Greasley Castle – A Misunderstood Castle

Following the publication of the results of our Warkworth geophys survey, here is the second of the Trusts 2021 grant awards publishing their results on the building survey of Greasley Castle, Nottinghamshire . Here James Wright explains what he found during his survey.

When studying castles, it is important to try and understand the contemporary experience of the buildings in the mediaeval period. A good way to do this is to look at castles which fit into the background. Researching castles built for kings, dukes and archbishops can skew data towards extraordinary structures. Equally, castles built in contested borderlands can lead to a focus on military aspects which were perhaps not part of the everyday for most sites. Surveys of lordly sites in the English midlands can help to establish a framework which explains the commonplace context for most castle builders.

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The Castle of Nicholas de Cantelupe

The research funded by the Castle Studies Trust at Greasley Castle (Nottinghamshire), a relatively obscure site, has afforded the rare opportunity to look at a fourteenth century baronial castle in the midlands. The castle built in the 1340s for the socially rising Nicholas de Cantelupe was probably a type instantly recognisable to many of his aspirational peers.

Cantelupe’s story was a familiar one. Born at the opening of the fourteenth century into a family with high-ranking connections – two of his uncles were bishops – he engaged in royal service through military campaigns in Scotland, Flanders and France. Cantelupe was then appointed Governor of the key border town of Berwick-on-Tweed, named commissioner of array in Lincolnshire and became an MP. In short, Cantelupe was exactly the sort of thrusting individual who built castles to physically cement a place in society through powerful architectural statements.

Tomb of Nicholas de Cantelupe at Lincoln Cathedral (Picture Source: James Wright / Triskele Heritage)

Some scholars have pointed towards Edward III’s grant of a licence to crenellate at Greasley, which Cantelupe received in 1340. However, after that note, references to the castle largely dry up. This is probably due to what the castles specialist, Oliver Creighton referred to as a “deficiency of the field evidence”. The site, a privately owned working farm, has not received much in the way of systematic survey work. Consequently, previous statements were rather scanty – it was a misunderstood castle.

In 2021, Triskele Heritage, funded by the Castle Studies Trust, conducted a buildings archaeology survey with the intention of providing initial baseline data for the site.

Results of the Survey

The project was able to identify that the remaining structures of the castle are located within a post-mediaeval farmyard, which lies inside a partially moated plateau. The remains of a single courtyard were identified. To the north, it is bounded by a plain curtain wall flanked bywhat were probably polygonal turrets. Part of the west curtain wall survives beneath nineteenth century farm buildings. Opposite is part of the east elevation of the great hall. Analysis revealed that a mid-fourteenth century moulded doorway allowed access into a screens passage with the hall opening to the south. Internally, this space was lit by two tall, flat headed, twin-light, double-cusped tracery windows that flanked a recessed fireplace. To the north of the hall, a stretch of ashlar wall culminates in the closer rebate of a door into a service range which probably incorporated the north-east turret.

Interpretive phased plan of Greasley Castle, Nottinghamshire (Picture Source: James Wright / Triskele Heritage)

The former magnificence of Greasley can be alluded to through the identification of the substantial timbers re-used in the roof structure of a post-mediaeval barn, alongside the ex situ architectural stonework which peppers the farm structures. The latter includes carved head sculptures, tracery windows, a moulded coping, a door arch and the crown of a sexpartite vault. When considered alongside the in situ great hall door and windows, it is clear that this was once a very well-appointed castle.

Greasley in Context

With something of the plan of Greasley established, it has been possible to try and set the castle in its wider context. Cantelupe was one of several late mediaeval midlands men who sought to bolster their social position through the patronage of courtyard castles. The pattern of Cantelupe’s biography and architecture can be paralleled in the second quarter of the fourteenth century by the Vernon family at Haddon Hall (Derbyshire) and in the 1350s by Sampson de Strelley at Strelley Hall (Nottinghamshire).

Exterior of the entrance passage and great hall at Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (Picture Source: James Wright / Triskele Heritage)

Haddon is perhaps the closest parallel to Greasley in terms of landscape and architecture. Both are directly overlooked by hills to the north. The moated plateau at Greasley is 0.91 hectares in area and the double courtyard and terraced garden at Haddon are 0.76 hectares. The projected area of the great hall at Greasley (at least 57m2) is proportionate to that of Haddon (67m2) and the layout of the two – with tracery windows flanking early examples of recessed fireplaces – seems similar. Meanwhile, the probable area of the Greasley courtyard (1026m2) is comparable to Strelley Hall (1074m2). Strelley had rectangular corner turrets, whilst Greasley is likely to have had polygonal examples which can be paralleled in the mid-fourteenth century at sites including Stafford Castle and Eccleshall Castle (Staffordshire). Furthermore, the probable relationship between the services and one of the corner turrets at Greasley can be mirrored in the 1380s Drum Tower at Bodiam.

The reasons for the decline of Greasley are, like so many other late mediaeval castles, bound up with the varied fortunes of the families that owned them. For example, the ruin of nearby Strelley was brought about via a five-way division of the estate at the end of the fifteenth century which led to decades of expensive litigation, legalwrangles with neighbouring families and a catastrophic fire. Greasley was inherited by the Zouche family during the 1370s, but they eventually lost it due to the attainder of John Lord Zouche for his support of Richard III at Bosworth. There is no architectural evidence for any mediaeval construction after the original mid-fourteenth century phase and it may be that the later owners either did not remodel the castle or let it deteriorate. By the late sixteenth century the site was a roofless tenant farm.

Greasley Castle Farm in 2021 (Picture Source: James Wright / Triskele Heritage)

Conclusions

Understanding the depreciation of Greasley from courtyard castle to working farm has been key to understanding this misunderstood site. By using buildings archaeology to unpick the later accretions from the surviving built environment of the castle, it has been possible for the plan form of the mediaeval architecture to be established for the first time.

Although a pale shadow of its former glory, Greasley can now be understood as a turreted courtyard castle with a fine great hall and associated services. The site was built for a socially rising aristocrat whose architectural patronage fitted well within the experience of his midland peers. It is intriguing to consider that Greasley may once have rivalled the rightly famous Haddon Hall in its heyday.

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Featured Image: Buildings archaeology survey work on the exterior elevation of the great hall at Greasley Castle, Nottinghamshire (Picture Source: James Wright / Triskele Heritage)

About the author

James Wright of Triskele Heritage is an award-winning buildings archaeologist. He has a long-lived research interest in mediaeval castles, palaces and great houses. He has worked on surveys of buildings including the Tower of London, Nottingham Castle, Knole, Holme Pierrepont Hall and the Palace of Westminster. He has written books on Tattershall Castle, Kings Clipstone Palace and the castles of Nottinghamshire. James led the building survey, funded by the Castle Studies Trust, at Greasley Castle.

From Edwin’s hall to Roger’s castle: the elite residence of Laughton en le Morthen, South Yorkshire

Since 2018 the Castle Studies Trust has funded archaeological investigation of the motte and bailey castle at Laughton en le Morthen, South Yorkshire. Led by Dr Duncan Wright of Newcastle University, a scheme of topographic and geophysical survey, followed by targeted excavation, showed that the castle at Laughton had been built on an earlier elite residence—almost certainly the hall complex of Earl Edwin of Mercia referred to in Domesday Book. The results of the fieldwork therefore show us how an existing high-status centre was transformed into a castle in the wake of the Norman Conquest. Using a combination of the evidence gathered in the field, and comparison with similar centres in the country, researchers are able to reconstruct the chronological development of tenth and eleventh-century Laughton with some confidence.

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Laughton-en-le-Morthern as it might have been pre-Conquest (copyright Pighill Illtustrations)

The first reconstruction shows how the elite residence would have looked in the late tenth and first half of the eleventh century. The hall forms the focus of the complex, and this wooden building and any additional structures would have been surrounded by a ditched and fenced enclosure. The protective circuit was found during excavation, and it was even possible to see where wooden posts had been levered out of the ditch when it went out of use. Appended to the hall complex within its own enclosure would have been a stone-built church, a doorway from which survives in the north wall of the present building. Dr Michael Shapland suggests that the first church at Laughton may have been a free-standing ‘tower nave’ construction, for the exclusive use of the aristocracy rather than the wider community. To the east of the hall and church extended settlement and industrial activity, which has been found by previous archaeological investigation. Laughton would have been an important estate centre as well as an elite residence, and was a place where agricultural produce was collected and processed.

Laughton-en-le-Morthern as it might have been post Conquest (copyright Pighill Illustrations)

The second reconstruction depicts Laughton following the Conquest and after construction of the motte and bailey castle on the site of Earl Edwin’s hall. We cannot be sure when the castle was built, but it was most likely completed before the end of the eleventh century when Norman power in northern England was gradually being established. Laughton at this time was a contrasting picture of change and continuity, with some earlier parts of the elite complex maintained and others adapted or removed. Most obviously, the residential parts of the site were destroyed to construct the castle; excavation showed how the ditches surrounding Edwin’s hall were quickly infilled, and the posts supporting the fence were removed. Geophysics also confirms that the 9m-high motte at Laughton was built direct over the middle of the earlier arrangement, and extended over the western part of the enclosure. The church probably kept its original form in the eleventh century, and was only updated in the twelfth century after it came under the control of York Minster. While investment in the church continued through the twelfth century and later, occupation of the castle seems to have been very short-lived. Excavation identified no material from the later medieval period, and the motte and bailey was not enhanced with stone structures. At Laughton it seems that building of the castle was more important than its actual occupation; construction involved the destruction of Edwin’s residence and the raising of something new that demonstrated the establishment of Norman authority. Nearby Tickhill instead emerged as the most important secular centre in the region.  

Phased Plan of Laughton en le Morthern

The phase plan outlines the core components of the two chronological periods recognised at Laughton. It makes clear how construction of the castle destroyed and disrupted the earlier elements of the high-status complex.

Early grave cover

The stone illustration represents about one sixth of an early grave cover with incised decoration, which was analysed by Professor David Stocker and Dr Paul Everson. This type of monument is well-recognised in eastern England and Yorkshire, and at Laughton the stone can be found built into the eastern wall of the chancel. It is a difficult stone to date precisely, but probably dates to the eleventh century and would originally have covered a burial either within or outside of the church.

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All pictures and illustrations ndertaken by Peter and Rosalyn Lorimer of Pighill Archaeological Illustration. 

Analysing the core samples from Caerlaverock harbour

As the team has now finished its field work at Caerlaverock Castle as part of a project to try and understand the impact of climate change on the changing of the location of the castle in the late thirteenth century, they are now testing the samples in their labs. Here, in two short videos, Tim Kinnaird shows what is involved in the luminescence dating process

Testing the sample

Analysing the sample

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Where Power Lies: the archaeology of transforming elite centres in the landscape of medieval England c. AD 800-1200

Between 2018-2021, the Castle Studies Trust awarded Dr Duncan Wright three small grants to research the castle of Laughton-en-le-Morthen. The aim was to develop an innovative new research methodology to understand the near wholesale replacement of existing lords with incoming Norman tenants-in-chief physically showed itself post the Norman Conquest. Here Duncan explains what that has helped lead to.

In October 2021 the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) awarded Dr Duncan Wright (Newcastle University) an Early Career Research Grant of £200,000 in support of a new archaeological research project.

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Entitled ‘Where Power Lies’, the project will undertake the first systematic examination of the physical evidence for elite centres in the landscape of medieval England between c. 800-1200AD. Many of these high-status places were developed as castles, and the research aims to identify the motivations behind choosing to build a castle at an existing lordly centre, when a site could equally be perpetuated as a manor house or else abandoned altogether.

The success of Duncan’s AHRC bid is partly thanks to the support of the Castle Studies Trust, who funded his research at Laughton en le Morthen (South Yorkshire) with three separate grant awards totalling almost £5000. The work at Laughton, which comprised geophysical and topographic survey, targeted excavation, and the commission of 3D reconstructions, not only helped reveal the complex history of the site but also acted as an important pilot and proof of concept for the new project. Indeed, Where Power Lies hopes to emulate the success of the research at Laughton, and will include some of the same survey techniques, but it will also scale up the focus to look at the national distribution of aristocratic centres with evidence for investment in both church and residential components.

Survey results of geophysical survey of Laughton-en-le-Morthen

After modelling the national picture, the Where Power Lies team will investigate a carefully selected sample of case study sites, which will be subject to topographic, geophysical, and standing building surveys. These investigations will allow us to reconstruct the biography of the case study locations in detail, and to explore how the character and expression of elite power invested in their residential and ecclesiastical complexes evolved over time. Working with the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme as an official project partner, the research will also produce a new profile of the artefacts of the aristocrats who built and occupied these sites. 

By undertaking this work, Where Power lies will shift the focus beyond the relatively small corpus of excavated aristocratic sites of the period which continue to form the basis of our understanding. Instead, by embracing a range of digital technologies and non-intrusive survey methods, the projectwill create valuable new datasets at a number of scales. By generating this new information, the team will demonstrate how the transformation of power centres occurred on the ground, revealing whether castles integrated earlier components into remodelled layouts, or whether they caused greater destruction and a more fundamental schism with the past.

Excavation at Laughton showing remains of a ditch that ran next to a possible entrance way to the Saxon lordly centre.

The team will be led by Duncan as Principal Investigator, who will be accompanied by Professor Oliver Creighton (Exeter University) as Co-Investigator, and a Research Associate who will join the team for the duration of the project. Duncan would like to take this opportunity to thank the Castle Studies Trust for their generous support of his research at Laughton en le Morthen, which strengthened the AHRC bid significantly. He hopes the results of Where Power Lies will prove of interest to everyone associated with the Trust.

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You can read more about the Laughton-en-le-Morthen project here: https://castlestudiestrust.org/blog/2020/08/25/landscapes-of-lordship-searching-for-laughtons-anglo-saxon-elite/

What lies beneath: Results from two geophysical surveys at Warkworth Castle, Northumberland

Dr Will Wyeth, English Heritage property historian and project lead on the two geophysical surveys the Castle Studies Trust funded on Warkworth Castle, looks at what the surveys reveal and equally importantly don’t reveal about the castle.

The results from two geophysical surveys in and around Warkworth Castle have now been digested and synthesized. The first survey sought to explore evidence for subsurface remains of the castle earthworks. The second survey examined a field called St John’s Close, sited within a corner of the medieval park attached to Warkworth Castle. Both surveys are intended to inform English Heritage’s on-going project to improve the way the history at the castle is explored and shared with visitors. Here, we share some of the highlights of these surveys: for the full discussion of the results, you can read the full report here.

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Figure 1. The Great Tower at Warkworth Castle (built late 14th century), situated atop an earthen mound (motte). View looking east from outside the embrace of the castle curtain walls (visible on the right). © Will Wyeth

The first survey targeted three areas of the castle. The first was the top of the earthen mound, or motte (see a phased site plan here). Our aim here was to establish the presence or any subsurface features which may relate to any structures pre-dating the present late 14th-century Great Tower (Figure 1). Our results here were inconclusive: the subsurface examination certainly revealed a feature, perhaps a drain or path, associated with the postern of the present Great Tower (Figure 2). Other features may represent building or demolition rubble, but it’s not clear which.

Figure 2. The blocked postern of the present, late 14th-century Great Tower, giving access from a storage area within the tower to the motte-top. A drain or path leading from the postern down the slope of the mound was detected in the recent geophysical survey of the mound.  © Will Wyeth

The second area of the castle earthworks to be examined was a portion of the castle’s raised bailey platform, east of the enclosing curtain wall presently dated to the late 12th-early 13th centuries. The earthworks of the bailey of Warkworth Castle pre-date any stone buildings known to survive at the present castle: this is because the earliest structures – among them the curtain wall – do not embrace the entirety of the earthworks (see a phased site plan here).

Figure 3. The unenclosed, eastern portion of the raised bailey platform at Warkworth Castle, looking south from the motte slope. The  multi-angular tower with two-storey arrowslits on the right is the Grey Mare’s Tail Tower, built in the 1290s. © Will Wyeth

Our research question here was to establish why this eastern portion of the bailey was left unenclosed, upon the construction of the enclosing curtain wall. Here, again, our results were inconclusive with regards our research question, though the survey did throw some light on possible uses of this space in the later medieval-early modern period. The survey detected a trampled path from the area east of the eastern curtain postern, south of the 15th-century stable building, heading northwards, respecting the projecting mass of the 1290s Grey Mare’s Tail Tower (see feature 14, Figure 4 ). The relative phasing of this feature does not tell us a great deal, except that the path may post-date the construction of the Grey Mare’s Tail Tower. It may also suggest that the postern in the curtain wall, currently dated to the late 14th century, could be coeval with the Grey Mare’s Tail Tower, or it may have replaced an earlier iteration. This is the earliest possible arrangement, as the path could also be more recent in date. 

Figure 4. Interpretative plan of Warkworth Castle, with features from geophysical surveys recorded, north at top. Map Data: Ordinance Survey © Crown Copyright

The final portion of the castle earthwork survey sought to establish the location and extent of features within the enclosed portion of the bailey (‘Area 1’, see Figure 4). Uncertainty remains as to the configuration of the bailey before a major phase of construction presently dated to the 15th century. This substantial campaign of building incorporated the construction of the compressed collegiate church (perhaps never completed) with exquisite covered passage, and a comprehensive rebuilding of the eastern portions of the Great Hall, Chamber block and chapel in the bailey, of which the finest surviving portions are the Lion’s Tower and the Little Stair Tower (Figure 5).

Figure 5. The enclosed portion of the bailey at Warkworth Castle, looking south. The remains of the collegiate church are in the foreground; the Lion Tower, rich in heraldic ornamentation, is on the right, and beyond it is the distinctive spire of the Little Stair Tower. Feature 2 is located approximately between the two picnic benches, in the centre left of the image. © Will Wyeth

The most substantial, and perhaps important, finding of the geophysical survey of the earthworks relates to feature 2 (see Figure 4). Located in the south-eastern quarter of the bailey, it comprises a substantial segment of buried wall or robbed wall foundations, approximately 22m long (on an east-west axis) and c.2m thick. Though the feature stops short of the bailey curtain wall here, it clearly blocks the east curtain postern already mentioned, and therefore may very well pre-date it. The massive character of this feature suggests it may have belonged to a substantial, multi-storey building. Feature 2 also appears to meet the curtain wall at a right angle, with one possible implication being that it may have formed one wall of a square- or rectangular-plan building, which was demolished to make way for the present curtain wall. Curiously, although the castle is not very extensive, the concentration of known high-status buildings from the later 12th-century onwards is on the bailey’s western side. If feature 2 relates to a high-status building, it is unusual for being located in the eastern part of the bailey. Several other features were located within the bailey; these are discussed in the full report.

Figure 6. Satellite view of Warkworth Castle and adjacent park. The area in red, encompassing the surviving park boundary and the park’s south-east corner, was the subject of geophysical survey. © Google Earth, annotation by Will Wyeth

The second area examined by geophysical survey comprised part of the park of Warkworth Castle. The earliest record of the park is dated to the 13th century, but a park at Warkworth may have existed earlier still. Hogdson’s History of Northumberland, which assembled extensive records from the Alnwick Castle archives and elsewhere, offers a rich picture of the late medieval administration of the park, with records of repairs, infringements, agistments (a one off payment by a livestock owner to graze on the land of the landowner) and the collection and sale of underwood all recorded in 15th-century documents. The earthworks of the castle park have yet to be comprehensively mapped, but a portion of the south-east corner of the park, fossilizing the boundary of an historic field within the park called St John’s Close, does survive (see the previous Warkworth blog post for photos of these). This field was chosen as the target of geophysical survey to determine the survival of any features or buildings associated with the medieval park. Research on castle parks has demonstrated that they could feature a broad variety of structures, and were not simply enclosed areas. A further research goal was to ascertain the precise location of a documented park gate attested in a 17th-century estate map (Figure 7), which could represent the closest point of access into the park enclosure from Warkworth Castle.

Figure 7. Estate map of the 1620s, depicting Warkworth Castle (lower left), village and park boundary. The postulated park gate is the round-headed opening roughly half-way along the park’s eastern boundary, between the castle and St John’s Close. Top is south. From Hodgson’s A History of Northumberland, V, opposite p.136 (archive.org. link here).

Unfortunately, the survey results did not yield answers to the questions we posed regarding any medieval features within the area of parkland surveyed, nor was it possible to decisively establish the location of a park gate. The most significant find was in the form of several round features, either enclosures and/or hut circles, which are very likely prehistoric in date (Figure 8). A walk-over of this area confirmed that they were not visible at ground surface level, being concealed by ridge-and-furrow deemed to be medieval in date. The largest of these, feature 2, is also bisected by a former field boundary depicted on the early 17th-century estate map mentioned earlier, though not shown on either of the 1st edition OS maps. A possible caveat to the lack of medieval finds is feature 9 (see Figure 8); this could be a path or hollow-way, and it appears to cut (and therefore post-dates) the ridge-and-furrow. As the eastern terminus of feature 9 is close to the edge of the park boundary, it may point to the location of the suspected park gate. Its western extent appears to respect the trajectory of the lost field boundary, and there it may represent an early modern, post-medieval feature. For a fuller account of the features revealed by the survey, see the full report.

Figure 8. Interpretative plan of St John’s Close south-west of Warkworth Castle, with features from geophysical surveys recorded, north at top. Map Data: Ordinance Survey © Crown Copyright

Although neither survey succeeded in yielding clear evidence to help answer all the research questions we asked at the beginning, they certainly improved our understanding of both areas examined. In the case of the castle earthworks, it is clear that a substantial building once occupied the south-eastern portion of the bailey, and it is now possible to map this accurately in relation to surface-level features. In the case of the park, we can tentatively identify the approximate location of a gate into the park, though we cannot be certain it is medieval in origin. More work may allow us to ascribe dates, or relative phases, to these features.

For English Heritage’s interpretation project at Warkworth Castle, these surveys have been invaluable, and we are grateful for the support of the Castle Studies Trust in pursuing them – especially during the difficulties in completing the surveys resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. Going forward, the standing buildings of the castle have also been subjected to a separate, detailed analysis, and it is hoped that the bringing together of these two sets of data will offer a fresh understanding the site. Although the research is ongoing, a preliminary integration of both appears offers some new and tantalising ideas about the history of Warkworth Castle. These will inform our presentation of Warkworth Castle to the public, and improve our collective understanding of one of England’s finest castles.

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You can view the full report here: https://www.castlestudiestrust.org/Warkworth-Castle.html

Richmond Excavation Day 19: Fin

By Excavation Director Jim Brightman of Solstice Heritage

And so the dig is complete. The trenches have been backfilled and re-turfed (except for the bizarre missing section in Trench 4!). The volunteers have all headed home, and the archaeological team have departed to their next jobs and sites. With the benefit of a few days’ distance as I write this, it has been such a wonderful and fulfilling experience.

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 So, what have we learned?

I covered our thoughts on Trench 1 in an earlier post, and the story of Trench 4 was very much about the plaster floor and fragments of medieval pottery showing the presence of a building of some considerable size.

But what of the other two?

William the Conqueror silver penny

It would be easy for Trench 2 to get overshadowed by the spectacular find of the William I silver penny. Whilst this is undoubtedly one of the stars of the project, its archaeological value lies in the date it gives us for the deposits at the bottom of the trench. What we found was a fragmentary clay and stone floor—perhaps not that exciting at first glance. However, it was packed with animal bone, and we are now pretty certain that we have uncovered the remains of a service building, probably a butchery or abattoir, dating to the very start of the Castle’s story. It has been wonderful to open a window into the grimy and tough day-to-day life of the Norman residents, standing in stark contrast to the towering stone walls of the lordly halls nearby.

Trench 3’s flooring

Trench 3 continued to withhold its secrets from us right through to the end of the dig. A well-made stone and cobble floor covered the entire base of the trench. Indeed, based on the geophysical survey responses we only say a small part of a much, much larger area of flooring. The fragmentary base of a stone wall showed that there was something structural associated with it, but almost all our theories were quashed by one aspect of another of the visible archaeological remains. Perhaps the best theory was that it represents a kind of ‘fancy warehouse’. Similar to the great medieval tithe barns, it could be a specific area for the gathering, tallying and storage of specific goods. There is no way we can definitively prove this, unfortunately, but it certainly fits with the remains we could see.

Right at the end of the dig Trench 3 also yielded up to us a handful of fragments of medieval coloured glass. Paired with the broken and twisted sections of window lead that we recovered throughout the dig, we can now be certain of the presence of a building with stained glass windows somewhere in the vicinity of Trench 3—a tantalising hint that will have to wait for a future project!

Returfing a trench

Overall, though, the story has been about the phenomenal support from everyone who came together to make this project such a success. Whether this be the funders (Richmond and District Civic Society, The Castle Studies Trust and Richmondshire District Council as well as local businesses and private individuals), key project partners such as Celebrate Richmond 950 and English Heritage, or the countless volunteers and visitors who have given so generously of their time. We have been honoured to work alongside these people and to taste something of the passion for history that is a fundamental part of Richmond life.

Although we are now catching up on some well-earned rest, thoughts are already turning towards how we might be able to come back to Richmond Castle and uncover more of its secrets in the future.

Feature image courtesy of Anne Stockdale

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Richmond Castle Excavation Day 17: Another Trench! (and some more cameras)

Excavation Director Jim Brightman of Solstice Heritage gives an update from the end of Wednesday 4 August

With things now very firmly heading towards the end of the excavation, we were able to arrange our logistics just right to let us to open a fourth trench on Monday. It was always our hope that we would be able to get to this point, though with the volume of archaeology (and more recent backfill) in our first three trenches, it’s been very much up in the air as to whether we would have time.

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Fortunately, Trench 2 was completed, and we were able to set to de-turfing an area very close to the southern wall of the Castle and around some slightly enigmatic wall footings that had been consolidated and left above ground in the mid-20th century. It is not entirely clear what these walls might represent, and it has given us another bite at potentially locating the medieval chapel which we were hoping might have been in Trench 3.

Although we are only a short way through the topsoil, we have already seen a real mix of finds from all periods of the Castle’s history: bits of glass and pottery potentially from the Victorian and World War I occupation, some lovely pieces of medieval pottery to show we were heading in the right direction and even a bullet casing made in 1974. What that was doing in the Castle, we have no idea!

The real star of Trench 4 (featured image) so far, however, has been the fragmentary remains of a really fine plaster or lime mortar floor—a hint that we may well be within the footprint of a well-appointed building. Hopefully, we still have enough time to get to the bottom of the remains in this new trench!

Jim Brightman with ITV film crew

The other excitement for the start of this week was the visit today by a team from our local ITV news programme. Word has spread quickly about the find of the William the Conqueror penny last week, and it was a lovely opportunity to spread the word a little wider still about the fantastic work that the volunteers have been doing through the course of the dig. For those who missed it (or are in a different ITV area), the full report can be found at this link:

https://www.itv.com/news/tyne-tees/2021-08-04/now-what-do-we-have-here-dig-uncovers-ancient-treasure-at-richmond-castle

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Richmond Castle Excavation Day 14: Another eventful week!

By Excavation Director Jim Brightman of Solstice Heritage

Reflecting at the end of the second week—two thirds of the way through our dig at the Castle—it’s been an amazing journey so far. After the excitement of the tv cameras on Thursday and Friday, we are all now taking a well-earned Sunday off, allowing some thinking time for the theories and interpretations. Yesterday, we were privileged to welcome a group from the Castle Studies Trust (one of the key project funders and hosts of this very blog!) who came to look round the excavations and offer some of their wonderful expertise and knowledge to help bring focus to some of the stories we are revealing.

Entreance/exit of a likely small postern gate at the at the exterior of the curtain wall immediately beneath trench 1 (courtesy of Dr Peter Purton)

Trench 1 has proven to be the most complex in terms of the intercutting layers and structures (what archaeologists call ‘stratigraphy’). Although there is plenty of time left for our thoughts to change with new evidence, we currently think we have an original narrow door at the base of the curtain wall which was blocked during the medieval period. After this, a small square stone building was constructed against the wall, again at some point during the Castle’s medieval life. In terms of the large stone piers and low stone wall that we can see above ground, however, we are now confident that they are indeed 20th-century inventions built by the Ministry of Works.

One of the most interesting aspects of Trench 1 has been the fantastic amount of fine medieval pottery that has come out of both the mixed topsoil and upper layers, and now from sealed medieval deposits. With a major acknowledgement to the eye and experience of Erik Matthews, we can confidently say we have not only great examples of local and regional pottery, but also of imported French and Belgian pottery. This really shows the importance of Richmond Castle as a seat of power during its medieval heyday and the interconnected nature of authority spanning the Channel in this period.

Range of pottery found in trench 1 (courtesy of Dr Peter Purton)

With the end of the project in sight, over the coming week I’ll also wrap up the stories for Trenches 2 and 3, so do keep checking back!

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Feature image courtesy of Dr Peter Purton.

Richmond Castle Excavations Day 11: Cameras are a lucky charm!

By Dig Director Jim Brightman of Solstice Heritage

The dig is rattling along really well now as we head towards the end of our second week. We’re bottoming out our questions in Trenches 1 and 2, though the ongoing mystery of our paved surface in Trench 3 continues to tax brains—hopefully the answer is lying deeper in the trench and will be revealed in the next few days.

The main story of today was the excitement generated by the arrival of Professor Alice Roberts and the camera crew from the Digging for Britain series on the BBC. It was a real honour to host the team at Richmond Castle and for our dig to form part of the upcoming series. The volunteers really seemed to enjoy having the cameras on site, and Alice was really enthused by the way in which we are unearthing these forgotten fragments of our history together as a community.

The real star of the day though was a find that came out of Trench 2 just as we were cleaning up for a photo. On her very first day on an archaeological site, from a layer that we had been interpreting as early 14th century in date, Jenny’s trowel flicked over a small disc of metal.

A silver penny with William the Conquerer’s image on it

At first, we thought we had another jetton, like the one discovered last week in Trench 3—a fabulous find! After we’d gently cleaned off a little of the dirt, however, it gradually became clear we had something much rarer on our hands. Examining the symbols and barely visible face on the obverse, we realised we were staring into the eyes of William the Conqueror stamped on a silver penny! With specialist conservation work, we may be able to discern the legend around the edge and find out where it was minted. Even with the information we have though, we know it dates to the early years of Richmond Castle, taking our story right back to the very beginnings of the town.

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Richmond Castle Excavation Day 8: Mysteries on mysteries

By Excavation Director Jim Brightman of Solstice Archaeology

So, we are very much at that point on the dig where we are in amongst the really fascinating medieval archaeology, but we are still teasing the answers out of what are turning into quite complex layers.

One place where we are still not sure about whether we are seeing medieval archaeology is in Trench 1: ironically the one trench sited right against the colossal curtain wall of the Castle! The small finds have been outstanding from the upper levels, including a selection of particularly well made and decorated medieval pottery—evidence of the high-status dining that would have graced the tables of the great and good. As we have investigated the substantial buttresses, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that a lot of the stonework around the trench may in fact be an invention of the Ministry of Works in the 20th century! It turns out that the enterprising work teams may have gone a little beyond their remit of consolidation and let their imaginations run free!

Trench 3 is the biggest mystery of all though. We have a clear sequence back through time: modern topsoil, early-20th-century building foundations, the Victorian and later parade ground and a post-medieval soil that had built up after the Castle had fallen out of use. Beneath this, we were hoping for the remains of a medieval building, and that is what we have found. Sort of.

Trench 3 flagstones

The exposed remains comprise a series of massive limestone slabs, not squared and dressed like flagstones but nevertheless laid with some skill. They look a little like a yard that we might see in front of a typical Yorkshire Dales farm, but there are a set of slabs laid at an angle as if forming the side of a shallow pond. If this wasn’t strange enough, the whole arrangement is curved in an arc, part of a much larger feature extending beyond the trench. So far, all our theories don’t quite fit with what we can see in the trench, so the only thing left to do is dig more—out and down—and see what is revealed!

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