Tragedy, intrigue, and kings: Shakespeare’s castles

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

Photo by steve p2008
Photo by steve p2008 CC-BY 2.0

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

Photo by Richard Nevell
Photo by Richard Nevell CC-BY-SA 2.0

 

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.

Pontefract

Photo by Tim Green CC-BY 2.0
Photo by Tim Green CC-BY 2.0

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”.

Kronborg

British Library HMNTS 10002.g.16-19.
British Library HMNTS 10002.g.16-19.

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.

Inverness Castle

Photo by David Iliff, CC-BY-SA 3.0
Photo by David Iliff, CC-BY-SA 3.0

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.

Exeunt flourish

Announcing our grants for 2016

The Castle Studies Trust is delighted to announce the award of two grants for 2016:Pembroke Castle keep

  • Pembroke Castle – geophysical survey of the castle’s interior. Best known for its massive round keep built by William Marshal, the greatest knight of his age, little else is known about what exactly was in the castle’s interior. Dyfed Archaeological Trust with the guidance of well-known castle expert Neil Ludlow will use the latest geophysical techniques including ground penetrating radar to try and reveal some of the secrets.
  • Caus Castle – earthwork, geophysical and photogrammetric survey of the castle. Frequently referenced in medieval research as an example of a Marcher castle and associated failed borough on the Welsh borders, nobody has done any proper analysis of one of the most important medieval sites on the Anglo/Welsh border. This first detailed archaeological analysis will be carried out by Dr Michael Fradley who has previously undertaken ground breaking surveys of castles at Wallingford (Oxon), Sudeley (Glos), and Newhall (Ches) and Giles Carey. The focus of the project will be on the outer bailey where the medieval borough was situated.

Donate to Have Opportunity to Visit the Selected Projects 

Within the next year the Trust will be organising exclusive visits the selected projects during the initial research stages or at completion of them. These visits are only open to those supporters who have donated to the Trust.

If you would like to be invited to a site visit you can donate in a variety of different ways:

Not only will you have the chance to visit the sites you will also be increasing the amount we can give away to more exciting projects like the ones above next year.

2016 grants: who has applied?

The deadline for grant applications passed on 15th December. We’re going through the various projects now. Altogether the nine projects are asking for £38,000. If you have been following us on social media you will have seen which sites have been proposed. For a little more detail, here are the applications we’ve received:

  • Pembroke Castle, Wales – a geophysical survey of the wards. The castle was once owned by William Marshall, one of the most famous knights of his time.
  • Lochore Castle, Scotland – post-excavation analysis of finds. The site was excavated in 2015, but the team need funding for specialist work on their finds.
  • Lancaster Castle, England (1) – wall penetrating radar of the walls of the castle’s Norman keep. The castle was used as a prison until 2011, so until recently there has been little opportunity for investigation of this sort.
  • Lancaster Castle, England (2) – creating drawings and 3D models to help present the site to the wider public.
  • Caus Castle, England – geophysical and photogrammetic survey of the earthworks of this motte and bailey castle. Caus was one of many such castles while can be found in the Marches of the border between England and Wales.
  • Laughton en le Morthen, England – geophysical survey of the earthworks of a motte and bailey castle. This castle may have been built on top of an earlier Saxon hall.
  • Wressle Castle, England – an examination of the evidence for the slighting of the castle in the 17th century and comparing it to other slighted castles in Yorkshire.
  • Codnor Castle, England – create a virtual reality tour of the castle showing how it once would have appeared.
  • Dunamase, Ireland – remote sensing and landscape survey. Like Pembroke was also owned by William Marshall at one point.

The applications have been sent to our expert assessors who will go over them. In January the blog will have more information on the assessment process, so be sure to visit again.

However there is not enough money to fund them all and so if you would like to donate to help us fund more and gain a chance for an exclusive visit to the chosen projects go here: https://mydonate.bt.com/charities/castlestudiestrust

Small Unmanned Aircraft and archaeology – why now?

In 2015 the Castle Studies Trust and the Morecambe Bay Partnership worked together to record the remains of Gleaston Castle in Cumbria. By using an unmanned drone to photograph the castle we were able to reach every part of the building. Below is an excellent explanation from Museum of London Archaeology’s Dr. Peter Rauxloh of how this technique works. It was originally published on MOLA’s blog.

Archaeologists have known about the benefits of investigating archaeology from an aerial perspective for more than 150 years, arguably longer, but the day-to-day use of aerial survey in MOLA’s work has been hampered by cost.

The model drone was a very popular Christmas present last year; a clear indication that cheap aerial photography has arrived. The big innovation from the perspective of archaeological aerial survey is the arrival of affordable digital photogrammetric software and automated flight control.

Photogrammetry is the practice of taking measurements from images. It is based on the fact that the position of an unknown point in 3D can be calculated if it is viewed from at least two other known points. This is the principle of triangulation, as important to map makers in the 17th century, as it is today.

The software in question uses the principle of photogrammetry and applies it to the processing of digital images to create 2D orthomosaics and 3D models. In essence, the traditional technique of aerial photogrammetry used a small number of high quality images taken with expensive specialist cameras from real aircraft, on which a small number of common points were identified between adjacent images. The new method uses a large number of images, taken with a standard consumer grade digital camera from cheap aerial platforms and is able to identify thousands of common points between images. Thus the technique tightly locks together overlapping areas to create robust orthogonal mosaic and highly detailed 3D models.

The amount of overlap required between images in order to create robust models is very high, typically 75-85% between each successive image. This means that 85% of one image must still be visible in the next image, but how does one ensure that critical degree of overlap is maintained?

Typically an aerial survey will be flown in a grid, much like a tractor ploughing a field, and each successive image needs 75-85% overl ap with its predecessor. Moreover once it has turned and starts to fly back over the site, it must also get 60-70% overlap between the images on each leg. For small survey areas the aircraft is flown manually since it is easy to ensure the area is well covered with images,  but it is far more difficult to maintain the required consistency on a large site.  This is why MOLA use an autopilot and have it follow a flight plan.

A flight plan is a group of 3D coordinates or waypoints between which the aircraft navigates using its on-board GPS. To position these waypoints so the images overlap a number of variables need to be balanced. These include the camera’s field of view, frequency of image capture and the desired flight height and the speed of the aircraft. These in turn need to be considered against the size of the area to be flown and how long the aircraft can safely stay in the air.

Below you can fly round the model of Gleaston Castle.

Gleaston Castle
by aerial-cam
on Sketchfab

Bringing Pleshey Castle’s history to the public

Betrayal, intrigue, fire, a king arresting one of his men, and the richest man in England. In 850 years Pleshey Castle has seen it all.

The village and castle owe their existence to Geoffrey de Mandeville who founded both in the 12th century. At the height of his power he was the richest man in England apart from the king, but lost it all when he was accused of being a traitor. Pleshey was owned by his descendants (though in the hands of the king) before it passed to the Bohun family by marriage. It remained with them until 1380 and in 1419 Pleshey Castle became part of the Duchy of Lancaster. Because of the Duchy’s ownership we have detailed accounts of building work in the 15th century. By 1559 the castle stood empty, and now survives as some very impressive earthworks.

Throughout its history the castle was remodelled several times – sometimes to improve the accommodation, at least once to repair fire damage, and once because it had been partly demolished. Excavations between 1972 and 1981 led by S.R. Bassett tried to shed light on this complicated history. Unfortunately this important work never saw the light of day. Notebooks and context sheets were left in the archives, out of reach of all but the most determined until now.

Our tour group in the outer bailey
Our tour group in the outer bailey

Patrick Allen and Nick Wickenden are leading the efforts to get the results of the excavation published. The Castle Studies Trust have funded the creation of detailed drawings showing the work. They provide an invaluable visual reference, and show how parts of the castle have developed.

Earlier this month we visited the castle with some of our donors. As well as exploring the castle it was a chance for donors to talk to trustees and see first-hand how valuable the charity’s work is.

Crossing the moat surrounding the castle you get an idea of how impressive the site is. The motte at the heart of Pleshey is an impressive 17m tall while the ramparts are nearly 5m high and cut you off from the outside world. You can still see where the chapel was excavated and a section was cut through the rampart.

Pleshey is privately owned so if you want to visit you have to arrange it in advance. This is typically of the sites we work with, and we give donors the opportunity to look round. Patrick and Nick gave us a tour, explaining the colourful history of the site and what they were doing to publish the excavations. Behind the scenes, the illustrations complemented the research and helped understand the phasing of the site.

It can take years for excavations to be fully processed and reach the stage where the results are ready for the general public. Sometimes that stage is never reached making it much more difficult for people to access information. Because of your donations we’re bridging the gap.

We’re looking forward to seeing the final results!

To keep informed about the Trust’s activities sign up to our newsletter.

4 Castles to Visit this Month

Every year historic buildings across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales open to the public for free. It is a great excuse to go out and visit some castles. You can find out more details online. Here are four places we find interesting.

Mugdock

Mugdock Castle in Scotland. Photo by Ryan Woolies, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Mugdock Castle in Scotland. Photo by Ryan Woolies, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

A nine-mile drive from Glasgow, Mugdock Castle was built in the 14th century and converted into a mansion about 500 years later. The Grahams who lived there until the 20th century were an influential Scottish family. Visitors can walk round the gardens which were laid out in the Victorian period and the ruins of the castle.
Mugdock Castle is open from 10am to 4pm on Saturday 12th and Sunday 13th September.

Carrickfergus

Carrickfergus Castle, Northern Ireland. Photo by Andrew McCoubrey, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Carrickfergus Castle, Northern Ireland. Photo by Andrew McCoubrey, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

John de Courcy began building Carrickfergus Castle on the coast in 1177 and more than 800 years on it is one of the best preserved Norman castles in the country. When looking round, try to imagine the gatehouse being twice as tall. It was shortened in the 16th century when the castle was adapted to use cannon.
Carrickfergus Castle is open from 10am to 5pm on Saturday 12th and Sunday 13th September.

Dolbadarn

Dolbadarn Castle by Sian Monument. CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Dolbadarn Castle, Wales. Photo by Sian Monument, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Dolbadarn Castle was built by Llywelyn the Great, Prince of Gwynedd, in the 13th century. The round tower is typical of Welsh design. Its close link to the Welsh princes meant that when Edward I invaded and built his own castles, timber from Dolbadarn was used to build the castles as Llywelyn’s castle was partially demolished.
Dolbadarn Castle is open from 11am to 4pm on Sunday 6th September with tours every hour.

Guildford

Guildford Castle, England by tps58. CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Guildford Castle, England. Photo by tps58, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

At Guildford Castle you have a royal palace, a great tower possibly built by King Stephen in the 12th century, and gardens. You can climb to the top of tower which sits on top of a mound. There’s a chapel inside with old graffiti. On the outside you can see where an extra floor was built on top of the tower.
The castle is open from 10am to 5pm on Saturday 12th September.