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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII Vol. 6 p. 44 No. 105.25
 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.
One of the earliest castles in the UK and one of the most important along the Welsh border the geophysical survey and excavations, along with separately funded building analysis, will help understand the morphology of this little understood site. The CSG visited it as part of the 2016 annual conference. Please note this is a privately owned site and not accessible to the general public.
With almost nothing left above ground the geophysical and earthwork surveys will help shed light on the form of castle with strong royal associations, in particular the C15 palace associated with the House of York and birthplace of Richard III. Please note this is a privately owned site and not accessible to the general public.
Analysis of castle masonry from the completely destroyed late C15 castle built by Thomas, Lord Stanley either found via excavations or reused in the current building. This will help understand what the castle looked like and early Tudor palaces around London, like Richmond. Please note this is a privately owned site and not accessible to the general public.
The deadline for grant applications passed on 15th December and we’re going through the various projects now. Altogether the 11 projects, coming from all parts of the British Isles and Italy, are asking for over £50,000. They cover a wide period of history and types of research. For a little more detail, here are the applications we’ve received:
Abergavenny Castle, Wales – a geophysical survey of the whole site. The castle was an important baronial site and saw a lot of military action from when it was first built in the 11th century up until it was slighted (partially demolished) in the Civil War.
Bamburgh, England – assess and conserve a large collection of medieval metal work dating from the 8th to the 11th century discovered in the west ward. Bamburgh was a major elite fortress from the early medieval period so the project should help potentially understand how the site changed over the centuries.
Caldicot Castle, Wales – geophysical of the whole scheduled area. Building on the previous resistivity survey in the project will use all three types of survey technique to get the best understanding of any below ground remains of this major baronial site.
Castle Pulverbatch, England – geophysical and photogrammetric surveys of the site, one of the finest examples of a Norman motte-and-bailey castle in Shropshire.
Clifford Castle, England – geophysical survey and excavations to help understand the morphology of one of the earliest castle sites in the UK, and one of the principal castles on the Anglo-Welsh border. Please note this is a privately owned site and not accessible to the general public.
Dinas Bran, Wales – geophysical survey of the most extensive and complete Welsh-built castle to understand what structures lie beneath the surface.
Edinburgh Castle, Scotland – mapping and categorising suspected conflict damage at this iconic castle.
Fotheringhay, England – understanding the morphology of the caput of the honor of Huntingdon and 15th-century palace associated with the House of York and birthplace of Richard III, using ground penetrating radar and small unmanned aircraft. Please note this is a privately owned site and not accessible to the general public.
Lathom House, England – analysis of masonry dating from the late 15th-century castle built by Thomas, Lord Stanley either found via excavations or potential reused in the current building.
Lecce, Italy – to help with the publication of a history of the castle of Lecce which was founded by the Normans.
Lough Key, Ireland – to improve understanding of the medieval MacDermot lordship of Moylurg and its relationship with the Rock of Lough Key.
The only date in British history everyone remembers is 1066, when, on 14 October, William duke of Normandy defeated and killed Harold, king of England, and began a new era in this island’s history. Those interested in the castle know that it was William’s followers who brought it with them. 950 years on, it may come as a surprise to hear that what we know about castles built by the Norman conquerors in the years after 1066 is less than what we still don’t know: castle studies still matter and the work of organisations like the Castle Studies Trust is vital in encouraging better understanding of these monuments, and our own past.
Before 1066 the only castles in England were a handful built by Norman nobles who had been favourites of king Edward the Confessor. English nobles used a different type of residence and we will never know if they would eventually have followed the continental trend.
The Norman conquest did not end on 14 October 1066, it only began. William had wiped out the English royal family and much of the aristocracy but the battle of Hastings (and subsequent surrender of Dover and London) only secured him control of the south east. He then faced and defeated resistance and rebellions including that of Hereward “the Wake” in the Fens, while the people of York destroyed the first castle built there by the invaders in 1068 leading to the infamous “harrying of the north” in 1069. To understand the building of early Norman castles it’s important to bear in mind that the conquerors could not relax and believe they were secure for a number of years.
Castles featured from the start. From the quickly fabricated timber palisades put up to protect the army when it landed to the foundation of the new “Tower of London”, William ordered the construction of royal castles while also encouraging the bishops and nobles who had followed him to build their own. Many great stone castles standing today were originally put up as earthworks in the years immediately after 1066. In turn, the great lords who replaced virtually the entire English ruling class encouraged their own followers to secure themselves in their own castles. We don’t know the reasons why each was built: sometimes sitting on the previous owner’s (unfortified) hall, the new castle was evidently a visual statement confirming change of ownership, but may also reflect concerns about security by the new landowner, living among and exploiting a much larger peasantry speaking another language.
The larger castles have been well studied. The lesser ones have not. There are probably at least a thousand earthworks in what was then England, most of which have never been excavated, never dated, their function only guessed at. Many are called “mottes” with no more evidence than that they look like one. The old certainty that all Norman castles were originally of motte and bailey design has been replaced with awareness that the recognisable conical mound forming the motte was sometimes added later to a simpler enclosure defined by a ditch, rampart and palisade. The bailey too is proving more complex: why did some castles have two (or more), why are some so vast? Some now seem to have enclosed whole villages, others are too cramped for any but the smallest buildings. The CST-funded project at Caus (Shropshire) tackles this question.
950 years after William began the conquest of England, we are asking questions about Norman castles based not on old prejudices about what castles were, but on historical and archaeological study based in a better understanding of the reality of eleventh and twelfth century societies.
This post was written by Louise Martin, Cultural Heritage Officer for Morecambe Bay Partnership
Gleaston Castle is a gem of a site; a little known and poorly understood courtyard or enclosure castle, located in the beautiful Furness Peninsula. The history of the site is scant and whilst it has been the subject of antiquarian and more recent documentary research, its origins and reason for construction still remain unclear. Some writers have proposed that the castle was constructed in the early 14th century as a response to the Scottish raids, although the site is not mentioned in documentary sources until some 30 years after these raids and may simply be a reflection of the wealth and status of the Lord of the Manor.
Today the site survives as the ruins of three towers with an associated curtain wall. As a Grade I listed building and Scheduled Monument this unique site is protected from development or destruction, however, this site is currently on the Heritage at Risk register with many conservation concerns.
Its crumbling stature is not new, the site is believed to have been dismantled after it ceased to be a manorial residence. It was described as a ruin in the mid-16th century and is depicted as such in engravings from the early 18th century.
Whilst the site was subject to antiquarian attention, with plans and descriptions produced in the early 19th century, I was surprised to discover that the site had never been fully recorded, in particular the elevations of the structures which survive from its original layout.
To bridge this gap in the archaeological record and gain a better understanding of the site, Morecambe Bay Partnership applied to the Castle Studies Trust for a grant in late 2014. I was thrilled and delighted to hear the news that our application had been accepted and a generous £5,000 grant had been awarded to enable an aerial photographic survey and 3D model of the site to be produced. In addition, the grant would fund the production of a conservation assessment, outlining the historical background and current issues for the site.
Greenlane Archaeology Ltd. was commissioned to run the project, bringing in professional archaeological photographer Adam Stanford from Aerial-Cam to undertake the survey work. During the summer of 2015 Adam flew over the site with Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA)-a DJI Inspire 1 quadracopter fitted with an X3 gimballed camera producing still images at 12 megapixels. Professional photographers, such as Adam, have to follow strict guidance and regulations as part of their licence to undertake such work.
The photographic record from the air was supplemented by high-resolution (24 megapixel) images captured with a high-level telescopic pole and more traditional ground-based photography to obtain close up images of the structure.
Over 600 overlapping photographic images were taken to capture a detailed record of the site. Back in the office Adam used Agisoft Photoscan to process the data collected. The results were stunning, including aerial images and the creation of a 3D model, which enables the site to be ‘explored’ from the safety and comfort of a PC or tablet through Sketchfab.
One of the most important outcomes of this project was the detailed orthophotos that were captured of the elevations of the castle’s ruins. We have been using these images to inspect the construction and conservation issues for the site, but primarily they form a permanent record of the castle that was lacking until this survey in 2015.
The aerial image and subsequent grey scale shading was particularly informative revealing furrows and a possible track way to the north-east of the castle. The track appears to lead to the north-western tower, the largest structure at the site and probably once the manorial residence. Within the curtain walls, areas of terracing and possible building platforms could be identified – but what could they be?
Supplementing the photographic work Greenlane Archaeology also undertook a topographic survey of the site to complement and enhance the results obtained.
In August 2015 we were delighted to host some of the trustee’s from the Castle Studies Trust (CST) along with supporters of the CST charity, who travelled to the Furness Peninsula to see the survey work in action. We were joined by the Historic England Heritage at Risk Officer, the Lead Archaeologist from Cumbria County Council, and Helen Evans who had compiled the Conservation Statement. Adam from Aerial-Cam gave a detailed demonstration on how the RPA captures the photographic images and how these are enhanced and combined to form the incredible 3D records of the site.
To put the site of Gleaston into context, the visitors were also taken on a tour of Piel Castle, which can be seen from the elevated position of the north-west tower at Gleaston. Piel Castle is positioned on a tidal island and we had to use the local ferry service to reach the site.
It was some months later, during discussions with Dr Richard Peterson and Dr James Morris of University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) Archaeology and Anthropology Department that the next piece of fieldwork was being determined. Each year UCLan host a field school for their first year archaeology students and the team were looking for a site to use to teach the concepts and theories of geophysical survey and laser scanning. We had some interesting research questions to answer, which had been formulated following the photographic survey – do any buildings survive within the courtyard formed by curtain wall and what are the features shown to the north of the castle? Together we thought that Gleason was the ideal site for this year’s field school.
Before any plans to be laid out we had to get permission from the landowners to allow this work to go ahead. Once this had been secured, we had to apply to Historic England for a Section 42 licence, as the site is Scheduled and such work is strictly monitored by Historic England inspectors.
Permission was granted for the work and the fieldwork was scheduled for the end of April 2016. In addition to UCLan students, the survey training was opened up to the community, with fifteen places available per day through the Heritage Lottery Funded Headlands to Headspace (H2H) Landscape Partnership Scheme, which I am currently running part of for Morecambe Bay Partnership.
On 25th April we started the work at the site, using earth resistance and magnetometry to survey areas within the curtain wall and to the north of the castle, where we had identified ridge and furrow and the track way. The training attracted participants from as far afield as Liverpool and Carlisle as well as some local residents to Gleaston Village. The north-west tower was also subject to detailed laser scanning, which will supplement the photographic record produced by Aerial-Cam. The weather was, well, challenging especially for the end of April with heavy downpours and even snow hampering our progress on site!
The team of students, together with volunteers and the fabulous UCLan staff persevered and we completed a significant amount of survey across the site. The results of the survey work are currently being processed by the team at UCLan, however, initial interpretation of the data is highlighting garden features to the north of the site and possible post-built structures to the south-west of the courtyard.
All this recent work is enabling professionals to gain a better understanding of the site. For the first time we have an accurate photographic record of all the standing remains and have started investigating what below-ground remains may survive beneath the soil.
Morecambe Bay Partnership would like to thank the Castle Studies Trust and all their supporters for enabling the survey work to take place and highlight the importance of this site and the conservation issues the site currently faces.
We would also like to thank the landowners who have provided us with special permission to undertake this survey work and the team from Historic England and Cumbria County Councils Lead Archaeological Advisor who have provided advice and guidance along the way.
It is hoped that the work undertaken so far will be built on in future years with additional survey and assessment, finding positive solutions to protect this rare and fascinating site.
Every September thousands of historic sites in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are opened. It is a chance to visit some sites which are closed the rest of the year. You can find out more details online. Here are four places to get you started.
Sat on the banks of the River Tay, Broughty Castle in Scotland was built in 1496. It was involved in several sieges including during ‘the Rough Wooing’ and the War of the Three Kingdoms. The castle has been open as a museum since 1969.
Broughty Castle is open from 1pm to 3pm on Sunday 18th September.
Pleshey Castle in England was built by William de Mandeville, one of the richest men in 12th-century England. It was confiscated by the king, slighted, restored, and used for centuries afterwards. The castle was even mentioned in Shakespeare’s Richard II.
The motte-and-bailey castle survives as some impressive earthworks. Excavations were carried out between 1972 and 1981 but never published. In 2015 the Trust funded part of the publication of the work from this important site.
Pleshey Castle is open on Sunday 11th September with tours at 2pm, 3pm, and 4pm. Advanced booking is required.
Built in 1601, Moyry Castle is being included in Northern Ireland’s heritage open days for the first time. Three-stories high and perched on top of a rocky hill the castle has a good view of the surrounding area.
Moyry Castle is open from 9am to 8pm on Saturday 10th and Sunday 11th September and is free to visit.
Constructed in the 13th century, Holt Castle was amongst the fortifications built by the English in north Wales. The red sandstone makes the castle stand out, as does its unusual pentagonal design. It was used by Richard II as a treasure house and slighted after the English Civil War.
You might recognise Holt as one of the very first projects the Trust worked on: Rick Turner and Chris Jones-Jenkins created a reconstruction of the castle as it would have appeared c1495. The 17th century was not kind to the castle, so the reconstruction is worth watching to get an impression of how it looked.
Holt Castle is open from 10am to 4pm on Saturday 17th and Sunday 18th September and is free to visit.
We often think of castles as formidable fortifications around which the medieval world pivoted. Fierce sieges were invested to capture key sites; the Keeper of the Tower of London was a prestigious role, and Dover Castle was the ‘key to the kingdom’.
But castles also had a domestic side. They were residences of the barons, earls, and monarchs who ruled in medieval society. They were decorated with rich tapestries as seen at Chateau d’Angers in France, the scene of magnificent feasts, and wrapped up in symbolism. The Earl of Cornwall built a castle at Tintagel because the place was linked to Arthurian legend.
Personalities are intricately linked to the story of each castle, not always those who owned them. Thomas Percy built Wressle Castle in the 1390s. The Percy family was a powerful dynasty in northern England and Wressle was a fortress-palace within carefully constructed garden. Designed by John Lewyn, one of the leading architects of late 14th-century England, the castle had only recently been completed when the fortunes of the Percy family took a turn for the worse.
In 1403 Harry Hotspur, Thomas’ nephew, rebelled against King Henry IV with a string of grievances. Thomas joined the rebellion which was eventually defeated the battle of Shrewsbury. Thomas was captured and executed for his role and the Crown took control of Wressle Castle.
For nearly 70 years the castle either remained with the Crown of was temporarily given to favourites of the king. In 1471 it was finally returned to the Percys, with Henry Algernon Percy making his mark on the castle by updating the interior and the gardens. The gardens contained a two-storey building call the ‘School House’ with paintings of proverbs across the interior. This may have been where Henry Algernon Percy came for some quiet reading.
Wressle Castle never witnessed a siege, though it was garrisoned during the English Civil War in the 17th century. In fact the majority of castles never faced the attacks they were designed to withstand. Despite that the castle lies in ruins today. The garrison themselves left their mark, causing damage estimated at £1,000! After the war the castle was partly demolished, leaving just a quarter standing which can be seen today – though it is on private land. The following century the interior was stripped by fire when a tenant tried unsuccessfully to clear a blocked chimney.
Wressle has a rich history which the survey we funded in 2014 and carried out by Ed Dennison Archaeological Services shed further light on. When Thomas Percy decided he wanted a castle in the late 14th century the village of Wressle lay in the way. The settlement used to extend further to the west, but was pulled down to make way for the castle gardens.
Castles have a direct impact on local communities, and those castles are shaped by the personalities that live in them, who drag them into disputes, and who occasionally fail to unblock chimneys. Next time you’re at a castle take a moment to learn about the people who shaped the building you’re standing in and think what it must have been like.
Gleaston Castle, April 2016. Written by Matthew Emmott.
Throughout the week of the 25th to the 29th of April, the Morecambe Bay Partnership and the University of Central Lancashire’s archaeological department teamed up to give a lucky few a golden opportunity to take part in a further survey of Gleaston Castle in Cumbria.
Following on from the aerial survey undertaken at the end of July last year using a grant from the Castle Studies Trust, it was hoped that any buried structures beneath the courtyard would be identified and mapped out. Adam Stanford’s 2015 survey (Aerial-Cam) used the latest in drone technology, utilising high definition photography\photogrammetry to capture the full character of Gleaston’s ruins, and in the process produced some intriguing survey results pointing towards the possible remains of buildings and platforms beneath the courtyard.
Tools on offer to assist in the survey, and provided by the University of Central Lancashire’s Archaeological department, were ground penetrating radar, a magnetometer, an electrical resistivity meter, high definition cameras and laser scanners.
Aided and abetted by Louise from the Morecambe Bay Partnership, volunteers and students were taken through the process of mapping out grids and the use of the equipment. And then the real work was done. By the end of the week it looked as if the whole of the courtyard had been scanned using all the available techniques…..all we have to do now is wait for the results and hope that Gleaston has at last given up some more of her secrets.
Today is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Some of English literature’s greatest works would have been completely different had it not been for castles. They are the perfect scenery for some of his most dramatic plays.
Kenilworth was renowned in Tudor England and features in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 2. While at Kenilworth the king receives news that the Duke of York has arrived from Ireland, accusing the Duke of Somerset of being a traitor.
We have an idea of the condition of about 300 castles in the mid-16th century: only about a third were in good condition, and generally those looked after by the Crown were better off. Today the ruins of Kenilworth give some idea of how grand it was before it was demolished in the 17th century. Robert Dudley famously held lavish banquets at Kenilworth while courting Queen Elizabeth.
The Tower of London and Baynard’s Castle
In Shakespeare’s Richard III, Richard is declared king at Baynard’s Castle, while the young princes, Edward and Richard, are imprisoned and murdered at the Tower of London.
It is rare enough for somewhere to have two castles, but the City of London had three. Only the Tower of London stands today, while Montfichet’s Tower was demolished in 1213 and Baynard’s Castle in 1666.
Today the ruins of Pontefract Castle are on Historic England’s ‘Heritage at Risk’ register, but in its heyday it was one of the most impressive castles in Yorkshire. Pontefract Castle has a colourful history, with its owners falling in and out of royal favour and major sieges during the English Civil War, but the most famous event was the reputed murder of Richard II.
Unsurprisingly this is an important part of Shakespeare’s Richard II and Richard III. He described the castle (renamed Pomfret) as a “bloody prison, fatal and ominous to noble peers”.
Shakespeare’s plays were set across Europe, including Hamlet which took place in Denmark’s Elsinore Castle. Elsinore Castle was based on Kronborg Castle in Helsingør. The 15th-century castle is the second UNSECO World Heritage Site in this list along with the Tower of London.
The Tragedy of Macbeth sees the title character murder the Scottish King Duncan in his own castle at Inverness. While the play is set in the 10th century, it is uncertain when the castle at Inverness was actually built, but where better as a setting for the murder of a king.