 1390, public funds were raised but the monies were misused and it was not until 1520 that a new gate was finally built by William Spencer. He was a freemason of the city of Lincoln, and is responsible for the structure that we see today.

If you look at the south-facing front of the Stonebow you will see carvings of the Virgin Mary (patron saint of Lincoln and its cathedral) and the Angel Gabriel on either side of the main arch.

These are thought to be original. The carving of the arms of King James I, also on the south face, are believed to have been added in 1617 for his visit to the city. The clock set into the crenellated top of the south and north fronts of the building dates from 1888. This replaced an earlier clock which dated from 1835.

While the present structure is a gatehouse, there do not appear to have been any doors to impede access through its arches. There is, however, evidence to suggest that the central arch would have been barred to carriages and horses by a locked chain across its width, forcing all such vehicles and travellers to stop and state their business before being allowed to proceed into the city.

The eastern wing of the Stonebow was used as the city prison until 1586, when the facility was moved to an adjacent building.

In the Stonebow there were four rooms where prisoners were kept – two at ground level, for male and female debtors, and two dungeons below ground, for male and female felons.

As was customary at the time, debtors had to pay the gaoler for their keep. They did better than the felons in the dungeons below as they could access passers-by through two small unglazed ground floor windows which looked out upon the street. Through this, debtors could beg for money, food and drink and their family and friends would pass items through the bars to them. The prison was located in the Stonebow as it afforded close access to the courts being held in the Guildhall above.

It had a terrible reputation, even at a time when prisons generally were of a very poor standard.

It has been called by various authors of the time both "a loathsome place", "a disgrace to humanity" and "the worst in the kingdom".

One visitor described the prisoners as half-starved, half-suffocated and in a state of continual intoxication.

The prison next door to the Stonebow was finally closed in 1809, four years after a new prison had been opened in Lindum Road. In 1842 this building was demolished and the east wing we see today was built in its place, in a style sympathetic to the existing structure. There is a bell housed on the roof of the Stonebow called the Mote Bell which dates from 1371. This bell is used to call councillors to their meetings and is the oldest of its kind in the country. It still rings today.

The Guildhall on the top floor of the building has been home to the city administration for many centuries. It comprises several rooms, the biggest of which is the council chamber.

This room has windows looking out to both the north and south and is covered by a marvellous oak beamed ceiling, the timber having come from Sherwood Forest, which in the Middle Ages was much larger and so would have been much closer to Lincoln than it is today.

In the centre of the room there is a large oak table around which are arranged 22 tilting seats. These are occupied by the city councillors when council meetings take place. The western end of the room contains a raised dais on which the Mayor sits when the council is in session.

It also contains further seating originally occupied by the city Aldermen but now used by the council's committee chairpersons. In the council chamber is displayed the portraits of King George III, Queen Victoria, and Sir Francis Hill, who was mayor of the city from 1945 to 1946.

When the council is in session the mayor sits in his grand chair behind the mayor's mace. This large and impressive piece of elaborate silver gilt dates to around 1660 and is carried before the mayor on all ceremonial occasions – it is present at all meetings at which the mayor is present.

Behind the chamber there is an inner chamber which was originally used as a meeting room for senior councillors and aldermen in advance of official sessions of council.

This room contains many interesting historical artefacts, including two metal Armada chests with highly intricate locking mechanisms.

These chests would have been used to store money and valuable documents, such as royal charters relating to the powers of the city council. The inner chamber again has an impressive oak timber ceiling that dates back to 1691.

In the eastern wing of the Guildhall is situated the Mayor's Parlour, where she receives important guests and where she robes before attending official council meetings.

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4 comments

  • MrAWG45  |  January 27 2013, 7:08AM

    "When Richard II decreed that a new gatehouse had to be built in 1390, public funds were raised but the monies were misused" I bet that wasn't the first time that happened and certainly won't be the last.

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  • bill2b  |  January 26 2013, 9:54PM

    It has been called by various authors of the time both "a loathsome place", "a disgrace to humanity" and "the worst in the kingdom". Its a pity todays prison is not like this these days it might deter the regulars from going back

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  • Phil1W  |  January 26 2013, 2:26PM
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  • Phil1W  |  January 26 2013, 2:24PM

    Just one small thing to point out. The picture of the bus coming through the Stonebow was pre 60s if my eyesight is telling me the right thing. It looks as though the fleet number is 23 which means the registration number is DFE 383 and unusually for Lincoln corporation busses IS a Guy Arab 3 with a Park Royal body. No23 was withdrawn from service in 1959 carrying this type of radiator. But in 1961 she returned to service but carrying an air cooled Ruston Hornsby engine and a completely different looking radiator front, for those that don't know, the same as it is today. For more information on this bus and to even find where and how you could get a ride on it go to the Lincolnshire Vintage Vehicle Society website and look at the vehicle list and open day dates. The website address is http://tinyurl.com/aj8umnr The museum is on Whisby Road.

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