As the team has now finished its field work at Caerlaverock Castle as part of a project to try and understand the impact of climate change on the changing of the location of the castle in the late thirteenth century, they are now testing the samples in their labs. Here, in two short videos, Tim Kinnaird shows what is involved in the luminescence dating process
Between 2018-2021, the Castle Studies Trust awarded Dr Duncan Wright three small grants to research the castle of Laughton-en-le-Morthen. The aim was to develop an innovative new research methodology to understand the near wholesale replacement of existing lords with incoming Norman tenants-in-chief physically showed itself post the Norman Conquest. Here Duncan explains what that has helped lead to.
In October 2021 the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) awarded Dr Duncan Wright (Newcastle University) an Early Career Research Grant of £200,000 in support of a new archaeological research project.
Entitled ‘Where Power Lies’, the project will undertake the first systematic examination of the physical evidence for elite centres in the landscape of medieval England between c. 800-1200AD. Many of these high-status places were developed as castles, and the research aims to identify the motivations behind choosing to build a castle at an existing lordly centre, when a site could equally be perpetuated as a manor house or else abandoned altogether.
The success of Duncan’s AHRC bid is partly thanks to the support of the Castle Studies Trust, who funded his research at Laughton en le Morthen (South Yorkshire) with three separate grant awards totalling almost £5000. The work at Laughton, which comprised geophysical and topographic survey, targeted excavation, and the commission of 3D reconstructions, not only helped reveal the complex history of the site but also acted as an important pilot and proof of concept for the new project. Indeed, Where Power Lies hopes to emulate the success of the research at Laughton, and will include some of the same survey techniques, but it will also scale up the focus to look at the national distribution of aristocratic centres with evidence for investment in both church and residential components.
After modelling the national picture, the Where Power Lies team will investigate a carefully selected sample of case study sites, which will be subject to topographic, geophysical, and standing building surveys. These investigations will allow us to reconstruct the biography of the case study locations in detail, and to explore how the character and expression of elite power invested in their residential and ecclesiastical complexes evolved over time. Working with the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme as an official project partner, the research will also produce a new profile of the artefacts of the aristocrats who built and occupied these sites.
By undertaking this work, Where Power lies will shift the focus beyond the relatively small corpus of excavated aristocratic sites of the period which continue to form the basis of our understanding. Instead, by embracing a range of digital technologies and non-intrusive survey methods, the projectwill create valuable new datasets at a number of scales. By generating this new information, the team will demonstrate how the transformation of power centres occurred on the ground, revealing whether castles integrated earlier components into remodelled layouts, or whether they caused greater destruction and a more fundamental schism with the past.
The team will be led by Duncan as Principal Investigator, who will be accompanied by Professor Oliver Creighton (Exeter University) as Co-Investigator, and a Research Associate who will join the team for the duration of the project. Duncan would like to take this opportunity to thank the Castle Studies Trust for their generous support of his research at Laughton en le Morthen, which strengthened the AHRC bid significantly. He hopes the results of Where Power Lies will prove of interest to everyone associated with the Trust.
In 2020, the Castle Studies Trust funded Dr Karen Dempsey to undertake an innovative new line of research in castle studies, namely to explore the use of plants in castles in medieval Ireland. In this article, Karen explains what she and her colleague Dr Fiona MacGowan discovered.
Over the course of this Pandemic many people have a newfound or renewed appreciation for the green world that we live in. This might take material form by growing potted plants at home and if fortunate caring for a garden space of your own or somewhat less tangibly, the contemplation of changing seasons in your local park. The (anecdotal) health benefits we might feel from these activities are increasingly underscored by health professionals who assure us of the roles of green spaces in wellbeing. This connection is not a modern phenomenon – plants (and gardens) played a significant role in the diet, healthcare and spirituality of people living as part of castle households.
‘Sowing Seeds of Interdisciplinary Work’, the Castle Studies Trust funded project, showed how relict plants can deliver new insights into everyday life at medieval castles. Relict plants – understood to be the descendants of plants grown, cared for and used by (medieval) people – were identified through botanical surveys at four geographically diverse but culturally similar medieval castles: Adare, Co. Limerick, Castleroche, Co. Louth, Carbury, Co. Kildare and Castlecarra, Co. Mayo (as detailed in my previous blog post). As an initial step in researching relict plants, particular attention was paid to archaeophytes, those plants which arrived in Ireland pre-1500 CE. I believed that these plants may have participated in the various colonisation processes of the twelfth century. Their introduction could be linked to new gardening and other health practices especially those related to novel plant medicines which were emerging across Europe at this time but were perhaps previously unknown in Ireland.
Relict Plant Findings
Botanical surveys began during mid-2020 in the very wet months of June and July after a hot May.
Over the course of the survey eight archaeophytes were revealed (Table 1) as well as a range of rare and common native plants. You can read Dr MacGowan’s botanical report here. These findings are significant: four of the eight plants were historically recorded as present in medieval gardens. The plants – comfrey, mallow, milk thistle and hedge mustard – are widely recognised as having medicinal properties (Fig 1). They feature in medieval recipes, continued as part of the tradition of plant medicine captured in Culpepper’s Herbal of 1653 and some, like milk thistle, remain in use today (see Table 1).
Table 1 List of Archaeophytes and neophytes at four selected castles in Ireland
Relict Plants in their Castle Contexts
Castleroche was the first site surveyed for our fieldwork. It is spectacularly situated on a locally significant rocky outcrop, framed to the north by the foothills of the Mourne Mountains (Fig 2). The castle has been long understood as a defensive site, believed to have been positioned as authoritative infrastructure to exercise territorial control. Its’ patron, Roesia de Verdun (d.1247) is renowned as the only historically attested woman to have founded a castle in thirteenth-century Ireland This castle while now in ruins was once a busy place with an associated village replete with a weekly market and annual fair. I considered this site to have great potential for relict plants given that historic sources noted the presence of ‘gardinia’ (gardens associated with castles) coupled with the high-status of its’ patron who had a considerable number of estates across England and France. These connections must have given her and her staff access to, and knowledge of, different cultural traditions including gardening and medicinal practices. We were delighted to identify three archaeophytes: Hemlock (Conium maculatum), Mallow (Malva sylvestris) and Milk thistle (Silybum marianum). Milk thistle is a particularly important identification, it is very rare in Ireland and Britain. For medieval people, it was culturally and symbolically tied to the Virgin Mary as well as understandings of fertility and motherhood (Fig 3). This allows us to reconsider the idea of Castleroche only as a frontier site; perhaps there was a diverse resident population for much longer than previously understood. Their health concerns may be represented by the continued occurrence of these plants. Exploring the botanical legacy of Castleroche adds further layers to the story of this complex site.
A less well-known castle but equally deserving of attention is the medieval settlement at Carbury (Fig 4). This multiperiod complex comprises an earthwork castle, a twelfth or very early thirteenth-century masonry castle with later additions including an Elizabethan extension and related gardens (Fig 5). Carbury is entangled with generations of nobles. It acted as a central node in shifting political allegiances and dynastic disputes within the territory of Leinster. The longevity in occupation of Carbury is interesting, it attests – at least in part – to its suitability as a residence. Is this reflected in the immediate castle landscape? Is there a possibility that the early-modern gardens here overlay medieval predecessors? Four archaeophytes were found at Carbury: Hemlock, Comfrey (Symphytum officinale), Hedge mustard (Sisymbrium officinale) and White stonecrop (Sedum album), three of which were adjacent to or within the masonry castle and the fourth – Comfrey – which was found within the hedgerow that forms the historically significant boundary to the castle landscape (Fig 6). These plants are not uncommon, but perhaps their relative ubiquity is reflected in their suitability for use within different plant medicine traditions. Comfrey is particularly notable, known as knitbone, it was widely used as a healing poultice for broken bones throughout medieval medical texts. Pharmacologically, this plant contains allantoin, which promotes the creation of new cells and healing of connective tissue. Relict plant studies at Carbury allows us to reflect on how this place was a home to many different generations of people who participated in caring roles (for plants and people) whilst also being a locus for political tensions.
With these exciting discoveries at both Castleroche and Carbury, we were very hopeful that the survey at Adare Castle would be equally rewarding. Adare was an important castle as the caput of the Geraldine family. Unlike the other sites, it has been subject to major study including detailed historical and archaeological investigation. Adare Castle was constructed on a pre-Norman power centre from which the castle emerged as a large D-shaped earthwork with a surrounding large ditch and river-fed moat (Fig 7). This later formed the inner ward, which was further enclosed by an external wall to the north-west with a single mural tower and a gatehouse to the south. The outer court is enclosed by masonry walling which is augmented by a ditch to the north and west. At Adare, the grounds are intensely managed, with manicured lawns and ongoing pesticide use (Fig 8). Unfortunately, this was particularly pronounced in the inner ward, the area I have suggested was likely to have contained an enclosed garden. Disappointingly, only one archaeophyte was identified: Weld (Reseda luteola). This dyeplant was predominantly used to give a bright colourfast yellow but also used medicinally to treat chest complaints. A number of neophytes – those plants whose introduction post-dates 1500 CE – were found in the associated areas surrounding the castle as detailed by Dr MacGowan. Species such as Himalayan pheasant berry (Leycesteria formosa) were identified, indicating that relict plants studies can also illuminate the afterlife of the castle when it played a role as a romantic ruin in the eighteenth-century landscape of Adare Manor. This shows the potential for relict plants studies to add layers to castles stories across their life histories.
The final site, Castlecarra, falls lower down the social hierarchy of medieval Ireland than the other three castles but it was still an important baronial residence (Fig 9). It is situated on the eastern shore of Lough Carra. The castle now comprises a large three-storey focal building set within a very compact enclosure which is a later, potentially fifteenth-century addition. The castle was constructed as one part of the c. 1236 Anglo-Norman territorial expansion into Connacht. This site, like the others, has a long history of occupation. An early-modern (sixteenth-century?) house was constructed c. 125m NE of the castle, and the surrounding landscape appears to have been remodelled to suit a new tradition of landscape gardening which included a ha-ha and tree-lined avenue of Hornbeams (Carpinus betulus) (Fig 10). Archaeophytes were not recorded at Castlecarra but numerous native species as well as neophytes were present. This absence is remarkable but perhaps native plants at Castlecarra served the castle household needs. For example, Purging buckthorn (Rhamnus catharticus) was identified. This plant is native but rare in Ireland, and it was used medicinally as a purgative, as the name suggests. The botanical profile of Castlecarra leads to further questions around the transmission and sharing of medicinal and plant knowledge.
Research, Heritage Futures and Reflection
One of this project’s aims was to test and refine the methodologies of relict plant studies for medieval castles. In Ireland there are currently 96 species recorded as archaeophytes (but with no established dates of introduction). Despite the findings of some notable plants, the overall numbers of archaeophytes at the castle sites in ‘Sowing Seeds’ seemed low. Of course, our findings may have been constrained by single survey days, unseasonal weather as well as conservation and management issues – both present-day and historic. Future work is necessary. It is important that sites have the benefit of multiple visits across a wider seasonal survey period. Nevertheless, the baseline botanical surveys of this project will be of use for future research within and outside of castle studies. It has also revealed the need for a detailed survey of archaeobotanical evidence from excavations in Ireland to establish as far as possible exact introduction dates for particular plants.
Including a wider range of plants and castles over a longer time span would provide comparative material with a greater capacity to capture change over time. Neophytes were noted in the botanical surveys but not part of the research agenda for ‘Sowing Seeds’. Their occurrence at castle sites may be revealing of expanding connections with sixteenth-century colonising and trading practices beyond Europe. Later medieval towerhouses are of particular interest as they are often situated within less managed and therefore within potentially better-preserved landscapes. But equally, native plants should also be included. For example, self-heal (prunella vulgaris) and pellitory-of-the-wall (Parietaria judaica) occur widely and were both used as medicinally. It would be of great interest to compare and contrast different plants at castles whether native, anciently introduced or more recent. Consideration too could be given to the afterlives of medieval castles as romantic ruins as indicated at Castlecarra and Adare. This would develop a wider appreciation of the long lives of medieval castles that continue in dialogue with contemporary communities as heritage today. Relict plant studies enable castle studies to participate in emerging conversation around green heritage and climate change.
‘Sowing Seeds’ was a novel project – both conceptually and methodologically – I wanted to find a way to explore potential ‘green identities’ of castle households. Accessing the relationships medieval people may have had with their environments (as we might term it today) offers a different way of telling stories about the medieval past whose narratives are often caught into concerns of power, authority or control. By including botanical surveys of relict plants in castle landscapes, we have expanded further the multidisciplinary approach of castles studies. We can show how stories of castles are richly textured: populated by many people and plants over the course of their lives and beyond into their afterlives as romantic ruins and archaeological monuments. Doing this for the first time meant engaging with new material and unfamiliar sources from archaeology, history, and medical knowledge to heritage and folklore. This wide-reaching research methodology is a core strength of this project. It enables a dialogue between different disciplines that are traditionally separate or rarely integrated. These findings are a beginning: they encourage new avenues of future research on castles households relating to human-plant relations, plant medicine and related concepts of care. The results also invite conversations with heritage agencies regarding site management and conservation practices of both biodiversity and past vegetation. Rather than offering conclusive findings, we have revealed tantalising hints and a vast array of potential new avenues in which to take this research.
This research was generously funded by the Castle Studies Trust. Their support enabled new ideas to be explored. As an early career researcher being awarded a grant to undertake (potentially) interpretatively risky work is a wonderful opportunity.
Helpful commentary and feedback was received from two assessors whose insights improved this report.
Thanks to Dr Fiona MacGowan for participating in this research project and carrying-out the botanical surveys at the selected sites.
Thanks to the landowners of Castleroche, Castlecarra and Carbury, and the Office of Public Work who manage Adare, for access to the sites for this project.
 Dates in the table refer to the first historic botanical record of these plants in Ireland and Britain, and * denotes their occurrence in lists of species included in medieval gardens (Harvey 1981)
Dr Will Wyeth, English Heritage property historian and project lead on the two geophysical surveys the Castle Studies Trust funded on Warkworth Castle, looks at what the surveys reveal and equally importantly don’t reveal about the castle.
The results from two geophysical surveys in and around Warkworth Castle have now been digested and synthesized. The first survey sought to explore evidence for subsurface remains of the castle earthworks. The second survey examined a field called St John’s Close, sited within a corner of the medieval park attached to Warkworth Castle. Both surveys are intended to inform English Heritage’s on-going project to improve the way the history at the castle is explored and shared with visitors. Here, we share some of the highlights of these surveys: for the full discussion of the results, you can read the full report here.
The first survey targeted three areas of the castle. The first was the top of the earthen mound, or motte (see a phased site plan here). Our aim here was to establish the presence or any subsurface features which may relate to any structures pre-dating the present late 14th-century Great Tower (Figure 1). Our results here were inconclusive: the subsurface examination certainly revealed a feature, perhaps a drain or path, associated with the postern of the present Great Tower (Figure 2). Other features may represent building or demolition rubble, but it’s not clear which.
The second area of the castle earthworks to be examined was a portion of the castle’s raised bailey platform, east of the enclosing curtain wall presently dated to the late 12th-early 13th centuries. The earthworks of the bailey of Warkworth Castle pre-date any stone buildings known to survive at the present castle: this is because the earliest structures – among them the curtain wall – do not embrace the entirety of the earthworks (see a phased site plan here).
Our research question here was to establish why this eastern portion of the bailey was left unenclosed, upon the construction of the enclosing curtain wall. Here, again, our results were inconclusive with regards our research question, though the survey did throw some light on possible uses of this space in the later medieval-early modern period. The survey detected a trampled path from the area east of the eastern curtain postern, south of the 15th-century stable building, heading northwards, respecting the projecting mass of the 1290s Grey Mare’s Tail Tower (see feature 14, Figure 4 ). The relative phasing of this feature does not tell us a great deal, except that the path may post-date the construction of the Grey Mare’s Tail Tower. It may also suggest that the postern in the curtain wall, currently dated to the late 14th century, could be coeval with the Grey Mare’s Tail Tower, or it may have replaced an earlier iteration. This is the earliest possible arrangement, as the path could also be more recent in date.
The final portion of the castle earthwork survey sought to establish the location and extent of features within the enclosed portion of the bailey (‘Area 1’, see Figure 4). Uncertainty remains as to the configuration of the bailey before a major phase of construction presently dated to the 15th century. This substantial campaign of building incorporated the construction of the compressed collegiate church (perhaps never completed) with exquisite covered passage, and a comprehensive rebuilding of the eastern portions of the Great Hall, Chamber block and chapel in the bailey, of which the finest surviving portions are the Lion’s Tower and the Little Stair Tower (Figure 5).
The most substantial, and perhaps important, finding of the geophysical survey of the earthworks relates to feature 2 (see Figure 4). Located in the south-eastern quarter of the bailey, it comprises a substantial segment of buried wall or robbed wall foundations, approximately 22m long (on an east-west axis) and c.2m thick. Though the feature stops short of the bailey curtain wall here, it clearly blocks the east curtain postern already mentioned, and therefore may very well pre-date it. The massive character of this feature suggests it may have belonged to a substantial, multi-storey building. Feature 2 also appears to meet the curtain wall at a right angle, with one possible implication being that it may have formed one wall of a square- or rectangular-plan building, which was demolished to make way for the present curtain wall. Curiously, although the castle is not very extensive, the concentration of known high-status buildings from the later 12th-century onwards is on the bailey’s western side. If feature 2 relates to a high-status building, it is unusual for being located in the eastern part of the bailey. Several other features were located within the bailey; these are discussed in the full report.
The second area examined by geophysical survey comprised part of the park of Warkworth Castle. The earliest record of the park is dated to the 13th century, but a park at Warkworth may have existed earlier still. Hogdson’s History of Northumberland, which assembled extensive records from the Alnwick Castle archives and elsewhere, offers a rich picture of the late medieval administration of the park, with records of repairs, infringements, agistments (a one off payment by a livestock owner to graze on the land of the landowner) and the collection and sale of underwood all recorded in 15th-century documents. The earthworks of the castle park have yet to be comprehensively mapped, but a portion of the south-east corner of the park, fossilizing the boundary of an historic field within the park called St John’s Close, does survive (see the previous Warkworth blog post for photos of these). This field was chosen as the target of geophysical survey to determine the survival of any features or buildings associated with the medieval park. Research on castle parks has demonstrated that they could feature a broad variety of structures, and were not simply enclosed areas. A further research goal was to ascertain the precise location of a documented park gate attested in a 17th-century estate map (Figure 7), which could represent the closest point of access into the park enclosure from Warkworth Castle.
Unfortunately, the survey results did not yield answers to the questions we posed regarding any medieval features within the area of parkland surveyed, nor was it possible to decisively establish the location of a park gate. The most significant find was in the form of several round features, either enclosures and/or hut circles, which are very likely prehistoric in date (Figure 8). A walk-over of this area confirmed that they were not visible at ground surface level, being concealed by ridge-and-furrow deemed to be medieval in date. The largest of these, feature 2, is also bisected by a former field boundary depicted on the early 17th-century estate map mentioned earlier, though not shown on either of the 1st edition OS maps. A possible caveat to the lack of medieval finds is feature 9 (see Figure 8); this could be a path or hollow-way, and it appears to cut (and therefore post-dates) the ridge-and-furrow. As the eastern terminus of feature 9 is close to the edge of the park boundary, it may point to the location of the suspected park gate. Its western extent appears to respect the trajectory of the lost field boundary, and there it may represent an early modern, post-medieval feature. For a fuller account of the features revealed by the survey, see the full report.
Although neither survey succeeded in yielding clear evidence to help answer all the research questions we asked at the beginning, they certainly improved our understanding of both areas examined. In the case of the castle earthworks, it is clear that a substantial building once occupied the south-eastern portion of the bailey, and it is now possible to map this accurately in relation to surface-level features. In the case of the park, we can tentatively identify the approximate location of a gate into the park, though we cannot be certain it is medieval in origin. More work may allow us to ascribe dates, or relative phases, to these features.
For English Heritage’s interpretation project at Warkworth Castle, these surveys have been invaluable, and we are grateful for the support of the Castle Studies Trust in pursuing them – especially during the difficulties in completing the surveys resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. Going forward, the standing buildings of the castle have also been subjected to a separate, detailed analysis, and it is hoped that the bringing together of these two sets of data will offer a fresh understanding the site. Although the research is ongoing, a preliminary integration of both appears offers some new and tantalising ideas about the history of Warkworth Castle. These will inform our presentation of Warkworth Castle to the public, and improve our collective understanding of one of England’s finest castles.