BOLINGBROKE CASTLE is down a narrow country lane in a sleepy village in Lincolnshire. The only sound in the spring sunshine is the bleating of sheep grazing among the ruins. You would not think of it as the birthplace of a king of England. Yet in 1366 John of Gaunt’s son Henry was born here. In the middle ages it was common for someone to take the name of the place where he was born. John of Gaunt himself took his name from Ghent (called Gaunt in the 14th century) in modern day Belgium where he was born, and his son took the name Bolingbroke. When he came to the throne in 1399 he was known simply as Henry IV. He was the last member of his dynasty to live at Bolingbroke Castle, and he did so only as a child.
The castle in its present shape was built around the time of King John by Ranulph de Brundevil, Earl of Linoln. It passed to the House of Lancaster about a century later. John of Gaunt was a member of the House of Lancaster. He was a powerful man in the kingdom. He was a younger son of Edward III, and was prominent in the government during Richard II ‘s minority. He was extremely wealthy, being the owner of over a dozen castles around the country, of which Bolingbroke was just one. He was born in 1340, the younger brother of the Black Prince who was heir to the throne. Edward Prince of Wales predeceased his father however, and his young son Richard inherited the throne on his grandfather’s death. This left John of Gaunt in the influential position of Regent to this young king. It was a difficult time for the country, coinciding with the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt.
John of Gaunt was the brother-in-law of Geoffrey Chaucer. He took as his 3rd wife his long-term mistress who was the sister of Philippa Chaucer, the poet’s wife. He was a supporter of the religious reformer John Wycliffe who was in many ways the herald of the Reformation. John of Gaunt died in 1399 and within the year his son had himself proclaimed king. Richard II had a troubled reign and had become increasingly unpopular. He was imprisoned by Henry and was almost certainly later killed by Henry IV’s supporters. Henry IV had a 14 year reign. Unlike his father he was an orthodox supporter of the church and it was under him that the burning of the Lollards (Wycliffe’s followers) became widespread. There is still a part of Norwich called Lollard’s Pit where these heretics were put to death; it was later known as The Nest, pre-war home of Norwich City Football Club.
In its final form the structure of the castle dates from 1220, although it had been fortified centuries earlier. Despite the future Henry IV having been born there Bolingbroke was never used as Royal Residence and fell out of favour and into decay. During the Civil War it was nevertheless garrisoned by Royalists and besieged by the Parliamentarians. In 1643 the Royalists were defeated and it was slighted in 1652.
By 1949 only a few grassy mounds and a duck pond (the remains of the castle moat) could be seen. The ruins still belonged to the Duchy of Lancaster and they placed them in the hands of the Ministry of Works. They restored the remaining ruins to the state in which they now appear. Later the site was transferred to Lincolnshire County Council. It is open to the public who can wander round free of charge.
Bolingbroke was the name of the Norwich solicitor who bought Strangers Hall as his home, and later gave the building to the City as a Museum of Social History. I do not know what connecting he had with the Lincolnshire village, or if he was descended from the House of Lancaster.