St John’s Close and the edge of the Park: the landscape of Warkworth

Dr Will Wyeth, Property Historian at English Heritage, previews the geophysical survey, funded by the Castle Studies Trust, in order to learn more about the landscapte around Warkworth castle.

Following the success of a survey of Warkworth Castle’s earthworks in late 2020 as part of a scheme of reinterpreting this most palatial castle (report forthcoming), we on the English Heritage Warkworth project team have sought to expand upon our understanding of the medieval complex by turning towards its immediate landscape. Although much of the medieval landscape is not in the care of the charity, which looks after over 400 historic properties and sites across England, the landscape has tangible and nuanced connections which the project wants to explore. The castle is among the most prominent features in this area (Figure 1); its location adjacent to the lowest crossing point of the River Coquet means that low, somewhat boggy ground extends across the area south-east of the castle as the river widens to its mouth by the coastal village of Amble.

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Figure 1. Warkworth Castle from the south-east, on the coastal road to Amble. The Great Tower, in the background, sits atop a large motte. In the foreground, low boggy ground flanks the south side of the raised coastal road. Out of shot on the right is the River Coquet as it widens to its mouth by Amble, and towards Coquet Island in the North Sea proper. © Will Wyeth

The plan of Warkworth Castle comprises a fairly typical motte and bailey, with stone superstructures of varying date and scale, and whose earliest iterations date from the late 12th century. While the antiquity of the settlement of Warkworth – laid out upon the north-south ridge of raised ground within this loop of the Coquet – is not known for sure, what is apparent is that the castle respects and influences the configuration of burgage plots and the coastal road ultimately linking Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and Berwick-Upon-Tweed. A walk around Warkworth village proper shows there are several important places and features which both relate to and indeed enrich the castle story.

Figure 2. The remains of the late 14th-century fortified bridge, comprising a gate-tower and multi-pier crossing, at the northern end of Warkworth settlement. Photo © Colin Park (cc-by-sa/2.0) – geograph.org.uk/p/6013384.

The church of St Lawrence, itself probably constructed on the site of an earlier medieval church, is located mere metres away from the late 14th-century fortified bridge (Figure 2) which spans the northern extent of the river’s loop. The identification as a ‘fortified bridge’ is perhaps misleading. Thought to have been completed around the time the Great Tower at Warkworth Castle was finished, the bridge may be better understood as a toll collection station, though its administrative and security characteristics are not necessarily contradictory.

Figure 3. Low, raking light of a Northumberland autumn sunset highlights the earthworks of ridge-and-furrow immediately south of the castle. © Will Wyeth

To the north, the coastal road carries on towards Alnmouth and onto Alnwick. It is in relation the immediate south and west of the castle, however, to which the Castle Studies Trust generously agreed to fund a further season of geophysical survey. Fields here testify to a legacy of cultivation which may be medieval in origin; traces of ridge-and-furrow are apparent immediately south and south-west of the castle (Figure 3), as well as in an area of ground rising gently from the river terrace, west of the Great Tower, across the river proper (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Rising ground on the west bank of the River Coquet, punctuated by pre-modern cultivation earthworks, viewed looking west from the Great Tower of Warkworth Castle. © Will Wyeth

This new geophysical survey targets a cluster of fields adjacent to a modern pedestrian route to the castle which may fossilise a medieval antecedent (Figure 5), which would substantiate theories about the architectural orientation of major elements of the southern curtain wall of the castle towards the south-west. It also looks to locate with confidence the position of a suspected medieval hunting park boundary and access gate, which are sporadically referred to in manorial documents associated with Warkworth Castle in the late medieval period, but whose origins may lie in the 12th-13th-century, or (when considering place-name evidence) earlier still. Currently the park boundary is probably represented by a linear bank (Figure 6) with a southern return going westwards.

Figure 5. Pathway leading to Warkworth Castle from the south, sandwiched between pre-modern cultivation earthworks. © Will Wyeth

One of the fields in question bears the name St John’s Close, which had previously been thought to indicate the presence of a chapel here. In fact, the name likely references the field’s ownership by the Knights Hospitallers in the late medieval period, of uncertain origin but attested in a 16th-century return. The field is depicted in an estate map (which for copyright purposes cannot be displayed here) at the corner of a hunting park.

Figure 6. In the middle distance are the best-preserved portion of a linear bank, the suspected remains of the medieval park boundary, which runs roughly north-south. The path in the foreground is the pedestrian route discussed above. The linear bank makes a rough 90-degree return westwards out of shot, on the left. © Will Wyeth

It is hoped that by firmly establishing the location of the medieval park boundary, any trace of a parallel routeway to the castle from the south-west, as well as the located of a gate into the park, English Heritage will be able to better draw the connections between castle and landscape which are now acknowledged as central components of castle culture. In turn, this will allow the charity to tell a more informed and more nuanced story about Warkworth Castle and the people who lived, worked and died here and hereabouts in its long history.

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Castle Studies Trust 2021 Grant Awards

The Castle Studies Trust is delighted to announce the award of six grants, totalling a record £31,000 not only covering a wide geographic area but also a wide range of different types of research:

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Caerlaverock new castle with old behind it and the coastline Crown Copyright Historic Environment Scotland

Caerlaverock, Dumfriesshire

The aim is to understand the chronology and geography of extreme weather events in the high medieval period, and the effects they wrought on archaeological features that led to the abandonment of the old castle built in c.1229 in favour of the new built 200m away in c.1277. The latest thinking is that it was a series of extraordinary storm surge events which pushed a series of storm driven gravel ridges across the River Nith.

The methodology to find this out is interdisciplinary, using scientific methods to enhance understanding of archaeological fieldwork. The fieldwork will involve the establishment of a series of transects across the site and surrounding landscape from which cores and samples will be extracted for sediment description, stratigraphic analysis, and Carbon 14 dating.

Depending on Covid restrictions, the aim is to start doing the work in May this year with the receipt of the final data in the autumn.

Greasley_Castle from air copyright Neil Gabriel

Greasley, Nottinghamshire

The production of an interpretative phased floor plan for Greasley Castle in Nottinghamshire.  The castle, built in the 1340s, has an obscure history and the understanding of its architectural phasing is at best very cloudy. The site is now a working farm and a number of post-mediaeval structures have been conglomerated around the remains of what is suspected to be a fourteenth century courtyard house with projecting corner towers.

The survey will act as baseline research data for a site which has not previously received serious fieldwork or publication and provide a basis for further research but also for any future conservation needs.

Work on the project will start in the early summer when covid restrictions ease.   

Laughton-en-le-Morthen motte and bailey castle and church

Laughton-en-le-Morthen, South Yorkshire

To provide professional illustration and reconstruction which will also be integrated into a co-authored academic article based on the two previous research projects carried out on the site by Dr Duncan Wright and funded by the Trust. A geophysical survey and then small-scale excavation which give a strong indication that the Normans had built a motte on the site of a high-status Saxon dwelling.

Part of the monies will be used to produce phase plans of Laughton during key stages of its development, and a small percentage will pay for a line drawing of the 11th century grave cover incorporated into the fabric of the nearby church. The aim will be to start the work as soon as possible.

Old Wick Tower copyright Historic Environment Scotland

Old Wick, Caithness

Dendrochronological assessment of timber at the Castle of Old Wick, Caithness thought to be one of the earliest stone castles in Scotland dating from the12th century and the period of Scandinavian ascendency. Current thinking though ascribes the date to the 14th century. Analysing these samples will hopefully provide an answer.

With no architectural features or physical “independent” evidence analysing the remains of a timber joist-end (in poor condition) in one of the joist ends remains the best chance of being able to find an answer. 

The taking of the samples is likely to take place in September when conditions are still going to be favourable as the castle is situated next to the North Sea and the sample can only be found 8 metres above ground level. 

Richmond Castle copyright English Heritage

Richmond, North Yorkshire

Co-funding a three-week excavation of Richmond Castle, one of the best preserved and least understood Norman castles in the UK. The aim is to understand better the remains of buildings and structures primarily along the eastern side of the bailey including near the 11th century Robin Hood tower and near Scolland’s Hall.

Subject to the scheduled monument consent being granted the excavation will take place in late July.

Warkworth Castle, copyright William Wyeth

Warkworth, Northumberland

Geophysical survey to explore evidence for subsurface features in and around the field called St John’s Close in a field adjacent to the castle with the aim to establish the location and eastern extent of the castle’s deer park in the 16th century as well as its entrance way. It also hoped to find evidence of a routeway running parallel to the possible park boundary which could represent an early route to the castle’s gatehouse from the south-west.

The plan is to do complete the geophysical survey by the end of March.

To keep up to date with how these projects progress over the coming months you can:

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And if you donate at least £50 here and be invited to our exclusive visits to these projects: https://donate.kindlink.com/castle-studies-trust/2245 

Featured image: Old Wick Castle, Caithness, copyright Historic Environment Scotland

Looking ahead to 2021: grant applications are open

With the start of September upon us, the Castle Studies Trust is now accepting grant applications to fund project to run in 2021. Submissions opened on 1 September and close 1 December. We award grants of up to £10,000 to support research into castles.

Last year we had 13 applications from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales and were able to fund five of them. It’s always fascinating to see the ideas being suggested, from reconstruction drawings and excavations, to videos and surveys of vegetation around castles.

We decide which projects we fund near the start of the year, usually February. This year has been challenging with lockdown delaying work, but our projects have soldiered on as best they can. Hopefully by the time we sit down to discuss what to fund in 2021 things will have settled down.

So if you have an idea you have until the start of December to prepare an application. And if you know a researcher who might be interested, make sure they know about our grants.

We will share news of what projects are under consideration in December, once all the applications have come through. In the meantime, make sure that you are subscribed to our newsletter and blog so you can stay up to date.

Lead image: Lincoln Castle by Ben Keating, licensed CC BY NC SA 2.0.