In five short videos Drs Will Wyeth, Coralie Mills and Hamish Darrah look at the project funded by both the Castle Studies Trust and Historic Environment Scotland to date a timber found at Old Wick Castle, Caithness, and in turn help us understand better this little understood castle.
In the first video Dr Will Wyeth gives the background to the project:
In the first of two blog posts Coralie M Mills and Hamish Darrah of Dendrochronicle look at how they managed to test and date a piece of timber found in a wall socket of the tower at Old Wick Castle, Caithness. A second article by Dr Will Wyeth will look at the historical context behind these surprising findings.
A single surviving timber fragment in the ruinous tower of Castle of Old Wick in Caithness was recovered, studied and dated through the support of the Castle Studies Trust for this Historic Environment Scotland (HES) project. The outer end of the timber was visible within a socket in the north west wall of the tower at about second floor level. Exposed to the elements, in fragile condition and at risk of further decay, it was recognised by HES as a means of dating this relatively featureless tower, variously ascribed to the 12th or later 14th century for initial construction. Therefore, our mission to recover this fragile lone timber was rather nerve-wracking and undertaken very carefully. Fortunately, it went well, and we recovered it in one piece in September 2021.
Back at base we recorded the form of the timber and sub-sampled it for dating and species identification. The sampled cross-section had two centres and was intact to sub-bark surface in one corner. The species proved to be alder (Alnus glutinosa), a common native tree of wet places including in northern Scotland. This ruled out the possibility of dendrochronological dating, given the absence of suitable alder reference data, and led to Bayesian radiocarbon ‘wiggle-match’ dating using five-year blocks of rings sub-sampled at known intervals across the 80-year tree-ring sequence. The radiocarbon dating was undertaken by SUERC and Bayesian analysis of the only two viable sub-samples provided a ‘wiggle match’ date of cal AD 1515–1550 (95% probability), with highest single-year probabilities in the range cal AD 1515–1535 (68% probability). The results represent the bark edge position and the felling date of the timber. There is a possibility this is naturally storm-thrown material being used rather than a tree being felled for the job, in which case the date is the death date of the stem, but either way it is unlikely this stem was dead for long before it was worked.
This is a short irregular length of timber, 46cm long, 12cm wide and a maximum height of 19.5cm at the exposed face, tapering to 6cm at the inner end. The outer face is heavily weathered, and we cannot tell whether that face was worked or how far the timber projected originally. At the better-preserved inner end, the timber has an axe-cut notched, faceted face which had no structural function in the socket and was just sitting free within the void behind the timber. It has no clear joinery evidence such as a mortise or trenail. Therefore, our preferred interpretation is that the notched end is the consequence of axing off the branchy top of the stem, but we cannot rule out the possibility that it represents a re-used timber. If the notched end is seen as a deliberate feature, then it may have been designed to allow this timber to be propped against another element of a structure, perhaps in something temporary like scaffolding, and could signify re-use of the timber in this context. Other than this notched feature, the only other woodworking evidence is of an axe being used to shape the timber from the round into a rectangular form.
Alder is often naturally multi-stemmed and can also be coppiced. However, eighty years is well beyond the stem age expected in any coppicing system. This is more probably natural unmanaged material. Based on the overall form, the double centre, the direction of knots and the taper on the timber, we do not think this timber is cut from a managed coppice stool or the base of a tree but rather from the upper branching top of a substantial stem. Therefore, the stem could have been a good bit older than 80 years when felled, as any tree stem will have more rings near the base than at the top. The stem must have been several metres tall after 80+ years of growth. Therefore, while we do not know how long the original timber was, this surviving short length of timber may be an offcut, with the bulk of the stem used for another purpose. Alder sill beams have been found in medieval Inverness and Perth, perhaps selected for alder’s rot resistant properties, and alder is also known to have been used as crucks historically in northern Scotland.
The socket holding the timber is much deeper than the timber, at least 70cm deep, with packing around the timber and a void behind, suggesting the socket was not built with the dimensions of this alder timber in mind and may be earlier than the timber, which would make the timber part of a secondary feature. Based on our observations of the timber’s position and character, it is clearly not part of a floor joist, and is more likely a fixture for a lost internal fitting or small structure. If the timber was used fresh in this context, our preferred interpretation, the dating results represent the time when this timber fixture was added to the castle. However, if the notch is interpreted as evidence of timber re-use than the date is a terminus post quem (date after which) for this phase of alteration to the castle. The structural and historical evidence is considered further by Will Wyeth in his separate blog piece:
In the second of two articles on the Castle Studies Trust / Historic Environment Scotland co-funded project to date the timber left in a wall socket at Old Wick, Dr Will Wyeth offers an explanation for the surprising date of the timber.
Past investigations of Castle of Old Wick provide a context for the most recent research on this enigmatic Caithness castle. The archaeological evidence combined with historical details give sharp insight into an episode of violence and destruction at the castle in the life of Christian Sutherland, the Lady of Berriedale.
Based on some similarities with Cubbie Roo’s Castle in Orkney, Old Wick’s standing fabric – a unornamented stone tower with small windows – has been dated to the 12th century. A survey in 2016 led by Dr Piers Dixon of Historic Environment Scotland (HES) was the first comprehensive assessment of its standing buildings and earthworks since the publication of MacGibbon and Ross’s Castellated and Domestic Architecture in the late 19th century. Dixon’s study queried the consensus of the castle’s high medieval origins, pointing to regional comparators whose documented history sat more comfortably in a date range beginning in the 14th century. My review of archaeological and historical evidence for Castle of Old Wick in 2019 substantiated the conclusions of the 2016 survey.
Nevertheless, the simple stone towers of Caithness are poorly understood. They are fairly numerous in the county but our understanding of them relies on an unproductive mixture of simplistic architectural study and a reliance on references in historical sources.
Dr Coralie Mills’ and Hamish Darrah’s research gives scope to uphold Dixon’s assertion, and challenge a 12th century date for Castle of Old Wick. Their analysis of the fragment of alder has given the first substantive dating evidence for the castle with a felling date range of 1515-50 (95% probability).
The slot in which the timber was recovered, located on an internal wall face within the tower, was argued by Dixon to be part of a hanging lum. This is a form of fireplace common to buildings of middling and high status in late medieval Britain, also helpful for dating the construction of the tower at Old Wick. A hanging lum is a fireplace whose hearth and flue are built against, not within, a wall.
Mills and Darrah suggest that the alder was a replacement for an earlier timber used for the same purpose, i.e. to support a hanging lum, therefore, the felling date corresponds with a period of repair, restoration or improvement of the interiors of Castle of Old Wick in the early 16th century.
Looting and legitimacy
The historical context is one where violence both within and between kin groups is a feature of elite society in late medieval Britain. Typically, these disputes centred on rights of succession to property and titles. Those held by women were the most precarious. In 1517 two parties from the extended Sutherland of Duffus family met to settle a violent succession dispute at Drumminor Castle in Aberdeenshire. William Sutherland of Duffus agreed to an arbitration on the matter of assisthment (compensation for loss) and kynbut (compensation for manslaughter) with Christian Sutherland (the Lady of Berriedale) and her son and heir, Andrew Oliphant. William and his accomplices were held responsible for the murder of Christian’s elder son Charles. Duffus was also accused of seizing and looting two of her properties: Berriedale Castle and Castle of Old Wick.
The family dispute which led to the murder of Charles Sutherland originated in the legitimacy of Christian’s inheritance of several estates on the death of her father, Alexander Sutherland (d. 1451×1471), including those in Caithness but also Duffus and elsewhere. William Sutherland’s father, also William Sutherland of the fittingly named Quarrelwood, contended that Christian was illegitimate. The court of the Bishop of Aberdeen had found in favour of Christian in 1494, but two years later Quarrelwood violently seized Castle of Old Wick. This was very likely not the same occupation mentioned in the 1517 document. Still unsatisfied, Quarrelwood pursued his case in the court in Rome for several years, until a settlement of sorts around 1507, when Christian surrendered her father’s Duffus lands.
We don’t know exactly why she reached this settlement but it may be telling that her husband’s kin, the Oliphants, had spent substantial sums (not entirely selflessly) on supporting her legal case and accommodating Christian and her children during the difficult years of legal wrangling. We also can’t be sure if the 1517 document references this settlement, or another outburst of violence.
It is tempting to connect the episode of refurbishment at Castle of Old Wick implied by the radiocarbon dating and the documented evidence of looting at the castle which took place before the 1517 settlement, with the implication of subsequent repairs implied by that settlement. I think this is the best conclusion, but others are possible. Between 1515-50 the castle was held by at least seven different parties, but evidence suggests that they were either in financial difficulty or held the castle to generate money from its lands, not as a family seat. Only when the senior branch of the Oliphants take over after 1548 is there a compelling reason to think that the castle was systematically renovated: this is the best alternative scenario to that suggested above.
Archaeologists’ efforts over the last six years have drastically altered our understanding of the Castle of Old Wick. But they have also shed light on the story of Christian Sutherland and violence and upheaval occasioned by her kinsman’s legal contestation. This research demonstrates the value of revisiting the smaller castles of the world, for the potential to challenge an existing consensus as well as shed light on lesser-told stories from the medieval past.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 exsitu 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 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!
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.
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.
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!
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: