Shrewsbury Castle Excavation Director, Dr Nigel Baker, reviews the second season of excavations at the castle which has just ended, with an unexpected conclusion.
Shrewsbury Castle has sometimes been described (most often by the writer of this blog!) as one of the best-preserved shire town motte-and-bailey castles in the west of England. This remains true – at least in the sense that it has never been quarried away for gravel, nor had a prison or law courts built on top of it, nor was it demolished and redeveloped after the Civil War. Nevertheless, such a statement now requires a hefty footnote.
A visitor, walking into the inner bailey at the foot of the motte sees crenelated curtain walls rising from the top of substantial ramparts: the impression of a classic castle sequence with earth-and-timber fortifications renewed in stone, is overwhelming. The 2020 work has however shown that neither the ramparts nor the western curtain walls are quite what they seem. Excavation to a depth of more than two metres in the western rampart has shown that at least half of its height was a product of the post-medieval centuries – with a substantial contribution probably made by Thomas Telford during his ‘restoration’ of the castle in 1786-90, enhanced by his simultaneous lowering of the ground level across the interior.
But the medieval strata below Telford’s rubble also show that the western curtain wall, and by implication the standing castle building, the camera regis of the later 1230s, can no longer be seen as simple improvements to the original earthwork castle as the ground beneath them was found to drop away sharply, the slope levelled up by a massive medieval earthmoving operation. It seems that the present outline of the castle – and the familiar view of it from the railway station below, are a product of the early 13th century (dating subject to confirmation when the pottery has been analysed) – dubbed Shrewsbury Castle 2 by the excavators. The ‘original’ motte-and-bailey, first heard of when it resisted a siege in 1069, must have had a perimeter that was around 25% smaller, confined to the original hilltop. This castle (inevitably ‘Shrewsbury Castle 1’) was nevertheless heavily fortified, as the substantial motte ditch found in 2019 shows. As originally conceived, the ‘inner bailey’ was little more than a lobe-shaped barbican, protecting access up onto the motte, with little room for buildings within it. One of the implications of this is that the most important buildings – like the royal hall – must have been on the motte top.
The medieval landfill operation is also of interest on account of the rubbish contained in its strata. Preliminary visual identification of the animal bones suggests that game species are present, possibly pike, possibly swan, and it is likely that further work on this material will add to the growing corpus of evidence for high-status diet on castle sites throughout the region.
The excavation was funded by the Castle Studies Trust and supported by University Centre Shrewsbury under Professor Tim Jenkins and Dr Morn Capper. Archaeological direction was by Dr Nigel Baker and Dai Williams and the work was undertaken by local volunteers and UCS postgraduates and undergraduates.
With HES giving the provisional sign off for the excavation at The Wirk to take place in the week commencing 21 September, and the geophys survey to take place the previous week, project leads Drs Dan Lee and Sarah Jane Gibbon outline the background to the project and what they hope to find.
Located on the south-western coast of Rousay, The Wirk is located in one of the most archaeologically rich parts of Orkney. The Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) is undertaking geophysical survey, archaeological excavations and 3D modelling at this enigmatic castle site (pending approval from HES).
The Wirk, meaning stronghold in Old Norse, and with the alternative name Westness Castle, is a small stone tower located close to the coast. It has variously been interpreted as a 12th century Norse Castle, a detached fortified bell-tower, a 13th century defensive tower for an incomplete church, a hall-house garderobe tower and most recently a 16th century tower and attached range.
Minor clearance and excavation in the 1920s identified similarities in construction between The Wirk and the 12th century Cubbie Roo’s Castle, on the nearby island of Wyre, considered to be one of the earliest stone keeps in Scotland. The Wirk is located in Westness which has been a large estate since at least the 12th century when it was the home of the Norse chieftain Sigurd of Westness (Orkneyinga saga). It is adjacent to Rousay parish church, likely to date from the 12th century, with standing remains of 16th century date on earlier footings.
Recently, the 12th/13th century date attribution of The Wirk has been rejected in favour of a 16th century date. This new interpretation is based on the built remains and 16th century architectural fragments which were found in the 1920s. However, architectural fragments of 12th/13th century date were also present and nearby archaeology, particularly the discovery earlier this year of a Norse hall at Skaill by the UHI Archaeology Institute would suggest this was a high-status place in the saga period. This is not to dispute that The Wirk may also have been in use in the 16th century when the estate was owned by a prominent Orkney family. One of the objectives of this project is to excavate trial trenches over Clouston’s excavation and at the eastern end of the site to identify the earliest phases of the tower and adjacent building. Upper parts of the tower were substantially rebuilt in the 19th century and so excavation will allow us to record parts of the site that have not been knowingly rebuilt.
Along with the excavations, targeted geophysical survey around The Wirk aims to better understand any relationships between the tower and the buildings/features which surround it. 3D modelling of The Wirk and Cubbie Roo’s Castle will enhance our understanding of these comparable sites and allow the public to explore the remains online.
In its latest round of grants the Castle Studies Trust funded an ambitious 3-D reconstruction of the 12th-century form of Lincoln Castle. Project lead, Jonathan Clark, explains the background to and aims of the project.
Lincoln Castle is one of England’s great castle complexes, developed during an initial intense period of use which straddles the Conquest through to the first half of the 13th century. The reconstruction builds on the work of the recent Lincoln Castle Revealed project, which involved the conservation and repair of the castle fabric and bailey buildings, the creation of a new exhibition space, and provided a wealth of opportunities for research-led archaeology. The results of the archaeological campaign – which encountered remains from every century from the 1st to the 20th – have greatly enriched the story of the site as a whole.
Archaeological investigations encountered elements of the Roman fortress and later Roman Upper City, the defensive enclosures of which appear to have shaped future land-use patterns well into the medieval period, including the form of the castle. The west and south Roman walls stood long into the medieval period; indeed, parts of the western defences still stand to the south of the west castle wall. The southwestern corner of the Roman fortress provided the western and southern extent of the castle bailey.
The main development of the castle in stone appears to be from the 1080s into the mid 12th century, a period which will be captured by the reconstruction. This campaign of work included the construction of East and West Gates, the stone enclosure of the bailey, the 12th-century Lucy Tower shell keep, the development of internal ranges against east and west curtain walls, adjacent to the gates, and a hitherto unknown South Gate. The South Gate position has been identified in the fabric of the south curtain wall, while its appearance has been confirmed by an early draft plan of Lincoln by John Speed, dated to 1607.
The investigations also provided valuable new information about the form and development of the main shell keep (the Lucy Tower) and the southeastern tower (known from the early 19th century onwards as the Observatory Tower). The Observatory Tower, which briefly upstaged the Lucy Tower during the Anarchy years of the early 12th century, was originally detached from the rest of the castle bailey by a substantial ditch. This ditch featured a stone revetment on the tower side which was carried up to encase the lower part of the mound on which the tower sits. The tower was subsequently remodelled to serve as gaol tower. More is now known of the Lucy Tower including the form of the roof, openings and the arrangement of rectangular chamber blocks, or turrets, to the east and west of it.
The remains of the main castle hall and various service buildings were also investigated as part of the Lincoln Castle Revealed project. Their positions are now accurately plotted within the castle bailey and these buildings are being added to the 3-D reconstruction.
A book on the archaeological discoveries from the project is forthcoming but the 3-D reconstruction will allow all to visualise an explore Lincoln Castle at its zenith. The reconstruction is being prepared by Pighill Archaeological Illustration advised by the Lincoln Castle Revealed archaeological team.
Like medieval monasteries, castles had gardens. These could be places of rest, play and display as well as productive centres for (some of) the food to supply the castle household while also providing curative or medicinal plants. We know that in the Middle Ages, plants were highly valued for their culinary, fragrant and medicinal properties; and, they were considered to have mental and spiritual benefits. What do we know about the plant-life of the medieval castle and its green spaces?
Surviving architecture indicates that some of these spaces were enclosed with relatively high walls, often surmounted by a parapet or at least crenelated. Excavations tell us something about what plants were at castles but there is no certainty about what was grown in their gardens.1 Seeds can be tricky to identify in the archaeobotanical record from reasons as diverse as poor preservation to sampling issues. Beyond general mentions of gardens, medieval historians have noted references to bowers (arched trellis covered with vines or climbing plants) and possible water features as well as hawthorn hedging, roses and juniper trees.2 Many medieval manuscripts show luxurious images of trellising and water features in a verdant green dreamland (Fig. 1). I am not going to suggest that exact replica sites of mythical gardens existed but perhaps we can use these images as a reference point.
So, we know what gardens might have looked like and some of the things that may have been present. What then, do we know about gardening?3 Certain castles, such as Richmond, have latrines that empty into the garden space suggesting that medieval people were good at composting! (Fig. 2) But what about plant propagation and curation? What plants or flowers were grown? Or how?
Nurseries were established at monasteries across Europe in the later medieval period; one existed in London by at least the late thirteenth-century4 and at Kilmainhaim, Ireland during the early fourteenth century.5 Perhaps they also existed at castles? Some medieval manuscripts show images of plants in pots – isn’t that very interesting? (Fig. 3). So possibly plants in pots, like elite households, were on the move.6 If plants moved with their households what types were selected? Were they transplanted to grow in new locations? While extensive archaeological excavation might be able to answer these questions – what if we look at the evidence in front of us: the modern ecological landscape?
Might the modern landscapes of medieval castles give some clue to plants of the past? The study of relict plants – those that survive from the past – involves the examination of modern landscapes for the presence of plants that may have been deliberately planted and cared for by people in the past. An ecological survey of Welsh castles completed in 1994 by Ann Connolly noted that there were clusters of plants with known medicinal uses present at castle sites but notably absent from suitable surrounding terrain.7 This included wild sage (Salvia verbenaca) at Montgomrery and wild rocket (Reseda luteola), as well as henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) at Rhuddlan. The implication is that these plants were deliberately planted at these sites for their medicinal use.
Pioneering work has been completed on relict plants in from medieval monastic gardens in Norway8 and Iceland.9 Fiona MacGowan, working in Ireland noted the presence of yellow wallflowers (Erysimum cheiri) at the windows of the main focal building at Lea Castle, Co. Laois (2014; Fig 4). These are non-native to Ireland and were thought to be frame the windows and waft in good smells. Relict plant studies, as part of wider analyses, is becoming established as a novel way to gain insights into past communities’ growing or cultivation practices as well as potential medicinal and dietary concerns.
‘Sowing the Seeds of Interdisciplinary Work’, the project funded by the Castle Studies Trust sets out to build on this work, and understand if surviving plants at medieval castles which were possibly planted, grown, cared for and used by medieval people can further inform us of medieval lived experiences in the garden and possibly with gardening. Ecological surveys will be carried out at four geographically distant but culturally similar medieval castles sites with diverse landscapes: Adare. Co. Limerick, Castleroache, Co. Louth, Mocollop Castle, Co Waterford and Castlecarra, Co. Mayo (Figs 4-7).
From the selected sites, only Adare has been subject to archaeological investigation and therefore has an associated archaeobotanical report to be analysed.10 Castlecarra is surrounded by woodland which has the potential to be ancient; it is included in the Lough Mask and Lough Carra Special Area of Conservation (Site code 001774). It will be part of the survey. All four have associated settlements and a variety of religious houses from parish churches to abbeys. At Mocollop and Castle Carra these spaces will also be surveyed owing to their relatively undisturbed surrounding landscapes. They will provide an interesting set of comparative sites.
Working with Dr Fiona MacGowan, an ecologist who has a passion for the medieval, we will carry-out the ecological surveys over the late summer (hopefully). Once compiled the ecological reports will be used to expand our knowledge of what plants may have been used or grown at Irish medieval castles by contextualising the results within appropriate historical and folkloric traditions. These findings will be analysed together with of archaeological, historical and architectural details of the four castles sites. We are sure that the results will demonstrate the potential of relict plants studies to enrich our understanding of the ‘green’ lives of people in the past.
Arvid Åsen 2009
Kristjánsdóttir, Larsson & Arvid Åsen 2014
Dunne 2007; Dunne & Kiely 2013
Åsen, A. P., 2009. Plants of possible monastic
origin, growing in the past or present, at medieval monastery grounds in
Norway, in Plants and Culture: seeds of
the cultural heritage of Europe, eds. J.P. Morel & A.M. Mercuri. Edipuglia Bari: Centro Europeo per i
Beni Culturali Ravello, 227–38.
Caple, C., 2007. Excavations at Dryslwyn Castle 1980-1995. London: Society for Medieval Archaeology.
Dempsey, K. in press. Planting new ideas: a feminist gaze on medieval castles. Chateau Gaillard 29.
Dunne L. 2007. Adare Castle, Raising Bridges and Raising Questions, in From Ringforts to Fortified Houses: Studies on Castles and Other Monuments in Honour of David Sweetman, C. Manning (ed.), Dublin, Wordwell, pp. 155-170.
Harvey, J.H., 1985. The first English garden book: Mayster Jon Gardener’s treatise and its background. Garden History 13, 83–101. https://doi.org/10.2307/1586825
MacGowan, F., 2014. Ecological Report for the area around Lea
Castle, Portarlington, Co. Laois. Unpublished Report.
Reeves-Smyth, T., 1999. Irish Gardens and Gardening Before Cromwell (Barryscourt Lectures
4). Cork: Gandon Editions
Smith, S., 2018. Rills and Romance: Gardens at the Castles of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth and Edward I, in The Medieval and Early Modern Garden in Britain, eds. P. Skinner, & T. Tyres. London & New York: Routledge, 40–55.
Thorstad, A. 2019. The Culture of Castles in Medieval England and Wales. The Boydell Press. Woodbridge.
Project lead for the Shrewsbury Castle excavations Dr Nigel Baker looks forward to the forthcoming excavations at the castle, hopefully this year, funded by the CST
year, the Castle Studies Trust excavation – the first ever to have taken place
within the walls of Shrewsbury Castle – produced three headline conclusions.
The first was that the work of the young Thomas Telford there for his client,
William Pountney M.P. in 1786-90 was, sadly, more destructive of the medieval
original than had previously been recognised. The extent of his restoration of
the house (now the Soldiers of Shropshire Museum) and the curtain walls has
long been known. What wasn’t appreciated was that standing walls of ruined
buildings and a 13th-century tower on the motte top were destroyed
and reduced to their footings, and the interior of the inner bailey was, it
seems, scraped flat, producing a lovely level lawn at the expense of any archaeological
deposits overlying the natural gravel of the hilltop. Despite this, infilled
negative features (pits and ditches) cut into the gravel survived and were
found by our excavation trench. As a result, our second headline conclusion was
that the motte was ringed on its landward side by a massive ditch, twelve
metres wide: what we know as the inner bailey must, in the early Middle Ages,
have been little more than a barbican defending the end of the bridge giving
access up the motte.
the extent of Telford’s work raises a question, first put to the archaeological
team by Martin Roseveare, our geophysicist: if Telford had the inner bailey
levelled flat, where did he put the proceeds, meaning the scraped-up earth and
debris? Could the apparently well-preserved medieval ramparts ringing the
bailey actually be down to the young Scottish civil engineer, rather than
impressed English labour under the whip-hand of William the Conqueror’s
henchmen? This is one of the leading questions that a second season of
excavation at Shrewsbury Castle hopes to be able to answer, by digging on part
of the western rampart known to be already disturbed by former Victorian
Status Saxon Living
are, however, other at least equally compelling reasons for excavating on this
site. The third headline conclusion of the 2019 trench was that there was
pre-Conquest activity within the area of the inner bailey. This was
demonstrated by a pit, pit 20, containing Stafford-type ware (well known in
late pre-Conquest Shrewsbury) and a type of pottery known as TF41a, an import
up the Severn from Gloucester, never seen before in Shrewsbury. The question
is, what was it doing there?
is one of those castles listed in Domesday along with the destruction it caused
to its ‘host’ shire town. Construction of Shrewsbury Castle took out 51
tax-paying tenements, a quarter or a fifth of the total built-up area, to the
economic distress of the remaining inhabitants. Many of the destroyed plots
will have lined the strategically important Chester to Hereford road that
passes through the outer bailey. However, looming over the road and its plots,
and the main gate through the pre-Conquest defences, was the hilltop on which
the castle would come to be built. And on it, overlooking the gate, most likely
on the Victorian greenhouse site, was the Church of St Michael, a church that
became the castle chapel, but was listed in Domesday between the entries for
two of the town’s pre-Conquest minsters and was served by two priests later in
the Middle Ages, when it was a royal peculiar, exempt from episcopal oversight.
This need not necessarily all add up to a pre-Conquest church – but the chances
are very strong that it does, and that this church, which, overlooking the town
defences, may have had some kind of
defensive role, was part of the context of pit 20.
clues are beginning to point to a high-status site, probably enclosed, with its
interior ground level two metres above that of its neighbours, and its own
church. For an analogy, one could do worse than look to Wallingford, whose
castle in the north-east corner of the Saxon burh had probably taken over and
re-fortified a royal site of some kind, possibly housing government functions,
perhaps a mint, and a garrison of housecarls. Or one might look to Oxford,
where St George’s Tower is now generally thought to be of pre-Conquest date. Shrewsbury
seems to be joining the list of Norman town castles established on sites of
political, not just tactical, importance.
But archaeology can be frustrating. While we hope that excavation of the Victorian greenhouse site in the west rampart may yield insights into the extent of Thomas Telford’s landscape gardening, the foundations of a pre-Conquest church and further clues to a high-status or even royal site preceding the castle, by 2021 the excavation team may well be singularly well-informed experts on…Victorian greenhouses.
The results are in, we’ve decided which projects we will be funding for 2020.
But before we get to the announcement, we want to thank all the applicants who proposed projects. It was a difficult decision, with exciting and innovative approaches to a group of fascinating castles. This year marks a milestone for us: we are award £30,000 across the successful projects which is the most we’ve given in a single year.
So without further ado, here are the five projects we will be funding in 2020. We hope you are looking forward to discovering more about them.
The project will develop a reconstruction drawing of the castle, as it would have been in the latter part of the 12th century, founded by William the Conqueror, in the second half of the 11th century.
We will be funding a second year of excavation, following on from 2019, this time to understand the rampart of the inner bailey.
Sowing the Seeds
The aim of the project is to try and understand better everyday life in castles by seeing if there are any surviving plants at four Irish castles that were planted, grown, and cared for by medieval people.
Could the Wirk be a Norse castle? Based on the island of Rousay, this stone tower is situated close to the old parish church and recently discovered Norse Hall. However, no one knows what this tower was used for or even when it was built.
Using various forms of geophysical survey to try and understand the subsurface features for the former caput of the Earls of Northumberland.
Donate regularly for invitation to exclusive site visits
Regular donors will be invited to all exclusive visits to the projects we fund.
Those who are able to donate £500 a year or more (excluding Gift Aid) will also have the opportunity to attend our annual special castle visit to major/privately owned castles. In 2020 this will be at Edinburgh Castle on Saturday 6 June where we will visit parts of the castle not open to the public.
Any new donations by standing order or payroll giving will be matched by a generous supporter for the next two years up to a maximum of £2,000 a year in total.
You can donate regularly via payroll giving or by setting up a standing order. Please return the form to the address on the forms, with the gift aid form if applicable.
deadline for grant applications passed on 30th November. We’re going through
the various projects now. Altogether the 13 projects, coming from England,
Ireland, and Scotland are asking for over £88,000. They cover not only a wide
period of history but also a wide range of topics. In a little more detail,
here are the applications we’ve received:
The main aim is to recover evidence for the base natural topography around the approach to the main gate of the once royal castle, from the area of the medieval village, and explore how this was altered, presented and exploited to create a sense of theatre for visitors to the site.
A geoarchaeological auger survey of the moats that surround this former royal castle and palace of Thomas Becket. The survey aims to answer such questions as what were the moats original profiles, when were the moats filled and how do the two moats compare with each other.
To try and understand the date of the construction of the castle owned by the MacDougall clan through various through buildings and materials analysis including radiocarbon dating and mortar analysis.
Fraoch Eilean, Loch Awe
To try and understand the date of the construction of the former royal castle through various through buildings and materials analysis including radiocarbon dating and mortar analysis.
The aim of the project to continue the work the CST funded in 2019 with excavations and building survey. Further excavations will try and understand the purpose of the structures found in the 2019 excavation season and if they were related to the original great tower.
Holme Pierpont, Nottinghamshire
To build up an understanding of this late medieval great house, never previously researched. The work will include a mixture of desk research, building survey and geophysical survey of the parkland surrounding it. The house is the most complete of the three late medieval brick-built houses in Nottinghamshire.
To develop a reconstruction drawing of the castle as it would have appeared in the second half of the 12th century. Lincoln Castle was founded by William the Conqueror in the late 11th century.
To fund a second year of excavation, this time to understand the rampart of the inner bailey. The geophysical survey carried out in the 2019 suggested there could be remains of buildings there, possibly even a late Saxon church. Shrewsbury was a very important border castle up until the 13th century and frequently used as a base for English raids into Wales.
Sowing the Seeds
The aim of the project is to try and understand better everyday life in castles by seeing if there are any surviving plants at four Irish castles that were planted, grown and cared for by medieval people. The research will involve ecological surveys at each location.
Strongholds of Wessex
The aim of the project is to understand the military organisation of the northern part of Wessex (Wiltshire and West Oxfordshire) from the transition from Saxon to Norman rule between the 9th and 12th centuries. The work will involve documentary research, landscape and place name surveys. Sites examined will include Castle Combe, Cricklade and Silbury Hill.
The Wirk, Orkney
Could the Wirk be a Norse castle? Based on the island of Rousay, this stone tower is situated close to the old parish church and recently discovered Norse Hall. However, no one knows what this tower was used for or even when it was built. The work would involve a geophysical survey of the surrounding area as well as two trial trenches to try and find dating evidence.
Thermal Imaging of Castles
To test how useful thermal imaging could be in understanding castles. The thermal survey using a FLIR camera of two castle facades in different climates. within the UK—Caisteal Uisdein, on the coast of Loch Snizort, and a castle farther south and slightly inland, Castle Rising.
Using various forms of geophysical survey to try and understand the subsurface features for the former caput of the Dukes of Northumberland. The survey will focus on the bailey inside the 12th-century curtain wall as well as the strip of land outside but on the early earthwork castle, the motte and field near the entrance to the castle.
The applications have been sent to our expert assessors who will go over them. And if you want to know more about how the assessment process works, we have a brief summary.
As it’s September, we are now accepting grant applications for projects to run next in 2020. Grants are for projects which improve the understanding of castle and cover up to £10,000 and applications close on 28 November. Since we started awarding grants in 2014, we have given a total of £100,000 across 24 projects.
If you’re searching for ideas previous grants have supported fieldwork such as excavations at Shrewsbury and geophysical survey at Tibbers, and interpretative projects such digital reconstructions of Holt and Ruthin and a series of videos by Dig It! TV.
It is always exciting to see the applications come in and learn what people have in mind. Our website has more information on our grants, including the criteria projects are assessed on and the application form. If you have questions about grants or want feedback, please contact Jeremy Cunnington (our Chair) at email@example.com