Piecing together Lathom Castle

I’d heard of Lathom House, but the familiar reconstruction of this principal monument of Tudor England is a Victorian engraving that may bear little relation to historical fact. Those engravers never saw it, as it had long gone by then. No drawings survive, but enigmatic descriptions of nine (or was it eighteen?) towers, the space they occupied now thin air and branches.

Lathom House is in a garden – or rather, here lay its site. This garth is isolated, bounded by a sandstone wall and a ditch in a flat Lancashire landscape that in winter stretches the concept of fallow into a deeper somnolence. In summer its shrubs and trees burst into colour and scent, and you may be caught off-guard by the cry of its peacock strutting in the remnants of a nineteenth-century planting scheme. There is no sign at all of the medieval house, but for the occasional scrape of a trowel blade on revealed cobbles and footings.

Fifty yards from this lost garden is the rump of the last Lathom House, built in the 1720s to the designs of Giacomo Leoni. After two centuries, this Palladian mansion was demolished in 1925–9. It had provided a replacement for a house that was also ravaged – but not totally destroyed – during the civil war, and whose central ‘Eagle Tower’ was the principal monument of the Stanley family, kingmakers at Bosworth Field in 1485. After the battle brought Henry VII (1485–1509) to the throne they built to the scale expected for a residence of Margaret Beaufort as the Lancastrian king’s mother, and Thomas Stanley, the last King of Mann who presided over Lancashire and Cheshire with a view across the Irish Sea. Lathom was so grand it was termed ‘The Northern Court’ in 1572, with the claim Henry VII, who visited in 1495, had based Richmond Palace on its turreted skyline. It has recently been demonstrated that the king left his marriage bed here, having executed William Stanley his Lord Chamberlain on charges of plotting. It inspired the basis of a school of joinery centered on Lathom. Much of this furniture survived the civil war, as heavy beds were propped against the great gates against cannon fire, whereupon the chattels escaped with the family.

The comparison of Lathom and Richmond is hard to substantiate, and so completely lost was this grand house that its location has been hotly disputed. In the last twenty years, the occasional archaeological investigations in the garden and at the dilapidated remains of the Georgian house have revealed a wide array of footings and salvaged cut stones. The Lathom Park Trust and latterly the Kingmaker 1485 project led by Steve Baldwin with Dr Rob Philpott, Dr Clea Paine and George Luke have championed a deeper understanding of the site and brought public access and involvement in archaeological discovery, training and recording.

The involvement of diverse groups at separate digs has resulted in the need for a collation and analysis of discoveries, which have not hitherto been catalogued in one place nor attributed with an original context. The Castle Studies Trust funded a project to analyse the scattered masonry and identify it as far as possible through comparative evidence. After several months of looking, measuring, thinking, discussing and researching, the results have set the diverse stones within a timescale stretching from the fifteenth century – some perhaps earlier – to the Jacobean age, exactly as expected if they were the remains of Lathom House.

The most diagnostic features include chimney caps, early seventeenth-century window mullions and sills, carved stones with oak leaves compatible with the Stanley arms, and the tantalising possibility of a medieval memorial slab. These offer a clear picture of the waves of construction, which peak at the era of Bosworth, and the turn of the seventeenth century. The latter may tally with another royal visit, that of James I in 1617.

I write this ahead of giving a talk on the findings to the local community. The biggest realisation is that Lathom’s Eagle Tower was almost certainly based on the polygonal Eagle Tower at Caernarfon – Edward I’s fortress – for which the Stanleys became responsible in the 1480s just at the time they rebuilt Lathom to represent their role as kingmakers. The internal area of this building and the number of stories tally closely with Caernarfon, allowing us to begin to reconstruct lost Lathom and – as importantly – appreciate its significance in the minds of those who knew it.

We don’t yet have the full picture, but understanding the masonry undoubtedly establishes the building blocks for the years of archaeology that lie ahead.

Jonathan Foyle will be speaking about his work at Lathom on Wednesday 25th October.

Clifford: investigating one of England’s oldest castles

The Castle Studies Trust’s supporters and trustees, joined by castle experts from far and wide, were hosted by Keith Hill, owner of Clifford Castle, Herefordshire, to hear the results of the recent work funded by the Trust at the castle.

Clifford Castle is a large motte with remains of a stone castle on top, a vast bailey with elaborate stone gatehouse on the one side, and a mysterious earthwork known as the hornwork on the other, standing beside the river Wye. Originally founded in the first years after the Norman conquest Clifford became home to a baronial family whose wealth allowed them to erect the substantial stone structures now visible. The new work led by archaeologist Tim Hoverd and Nigel Barker has made it possible to confirm that these were almost certainly built at the end of the twelfth or in the first decades of the thirteenth century.

It was suggested that what has always been described as a great hall was probably a chamber block over a basement, reinforced by comparison with the structure at nearby Grosmont castle. Excavation recovered a door as well as the end wall of this block, which turned out to be very close to the external curtain wall. Pottery found on the motte confirmed a date of late twelfth/early thirteenth century. The arrow loops in the surviving mural tower are of the same era. The curtain wall also contains a large number of latrine chutes discharging down the motte side facing the long-abandoned earthwork on the far side and cut off by a man-made ditch. What it was remains a subject for speculation, as does the presence of buildings in the outer ward, because a post-medieval orchard was found to have removed most of the evidence.

The Trust is delighted that its funding has significantly improved our understanding of an important castle of the Welsh Marches. A full report will be made in due course.

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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Castle Studies Trust Awards Five Grants to Advance the Understanding of Castles

The Castle Studies Trust is delighted to announce the award of five grants, totalling £21,000.

Castle Pulverbatch, Shropshire, England

©Shropshire County Council

Geophysical and photogrammetric surveys of this motte and bailey castle. Abandoned by c.1200 this has the potential for us to advance our understanding of early castles along the Welsh border.

Clifford, Herefordshire, England

One of the earliest castles in the UK and one of the most important along the Welsh border the geophysical survey and excavations, along with separately funded building analysis, will help understand the morphology of this little understood site. The CSG visited it as part of the 2016 annual conference. Please note this is a privately owned site and not accessible to the general public.

Dinas Bran, Denbighshire, Wales

Photo by Eva Mostraum, CC-by-NC-SA

Co-funding with Cadw a geophysical survey of the most complete, but little understood, native Welsh built castle to discover what structures lie beneath the surface.

Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire, England

Photo by Iain Simpson, CC-by-SA

With almost nothing left above ground the geophysical and earthwork surveys will help shed light on the form of castle with strong royal associations, in particular the C15 palace associated with the House of York and birthplace of Richard III. Please note this is a privately owned site and not accessible to the general public.

Lathom, Lancashire, England

Analysis of castle masonry from the completely destroyed late C15 castle built by Thomas, Lord Stanley either found via excavations or reused in the current building. This will help understand what the castle looked like and early Tudor palaces around London, like Richmond.  Please note this is a privately owned site and not accessible to the general public.

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2017 grants: who has applied?

The deadline for grant applications passed on 15th December and we’re going through the various projects now. Altogether the 11 projects, coming from all parts of the British Isles and Italy, are asking for over £50,000. They cover a wide period of history and types of research. For a little more detail, here are the applications we’ve received:

  • Abergavenny Castle, Wales – a geophysical survey of the whole site. The castle was an important baronial site and saw a lot of military action from when it was first built in the 11th century up until it was slighted (partially demolished) in the Civil War.
  • Bamburgh, England – assess and conserve a large collection of medieval metal work dating from the 8th to the 11th century discovered in the west ward. Bamburgh was a major elite fortress from the early medieval period so the project should help potentially understand how the site changed over the centuries.
  • Caldicot Castle, Wales – geophysical of the whole scheduled area. Building on the previous resistivity survey in the project will use all three types of survey technique to get the best understanding of any below ground remains of this major baronial site.
  • Castle Pulverbatch, England – geophysical and photogrammetric surveys of the site, one of the finest examples of a Norman motte-and-bailey castle in Shropshire.
  • Clifford Castle, England – geophysical survey and excavations to help understand the morphology of one of the earliest castle sites in the UK, and one of the principal castles on the Anglo-Welsh border. Please note this is a privately owned site and not accessible to the general public.
  • Dinas Bran, Wales – geophysical survey of the most extensive and complete Welsh-built castle to understand what structures lie beneath the surface.
  • Edinburgh Castle, Scotland – mapping and categorising suspected conflict damage at this iconic castle.
  • Fotheringhay, England – understanding the morphology of the caput of the honor of Huntingdon and 15th-century palace associated with the House of York and birthplace of Richard III, using ground penetrating radar and small unmanned aircraft. Please note this is a privately owned site and not accessible to the general public.
  • Lathom House, England – analysis of masonry dating from the late 15th-century castle built by Thomas, Lord Stanley either found via excavations or potential reused in the current building.
  • Lecce, Italy – to help with the publication of a history of the castle of Lecce which was founded by the Normans.
  • Lough Key, Ireland – to improve understanding of the medieval MacDermot lordship of Moylurg and its relationship with the Rock of Lough Key.

The applications have been sent to our expert assessors who will go over them. You can see how the assessment process works from our blog back in January 2016.

The Castle Studies Trust grants are now open!

1st September can mean only one thing: the Castle Studies Trust is now accepting applications for funding. The deadline for submissions is 15th December.

There is one very important change on previous years: the maximum award per grant has been increased from £5,000 to £7,500. Previous grants have provided excellent value for money, and the increase allows for more ambitious projects.

We have also broadened our criteria for sites for which we will award grants to include sites managed by major heritage bodies subject to caveats. For full details please view our grant giving criteria.

We already have a number of very interesting possible applications and we are looking forward to receiving more. If anyone would be interested in applying, please do not hesitate to contact the chair of trustees, Jeremy Cunnington at admin@castlestudiestrust.org

Want to learn more about previous grants or looking for inspiration? Read our grants page for details of projects from the last three years.