Conclusions from an almost-thesis

Research on castles has outgrown the walls of architecture, sprung from the rubbly tangle of archaeology and taken flight from the pages of law texts, charters and literary exposition. In the hands of an adept writer, these are small bumps on the road to timely completion. Presently, however, I find myself in the camp of the almost-complete thesis writers (PhD fourth-yearers: here is fellowship!). It is a credit to castle studies that there is so much to think and write about and, perhaps, get lost in. This post shares some of the most interesting conclusions from my work looking at early stone castles in two polities in medieval Scotland, the Earldom of Orkney and the Lordship of Galloway. Among the themes I examined was the transition from timber to stone architecture, the relationship of castle to landscape and the political context for castle construction in these areas.

Why Orkney and Galloway? To begin with, we cannot be certain why castles appeared in non-‘feudal’ Orkney in the first place. Secondly, one of Orkney’s early castle sites, according to accepted wisdom, is the prototype for a larger group of early castle sites in the earldom – and has influenced larger debates on castles in Scotland more generally. Cubbie Roo’s Castle, this foremost plank of Orcadian castellar wisdom is, I believe, a little younger than widely believed. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests Orkney was probably home to a stone castle founded around the middle of the 12th century, decidedly early for this part of the world.

Figure 1. View of site of Cubbie Roo’s Castle, Wyre, Orkney, in the distance atop the highest hill on the small island. The farm on the right may represent the 12th-century home farm. The ruined building on the left in the distance is the chapel site. ©William Wyeth.

If the castle site (but not the surviving architecture) is genuine, then the attendant landscape must be examined too, for Cubbie Roo’s and other Orcadian castles. Following a conventional model of castle as the centre of lordship, one would expect to find churches and important farm sites close to suspected or documented castle sites. This was simply not the case in Orkney. Cubbie Roo’s and the other castle sites I examined were, on present (chiefly place-name) evidence, sited on marginal lands of indifferent quality. Some preserved evidence of associated chapel sites, which fits with the conventional model of early castellar lordship.

The disconnect between terrestrial wealth and castle location opened three possibilities about the origin and siting of castles: firstly, were these defensive sites? If defence included a consistent grasp of the surrounding area, including major seaways through the Earldom, then the answer is no. Secondly, were these sites connected to maritime wealth? It is entirely plausible: recent research has demonstrated the wealth of the earldom derived massive fisheries exploitation. Thirdly, were these sites connected to ‘new’ arrivals to the Earldom? The political upheavals in the Kingdom of Norway (to which Orkney belonged) saw magnates appear in the Earldom with no obvious familial connection. The lack of obvious relationship with good farming land may be taken to suggest the castles were built on land acquired more for the purposes of castle building (and architectural showmanship) and maritime exploitation than the inherent wealth of the soil. The new men’s power derived from proximity to the Earl, not a direct ancestral claim to a portion of Orkney’s economic output. Orkney’s earliest castles, whatever their form, were the product and reflection of a shift in how comital wealth and power operated.

Figure 2. View from the top of Cubbie Roo’s Castle, overlooking the possible home farm. The island in the distance on the right (Egilsay) is home to the Church of St Magnus (visible by its distinctive round tower mid-way along the island’s profile); the cult of St Magnus was instrumental in the formation of distinctly Orcadian political identity in the medieval period. ©William Wyeth.

Galloway’s castles present a different challenge; though as a group they are more numerous than their Orcadian counterparts, the evidence for them is drastically more erratic. The exquisite (and displaced) Loch Doon Castle is more clearly understood than the hummocky mound of Castledykes outside Kirkcudbright, for example. On a cursory examination of both sites’ landscapes shows that Castledykes is much easier to understand. Kirkcudbright was the centre of the powerful Lordship of Galloway.  Its hinterlands feature no fewer than three monastic foundations by the Lords, and the probable extent of demesne estate concentration in the area around Kirkcudbright is one of the highest in the Lordship.

What of Loch Doon Castle? Any modern visitor will appreciate the eponymous loch is remote and difficult to access from the big towns of Scotland’s south-west. However, it was originally built on an island in the Loch and later dismantled and reconstructed on the shore. It initially sat on a substantial route-way between the Glenken in Galloway – another demesne area of the Lords – and the Scottish coastal royal burgh and castle of Ayr. Another route south of Loch Doon offered access to the southern area of Carrick and, via the River Cree, the Wigtownshire portion of the Lordship of Galloway, with its probable administrative centre at Cruggleton Castle. Though its landscape is presently dominated by fishing holiday cottages and forestry, place-name evidence suggests in the medieval period the area was exploited for its pastoral suitability, and analogous documentary evidence from monastic sources hint at mineral wealth too. Doubtless Loch Doon Castle also formed an upland centre in Carrick in counterpart to the lowland, maritime-oriented centre at Turnberry Castle (also surveyed during this project).

Figure 3. Loch Doon Castle, view from wall-top towards loch. The castle was moved stone-by-stone before the construction of damming schemes in the mid-20th century. It was originally located on the partially submerged island in the loch visible here. ©William Wyeth.

Lastly, an overview for all of Scotland. A small, prefacing section of my thesis examined the monuments record for all possible castle sites in Scotland, including the sites above and less conventional secular power centres in the 12th-14th centuries – palaces, enclosures, crannogs (artificial islands in lochs), duns and brochs. A growing body of evidence in Scotland suggests many sites typically understood as prehistoric (chiefly the last three aforementioned categories of sites) were re-occupied during the broad medieval period. One conclusion from this country-level study suggested that there were more medieval power centres (e.g. bearing evidence for occupation) per square kilometre in the western counties of Scotland than the east. This likely reflects the underlying patterns of early medieval lordship in Scotland over which the culture of castles was overlain. This may act as another, belated, nail in the coffin of the military-architecture thesis of castle studies in Scotland.

The framework of understanding castles through landscape as much as architecture and archaeology is one I hope to apply more widely to Scotland and, as I engage more fully with English castle studies in my new job, in the wider medieval world.

William Wyeth – Properties historian, English Heritage; PhD candidate, University of Stirling & Historic Environment Scotland. https://english-heritage.academia.edu/WilliamWyeth

2017 grants: who has applied?

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 applications have been sent to our expert assessors who will go over them. You can see how the assessment process works from our blog back in January 2016.

Huntly Castle: A Warm Place in the Cold Scottish Winter

As the days get shorter and the number of times you have to defrost the car in the morning rises substantially, the chance of large gatherings and feasting also increases. People try to figure out how to fit large numbers of guests in their homes, share their news and hopes for the upcoming year and, sometimes, settle business. Thinking about castles as warm and lively places is not necessarily the easiest when they present a cold, wet, bare-stoned backdrop to our lives today but the gathering of people and feasting would have warmed the halls of lords as well.

While huddled over a steaming cup of tea or mulled wine and eating mince pies, I invite you to take a moment to consider a winter gathering that took place at Huntly Castle (Aberdeenshire), the seat of the Gordon family. Huntly is well known for its magnificent inscription commemorating the marriage of George, the Sixth earl of Huntly, to Lady Henrietta Stewart in 1588 and the surviving heraldry within the 16th century palace block, but it has a long architectural history.

Huntly Castle ©Kate Buchanan

There have been three major stages of building at the site of Huntly Castle. First, there was a 12th century timber motte and bailey castle known as the Peel of Strathbogie. Second was an early 15th century L-plan tower. Third was a mid-15th century palace, built in partial conjunction with the establishment of the property as an earldom. Although the palace has been remodelled in the 16th and 17th centuries to what we see in ruins today, the basement largely consists of the first stage of this palace block.

A small gathering of people took place during the first stage of the palace block and the life of the Second Earl of Gordon, George (earl from 1470-1501). On 12 January 1492, George, Earl of Huntly and Lord of Badenoch, passed the lands of Auchannochquhy in the forest of Boyne in the county of Banff to Walter Ogilvy of Boyne and his heritors. This charter was witnessed by Richard Strathquhayne, Prior of Monymusk, Patrick Berclay, lord of Grantuly, James Abirnethy, son and heir apparent of George Abirnethy of Uggistoune, Andrew Hay, D. Patrick Grantuly, rector of the church of Glas, and D. John Andrew, vicar of the church of Bocarne in diocese of Moray.[1] This charter was later confirmed by James IV on 3 December 1495 at Perth (RMS, Vol II, 2289).

Judging from the locations identified with the names of the witnesses, most came from a relatively short distance (under 10 miles) from Huntly Castle. The prior of Monymusk seems to have travelled the furthest, at approximately 24 miles, and is likely to have been seeking accommodation. These six witnesses were likely accompanied in their travel to Huntly Castle but there is no reason to suspect a large retinue. Although it is not necessarily a gathering that suggests a feast of celebration, it was not uncommon for this kind of business to take place at such a gathering. The Christmas celebrations had finished and it may have just been a gathering of neighbours.

Huntley Castle ©Kate Buchanan

The record of this gathering clearly reflects business but is also a gathering of neighbours and acquaintances in witness of this transaction, whether as an aside to an already gathered feast or specifically for this occasion. Against the darkness of a Scottish January, this gathering is a small remnant of the warmth of gathering neighbours, likely drinking warm drinks around a fire, while discussing business among other things.

Find more from Kate Buchanan on Academia.edu or LinkedIn.


[1] All spelling of names and places has been taken from the document as printed in Scotorum, Registrum Magni Sigilli Regum. “The Register of the Great Seal of Scotland.” (1886).

Robert the Bruce and Windsor Castle: what you didn’t know about Tibbers Castle

Robert the Bruce is famous for leading Scotland in their wars with England in the early 14th century. He became king in 1306 and embarked on an unprecedented campaign. What you might not know is that to achieve his aims he demolished (this act is known as slighting) many of the castles in Scotland to prevent the English from using them. A chronicler writing in the 14th century remarked that “Robert Bruce had all the castles of Scotland demolished, except Dumbarton”.

Bruce adopted this policy from 1307, which explains why when he captured Tibbers Castle from the English in 1306 it was left standing. This allowed the English to recapture it soon after. The Scottish king had witnessed enough siege warfare to appreciate the role of castles and how pivotal they were to the English plan to control the country, and when he wrestled control of Edinburgh, Stirling, and Roxburgh in 1314 he set about dismantling them so that they could not be used against his own countrymen.

Today Tibbers mostly survives as a series of large earthworks with a little masonry above ground. Walking round you find some rubble tumbled down the ditches around the outer bailey and the motte, giving just a hint at what once stood here. You wouldn’t know it to look at Tibbers, but it seems that when the Scots recaptured the castle in 1313 it avoided the fate of many other fortifications in the region and was left intact.

Funding from the Castle Studies Trust and Historic Scotland allowed this site to be re-examined. A geophysical survey was carried out and a new plan of the site was carefully drawn. This research gave new insight into the early form of the castle. It found that early in Tibbers’ history the castle probably consisted of a motte with a single small bailey. When the earth and timber defences were replaced in stone the single bailey was replaced by two much larger enclosures, giving the castle the form we recognise today. This double-enclosure arrangement is quite unusual for a motte-and-bailey castle. You can see another example at Windsor Castle where the motte is flanked by two baileys.

The work at Tibbers was our first contribution to Scottish archaeology; in fact it was one of the very first grants we gave out back in 2014. Built in the 12th or 13th century, changing hands several times during the Anglo-Scottish Wars and then descending through the earls of Moray and the earls of March before being taken over by the Scottish monarchy, Tibbers has a storied past. Fortunately we have been able to add a few details to that colourful history.

Click here for the full report from RCAHMS on the survey, with a potted history of the site.

4 more castles to visit this month

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.

Broughty

"Sunset over the Castle" by Neil Williamson, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0.
Sunset over the Castle” by Neil Williamson, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0.

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

Pleshey Castle” by Richard Nevell, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0.

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.

Moyry

"Moyry Castle" by IrishFireside, licensed CC BY 2.0.
Moyry Castle” by IrishFireside, licensed CC BY 2.0.

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.

Holt

"Holt Castle" by Richard Nevell, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0.
Holt Castle” by Richard Nevell, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0.

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.

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

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

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.