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:
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
The deadline for grant applications passed on 15th December. We’re going through the various projects now. Altogether the 15 projects, coming from all parts of Britain, are asking for over £63,000. They cover not only a wide period of history but also a wide range of topics. For a little more detail, here are the applications we’ve received:
Caldicot, Wales – a geophysical survey of the scheduled area of Caldicot Castle using magnetometry, resistivity, and Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR)
Dig It! 2017 Castles of South Scotland – enhancing public understanding and knowledge of some castles in southern Scotland, their purpose, their history and their relevance, particularly the lesser-known and least visited sites.
Dunyvaig, Scotland – co-funding a project to provide better understanding of the landscape context of the castle by conducting detailed topographic and geophysical surveys and carrying out trial trenching to gain key information regarding the preservation and the depth of the buried deposits.
Keith Marischal, Scotland – geophysical survey at Keith Marischal House, in search of a lost medieval castle and renaissance palace with a great hall reputed to be second in size to that of Stirling’s.
Lathom, England – excavations to find out the true size of Lathom Castle. You may recognised them from 2017’s grants when we funded analysis of masonry recovered from excavations between 1997 and 2009.
Laughton-en-le-Mortain, England – comprehensive archaeological investigation of the motte and bailey castle of Laughton-en-le-Morthen, South Yorkshire and its surrounding landscape.
Loch Kinord, Castle Island, Scotland – radiocarbon dating an early island castle: Castle Island, Loch Kinord, Aberdeenshire
Old Bolingbroke, England – revealing the history of Old Bolingbroke’s Castles: What can researching Bolingbroke Castle’s Route Yard and Dewy Hill tell us about Bolingbroke Castle?
Pembroke, Wales – test trenches at one of Wales’ greatest castles to confirm the site of the late medieval structure revealed in the geophysical survey funded by the CST in 2016.
Ruthin Denbighshire – co-funding reconstruction drawing of this great Welsh Edwardian fortress. Ruthin was the town where Owain Glyndwr’s rebellion against English rule started.
Sheffield, England – record and examine the architectural fragments stored on the site of the castle found in previous excavations.
Skipton, England – an archaeological/architectural survey will be produced of the gate structures and flanking round towers of the inner ward of Skipton Castle.
Snodhill, England – geophysical survey and excavations to answer some key remaining questions of this important Welsh border fortress re: the castle namely where was the entrance and function of the North Tower.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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 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
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.
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”.
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.
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.