Medieval Engineers: history’s forgotten builders

“King Henry II built the great tower at Dover Castle” is the kind of statement you will hear when visiting one of this country’s magnificent fortresses. But the King himself never lifted a single tool to get any castle built. While the hard manual work was done by labourers, and the finer details worked by master stone masons and carpenters hired because of their great skills, the general plan as well as the day to day running of the construction would have been overseen by an engineer-architect. Under Henry II, records survive telling us who they were (in this case, Maurice the engineer) but in most instances they are anonymous.

Dover’s great tower (the tallest building) was constructed by Maurice the engineer for Henry II. Photo by Mark Whibley, licensed CC BY-NC-ND.

This anonymity is not a surprise: the writers of medieval chronicles were interested only in the great who ruled society – kings, bishops, great lords. It was this gap that persuaded me to write my book The Medieval military engineer. From the Roman Empire to the sixteenth century (Boydell Press 2018).

Today, sappers and engineers form a key part of every state’s army, and was also true of imperial Rome. But in medieval times craftsmen were hired to carry out engineering roles and quite often the same people would have many skills, so that alongside building castles they might also design bridges, churches and cathedrals, or oversee the creation of, and sometimes operate, siege weapons. Because they were commoners, and with only a handful of exceptions, their names were not recorded throughout early medieval times. Often we only know them when (like Maurice) records start surviving showing what they were paid for their work. The great lords who also had hands-on military engineering skills were named in history, but were a tiny handful.

Many interesting questions become easier to answer as more records survive, such as how much did these engineers actually know, how they learnt their skills, how knowledge was transmitted across generations, and what part did they play as technology became more sophisticated?

The same skills that St Guthlac used to design and build a chapel (shown above) could be used to build castles.building a chapel. From the British Library’s ‘Guthlac roll’, made in the late 12th or early 13th century. Harley Roll Y.6.

Historians no longer see the years between the end of the western Roman empire and the European renaissance of the fifteenth century as one long period of ignorance, and we are more aware that change and improvement were continuous, witnessed with the development of ever more spectacular cathedrals and castles, but also mundane but vital skills such as bridge and ship building, irrigation schemes, and military equipment such as siege artillery – the trebuchet, taken up across Europe and the Islamic lands during the thirteenth century, was a game-changer, before giving way to gunpowder artillery during the fourteenth.

Change happened because people questioned existing conventions and came up with new ideas, but also because they developed the skills to put them into practice. It is time to give them the credit they are entitled to. Next time you visit a large stone castle, ask not just which lord lived there and paid for it, but who actually designed it, and admire their skills; and if despite its strength it was captured in a siege, who built the wooden engines that do not survive, or who undermined it, which decided the outcome?

Peter Purton, DPhil (Oxon), FSA.

Re-imagining Wressle Castle

Reconstructions are a wonderful tool for showing how places looked in their heyday. I contacted Peter Brears to ask about sharing one of his drawings of Wressle Castle in Yorkshire and he sent this magnificent illustration:

Wressle Castle is a quadrangular stone building. There is a river in the foreground, a village to the right, and gardens next to the castle and behind it.
Wressle Castle by Peter Brears, based on the 2014 survey. Click the image to enlarge.

One of our very first grants supported a survey by Ed Dennison Archaeological Services of the landscape around Wressle. It was more than just a castle, it was practically a palace. Wressle Castle was built for Thomas Percy in the 1390s: he was a royal favourite, and his family was one of the most powerful in northern England.

However, the ruins you can see today are just a small part of the castle which was slighted several time between 1646 and 1650. Peter’s drawing is based on our 2014 survey: you can see the gardens to the north and south of the castle, and in the small strip of land between the moat and castle. The  lower court and village are just to the east. And perhaps best of all, the castle is intact with all four sides.

If you happen to have access to The Archaeological Journal, Peter’s other reconstructions of Wressle are definitely worth a look.

Most importantly, thank you Peter for sharing this drawing, it really brings the castle back to life!

The six projects we’re funding this year

From 15 high quality applications we had to choose which ones we could fund. It certainly wasn’t an easy decision, but we have managed to support six different projects – the most we’ve supported in a single year – with a total of £22,000. You can learn more below, and if you would like to hear about the results when they are ready be sure to sign up to our newsletter.

Old Bolingbroke, Lincolnshire, England

Photo by David Hitchborne, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0.

Bolingbroke Castle was built by the Earl of Chester in the 1220s and Henry IV was born here in 1367. It is unclear how the Rout Yard and Dewy Hill were used, so Heritage Lincolnshire will carry out geophysical surveys at the castle to find out more about the site.

Pembroke, Pembrokeshire, Wales

Photo by ‘Jez‘, licensed CC BY-SA-NC-ND 2.0.

Founded in 1093, Pembroke is the oldest castle out of this year’s projects. Rebuilt by William Marshall, one of the most famous knight of his age, the castle was also the birthplace of Henry VII. Neil Ludlow and James Meek’s project will excavate in the outer ward to find out more about a late medieval hall. We also funded a geophysical survey at the castle in 2016.

Dig It!, castles of southern Scotland

With funding from the Castle Studies Trust Dig It! will be producing a series of eight videos exploring castles in southern Scotland, and sharing them with an online audience. By making it easier to access information about these important historic sites through YouTube and Wikipedia the project aims to inspire the next generation of castle enthusiasts!

Keith Marischal, East Lothian, Scotland


The Castle of Keith belonged to the powerful Keith family. The castle has since been demolished, with some parts built into Keith Marischal House which now stands on the site. Miles Kerr-Peterson and and Rose Geophysical Consultants will be carrying out a geophysical survey to search for the castle’s lost tower and great hall.

Laughton-en-le-Morthen, South Yorkshire, England


The castle is undocumented in medieval sources, but the earthworks of the motte-and-bailey castle are impressive: the motte itself is 9m tall. To find out more about Laughton-en-le-Morthen Castle, Duncan Wright will be carrying out a geophysical and aerial survey.

Ruthin, Denbighshire, Wales

Photo by Eirian Evans, licensed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.

First documented in 1277, Ruthin Castle was controlled by Reginald de Grey in 1282. This once great castle is a ruin today and much in need of interpretation. To help with this, Chris Jones-Jenkins will create a digital reconstruction of Ruthin. Chris also worked on the reconstruction of Holt Castle, which was built around the same time some 18 miles to the east.

Stay in touch!

We will have updates from these projects throughout the year. Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter so you don’t miss out.

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4 women who made their mark on castles

The Barons’ War and Lady Nicolaa de la Haye

King John’s reign is notorious for his disagreements with his barons, leading to the signing of Magna Carta, civil war, and an attempt to Prince Louis of France on the throne. In 1215 Nicolaa de la Haye became castellan of Lincoln Castle, a title previously held by her father. She held the castle for John, and established a truce with one of the rebellious barons when they invaded the town of Lincoln.

King John visited Lincoln in 1216 and Nicolaa asked the king to be relieved of guardianship of the castle, saying that she was too old and wanted to be unburdened by the duty. John valued her staunch support, and declined her request. In fact, on 18 October he made Nicolaa sheriff of Lincolnshire – it was very unusual for a women to have such a position of direct power at the time, and shows how important Nicolaa was to the king’s efforts.

The battle of Lincoln (1217) from Matthew Paris’ Chronica Majora

Though John died on 19 October 1216, the war continued with his supporters fighting for his son, the young King Henry III, while the rebellious barons continued to back the French prince. The war came to a head at the battle of Lincoln on 20 May 1217, resulting in a royalist victory which turned the tide in favour of Henry III. Nicolaa was instrumental in defending Lincoln Castle, but was removed as sheriff just a few days later.

Alice Knyvet stands up to the king

Buckenham Castle lays close to the village of New Buckenham in Norfolk. The circular keep, remains of which are the only surviving building works of the castle, is the earliest known in England dating to c. 1145-50. The castle was demolished in the 1640s by Sir Philip Knyvet, perhaps as a request from Parliament.

The Easter Sepulchre at St Martin’s church in New Buckenham reputedly once contained the remains of Alice Knyvet. Photo by Evelyn Simak, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0.

Contained in the Patent Rolls of King Edward IV’s reign is a story detailing the defence of Bokenham Castle by Alice Knyvet. In 1461, Edward IV claimed Bokenham Castle by virtue of legal inquisition. The castle was, at the time, owned and occupied by John and Alice Knyvet, who did not easily relinquish their estate. The king sent nine commissioners and an escheator to take the castle, possibly knowing that John was away and the castle would be easily handed over.

However, as they approach the outer ward, Alice appeared in the gatehouse tower with the drawbridge raised who kept the castle ‘with slings, parveises, fagots, timber, and other armaments of war’ (CPR, 1461-7, p. 67). We are told that Alice along with William Toby of Old Bokenham, gentleman, and fifty other persons were ‘armed with swords, glaives, bows and arrows’. Alice addressed the commissioners thus:

Maister Twyer ye be a Justice of the Peace. I require you to keep the peace, for I will not leave possession of this castle to die therefor and if ye being to break the peace or make any war to get the place of me, I shall defend me, for liever I had in such wise to die than to be slain when my husband cometh home, for he charged me to keep it (CPR, 1461-7, p. 67).

The narrative described in the Patent Rolls is telling for a number of reasons. Fistly, Alice does not appear to hesitate when royal officials approached her castle demanding that they legally had the right to seize it. Secondly, the fact that the royal commission waited until Alice husband, John, left speaks to their utter miscalculation of her authority and ability to militarily command the battlements. Ultimately, no actual physical fight took place, but Alice’s strategic placement of armed people on the towers meant the castle, at least, appeared to be well defended.

Queen Mary takes control

James II and Queen Mary

Though little remains of Roxburgh, in the Middle Ages it was one of the most important castles in Scotland. King David I ruled Scotland from here and it changed hands several times during the wars between England and Scotland. In 1460 King James II besieged the English-held Roxburgh in an attempt to capture the castle. He died when a cannon he was stood next to exploded. The gun might have been fired to mark Queen Mary’s arrival.

Mary took charge of the siege and summoned her young son to be present when the castle fell. The Scots captured the castle they chose to demolish it. James II’s prize had come at too high a price. The 9-year-old James III was too young to rule on his own so Mary was the power behind the throne for the next few years until her death in 1463.

Lady Anne Clifford and Brougham, Brough, and Appleby

Lady Anne Clifford with her family

By the time the English Civil War broke out in 1641, many castles were neglected or downright ruinous. While some were pressed into action during the conflict, many suffered further damage from siege or slighting.

Lady Anne Clifford had spent years trying to secure her inheritance which included a number of castles. In Westmorland, her castles at Appleby and Brougham had been besieged and damaged during the war, as was the case with Skipton in Yorkshire. From 1650 Anne used her considerable well to repair and restore these castles, as well as Brough which was gutted by fire in 1521. She established Brougham Castle as her main residence and created a garden on the site of the adjacent Roman fort. It is likely that without Anne’s intervention these historic sites would have slipped further into decay and may have become lost to us.

Appleby Castle: Gracious Living on the Wild Frontier

This guest post was written by Erik Matthews, Fieldwork Officer for the Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland.

Appleby Castle in Cumbria (formerly Westmoreland) is much less well known and certainly much less studied than its neighbours at Brougham, Brough or Carlisle. Yet it is substantially intact with masonry elements from at least three periods (12th, 13th and late 15th centuries) together with an extensive area of possibly earlier earthworks.

The castle’s early history is tied to the kings of England: it is mentioned in the  Pipe Roll of King Henry I in 1129-1130 and then it was seized by King Henry II as part of his re-occupation of the area from the Scots in 1157. Later the castle was held by the Viponts in the 13th century and then by the Clifford’s in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Along with Skipton, Pendragon, Brough and Brougham it formed a major element of the former Clifford landholding in the North West in the later medieval and early post-medieval periods. As such there are clear parallels between the 12th-century keep “Caesar’s Tower” and the great tower at Brough as well as between the late 15th-century hall range and the work of the Henry Clifford the 1st Earl of Cumberland at Skipton.

The 12th-century great tower. Photo ©Erik Matthews.

The site has recently re-opened after a protracted period of closure since the 1990s and is the centrepiece of a Heritage Action Zone recently designated by Historic England as a means of attracting investment into the area following on from the devastating floods of winter 2015. This gives a welcome opportunity to undertake a fresh study of the site which was last seriously examined by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England back in the 1930s. Further study of “Caesar’s Tower” is particularly over-due as recent research into similar structures in the UK, Ireland and France have changed our understanding of them.[1]

Historic England are funding consolidation works on “Caesar’s Tower” and the associated curtain wall. It is hoped this will include a photogrammetric survey of and a geophysical survey of the area between the curtain wall, the tower, and the later 15th-century hall range. Further detailed building recording surveys may be possible in the long term to disentangle the later 15th-century and mid 17th-century work associated with Lady Anne Clifford from earlier work within the Hall. The presence of what appears to be the remains of a postern gate with portcullis groove within the north wall and a curious bottle shaped tower at the western end give a hint of what might readily be identified.

Part of the castle earthworks. Photo ©Erik Matthews.

The curtain wall is of a characteristic early form with a low un-crennelated wall walk without towers. Rather than curving, it has angular changes of alignment and may have been built at the same time as the keep. It is unclear how the keep was arranged inside when it was built, but a drain from a sink or laver at third floor indicates there may have been a chapel or oratory. We also are uncertain where the original entrance was. The two earthwork baileys run roughly north to south and north-west to south-east and cover a large area. Investigation may reveal evidence of earlier structures from amongst the ephemeral remains of more recent activity.

This section of the curtain wall may have been built at the same time as the keep on the right. Photo ©Erik Matthews.

The project if successful holds out the prospect of answering a whole range of interesting questions about this fascinating and presently poorly understood site.


[1]  “Some thoughts on the use of the Anglo Norman Donjon” Pamela Marshall. Pgs 159-176. Castles and the Anglo Norman World. John Davies, Angela Riley, JM Leveque, Charlotte Lepiche eds. Oxbow 2016.

Another Bumper Crop of Applications for the Castle Studies Trust to Consider

The deadline for grant applications passed on 15th December. We’re going through the various projects now. Altogether the 15 projects, coming from all parts of Britain, are asking for over £63,000. They cover not only a wide period of history but also a wide range of topics. For a little more detail, here are the applications we’ve received:

  • Caldicot, Wales – a geophysical survey of the scheduled area of Caldicot Castle using magnetometry, resistivity, and Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR)
  • Dig It! 2017 Castles of South Scotland – enhancing public understanding and knowledge of some castles in southern Scotland, their purpose, their history and their relevance, particularly the lesser-known and least visited sites.
  • Dunyvaig, Scotland – co-funding a project to provide better understanding of the landscape context of the castle by conducting detailed topographic and geophysical surveys and carrying out trial trenching to gain key information regarding the preservation and the depth of the buried deposits.
  • Keith Marischal, Scotland – geophysical survey at Keith Marischal House, in search of a lost medieval castle and renaissance palace with a great hall reputed to be second in size to that of Stirling’s.
  • Lathom, England – excavations to find out the true size of Lathom Castle. You may recognised them from 2017’s grants when we funded analysis of masonry recovered from excavations between 1997 and 2009.
  • Laughton-en-le-Mortain, England  comprehensive archaeological investigation of the motte and bailey castle of Laughton-en-le-Morthen, South Yorkshire and its surrounding landscape.
  • Loch Kinord, Castle Island, Scotland – radiocarbon dating an early island castle: Castle Island, Loch Kinord, Aberdeenshire
  • Old Bolingbroke, England – revealing the history of Old Bolingbroke’s Castles: What can researching Bolingbroke Castle’s Route Yard and Dewy Hill tell us about Bolingbroke Castle?
  • Pembroke, Wales – test trenches at one of Wales’ greatest castles to confirm the site of the late medieval structure revealed in the geophysical survey funded by the CST in 2016.
  • Ruthin Denbighshire – co-funding reconstruction drawing of this great Welsh Edwardian fortress. Ruthin was the town where Owain Glyndwr’s rebellion against English rule started.
  • Sheffield, England – record and examine the architectural fragments stored on the site of the castle found in previous excavations.
  • Skipton, England – an archaeological/architectural survey will be produced of the gate structures and flanking round towers of the inner ward of Skipton Castle.
  • Snodhill, England – geophysical survey and excavations to answer some key remaining questions of this important Welsh border fortress re: the castle namely where was the entrance and function of the North Tower.

The applications have been sent to our expert assessors who will go over them. You can see how the assessment process works in one of our earlier blogs.

Piecing together Lathom Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bodiam Castle and the exploration of space

Bodiam Castle is well known in castle studies; whether it was a fortified structure or built to display the status of the owner. This debate has been explored elsewhere, particularly by Professor Matthew Johnson[1]. Traditionally the building has been considered from the exterior, with a few notable exceptions[2], further until recently only ground floor plans of the building have existed. As part of the Lived Experience in the Later Middle Ages project we undertook a survey of the building and created plans of each floor level and some elevation drawings[3]. To undertake the survey we used a Leica reflectorless Total Station linked to download in real time straight into AutoCAD using the software TheoLT. This allowed us to view the survey data as work progressed and to record the building in three dimensions (3D).

Having the results of the building recorded in 3D allowed us to start thinking about the space beyond the traditional drawings, we had generated and we could think about the building in a number of new ways. The 3D data was used as a basis for creating models of the building in the medieval period; rebuilding the fallen walls, reroofing the apartments, and furnishing the rooms. These models can be used to create beautiful illustrations of the spaces, but they can also be used to tell us about living in those spaces.

A visualisation of part of the private apartments at Bodiam Castle

This can be seen when considering the private apartments on the eastern elevation. Previous interpretations[4] see them described as comparable; they lie one above the other and appear to consist of a similar layout of rooms; an unheated outer chamber, an inner chamber with fireplace and window seat, and a further inner chamber with fireplace. However, in 3D they begin to look very different; the roof converts the upper apartment; making the space much more open and the slightly different arragements of windows on the curtain wall combined with the position of the Great Hall will affect the outer chambers.

Comparison between the upper and lower apartments when considered in three dimensions

We can also use the models to consider the lighting of the spaces over the course of a day. A lighting analysis demonstrates how dark these rooms are and how they change over the course of the day.

A lighting analysis of Bodiam Castle showing the changing conditions in the upper apartments over the course of the day

Finally, in furnishing the rooms we can consider movement through the spaces. Floor plan can allow us to see how spaces connect and their size. But in furnishing the rooms the movement through that space can be considered within the frame of reference of an inhabited building.

A visualisation showing a fully furnished room, a different space to negotiate than the empty spaces depicted in floor plans

These examples show just some of the ways to consider how we are thinking about the use of space; in this case at Bodiam Castle and how it is beginning to raise new thoughts on the experience of living within the building.


[1] These drawings and the results of the project have recently been published Johnson 2017 available http://www.oxbowbooks.com/oxbow/lived-experience-in-the-later-middle-ages.html
[2] Faulkner, P. A. (1963). Castle Planning in the fourteenth century. The Archaeological Journal, 120, 215–35.  DOI: 10.1080/00665983.1963.10854241.
Simpson, W. D. (1931).
 The Moated Homestead, Church and Castle of Bodiam. The Sussex Archaeological Collections, 72, 69–99.
[3] Johnson, M. H. (2017). Lived Experience in the Later Middle Ages. (M. H. Johnson, Ed.). St Andrews: Highfield Press.
[4] Faulkner, P. A. (1975). Domestic planning from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. In J. T. Smith, P. A. Faulkner, & A. Emery (Eds.), Medieval Domestic Architecture (Vol. 115, pp. 84–117). Leeds: The Royal Archaeological Institute.
Goodall, J. (2011). The English Castle. London: Yale University Press.
Nairn, I., & Pevsner, N. (1965). The Buildings of England: Sussex. London: Penguin Books.

Keeping up with Pleshey

If you visit Pleshey Castle on one of its open days, you are struck by the size of the place. The castle was probably founded by Geoffrey I de Mandeville in the late 11th century, and while no buildings survive above ground the earthworks are impressive. Excavations at Pleshey in the 20th century uncovered a tower or keep on top of the motte, and buildings in the south bailey. The Castle Studies Trust and Chelmsford Museums Service are working together to interpret the results and make sure they are publicly available.

The castle is laid out in three segments: a north bailey, a south bailey, and a motte in between. The northern bailey, which contained a small market place, has been built over, but the motte and the bailey to the south still survive. A timber keep probably stood on top of the mound, and was modified over the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries.

The keep had a courtyard at the centre, with ranges along the north, west, and south sides, and a forebuilding to the east. The south range contained a hall (important for entertaining guests) and a kitchen (important for keeping the guests fed!). It was probably built after 1167, which was when William II de Mandeville was given permission to refortify the castle after it had been slighted.

Plan of Pleshey Castle’s keep. Drawing by Iain Bell, ©Chelmsford Museums Service.

In the mid-13th to mid-14th century, the keep on the motte was clad in flint, and the hall refurbished. In the late 14th century the living accommodation on the north and east sides of the keep was renovated, and fireplaces and garderobes (privies) were added.

Starting in 1458, the keep was clad in brick, replacing the flint walls. The work was ordered by Queen Margaret of Anjou and records from the Duchy of Lancaster (researched by Pat Ryan) mean we know a lot about how the work was carried out. A new bridge over the inner moat was built entirely in brick in 1477-80, and the gatehouse to the forebuilding was reconstructed in brick in 1482–83. Brick castles are not very common in England, but you can see an excellent example at Tattershall in Lincolnshire.

The chronology of the mid-15th-century changes to the castle should be understood in the wider historical context of the Wars of the Roses. The major refurbishment of the keep in brick was ordered by Queen Margaret of Anjou, but the outbreak of civil war in 1459–61 led to the usurpation of Henry VI by the Yorkist Edward IV, and Margaret went into exile. Edward IV ordered a refurbishment of the castle buildings when he married Elizabeth Woodville in 1464-5 and Pleshey was granted to her as part of her jointure. However, Edward IV was hard-pressed in the 1460s and had to fight to regain his throne in 1470–71, and most of the building works in this period appear to be routine repairs. The rebuilding of the bridge and keep gatehouse in brick in 1477–83 after an interval of 20 years appears to be the completion of Queen Margaret’s scheme of building works in quieter and more prosperous times.

This blog post was prepared by Patrick Allen and Richard Nevell. The photograph of the bridge is copyright Patrick Allen.

Tudor Castles and the Use of the Past

This post was written by Dr Audrey Thorstad, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Bangor University.

As castle scholars and enthusiasts, we enjoy learning about history, exploring how the remains of the past can teach us about the lives of people who came before us, and perhaps what we might learn about ourselves through their experiences. Did those in the past feel the same way? How did they view their own history? How did they embrace or even manipulate the history of the landscape in which they lived?

The physical and material remains tell us a story of a layered history. Any given castle can have centuries of history layered and intertwined with one another. For Tudor castle owners, builders, and renovators, the past played an important role in how they used and interpreted the building and the landscape.

An interesting example, though just one of many, is Cowdray House or Castle in West Sussex. The building that survives today had two main phases of construction during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The first phase started by Sir David Owen from around 1492 and saw the completion of the eastern and northern ranges. The second phase began when Sir William Fitzwilliam, later earl of Southampton bought the estate in the late 1520s and completed the southern and western ranges. Although it appears that the surviving physical remains depict a completely new build, thirteenth-century floor tiles indicate there may have been an earlier residence on the site.

The placement and building of Cowdray was no mistake. To the west, the residence looks out onto the town of Midhurst; to the north and east the castle looks out onto parkland. Fitzwilliam received a licence to impark and crenellate in 1533 from Henry VIII. The licence allowed him to impark 600 acres of land, meadow, pasture and wood.[1] To the south of Cowdray is St Ann’s Hill, the location of a Saxon cemetery dating from the fifth and sixth centuries as well as a Norman castle owned by the Bohun family until the 15th century.[2] These views were meant for those in the castle as well as those approaching the castle. The town and parkland scenery evoked lordly privilege and status, while the closeness of the newly built Cowdray and the old Norman castle gave the observer a sense of historical significance.

Map detailing Cowdray Castle and St Ann’s Hill. Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right (2017).

By rebuilding the castle not on the original site of St Ann’s Hill, but approximately 400 meters away, the Tudor builders were using the past in very interesting ways. The new build broke away from the Norman past and the Bohun family tradition, yet kept the site as a physical memory of that history. Cowdray does not have a completely new history starting in 1492 when Owen started building the castle, but an intertwining and connected history to the town and historical sites around it.

Owen and Fitzwilliam were not alone in their endeavour to create their own legacy by shaping the past. John de Vere, thirteenth earl of Oxford renovated his familial stronghold at Hedingham Castle making the Norman great tower the central building of the inner bailey with his late-fifteenth-century brick towers surrounding the twelfth-century great tower like a monument to his ancestors. It was not just castle building that allowed the Tudor nobility and gentry to use the past. Sir Rhys ap Thomas, for example, used the coat of arms of Urien of Rheged as his own, claiming descent from the sixth-century king of Gower. The use, and arguably manipulation, of history by the sixteenth century elite was nothing new. The nobility and gentry throughout the Middle Ages were interpreting and adopting the past. What sets castles apart is the constant, and at times, unbridled incorporation of structures, materials, landscapes, and histories that came before.

Eastern range of Cowdray including the great hall and chapel. ©Audrey Thorstad

 


[1]  Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII Vol. 6 p. 44 No. 105.25

[2] For more information on the castle, see Bill Woodburn and Neil Guy, ‘St Ann’s Castle’, Castle Studies Group Journal, 19 (2005-6), 28-30.