Over the last two decades, the Marlborough Mound Trust has carried out extensive conservation and investigations on the ‘mound’ in the grounds of Marlborough College. The origins of the mound were uncertain until recently. It was known to have been part of Marlborough Castle, but there had been persistent speculation, on the strength of its resemblance to neighbouring Silbury Hill and the discovery of antlers in the early twentieth century (now lost) that it was of prehistoric origin. In 2008, when Silbury Hill was being investigated, the opportunity of taking cores from the mound to obtain comparative dates presented itself. After a precarious operation involving a very large crane, the necessary drilling rig was hoisted to the top of the mound. The resulting cores, as a paper published the following year by Jim Leary and his colleagues showed, supported a date in the second half of the third millennium BC, broadly contemporary with Silbury Hill.
Jim Leary has subsequently carried out a survey of some fifty castle mottes, looking for other sites where prehistoric mounds could have been reused as the base for a castle, and has found only one other rather uncertain case. This means that Marlborough may be unique in being a prehistoric structure recycled into a medieval castle.
But we now know more about the prehistory of the mound than the supposed castle keep. The only possible sighting of masonry on the mound is uncertain in the extreme. H. C. Brentnall, a master at Marlborough College, in one of his many contributions to the Proceedings of the College’s Natural History Society on the the history of the castle, had this to say in 1936:
“Excavations necessitated by building operations at Marlborough College in the course of this summer have revealed several traces of the medieval castle which perished gradually between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. What little remains above ground (if the elevation justifies that expression) is to be seen on the summit of the motte, where a buttress of the keep was laid bare some years ago.“
The note implies that the buttress was visible in 1936, but recent geophysical surveys have not found it.
The problem is further compounded by the subsequent use of the mound. It became a garden feature in the seventeenth century, and a spiral was cut into the side of it to give access to a summerhouse at the top. Stukeley’s engraving of the countess of Hertford’s gardens in 1723 shows only the summerhouse, and no traces of masonry.
About the same time, a water tank was installed to supply the Hertfords’ newly built mansion. This was enlarged by the College after its establishment in 1843, and adapted over the years, until the top of the mound was graced by a large iron tank surrounded by a spoil bank, concrete steps, and substantial pipework. This meant that in effect most of the original top of the mound had been destroyed.
This raises the question of what we are looking for. The earliest mentions of the site, in 1070 and 1110, present the king’s establishment as a place of imprisonment and a site where a royal court was held. In the 1140s, Marlborough castle is first mentioned as such. It is described ‘very defensible’ in The Deeds of King Stephen. It was held by John Marshal, who used it to control the surrounding countryside, and there is no record of it ever being attacked.
The only entry in the plentiful records for the castle under Henry II and Henry III is in the context of payments in 1222 for work designed to create a substantial royal residence there. This is a single sum for the building of a lime kiln ‘for the Great Tower’, which must therefore have been of stone. There is no indication where this tower was sited, and it may well have been part of the lower bailey. It has simply been assumed that it was on the mound.
An inconclusive exploratory dig was carried out by Wessex Archaeology for the Mound Trust in 2019, and at the time of writing, it is still hoped that a follow up to this will be possible in 2020. The present assumption is that the mound was among the hastily erected timber forts from immediately after the Norman conquest, and that this was replaced by a stone keep after 1222. It would be good to be able to find some actual evidence as to the nature and even the existence of the keep at Marlborough.
Richard Barber is a trustee of the Marlborough Mound. He would welcome any comments, particularly on the replacement of timber with stone, and the nature of ‘great towers’: email rwbarberuk at yahoo.co.uk.
Sara Cockerill, author of the recently published biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, looks at her role in English castle development.
One of the areas which has stayed slightly “off-camera” as I have written about Eleanor is the question of her relationships with the castles of her era. The headlining castles built under Henry’s aegis show no signs of Eleanor’s input. More intriguing however, is her relationship with those castles which pre-dated Henry’s reign and which found themselves in need of a bit of TLC – not necessarily from a military point of view, but in order to function as homes as well as defences. Where this sort of work is concerned there seems to be some ground for tracing a link between Eleanor’s regencies and the initiation of refurbishment programmes.
To start with the most obvious example – the Tower. On Eleanor’s first arrival in London the Tower was uninhabitable, and the royal couple had to stay instead at Bermondsey Abbey. While it is clear that Henry II put Thomas Becket in charge of refurbishing the equally run down Palace of Westminster, money does not commence to be spent on the Tower until 1166 – during Eleanor’s regency, suggesting that she had some hand in the decisions as to its refurbishment. Quite what these were is of course a matter of some debate, but they included as well as defensive works, quasi domestic features, such as work to the chapel and living accommodation.
Another castle which came under Eleanor’s review is Berkhamsted – initially given to, and refurbished by Becket, it was transferred to Eleanor, who held the barony as part of her dower assignment, during the course of Henry’s quarrel with Becket, with the royal family spending Christmas of 1163 there; an event which involved numerous items of plate being sent from Westminster to dress the rooms to best advantage. In the years which follow, again during Eleanor’s regency, there is regular work noted in the accounts, on the “Kings houses” there, at the granary, the bridges – and the lodgings. Her interest in the property is further evidenced by her travelling to stay there as soon as she gained a greater measure of freedom in 1184, with the advent of her daughter Matilda, then in exile from Saxony. Eleanor and Matilda’s family seem to have spent the whole summer there. And finally – work stops on the castle just at the period when Eleanor departs to her retirement in Poitou. However even in retirement her steward for the Berkhamsted estate would travel to visit her at Fontevraud….
Other places where Eleanor was particularly at home and where her interest can be traced are Old Sarum (Salisbury) and Winchester – her main locations during her captivity. But everything suggests that she was sent there not because she disliked them, but rather the reverse. Both are places she positively chose to visit on more than one occasion as regent in the 1150s and 1160s. Winchester, of course, was Henry I’s main residence, and had benefitted from a constant programme of renewals ever since. Interestingly however its domestic architecture was thoroughly overhauled from the year after Eleanor arrived in England. In 1155–6 £14 10s. 8d. was paid for making the king’s house and the next year another £14 10s. was spent for work on just one chamber in the castle. In 1170 £36 6s. was paid, and in 1173 £56 13s. 1d. was paid for work on the king’s houses at Winchester and £48 5s. for work on the castle and provisioning it. Large sums of money were, interestingly paid for the King’s chapel, in the years when Eleanor was a frequent resident there in confinement. To this period too can be traced the first indications of development of the gardens. Old Sarum for its part had a residential area which was modern, having been built as recently as 1130 under the aegis of the then bishop. During Eleanor’s residence at Salisbury in the 1170s and early 1180s, there was consistent expenditure including £47 on the houses in the year Eleanor came to live there. That Eleanor positively liked Salisbury is shown by the fact that after her release she chose to organise the wedding of André de Chauvigny to the heiress Denise of Déols there; and Winchester too was a voluntary stop for her more then once in her later years.
In a similar category is Windsor castle. Though predominantly a project of Henry’s – the defensive remodelling smacks of his planning – Eleanor spent considerable periods of time here – bearing Matilda here when the castle must have been a building site, and visiting repeatedly both as regent when she may well have had a hand in the development of the domestic buildings, which were to form a family base for her descendant Henry III’s family. Again it is a castle she seems to have positively chosen to visit with Matilda on Matilda’s return, and again following her release.
Although of course Berkhamsted has fallen into disrepair, one can perhaps therefore trace Eleanor’s hand in creating a core of castles which could double as homes, which was to influence the lives of generations to come.
Featured image: Aerial photograph of Old Sarum site, on departure from Old Sarum airfield by Mark Edwards.
This year we’re funding investigations at Shrewsbury Castle, one of the most important castles along the Anglo-Welsh border. Nigel Baker told us how the work has been going.
Phase 1 of the Castle Studies Trust’s Shrewsbury Castle 2019 project is underway. Archaeological research is a long and painstaking process, so instant results are not to be expected – it must have taken a whole three hours to establish for the first time a number of simple but really fundamental facts about the hitherto-unexplored inner bailey.
Work started on Wednesday 8th May with the arrival at the castle of Tiger Geo, specialist geophysical survey contractors. Using ground-penetrating radar and resistivity, the lawns of the inner bailey interior and the slopes of the ramparts were gridded out and surveyed; the geophysicists never stopped, nor did the rain. But two basic conclusions emerged on screen from the raw data.
The first is that a ditch did once encircle the base of the motte within the perimeter of the inner bailey. This implies that the flat area within the inner bailey must originally have been a crescent-shaped area less than twenty metres wide from motte ditch to rampart tail.
The second conclusion is that there is, under the grass opposite and parallel to the standing early 13th-century ‘Great Hall’ (which houses a very fine Regimental Museum), another big building range backing onto the motte ditch. Given that the standing first-floor Great Hall was built as a royal chamber block (‘camera’) in the 1230s-40s, there is a possibility that a real Great Hall awaits excavation in the summer. But we’ve already answered one of the project’s main questions, ‘how was the inner bailey planned?’ The answer is there were two main ranges of buildings and no room for anything else.
While Tiger Geo mowed the lawns, the writer was busy in a bush at the base of the motte, freeing-up a manhole cover sealed for a decade. Under, a 20th-century brick inspection chamber gives access to a stone well-shaft alongside. The writer had been shown it surreptitiously by a kind gardener in the 1990s but without the opportunity for much recording. Now it has been photographed (though not with stunning competence), measured at just over seventy feet deep from ground level down to water level, and the masonry identified as probably late medieval – and not something done by Thomas Telford in the 1790s. So – Shrewsbury Castle retains its medieval well.