The Castles that held Magic at Bay

The excitement of Halloween has quickly set upon us at the Castle Studies Trust, and we thought we would explore the connection between witchcraft and castles. Castles have a long history as the walls that confined accused witches; the prisons that kept their magic at bay.

Grab your brooms and cauldrons, we are headed to Leeds Castle in Kent. Leeds Castle was famously purchased by Queen Eleanor of Castile, wife of King Edward I, in 1278. The queen enhanced its defences and possibly commissioned the lake that surrounds the residence. In 1321, the castle saw military action when it was captured by the forces of Edward II from Margaret de Clare, Baroness Badlesmere. The winter of 1381 witnessed Anne of Bohemia, Richard II’s first wife, stay at the castle on her way to her wedding. The castle, thus, had a long history of the seat of female agency and power. It was not until the fifteenth century that the castle was used to enclose and suppress queenly authority.

Joan of Navarre, Queen of England and wife of Henry IV is the only queen of England to be imprisoned for witchcraft. In the autumn of 1419, the duke of Bedford and Henry V’s council reported a case of suspected witchcraft in the highest possible circles. Queen Joan was accused ‘of compassing the death and destruction of our lord the king in the most treasonable and horrible manner that could be devised’.[1] The queen along with her confessor, John Randolf, a friar of Shrewsbury, had according to contemporary chroniclers dabbled in sorcery and necromancy. The royal court and much of the public opinion quickly became ‘feverish with rumours of witchcraft’.[2] Queen Joan was imprisoned for nearly three years, and all her servants and property were taken from her. She was first imprisoned in Pevensey Castle in Sussex and in the last two years of her house arrest she appears to have been kept at Leeds Castle.

Leeds Castle in Kent, photo by Chensiyuan, licensed CC by-SA 4.0

Although imprisoned in the castle, Queen Joan’s surviving household accounts detail the purchase of luxury items, including minever and other furs, tartarin, silk laces, ords, and thread, sindon and Flanders linen.[3] The cash flow in the household accounts has led Alec Myers to conclude that these surely shows that the king did not believe that she had been practicing witchcraft in a treasonous way. The move to accuse and imprison Queen Joan had its obvious political and financial advantages for the king. Indeed, with the accusations of witchcraft the king was able seize all her possessions and revenues. Nevertheless, Queen Joan paid the price of her freedom for the accusation, whether it was false or not. The crime of witchcraft was used – in this particular instance – for the political manoeuvring of powerful men and the castle walls were meant to ensure the enclosure of a powerful woman.

Two of the Pendle witches, tried at Lancaster in 1612, in an illustration from William Harrison Ainsworth’s 1849 novel The Lancashire Witches. From Wiki Commons.

From Leeds Castle, we move to Lancaster Castle; a castle with medieval origins was used as a prison starting in at least the Tudor period. Nearly two centuries after Queen Joan was imprisoned, a castle would again contain the power of witches. In 1612, ten people convicted of witchcraft were held in Lancaster Castle soon to be facing the gallows. Their crimes included laming, causing madness and what was termed ‘simple’ witchcraft as well as sixteen unexplained deaths stretching back decades. Those accused included members of two major families which were headed by older widows, including Elizabeth Southernes and her two children, Elizabeth and James, and Anne Whittle and her daughter Anne Redfearne. Others were dragged into the affair: John and Jane Bulcock (a mother and son) Alice Nutter, Margaret Pearson, and Katherine Hewitt were all also involved in the trial as co-conspirators.

A watercolour by Thomas Hearne from 1778 of the west of Lancaster’s keep. The round tower next to the keep was demolished in 1796. From Wiki Commons.

Five of the ten people were tried at the castle itself with Judge Bromley presiding, accompanied by Judge Altham. The judges were assisted by Lord Gerard and Sir Richard Hoghton. The prosecutor was a former high sheriff of Lancashire, Roger Nowell, and the clerk of the court was Thomas Potts of London. A year later, Thomas Potts published his account of these events in a book entitled: The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster. Potts chose to dedicate his book to Lord Knyvett, the man who had arrested Guy Fawkes in 1605; the Gunpowder Plot still a fresh memory for many across the country. The political and religious atmosphere played a clear role in the prosecutions and convictions of those imprisoned in Lancaster Castle in 1612.

The Wonderfvll Discoverie of Witches in the Covntie of Lancaster by Thomas Potts (1613). From Wiki Commons.

The Pendle witch trials, like the imprisonment of Queen Joan, were bound up in the political, religious, and economic turmoil of the period. The role that the castle played in these persecutions may seem minimal at first glance; however, the power and significance that they held in these situation needs further investigation. The stone walls were thought strong enough to contain the magic that these people were accused of conjuring and that in itself is telling in terms of the force castles held in the minds of society. Castles did not only need to keep people out, but they were also used to keep people – and magic – from escaping.


[1] Rot. Parl., IV. 1186.

[2] Chronicles of London, ed. by C.L. Kingsford (Oxford, 1905), p. 73; Chronicle of London, 1089-1483, ed. by N.H. Nicolas and E. Tyrell (London, 1827), p. 107.

[3] See ‘The Captivity of a Royal Witch’ for the printed household account.

The art of the reconstruction

When walking round ruined castles, it can be difficult to picture how they once were. There may be missing floors, the roofs aren’t the same, and entire buildings might have vanished. Even when a structure appears to survive intact, we are usually missing the interior – how it was decorated, the furniture, even how light changed throughout the day.

Reconstructions are a wonderful tool for bringing castles back to life. This year, the Castle Studies Trust is funding one such reconstruction. Chris Jones-Jenkins is helping us understand how Ruthin Castle would have looked. You might recognise his name from 2015, when he worked on one of our very first projects, the digital model of Holt Castle, or from his various work with Cadw and English Heritage.

We caught up with Chris to learn a bit about what goes into these illustrations and how he got into reconstructions. Older illustrations, like those done by Alan Sorrell decades ago, were done by hand while a lot of reconstructions today are done on a computer. Chris has experience of both, and they are very different processes. When working by hand, you need to start off by choosing your viewpoint and deciding what it is you’re going to show. With a digital reconstruction, you have the option to change the position of where you’re looking from. Chris reconstructs everything in the image and the viewpoint might be the last thing to be settled. With Holt for example, if that had been reconstructed 20 years ago the viewpoint would have been one of the first things decided – what to show, what to discreetly tuck away, and how to balance highlighting everything you want. Instead, as Chris created the whole thing digitally it was possible to use the model to create a flythrough video.

A plan of Ruthin Castle from Thomas Pennant’s 1781 edition of ‘A Tour of Wales’, from the collection of the National Library of Wales. Image in the public domain.

A wealth of information goes into reconstructions. For Holt and Ruthin, any standing remains are taken into account and modelled, while historical evidence such as paintings or documents are used to fill in the gaps where parts of the structure are missing. Chris trained as an architect and early in his career so has an eye for how buildings are put together, complimenting his skill as an artist and years of experience with historic buildings. Will Davies and Sian Rees have been helping with the research into Ruthin Castle and how it appeared, giving Chris the best information possible to work from. There was a survey of the curtain wall, but done to the wrong scale, which kept the team on their toes.

Working with some kinds of source material you get a feel for how useful and accurate it is. For instance, in the 17th century Randle Holme made some useful plans of Holt Castle in pen and ink. He also created a view of Ruthin Castle, but for some reason his work here wasn’t as reliable. The test is that the parts of the castle that still survive weren’t well illustrated by Holme, so his work needs to be used carefully.

A lot of time and effort goes into reconstructions. It can take over six months from start to finish, with drafting, redrafting, tinkering with details, and pausing to research a particular feature or issue. Over this time, the reconstruction grows from a plain model to a textured, colourful building. Reconstructions have an element of educated guesswork, but attention to detail is important. If you misstep and include something not appropriate for the period there are eagle-eyed heritage lovers who spot this kind of thing! New information is being uncovered about Ruthin, which directly informs Chris’ work. But there are some questions, like the forms of buildings, which are only likely to be answered by excavation.

Chris has been working on reconstructions since the 1980s, and aside from the change in technology has noticed an interesting trend. Previously, there was often emphasis on showing the structure while more recently the organisations commissions reconstructions want to populate these buildings, showing daily life inside.

Talking to Chris, one thing that cropped up is that reconstruction artists don’t often get to hear what the public think about their work which is a real shame as it can make a world of difference to a site. So when going round a historic site, if you see a reconstruction that captures your imagination or helps you understand the place better, pass on that positive feedback.

The image at the top of this page shows the a work-in-progress version of the reconstruction. Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter so you don’t miss news about the finished reconstruction and our other projects.

An Introduction to the Battle of Hastings

William the Conqueror, 1066, an arrow in the eye. The Battle of Hastings is one of those events that sticks in the mind. It was a defining moment in English history, and without the Normans we wouldn’t have castles dotted up and down the country. So how much do we know about what led to this point, and what happened at Hastings?

Why did William invade England?

The Bayeux Tapestry showing William with the papal banner

The story of the Norman Conquest and the battle of Hastings goes back before 1066. In 1051, Edward the Confessor promised William, Duke of Normandy, that when he died the Norman would become king of England. Harold Godwineson – a powerful Anglo-Saxon earl – met William and swore would recognise the duke’s claim to the English throne when Edward died. But there was a twist still to come. Edward the Confessor fell ill late in 1065, and on his deathbed made Harold his heir. On hearing the news of Edward’s death and Harold’s coronation, William sent a message to the pope, asking for his permission to invade England and take the crown.

The calm before the storm

Chateau de Falaise in Normandy, where William grew up. Photo by Elisa Pictures, licensed CC by NC-ND 2.0.

Harold had fought alongside William and expected the duke to attempt an invasion. The new king of England raised an army in May 1066 and camped in the south of England, ready to fight. With the pope’s support, William built a fleet of ships for his army but bad weather prevented them from crossing the Channel. This delayed the invasion for so long, that in early September Harold disbanded his own fleet of ships.

Everything happens at once

William landed at Pevensey Bay on the morning of 28 September 1066 and fortified the nearby Roman fort. Photo by Richard Nevell, licensed CC by-SA 2.0.

Harold’s younger brother, Tostig, was in exile and had been raiding England. In September he and Harald Hadrada, king of Norway, landed 300 ships in northeast England to claim the English throne. At the battle of Fulford on 20 September they defeated an Anglo-Saxon army led by the earls of Northumbria and Mercia. Harold marched north, and on 25 September faced the invading army at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire. Tostig and the Norwegian king were both killed in the battle, ending in victory for Harold.

While Harold’s army was recovering after a bloody battle and a long march, William’s luck changed. The weather turned, and he set sail across the Channel on 27 September, landing at Pevensey Bay in Sussex on the morning of 28 September. William and his Norman,  French, and Breton soldiers set up camp in the Roman fort at Pevensey. They began raiding the local area which happened to belong to King Harold himself. News of William’s arrival reached Harold in York on 1 October. He reacted to the news (and the insult) by marching back south, going via London to collect more soldiers.

The Battle of Hastings begins

Hastings 2006
William had moved his army from Pevensey to Hastings, a few miles away. On the morning of 14 October 1066, Harold marched his army to the ridge now known as Senlac Hill. He planned to fight on the defensive which suited strength of the shield wall. William’s forces arrived from the south. The two armies, both around 7,000 strong lined up for battle. The sound of trumpets marked the outbreak of fighting, and William made the first move by advancing his foot soldiers up the hill with the cavalry following.

Harold’s army holds strong

Battle of Hsatings 950th anniversary (121)
The shield wall was a fearsome obstacle, and hard to break. Harold’s disciplined army resists William’s first assault. As the first wave retreated, a rumour ran through the Norman ranks that William had been killed. Knowing he had to rally his soldiers or lose the battle, William rode in front of his army and lifted his helmet so they could see he lived.

William takes control

Tapisserie de Bayeux – Scène 55 : le duc Guillaume se fait reconnaître.

Seeing the Normans fall back, part of Harold’s army followed them down the hill, attempting to route them. William managed to bolster his soldiers in time to turn and face the attack coming down the hill. Outnumbered and out of formation, Harold’s men had given up the advantage of the shield wall and were defeated.

Seeing how effective this was in reducing the strength of Harold’s army, William pretended to retreat another two times. The ruse worked each time, giving William the advantage.

Harold’s defeat at Hastings

Battle Abbey Gatehouse
In the midst of the hard fought battle, King Harold was killed. The Bayeux tapestry seems to show that he was hit in the eye by an arrow, while contemporary chroniclers suggest he was hacked down in the fighting. Either way, with their leader and his brothers dead, the Anglo-Saxon army broke.

Afterwards, William marched through southeast England, capturing important towns before arriving in London. He was crowned king of England on Christmas Day 1066 in Westminster Abbey. William ordered the construction of Battle Abbey on the field where he defeated Harold, with the high altar over where Harold fell.

To secure the conquest, William and his supporters built castles across the country, especially in important towns like Lincoln and Norwich to control the area. The Norman Conquest led to the age of the castle in England.

Make your own scene in the style of the Bayeux Tapestry and share it with us on Twitter. If you want more on Hastings and its impact you can read Peter Purton’s blog post or the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’s entries on William and Harold which were used when writing this piece.

Trial trenching at Pembroke Castle

In 2016, geophysical survey by Neil Ludlow and Dyfed Archaeological Trust (DAT) revealed the remains of long-vanished buildings, and other features, at Pembroke Castle. This work would not have been possible without the Castle Studies Trust, which funded the entire project.

Pembroke is famous for its large round keep, built by earl William Marshal, and a complex of other stone buildings is preserved in the inner ward. But the large, outer ward has been an empty space since at least the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, very dry summers had revealed ‘parchmarks’ here, showing that ruined walls lay just below the surface. These showed up particularly well during 2013 when they were photographed by Toby Driver of the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments (Wales), and were published by Toby, with Neil Ludlow, in Archaeology in Wales.

This was the genesis of the current programme of investigation at the castle. The geophysics that followed used a combination of magnetometry, resistivity and Ground Penetrating Radar, to confirm the parchmark evidence and also show that a number of further buildings, and other features, formerly lay in the outer ward. The most exciting of these is a large building which may represent a free-standing, double-winged mansion-house from the late Middle Ages. If so, it would be quite exceptional: grand buildings of this particular kind are unusual in castles, and particularly in outer wards which are normally thought to have contained the more lowly buildings associated with everyday castle life.  It means that the outer ward, at Pembroke, may have been ‘gentrified’ – at least in the fifteenth century. This may make sense of historical accounts which place the birth of the future king Henry VII in the outer ward: it may have occurred within this very building.

What the geophysics and parchmarks seem to show is a large, central hall, flanked by two wings. If the building was anything like others of its kind, one wing will have contained the kitchen and ‘services’ – the buttery and pantry – while the other represented more private accommodation. The outer ward was partly excavated in the 1930s – sadly, without record – but a photograph shows a large, stone-lined pit, apparently leading off the hall, which may be the cess-pit mentioned in an account from the period. A square annexe showed up here in the survey work.

Just inside the castle beside Pembroke’s main gate are parchmarks (where the white tents are). They show the position of a late medieval hall. ©Neil Ludlow

While the results showed what can be achieved through geophysics – and generous grant-aid – their interpretation is, at the moment, still speculation. Only educated guesses can be made about the exact form, date and function of the building. But it has the potential to make a big contribution to the study of castles, and late medieval history, at a national level. So Neil got together with James Meek of DAT to decide how best to get answers to these questions. Only excavation could really provide the answers but, given the sensitivity of the site, which is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and the importance of the building, minimum intervention, for now, was the preferred approach – a small excavation, primarily just to see how much has survived. This was agreed by Cadw, who granted permission for the hand-excavation of two trial trenches, one across the hall and possible cess-pit, the other across one of the wings. Overburden will be removed, and hopefully the remains of the medieval walls, and any floor-surfaces, will be revealed. It is not intended to go down any further – or at least, not in the present project which will effectively be an evaluation.

We also don’t know how much was removed during the 1930s excavation. While we know there must still be walling, as it shows up in the geophysics and parchmarks, it is possible that the medieval floors may have gone. We hope not, and we also hope that the cess-pit wasn’t emptied, as its deposits could contain valuable information on diet, health, bugs and parasites, while finds that are important to us may have been dumped there as rubbish.

Neil and DAT decided once again to approach the Castle Studies Trust who, very generously, again awarded a grant for the work. This will be supported by help in kind from Pembroke Castle Trust. One of the things also missing at Pembroke is a really accurate measured ground plan, with levels, so for the first time a full topographic survey will also be undertaken. We hope the castle can be persuaded to reveal a few more of its secrets.

Possible layout of the winged building in Pembroke’s outer ward,
based on Cothay Manor, Somerset, and others. ©Neil Ludlow

Don’t miss out on more news from our projects. We’ll have regular updates from Pembroke on our social media, and if you haven’t already please subscribe to our quarterly newsletter. We are entirely reliant on donations, so please consider giving to support our work.

How to build your castle

Review of: Charles Phillips, The Medieval Castle. Design, construction, daily life.  Haynes Publishing, 2018.  £22.99.

In the heart of a forest in Burgundy (France) a thirteenth century castle has been rising steadily from the ground since 1997. Guédelon castle was the subject of the BBC series Secrets of the castle in 2015 and, twenty years after construction started, is near completion. This new book describes what was involved in the challenge of creating a medieval castle using the Guédelon experience and relating this to the development of medieval castles in Britain.

The book is beautifully illustrated and succeeds brilliantly in demonstrating medieval building techniques, how the challenges medieval builders faced were overcome with the tools and technology at their disposal, how critical differences in types of soil, stone and timber determined what was used – in short, the great skill acquired by medieval craftsmen and now re-learnt by their modern successors (who operate under professional archaeological supervision). The tools used, the equipment created – such as enormous treadwheel cranes – how stones were cut and carved, mortar manufactured, vaults and windows installed, floors and roofs prepared and put in place: all are superbly explained in word and picture. Plumbing and heating were essential to survival and all are covered here. The daily life of those living in and around a medieval castle is superbly recreated by those working on the project (along with illustrations from medieval manuscripts, many of which will be well known to anyone already familiar with the subject).

One of the workshops where medieval techniques are used. Photo by Jean-Christophe Bruneau, Licensed CC-BY.

Working inwards from the ditch via gate, walls and bailey to the great tower and interior buildings (hall, chapel, chamber etc), Phillips takes the reader through the development of castles in England and Wales (with a rare skip across the Channel to France) between 1066 and the fifteenth century.  His descriptions are largely of well-known major castles (Dover, Tower of London, Chepstow, Edwardian castles in Wales) which are presented with clear plans and excellent photographs. But it is here that I have a problem.

Though the author states that castles were bases and symbols of power and status, he otherwise hardly acknowledges more than twenty years of castle studies that have turned traditional explanations on their head: everything, he states time and again, was done that way for military reasons. While the great tower (keep, donjon) was occasionally used as a last resort defence, it was not built for that purpose. The cross-wall in the keep at Rochester (for example) served as a defence in the final stages of King John’s siege of 1215, but that was not why it was put there. Round towers had (some) defensives advantages over rectangular towers, but that wasn’t the only reason they become fashionable, and even then mainly only in France and England. I could go on.

Despite this weakness, Phillips’ book presents an unequalled description of how thirteenth century castles were designed and erected. Guédelon was based on a style made popular by King Philip Augustus of France. If you can get to visit it, do (though you will compete with thousands of tourists and school visits). If you can’t, this book will tell you all you need to know about it.

Peter Purton (D.Phil, FSA).

Medieval Engineers: history’s forgotten builders

“King Henry II built the great tower at Dover Castle” is the kind of statement you will hear when visiting one of this country’s magnificent fortresses. But the King himself never lifted a single tool to get any castle built. While the hard manual work was done by labourers, and the finer details worked by master stone masons and carpenters hired because of their great skills, the general plan as well as the day to day running of the construction would have been overseen by an engineer-architect. Under Henry II, records survive telling us who they were (in this case, Maurice the engineer) but in most instances they are anonymous.

Dover’s great tower (the tallest building) was constructed by Maurice the engineer for Henry II. Photo by Mark Whibley, licensed CC BY-NC-ND.

This anonymity is not a surprise: the writers of medieval chronicles were interested only in the great who ruled society – kings, bishops, great lords. It was this gap that persuaded me to write my book The Medieval military engineer. From the Roman Empire to the sixteenth century (Boydell Press 2018).

Today, sappers and engineers form a key part of every state’s army, and was also true of imperial Rome. But in medieval times craftsmen were hired to carry out engineering roles and quite often the same people would have many skills, so that alongside building castles they might also design bridges, churches and cathedrals, or oversee the creation of, and sometimes operate, siege weapons. Because they were commoners, and with only a handful of exceptions, their names were not recorded throughout early medieval times. Often we only know them when (like Maurice) records start surviving showing what they were paid for their work. The great lords who also had hands-on military engineering skills were named in history, but were a tiny handful.

Many interesting questions become easier to answer as more records survive, such as how much did these engineers actually know, how they learnt their skills, how knowledge was transmitted across generations, and what part did they play as technology became more sophisticated?

The same skills that St Guthlac used to design and build a chapel (shown above) could be used to build castles.building a chapel. From the British Library’s ‘Guthlac roll’, made in the late 12th or early 13th century. Harley Roll Y.6.

Historians no longer see the years between the end of the western Roman empire and the European renaissance of the fifteenth century as one long period of ignorance, and we are more aware that change and improvement were continuous, witnessed with the development of ever more spectacular cathedrals and castles, but also mundane but vital skills such as bridge and ship building, irrigation schemes, and military equipment such as siege artillery – the trebuchet, taken up across Europe and the Islamic lands during the thirteenth century, was a game-changer, before giving way to gunpowder artillery during the fourteenth.

Change happened because people questioned existing conventions and came up with new ideas, but also because they developed the skills to put them into practice. It is time to give them the credit they are entitled to. Next time you visit a large stone castle, ask not just which lord lived there and paid for it, but who actually designed it, and admire their skills; and if despite its strength it was captured in a siege, who built the wooden engines that do not survive, or who undermined it, which decided the outcome?

Peter Purton, DPhil (Oxon), FSA.

Re-imagining Wressle Castle

Reconstructions are a wonderful tool for showing how places looked in their heyday. I contacted Peter Brears to ask about sharing one of his drawings of Wressle Castle in Yorkshire and he sent this magnificent illustration:

Wressle Castle is a quadrangular stone building. There is a river in the foreground, a village to the right, and gardens next to the castle and behind it.
Wressle Castle by Peter Brears, based on the 2014 survey. Click the image to enlarge.

One of our very first grants supported a survey by Ed Dennison Archaeological Services of the landscape around Wressle. It was more than just a castle, it was practically a palace. Wressle Castle was built for Thomas Percy in the 1390s: he was a royal favourite, and his family was one of the most powerful in northern England.

However, the ruins you can see today are just a small part of the castle which was slighted several time between 1646 and 1650. Peter’s drawing is based on our 2014 survey: you can see the gardens to the north and south of the castle, and in the small strip of land between the moat and castle. The  lower court and village are just to the east. And perhaps best of all, the castle is intact with all four sides.

If you happen to have access to The Archaeological Journal, Peter’s other reconstructions of Wressle are definitely worth a look.

Most importantly, thank you Peter for sharing this drawing, it really brings the castle back to life!

The six projects we’re funding this year

From 15 high quality applications we had to choose which ones we could fund. It certainly wasn’t an easy decision, but we have managed to support six different projects – the most we’ve supported in a single year – with a total of £22,000. You can learn more below, and if you would like to hear about the results when they are ready be sure to sign up to our newsletter.

Old Bolingbroke, Lincolnshire, England

Photo by David Hitchborne, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0.

Bolingbroke Castle was built by the Earl of Chester in the 1220s and Henry IV was born here in 1367. It is unclear how the Rout Yard and Dewy Hill were used, so Heritage Lincolnshire will carry out geophysical surveys at the castle to find out more about the site.

Pembroke, Pembrokeshire, Wales

Photo by ‘Jez‘, licensed CC BY-SA-NC-ND 2.0.

Founded in 1093, Pembroke is the oldest castle out of this year’s projects. Rebuilt by William Marshall, one of the most famous knight of his age, the castle was also the birthplace of Henry VII. Neil Ludlow and James Meek’s project will excavate in the outer ward to find out more about a late medieval hall. We also funded a geophysical survey at the castle in 2016.

Dig It!, castles of southern Scotland

With funding from the Castle Studies Trust Dig It! will be producing a series of eight videos exploring castles in southern Scotland, and sharing them with an online audience. By making it easier to access information about these important historic sites through YouTube and Wikipedia the project aims to inspire the next generation of castle enthusiasts!

Keith Marischal, East Lothian, Scotland


The Castle of Keith belonged to the powerful Keith family. The castle has since been demolished, with some parts built into Keith Marischal House which now stands on the site. Miles Kerr-Peterson and and Rose Geophysical Consultants will be carrying out a geophysical survey to search for the castle’s lost tower and great hall.

Laughton-en-le-Morthen, South Yorkshire, England


The castle is undocumented in medieval sources, but the earthworks of the motte-and-bailey castle are impressive: the motte itself is 9m tall. To find out more about Laughton-en-le-Morthen Castle, Duncan Wright will be carrying out a geophysical and aerial survey.

Ruthin, Denbighshire, Wales

Photo by Eirian Evans, licensed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.

First documented in 1277, Ruthin Castle was controlled by Reginald de Grey in 1282. This once great castle is a ruin today and much in need of interpretation. To help with this, Chris Jones-Jenkins will create a digital reconstruction of Ruthin. Chris also worked on the reconstruction of Holt Castle, which was built around the same time some 18 miles to the east.

Stay in touch!

We will have updates from these projects throughout the year. Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter so you don’t miss out.

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4 women who made their mark on castles

The Barons’ War and Lady Nicolaa de la Haye

King John’s reign is notorious for his disagreements with his barons, leading to the signing of Magna Carta, civil war, and an attempt to Prince Louis of France on the throne. In 1215 Nicolaa de la Haye became castellan of Lincoln Castle, a title previously held by her father. She held the castle for John, and established a truce with one of the rebellious barons when they invaded the town of Lincoln.

King John visited Lincoln in 1216 and Nicolaa asked the king to be relieved of guardianship of the castle, saying that she was too old and wanted to be unburdened by the duty. John valued her staunch support, and declined her request. In fact, on 18 October he made Nicolaa sheriff of Lincolnshire – it was very unusual for a women to have such a position of direct power at the time, and shows how important Nicolaa was to the king’s efforts.

The battle of Lincoln (1217) from Matthew Paris’ Chronica Majora

Though John died on 19 October 1216, the war continued with his supporters fighting for his son, the young King Henry III, while the rebellious barons continued to back the French prince. The war came to a head at the battle of Lincoln on 20 May 1217, resulting in a royalist victory which turned the tide in favour of Henry III. Nicolaa was instrumental in defending Lincoln Castle, but was removed as sheriff just a few days later.

Alice Knyvet stands up to the king

Buckenham Castle lays close to the village of New Buckenham in Norfolk. The circular keep, remains of which are the only surviving building works of the castle, is the earliest known in England dating to c. 1145-50. The castle was demolished in the 1640s by Sir Philip Knyvet, perhaps as a request from Parliament.

The Easter Sepulchre at St Martin’s church in New Buckenham reputedly once contained the remains of Alice Knyvet. Photo by Evelyn Simak, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0.

Contained in the Patent Rolls of King Edward IV’s reign is a story detailing the defence of Bokenham Castle by Alice Knyvet. In 1461, Edward IV claimed Bokenham Castle by virtue of legal inquisition. The castle was, at the time, owned and occupied by John and Alice Knyvet, who did not easily relinquish their estate. The king sent nine commissioners and an escheator to take the castle, possibly knowing that John was away and the castle would be easily handed over.

However, as they approach the outer ward, Alice appeared in the gatehouse tower with the drawbridge raised who kept the castle ‘with slings, parveises, fagots, timber, and other armaments of war’ (CPR, 1461-7, p. 67). We are told that Alice along with William Toby of Old Bokenham, gentleman, and fifty other persons were ‘armed with swords, glaives, bows and arrows’. Alice addressed the commissioners thus:

Maister Twyer ye be a Justice of the Peace. I require you to keep the peace, for I will not leave possession of this castle to die therefor and if ye being to break the peace or make any war to get the place of me, I shall defend me, for liever I had in such wise to die than to be slain when my husband cometh home, for he charged me to keep it (CPR, 1461-7, p. 67).

The narrative described in the Patent Rolls is telling for a number of reasons. Fistly, Alice does not appear to hesitate when royal officials approached her castle demanding that they legally had the right to seize it. Secondly, the fact that the royal commission waited until Alice husband, John, left speaks to their utter miscalculation of her authority and ability to militarily command the battlements. Ultimately, no actual physical fight took place, but Alice’s strategic placement of armed people on the towers meant the castle, at least, appeared to be well defended.

Queen Mary takes control

James II and Queen Mary

Though little remains of Roxburgh, in the Middle Ages it was one of the most important castles in Scotland. King David I ruled Scotland from here and it changed hands several times during the wars between England and Scotland. In 1460 King James II besieged the English-held Roxburgh in an attempt to capture the castle. He died when a cannon he was stood next to exploded. The gun might have been fired to mark Queen Mary’s arrival.

Mary took charge of the siege and summoned her young son to be present when the castle fell. The Scots captured the castle they chose to demolish it. James II’s prize had come at too high a price. The 9-year-old James III was too young to rule on his own so Mary was the power behind the throne for the next few years until her death in 1463.

Lady Anne Clifford and Brougham, Brough, and Appleby

Lady Anne Clifford with her family

By the time the English Civil War broke out in 1641, many castles were neglected or downright ruinous. While some were pressed into action during the conflict, many suffered further damage from siege or slighting.

Lady Anne Clifford had spent years trying to secure her inheritance which included a number of castles. In Westmorland, her castles at Appleby and Brougham had been besieged and damaged during the war, as was the case with Skipton in Yorkshire. From 1650 Anne used her considerable well to repair and restore these castles, as well as Brough which was gutted by fire in 1521. She established Brougham Castle as her main residence and created a garden on the site of the adjacent Roman fort. It is likely that without Anne’s intervention these historic sites would have slipped further into decay and may have become lost to us.

Appleby Castle: Gracious Living on the Wild Frontier

This guest post was written by Erik Matthews, Fieldwork Officer for the Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland.

Appleby Castle in Cumbria (formerly Westmoreland) is much less well known and certainly much less studied than its neighbours at Brougham, Brough or Carlisle. Yet it is substantially intact with masonry elements from at least three periods (12th, 13th and late 15th centuries) together with an extensive area of possibly earlier earthworks.

The castle’s early history is tied to the kings of England: it is mentioned in the  Pipe Roll of King Henry I in 1129-1130 and then it was seized by King Henry II as part of his re-occupation of the area from the Scots in 1157. Later the castle was held by the Viponts in the 13th century and then by the Clifford’s in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Along with Skipton, Pendragon, Brough and Brougham it formed a major element of the former Clifford landholding in the North West in the later medieval and early post-medieval periods. As such there are clear parallels between the 12th-century keep “Caesar’s Tower” and the great tower at Brough as well as between the late 15th-century hall range and the work of the Henry Clifford the 1st Earl of Cumberland at Skipton.

The 12th-century great tower. Photo ©Erik Matthews.

The site has recently re-opened after a protracted period of closure since the 1990s and is the centrepiece of a Heritage Action Zone recently designated by Historic England as a means of attracting investment into the area following on from the devastating floods of winter 2015. This gives a welcome opportunity to undertake a fresh study of the site which was last seriously examined by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England back in the 1930s. Further study of “Caesar’s Tower” is particularly over-due as recent research into similar structures in the UK, Ireland and France have changed our understanding of them.[1]

Historic England are funding consolidation works on “Caesar’s Tower” and the associated curtain wall. It is hoped this will include a photogrammetric survey of and a geophysical survey of the area between the curtain wall, the tower, and the later 15th-century hall range. Further detailed building recording surveys may be possible in the long term to disentangle the later 15th-century and mid 17th-century work associated with Lady Anne Clifford from earlier work within the Hall. The presence of what appears to be the remains of a postern gate with portcullis groove within the north wall and a curious bottle shaped tower at the western end give a hint of what might readily be identified.

Part of the castle earthworks. Photo ©Erik Matthews.

The curtain wall is of a characteristic early form with a low un-crennelated wall walk without towers. Rather than curving, it has angular changes of alignment and may have been built at the same time as the keep. It is unclear how the keep was arranged inside when it was built, but a drain from a sink or laver at third floor indicates there may have been a chapel or oratory. We also are uncertain where the original entrance was. The two earthwork baileys run roughly north to south and north-west to south-east and cover a large area. Investigation may reveal evidence of earlier structures from amongst the ephemeral remains of more recent activity.

This section of the curtain wall may have been built at the same time as the keep on the right. Photo ©Erik Matthews.

The project if successful holds out the prospect of answering a whole range of interesting questions about this fascinating and presently poorly understood site.


[1]  “Some thoughts on the use of the Anglo Norman Donjon” Pamela Marshall. Pgs 159-176. Castles and the Anglo Norman World. John Davies, Angela Riley, JM Leveque, Charlotte Lepiche eds. Oxbow 2016.