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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Every year historic buildings across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales open to the public for free. It is a great excuse to go out and visit some castles. You can find out more details online. Here are four places we find interesting.
A nine-mile drive from Glasgow, Mugdock Castle was built in the 14th century and converted into a mansion about 500 years later. The Grahams who lived there until the 20th century were an influential Scottish family. Visitors can walk round the gardens which were laid out in the Victorian period and the ruins of the castle. Mugdock Castle is open from 10am to 4pm on Saturday 12th and Sunday 13th September.
John de Courcy began building Carrickfergus Castle on the coast in 1177 and more than 800 years on it is one of the best preserved Norman castles in the country. When looking round, try to imagine the gatehouse being twice as tall. It was shortened in the 16th century when the castle was adapted to use cannon. Carrickfergus Castle is open from 10am to 5pm on Saturday 12th and Sunday 13th September.
Dolbadarn Castle was built by Llywelyn the Great, Prince of Gwynedd, in the 13th century. The round tower is typical of Welsh design. Its close link to the Welsh princes meant that when Edward I invaded and built his own castles, timber from Dolbadarn was used to build the castles as Llywelyn’s castle was partially demolished. Dolbadarn Castle is open from 11am to 4pm on Sunday 6th September with tours every hour.
At Guildford Castle you have a royal palace, a great tower possibly built by King Stephen in the 12th century, and gardens. You can climb to the top of tower which sits on top of a mound. There’s a chapel inside with old graffiti. On the outside you can see where an extra floor was built on top of the tower. The castle is open from 10am to 5pm on Saturday 12th September.
County Roscommon’s Ballintober Castle was probably built by Richard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster, in the early 14th century. It changed hands several times, but from 1381 it was under the control of the O’Conor family. After nearly being attacked in 1642, the castle was abandoned as a residence and the elements have left Ballintober as a ruin. The O’Conor family still own the castle today.
Despite Ballintober’s storied past and impressive ivy-clad remains, archaeologists first investigated the castle in 2008. When Niall Brady applied to the Castle Studies Trust for funding in 2013 the project to survey the castle offered the chance to push forward our understanding of the castle.
Though the castle now lies in ruins, parts of it stand up to 4m high (13ft). Ballintober Castle is rectangular, measuring 73.8m by 80.5m (242ft by 264ft). There is a tower at each corner, and on the east side the entrance is flanked by two further towers. The polygonal corner towers are thought to emulate the design of Edward I’s Caernarfon Castle in Wales. As well as being a military structure, emulating the most powerful of royal castles, Ballintober was a residence. Its comfortable accommodation revealed by the fireplaces marked it as a palace castle.
Ballintober is a ‘keepless castle’ which means it does not have a great tower such as the one seen at Trim Castle (Ireland) or Dover Castle (England). Instead it relied on its outer walls. There are a few castles like Ballintober. Richard de Burgh also built Ballymote as a keepless castles around the same time. Just 18km (11mi) to the south-east is Roscommon, which may have provided the template for Ballintober. It was built decades earlier in 1269 on behalf of Henry III. Ballintober is the largest keepless castle in Ireland, and is more than twice the size of Roscommon despite its royal patronage.
Surveying the ruins
Laser-scanners were used to record the standing structure and as a result we have a 3D point cloud which can be used to create accurate plans, elevations, and views. The survey took three days to complete in the field, followed by considerable time processing and interpreting.
It’s told us a lot about the castle. The south-west tower has a fireplace on the ground floor, and would have once had a fine timber vault. It may have housed a high-status hall. While it’s possible the south-east tower is the oldest as it is the smallest of the corner towers, the north-west tower was substantially redesigned in the 17th century. The arrow slits are wider than those found at Roscommon and Ballymote, and may be wider. This might suggest that comfort was a consideration in their design. There are signs of later adaptation, with gun loops being added to accommodate gunpowder weapons.
The survey also shows that Ballintober Castle is asymmetrical, with the entrance off centre. One possible reason is that the design changed to encompass a larger area or perhaps it stands on an earlier fortification.
An eye to the future
Importantly, the survey paves the way for future work: from July to August this year Foothill College, California, ran a Summer Fieldschool at the Castle. ‘Castles in Communities’ is advertised on the Archaeological Institute of America website. Niall Brady was one of the fieldschool directors. We asked him how the excavations went:
“The CST-funded survey in 2014 was a very important precursor to starting the present work. The 2015 season went well. We focussed on questions associated with tracing missing lengths of the standing walls, rather than looking into the main interior. This was to give us some sense of the site’s stratigraphy, while also tackling obvious questions in a way that wouldn’t open a can of worms we couldn’t close. We also engaged the attention of a conservation engineer, who is now quite excited by what can be possible in future years, vis a vis conservation works on the standing remains.
“For the four weeks on site, the excavation results were good, showing 16th-century and later levels. We only really broke the ground surface in three discrete locations, and so look forward to going deeper and exposing medieval horizons next year. There was massive buy-in from the local community (the landowners and the villagers), who see the great potential that lies in our plans for the castle site and its living community about it.”
The work the Castle Studies Trust is not the end point of a journey, but a crucial stepping stone towards understanding medieval society.
For more information on Ballintober, read the full length report prepared by Niall Brady. Please donate so we can support more projects like the one at Ballintober.
Three years ago this month, the Castle Studies Trust officially became a registered charity. A group of castle enthusiasts while visiting castles realised there is still so much we do not know about these fascinating structures, even the basics of what they look like, let alone what they were used for and how they developed over centuries. This, combined with continued long term cuts to traditional funding organisations the enthusiasts decided to do something to help and set up a the CST.
From the start there have been three key tenets of the Trust:
Being a new source of funding for such work and not taking monies from existing sources and thus reliant on public donations.
Focusing on sites not in the care of major heritage organisations such as Cadw. This means we concentrate on castles which are privately owned or run by trusts or local authorities where even less is known about this sites.
All results must be published within a set time frame (currently nine months) and freely available to the public.
The charity exists to push the boundaries of our understanding of castles. We are primarily a grant-giving body and are run entirely by volunteer trustees. Once we were set up fundraising began in earnest so we could support research projects. Enough was raised so that in late 2013 applications were opened. As luck would have it, we were able to support four grants that year, one in each of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. It is an annual process and earlier this year we awarded our second set of grants to another two sites.
There are thousands of castles in the British Isles, built over hundreds of years and they are visited by millions of people every year. Some are very well understood. Many are in the care of national heritage organisations such as Cadw or the National Trust. But with so many castles there is always more to learn. That is why we feel we can make a real difference.
We work around castles which large heritage bodies might not have the resources for but have incredible potential. This year we are supporting two projects, one at Gleaston in Cumbria, and the other at Pleshey in Essex. Between them we have a site at risk of decay or even collapse and a castle which was the pride of one of the richest men in 12th-century England.
Already we’re seeing the results from our first set of grants coming through. At one of the sites the work we supported has triggered further research supported by the Archaeological Institute of America. The Trust isn’t going to change our understanding of the Middle Ages overnight, but we can make an invaluable contribution and pave the way for more work.
The application process for new grants opens in September. We’re eagerly looking forward to see what projects are suggested.
Three years in, we’ve come a long way and in the future hope to support even more projects. With your support we can continue working at the cutting edge of our understanding. Help us do something exciting.
This new blog will be used to explain what the Castle Studies Trust does and the projects we support.