Visiting Dinas Bran

Standing out in the landscape

Every year we organise visits to the projects we’ve supported. These visits are open to our donors and typically involve a guided tour and a sneak peek at the results. In May we journeyed to Castell Dinas Bran near Llangollen in North Wales.

The Welsh built the medieval castle on the site of an Iron Age hillfort and it dominates the surrounding area. It’s a steep climb up, making you appreciate the effort involved to bring in building materials or even everyday supplies. And the higher you get, the stronger the winds are. Now in ruins, it must have been an imposing site visible for miles around in the landscape.

Fiona Gale, County Archaeologist for Denbighshire County Council, lent her expert eye to the guided tour. She explained the important consolidation work over the past few years as well as the recent archaeological fieldwork. The castle is mostly built from slate, and in many places the weathered walls have needed modern intervention to make them safe and prevent further collapse.

The castle might owe its present condition partly to slighting (deliberate partial demolition) and archaeologists noticed patches of scorched stone before ramps were added to mitigate erosion.

The survey at Castell Dinas Bran

With funding from ourselves and CADW, archaeologists could carry out a geophysical survey of the castle, using resistivity and magnetometry to peer beneath the surface. The report is nearly ready, and when signed off will be shared on our website. The results are tantalising, and give us more information about the use of the castle, while leaving some questions which might have to be answered by excavation.

Castell Dinas Bran is an important Welsh castle, and one of the better surviving examples. After important steps to preserve the site and keep it open to the public, we have been able to add to our understanding of the castle.

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Keeping up with Pleshey

If you visit Pleshey Castle on one of its open days, you are struck by the size of the place. The castle was probably founded by Geoffrey I de Mandeville in the late 11th century, and while no buildings survive above ground the earthworks are impressive. Excavations at Pleshey in the 20th century uncovered a tower or keep on top of the motte, and buildings in the south bailey. The Castle Studies Trust and Chelmsford Museums Service are working together to interpret the results and make sure they are publicly available.

The castle is laid out in three segments: a north bailey, a south bailey, and a motte in between. The northern bailey, which contained a small market place, has been built over, but the motte and the bailey to the south still survive. A timber keep probably stood on top of the mound, and was modified over the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries.

The keep had a courtyard at the centre, with ranges along the north, west, and south sides, and a forebuilding to the east. The south range contained a hall (important for entertaining guests) and a kitchen (important for keeping the guests fed!). It was probably built after 1167, which was when William II de Mandeville was given permission to refortify the castle after it had been slighted.

Plan of Pleshey Castle’s keep. Drawing by Iain Bell, ©Chelmsford Museums Service.

In the mid-13th to mid-14th century, the keep on the motte was clad in flint, and the hall refurbished. In the late 14th century the living accommodation on the north and east sides of the keep was renovated, and fireplaces and garderobes (privies) were added.

Starting in 1458, the keep was clad in brick, replacing the flint walls. The work was ordered by Queen Margaret of Anjou and records from the Duchy of Lancaster (researched by Pat Ryan) mean we know a lot about how the work was carried out. A new bridge over the inner moat was built entirely in brick in 1477-80, and the gatehouse to the forebuilding was reconstructed in brick in 1482–83. Brick castles are not very common in England, but you can see an excellent example at Tattershall in Lincolnshire.

The chronology of the mid-15th-century changes to the castle should be understood in the wider historical context of the Wars of the Roses. The major refurbishment of the keep in brick was ordered by Queen Margaret of Anjou, but the outbreak of civil war in 1459–61 led to the usurpation of Henry VI by the Yorkist Edward IV, and Margaret went into exile. Edward IV ordered a refurbishment of the castle buildings when he married Elizabeth Woodville in 1464-5 and Pleshey was granted to her as part of her jointure. However, Edward IV was hard-pressed in the 1460s and had to fight to regain his throne in 1470–71, and most of the building works in this period appear to be routine repairs. The rebuilding of the bridge and keep gatehouse in brick in 1477–83 after an interval of 20 years appears to be the completion of Queen Margaret’s scheme of building works in quieter and more prosperous times.

This blog post was prepared by Patrick Allen and Richard Nevell. The photograph of the bridge is copyright Patrick Allen.

Robert the Bruce and Windsor Castle: what you didn’t know about Tibbers Castle

Robert the Bruce is famous for leading Scotland in their wars with England in the early 14th century. He became king in 1306 and embarked on an unprecedented campaign. What you might not know is that to achieve his aims he demolished (this act is known as slighting) many of the castles in Scotland to prevent the English from using them. A chronicler writing in the 14th century remarked that “Robert Bruce had all the castles of Scotland demolished, except Dumbarton”.

Bruce adopted this policy from 1307, which explains why when he captured Tibbers Castle from the English in 1306 it was left standing. This allowed the English to recapture it soon after. The Scottish king had witnessed enough siege warfare to appreciate the role of castles and how pivotal they were to the English plan to control the country, and when he wrestled control of Edinburgh, Stirling, and Roxburgh in 1314 he set about dismantling them so that they could not be used against his own countrymen.

Today Tibbers mostly survives as a series of large earthworks with a little masonry above ground. Walking round you find some rubble tumbled down the ditches around the outer bailey and the motte, giving just a hint at what once stood here. You wouldn’t know it to look at Tibbers, but it seems that when the Scots recaptured the castle in 1313 it avoided the fate of many other fortifications in the region and was left intact.

Funding from the Castle Studies Trust and Historic Scotland allowed this site to be re-examined. A geophysical survey was carried out and a new plan of the site was carefully drawn. This research gave new insight into the early form of the castle. It found that early in Tibbers’ history the castle probably consisted of a motte with a single small bailey. When the earth and timber defences were replaced in stone the single bailey was replaced by two much larger enclosures, giving the castle the form we recognise today. This double-enclosure arrangement is quite unusual for a motte-and-bailey castle. You can see another example at Windsor Castle where the motte is flanked by two baileys.

The work at Tibbers was our first contribution to Scottish archaeology; in fact it was one of the very first grants we gave out back in 2014. Built in the 12th or 13th century, changing hands several times during the Anglo-Scottish Wars and then descending through the earls of Moray and the earls of March before being taken over by the Scottish monarchy, Tibbers has a storied past. Fortunately we have been able to add a few details to that colourful history.

Click here for the full report from RCAHMS on the survey, with a potted history of the site.

4 more castles to visit this month

Every September thousands of historic sites in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are opened. It is a chance to visit some sites which are closed the rest of the year. You can find out more details online. Here are four places to get you started.

Broughty

"Sunset over the Castle" by Neil Williamson, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0.
Sunset over the Castle” by Neil Williamson, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0.

Sat on the banks of the River Tay, Broughty Castle in Scotland was built in 1496. It was involved in several sieges including during ‘the Rough Wooing’ and the War of the Three Kingdoms. The castle has been open as a museum since 1969.

Broughty Castle is open from 1pm to 3pm on Sunday 18th September.

Pleshey

Pleshey Castle” by Richard Nevell, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0.

Pleshey Castle in England was built by William de Mandeville, one of the richest men in 12th-century England. It was confiscated by the king, slighted, restored, and used for centuries afterwards. The castle was even mentioned in Shakespeare’s Richard II.

The motte-and-bailey castle survives as some impressive earthworks. Excavations were carried out between 1972 and 1981 but never published. In 2015 the Trust funded part of the publication of the work from this important site.

Pleshey Castle is open on Sunday 11th September with tours at 2pm, 3pm, and 4pm. Advanced booking is required.

Moyry

"Moyry Castle" by IrishFireside, licensed CC BY 2.0.
Moyry Castle” by IrishFireside, licensed CC BY 2.0.

Built in 1601, Moyry Castle is being included in Northern Ireland’s heritage open days for the first time. Three-stories high and perched on top of a rocky hill the castle has a good view of the surrounding area.

Moyry Castle is open from 9am to 8pm on Saturday 10th and Sunday 11th September and is free to visit.

Holt

"Holt Castle" by Richard Nevell, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0.
Holt Castle” by Richard Nevell, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0.

Constructed in the 13th century, Holt Castle was amongst the fortifications built by the English in north Wales. The red sandstone makes the castle stand out, as does its unusual pentagonal design. It was used by Richard II as a treasure house and slighted after the English Civil War.

You might recognise Holt as one of the very first projects the Trust worked on: Rick Turner and Chris Jones-Jenkins created a reconstruction of the castle as it would have appeared c1495. The 17th century was not kind to the castle, so the reconstruction is worth watching to get an impression of how it looked.

Holt Castle is open from 10am to 4pm on Saturday 17th and Sunday 18th September and is free to visit.

Wressle, a castle with personality

We often think of castles as formidable fortifications around which the medieval world pivoted. Fierce sieges were invested to capture key sites; the Keeper of the Tower of London was a prestigious role, and Dover Castle was the ‘key to the kingdom’.

But castles also had a domestic side. They were residences of the barons, earls, and monarchs who ruled in medieval society.[1] They were decorated with rich tapestries as seen at Chateau d’Angers in France, the scene of magnificent feasts, and wrapped up in symbolism. The Earl of Cornwall built a castle at Tintagel because the place was linked to Arthurian legend.

Personalities are intricately linked to the story of each castle, not always those who owned them. Thomas Percy built Wressle Castle in the 1390s. The Percy family was a powerful dynasty in northern England and Wressle was a fortress-palace within carefully constructed garden. Designed by John Lewyn, one of the leading architects of late 14th-century England, the castle had only recently been completed when the fortunes of the Percy family took a turn for the worse.

In 1403 Harry Hotspur, Thomas’ nephew, rebelled against King Henry IV with a string of grievances. Thomas joined the rebellion which was eventually defeated the battle of Shrewsbury. Thomas was captured and executed for his role and the Crown took control of Wressle Castle.

For nearly 70 years the castle either remained with the Crown of was temporarily given to favourites of the king. In 1471 it was finally returned to the Percys, with Henry Algernon Percy making his mark on the castle by updating the interior and the gardens. The gardens contained a two-storey building call the ‘School House’ with paintings of proverbs across the interior. This may have been where Henry Algernon Percy came for some quiet reading.

Wressle Castle never witnessed a siege, though it was garrisoned during the English Civil War in the 17th century. In fact the majority of castles never faced the attacks they were designed to withstand. Despite that the castle lies in ruins today. The garrison themselves left their mark, causing damage estimated at £1,000! After the war the castle was partly demolished, leaving just a quarter standing which can be seen today – though it is on private land. The following century the interior was stripped by fire when a tenant tried unsuccessfully to clear a blocked chimney.

Wressle has a rich history which the survey we funded in 2014 and carried out by Ed Dennison Archaeological Services shed further light on. When Thomas Percy decided he wanted a castle in the late 14th century the village of Wressle lay in the way. The settlement used to extend further to the west, but was pulled down to make way for the castle gardens.

Castles have a direct impact on local communities, and those castles are shaped by the personalities that live in them, who drag them into disputes, and who occasionally fail to unblock chimneys. Next time you’re at a castle take a moment to learn about the people who shaped the building you’re standing in and think what it must have been like.

Want to know more about Wressle or our other projects? Watch our video about the landscape survey or sign up to our newsletter.


[1] Catriona Cooper at the University of Southampton used digital media to explore the experience of living inside a medieval castle, looking at Bodiam and Ingtham Mote.

Art as history

Recently a re-examination of an 18th-century painting of Caus Castle in Shropshire helped piece together some of the castle’s history. It was prompted by mentioning the ongoing work at Caus on social media which shows how valuable it can be and how people can get involved.

Paintings and drawings are a useful resource, and while they are typically not meant as a pinpoint accurate record of what they depict, they can offer a guide. When used carefully they can be a very useful resource. There are wonderful medieval miniatures, including details of the siege of Bedford Castle in 1224 and this 14th-century image of a siege.

Some of my favourite images are by the Buck Brothers, engravers working in the mid-18th century. Their images are just wrong enough to remind you that these are not infallible records, but good enough to show how these buildings looked more than 250 years ago.

The National Library of Wales has digitised some of their collection and made it freely available online. With that in mind, here are a few historic images of Holt and Pembroke Castle, all of which are in the public domain.

Tragedy, intrigue, and kings: Shakespeare’s castles

Today is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Some of English literature’s greatest works would have been completely different had it not been for castles. They are the perfect scenery for some of his most dramatic plays.

Kenilworth

Photo by steve p2008
Photo by steve p2008 CC-BY 2.0

Kenilworth was renowned in Tudor England and features in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 2. While at Kenilworth the king receives news that the Duke of York has arrived from Ireland, accusing the Duke of Somerset of being a traitor.

We have an idea of the condition of about 300 castles in the mid-16th century: only about a third were in good condition, and generally those looked after by the Crown were better off. Today the ruins of Kenilworth give some idea of how grand it was before it was demolished in the 17th century. Robert Dudley famously held lavish banquets at Kenilworth while courting Queen Elizabeth.

The Tower of London and Baynard’s Castle

Photo by Richard Nevell
Photo by Richard Nevell CC-BY-SA 2.0

 

In Shakespeare’s Richard III, Richard is declared king at Baynard’s Castle, while the young princes, Edward and Richard, are imprisoned and murdered at the Tower of London.

It is rare enough for somewhere to have two castles, but the City of London had three. Only the Tower of London stands today, while Montfichet’s Tower was demolished in 1213 and Baynard’s Castle in 1666.

Pontefract

Photo by Tim Green CC-BY 2.0
Photo by Tim Green CC-BY 2.0

Today the ruins of Pontefract Castle are on Historic England’s ‘Heritage at Risk’ register, but in its heyday it was one of the most impressive castles in Yorkshire. Pontefract Castle has a colourful history, with its owners falling in and out of royal favour and major sieges during the English Civil War, but the most famous event was the reputed murder of Richard II.

Unsurprisingly this is an important part of Shakespeare’s Richard II and Richard III. He described the castle (renamed Pomfret) as a “bloody prison, fatal and ominous to noble peers”.

Kronborg

British Library HMNTS 10002.g.16-19.
British Library HMNTS 10002.g.16-19.

Shakespeare’s plays were set across Europe, including Hamlet which took place in Denmark’s Elsinore Castle. Elsinore Castle was based on Kronborg Castle in Helsingør. The 15th-century castle is the second UNSECO World Heritage Site in this list along with the Tower of London.

Inverness Castle

Photo by David Iliff, CC-BY-SA 3.0
Photo by David Iliff, CC-BY-SA 3.0

The Tragedy of Macbeth sees the title character murder the Scottish King Duncan in his own castle at Inverness. While the play is set in the 10th century, it is uncertain when the castle at Inverness was actually built, but where better as a setting for the murder of a king.

Exeunt flourish

2016 grants: who has applied?

The deadline for grant applications passed on 15th December. We’re going through the various projects now. Altogether the nine projects are asking for £38,000. If you have been following us on social media you will have seen which sites have been proposed. For a little more detail, here are the applications we’ve received:

  • Pembroke Castle, Wales – a geophysical survey of the wards. The castle was once owned by William Marshall, one of the most famous knights of his time.
  • Lochore Castle, Scotland – post-excavation analysis of finds. The site was excavated in 2015, but the team need funding for specialist work on their finds.
  • Lancaster Castle, England (1) – wall penetrating radar of the walls of the castle’s Norman keep. The castle was used as a prison until 2011, so until recently there has been little opportunity for investigation of this sort.
  • Lancaster Castle, England (2) – creating drawings and 3D models to help present the site to the wider public.
  • Caus Castle, England – geophysical and photogrammetic survey of the earthworks of this motte and bailey castle. Caus was one of many such castles while can be found in the Marches of the border between England and Wales.
  • Laughton en le Morthen, England – geophysical survey of the earthworks of a motte and bailey castle. This castle may have been built on top of an earlier Saxon hall.
  • Wressle Castle, England – an examination of the evidence for the slighting of the castle in the 17th century and comparing it to other slighted castles in Yorkshire.
  • Codnor Castle, England – create a virtual reality tour of the castle showing how it once would have appeared.
  • Dunamase, Ireland – remote sensing and landscape survey. Like Pembroke was also owned by William Marshall at one point.

The applications have been sent to our expert assessors who will go over them. In January the blog will have more information on the assessment process, so be sure to visit again.

However there is not enough money to fund them all and so if you would like to donate to help us fund more and gain a chance for an exclusive visit to the chosen projects go here: https://mydonate.bt.com/charities/castlestudiestrust

Exploring Richard II’s treasure house – a tour round Holt Castle

Holt Castle was built in north Wales by John de Warenne, the Earl of Surrey, and dates from an age in which the country was transformed. Edward I’s campaign to conquer the Welsh in the 1280s led to the creation of towns and some of its most iconic castles.

The great sandstone walls were once owned by royalty. Richard II confiscated Holt Castle in 1397 and under his ownership the castle was revitalised. It became one of his favourite properties and he used it as a treasure house, storing £40,000 there. If it wasn’t for the Civil War of the 17th century Holt’s unusual pentagonal design and imposing architecture would have made it as recognisable as Beaumaris, Caernarfon, or Harlech.

Instead in the 1640s Holt Castle was demolished and its stone used to build Eaton Hall. Centuries on, it is hard to picture how this once great castle would have appeared. To help with this the Castle Studies Trust supported Rick Turner and Chris Jones-Jenkins in digitally recreating Holt as it would have appeared around 1495.

If you have been following our work, you may already have seen in Current Archaeology or BBC History Extra how Rick and Chris brought together a range of sources to create this unique model. If you haven’t, those pieces are certainly worth a read.

It is important that what we do is available for everyone. That is why when our projects are complete you can find the results on our website. With this model it has even been published under an open licence so it is free to reuse. This can lead down some interesting avenues. One blogger, Megan Whalen Turner, even been called “A perfect starter home for Fantasy Authors”!

As well as video sharing websites we also uploaded it to Wikipedia. Until recently you could read about Holt Castle in English, Welsh, and Spanish. The video has inspired more interest, and now you can read about this 13th-century castle in French, Italian, Catalan, Finnish, Basque, and Swedish.

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Bringing Pleshey Castle’s history to the public

Betrayal, intrigue, fire, a king arresting one of his men, and the richest man in England. In 850 years Pleshey Castle has seen it all.

The village and castle owe their existence to Geoffrey de Mandeville who founded both in the 12th century. At the height of his power he was the richest man in England apart from the king, but lost it all when he was accused of being a traitor. Pleshey was owned by his descendants (though in the hands of the king) before it passed to the Bohun family by marriage. It remained with them until 1380 and in 1419 Pleshey Castle became part of the Duchy of Lancaster. Because of the Duchy’s ownership we have detailed accounts of building work in the 15th century. By 1559 the castle stood empty, and now survives as some very impressive earthworks.

Throughout its history the castle was remodelled several times – sometimes to improve the accommodation, at least once to repair fire damage, and once because it had been partly demolished. Excavations between 1972 and 1981 led by S.R. Bassett tried to shed light on this complicated history. Unfortunately this important work never saw the light of day. Notebooks and context sheets were left in the archives, out of reach of all but the most determined until now.

Our tour group in the outer bailey
Our tour group in the outer bailey

Patrick Allen and Nick Wickenden are leading the efforts to get the results of the excavation published. The Castle Studies Trust have funded the creation of detailed drawings showing the work. They provide an invaluable visual reference, and show how parts of the castle have developed.

Earlier this month we visited the castle with some of our donors. As well as exploring the castle it was a chance for donors to talk to trustees and see first-hand how valuable the charity’s work is.

Crossing the moat surrounding the castle you get an idea of how impressive the site is. The motte at the heart of Pleshey is an impressive 17m tall while the ramparts are nearly 5m high and cut you off from the outside world. You can still see where the chapel was excavated and a section was cut through the rampart.

Pleshey is privately owned so if you want to visit you have to arrange it in advance. This is typically of the sites we work with, and we give donors the opportunity to look round. Patrick and Nick gave us a tour, explaining the colourful history of the site and what they were doing to publish the excavations. Behind the scenes, the illustrations complemented the research and helped understand the phasing of the site.

It can take years for excavations to be fully processed and reach the stage where the results are ready for the general public. Sometimes that stage is never reached making it much more difficult for people to access information. Because of your donations we’re bridging the gap.

We’re looking forward to seeing the final results!

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