Cannons and palaces? Surely a mistake…?

By Dr Peter Purton

Most people know what a palace is. Defining a castle is a bit trickier, despite half a century having passed since the traditional military version was challenged and replaced by modern castellologists. But most agree that the symbolic and residential roles of a palace must be included in any understanding of a castle. If you look at any plan of a German castle you will see the word ‘Palas’ attached to the main building inside it; this definition reaches down the scale to the smallest Irish tower house, where the modest tower represents the ‘palace’ of a landowner, at least in their own eyes and certainly as seen by the peasants living around them, or their peers living in similar towers nearby.

Medieval rulers began to make use of gunpowder weapons to wage war from the middle of the fourteenth century. I am co-writing, with Dr Christof Krauskopf (who works at the Brandenburg Authorities for Heritage Management and Archaeological State Museum in Germany), a new book studying how fortifications evolved during the first two centuries of gunpowder weaponry.

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It is commonly accepted that over time (for England, most would say this occurred under the Tudors) any military role for castles disappeared altogether, and instead became the exclusive remit of forts and fortresses (Henry VIII’s coastal artillery forts, for example, which despite their English Heritage titles are not castles), while royalty and nobility resided in palaces and country houses. But what happened before this point was reached? Were defensive functions also fulfilled by the palatial castles built by royals and nobles after guns began to make a significant impact on the conduct of war?

Vincennes (Val de Marne, France), the donjon. The outer ‘chemise’ is not medieval. Copyright Dr Peter Purton

Vincennes is an immense royal castle (today at the eastern end of a Paris metro line) commissioned by King Charles V (1364-80) during the Hundred Years War [fig.1]. It is a superb statement of power and wealth reflected in its design and décor. But atop the multi-storey donjon is an unadorned floor whose walls are pierced by loops and windows for crossbows and small guns, and (for avoidance of doubt), the garrison included canoniers in 1379. Across the Channel at the same time, gun loops were being included in castles belonging to English aristocrats: in Kent, for example, a regular target for seaborne attacks, the archbishop’s castle at Saltwood and the parvenu Cobham’s enclosure at Cooling [fig. 2].

Cooling Castle (Kent, England), 1380-85, by Sir John de Cobham. Copyright Dr Peter Purton

Jumping ahead by nearly a century brings us to a time where in England the role of castles during the Wars of the Roses was no longer to serve as the object of siege and defence. A not dissimilar political scenario existed in Iberia, where immensely wealthy noble families vied for control of the kingdom of Castile, and neighbours Portugal and Aragon frequently interfered. Just as elsewhere in Europe, these magnates built magnificent palaces reflecting their status. They also raised private armies to attack rivals. In the province of Madrid is Manzanares el Real [fig.3], built by the famous architect Gruas for the Mendozas, dukes of Infantado (who still own it) from the middle of the fifteenth century. Its walls and turrets sport spectacular ornamentation and the interior is graced by ornate galleries. It is surrounded by what the Spanish call a barrera, a towered lower outer wall liberally provided with gun embrasures. Gaining entry involves going through a pair of (gun-looped) gate towers then taking two turns around the foot of the inner wall.

Manzanares el Real (Madrid province, Spain), photographed at the start of its second restoration in 1975. Copyright Dr Peter Purton

In the end, whether one believes that such defensive measures designed for guns were seriously intended for defence, or were themselves merely ornamental, is a matter of judgement. No evidence survives to explain the intentions of the builders. It is a continuation of the same debate that questioned whether arrow loops were meant to be – or could be – used, recast for the age of gunpowder.

There is an alternative approach: maybe such buildings could be both at the same time, and even the least practicable gun loops might deter raiders (compare Bodiam). In this scenario, there might be no distinction between a palace and a castle and a medieval noble might not understand the argument. Perhaps it was when the cost of defences that would be effective in the new world of the early modern state became prohibitive that aristocrats abandoned the military aspects of their castle-palaces altogether?

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Raby Castle: Mapping the Hillocks

As the Castle Studies Trust funded part of the project to learn more about Raby Castle comes to a close, the funding of the digital modelling of Raby’s exterior, the castle’s curator, Julie Bidescombe-Brown explores what they have found so far which includes a short preview of the model in its glory.

Throughout 2022, the team at Raby Castle has been working with Durham University Archaeological Services on a project funded by the Castle Studies Trust to drone scan and create a digital 3d model of the entire castle exterior. At the project draws to a close, Raby’s Curator Julie Biddlecombe-Brown reflects on the work undertaken over the last year, including both the planned outcomes and unexpected benefits of the work undertaken.

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‘At the time of writing this blog, I am waiting with bated breath for an email that marks the end of a truly game-changing project for Raby Castle. The email will include the final embedded link to a detailed digital model of Raby Castle’s exterior produced over a series of drone scans during the summer months of 2022. The sneak preview given to the castle team was breath-taking. When we applied to the Castle Studies Trust for support for the grant I had no idea of the level of detail that the technology now enabled. My initial application for funding was based on the creation of a digital model that could be used as the basis for future interpretation; a tool for presenting the castle to new audiences. What we have achieved has ended up to be so much more.

For those not familiar with Raby Castle, this beautiful building in the south of County Durham has remained the family home of the Vane family for almost 400 years. Harry Vane, twelfth Baron Barnard is the current owner and along with his wife, Lady Kate Barnard, has set out ambitious plans to ensure the future sustainability of the castle and wider estate. This project reflects their vision, setting out to better understand the estate so that responsible stewardship of rich heritage assets can see the castle enjoyed and studied by future generations.

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Going back to the castle itself: from the exterior, it is one of the most intact 14th century castles in the north of England, adapted over the centuries to provide luxurious accommodation for the two families who have lived here. First, the medieval northern powerhouse of the Neville Family who lost the castle after the failed Rising of the North. It was the Neville family who created most of what can be seen today, their license to fortify the castle having been granted by Bishop Hatfield of Durham in 1378.  Second, the Vanes, later Barons Barnard, Earls of Darlington and Dukes of Cleveland came to Raby after purchasing the castle in 1626. Over two hundred years later, what remains the castle’s most comprehensive history was written by Catherine Lucy Wilhelmina Vane, the 4th Duchess of Cleveland, in 1870,  a formidable scholar and biographer whose engaging narratives combine clear research of the sources available to her, with a delightful peppering of artistic license. Her handbook has also been a useful tool in this project, with descriptions of alterations, anomalies and observations that come with complete familiarity with a site. The Duchess clearly loved the castle and during the late 19th century welcomed guests from across the globe. Earlier generations of her husband’s family down-played the castle’s splendour. Courtier Sir Henry Vane, who bought the castle in 1626 twice received Charles I there; first in May, 1633; and again in April 1639.  Charles is said to have been greatly struck by the size of the castle, and to have rebuked Sir Henry for speaking of it somewhat irreverently as a ‘mere hillock of stone.’  ‘Call ye that a hillock of stone? By my faith,’ said he, ‘I have not such another hillock of stones in all my realms.”

Images of Raby Castle have been captured for centuries. Above: 1728 Engraving of Raby Castle from the southeast. Samuel & Nathaniel Buck. These topographical images, whilst subjective and sometimes inaccurate, have provided a valuable source in considering the appearance of the castle in the past. Such images shed light on demolished features, such as the barbican depicted here on the eastern (left hand) side of the castle which then has the potential to be ‘virtually reconstructed’ on the base digital model,  

You can judge the latest capturing of ‘the hillock’ yourself, by viewing the model funded by this project. Available to the castle team in multiple formats, from a wireframe for digital manipulation to fully overlaid with photographs for a full ‘photo-real’ view, the scan has created a snapshot of the castle at a moment in time but helps us look backwards into its history and forward, securing its future.  The Raby team is working with Heritage Interactive, sector AV specialists to adapt the model to be public facing and engage visitors with the story of the medieval fabric in a new introductory film that we will launch next year. But the model also gives us the potential to add to this; to explore later phases of development in the same way, to isolate, interpret and even digitally rebuild key features that have changed over time, such as the removal of the 14th century barbican in the late 18th century, creating the now slightly confusing Chapel Gateway, or exploring the remains of passages, staircases and windows that make no sense in the current configuration of the building.  

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The base-line data has multiple benefits – in addition to creating new films, we are exploring 3d printing of a model of the castle in jigsaw puzzle-like sections for use with schools and other audiences – what better way to inspire a new generation of castle enthusiasts than to couple the challenge of a puzzle with a superb digital model? The level of detail will also be of huge benefit to the castle buildings team in monitoring condition, working in tandem with our conservation architects who can now view the fabric almost stone-by-stone. This will, we anticipate, not only help us to detect any building changes that might need attention but will also help us in master planning for the future.

A complimentary annex to the project, funded in-house is an archaeological report by Durham University Archaeological Services that will sit alongside the model.  This collation and analysis of source material – including what we have learned about the existing fabric – has been led by Senior Archaeologist Richard Annis who over the course of 2022 has delved into every nook and cranny of the castle – peering under floorboards, climbing disused staircases and opening the door of every built-in cupboard to see what lies behind. This level of survey has never been done and when linked to the model, and an examination of known archival and other documentary sources compiled by a willing group of volunteers, we start 2023 with a far better understanding of this remarkable building than ever before. The report and model will be used together by the castle team including custodian, curatorial, archive and buildings teams,  and of course our conservation architects as we care for and interpret the castle and will be available as a resource to scholars and academics, hopefully inspiring future research.

And of course, there is still research to be done! The project may have answered questions but has left us with many new ones. Over the coming months, or should that be years …  we will continue to explore some of the puzzles of the building, from the origins of some of the towers, to vertical access routes. But what has changed over the last year is that we now have a superb data set as a starting point. Our thanks go to Archaeological Services Durham University and in particular Richard Annis for bringing their enthusiasm, skills, expertise and inquisitive minds to the project, and also, of course, to the Castle Studies Trust which provided us with the funding to enable it all to happen.

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The Castle Studies Trust five projects for 2023

The Castle Studies Trust have awarded five grants totalling £35,000 to support research into castles. This is a record amount for the Trust, and as we enter our tenth year as a charity, we could not have managed this without our supporters.

We will bring you updates from these projects throughout the year as the teams get stuck in. But first, let’s get to know them a bit better. They are from across England, Scotland, and Wales and take different approaches to understanding castles.

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Bamburgh

A stone building with a square tower in the middle. It stands on an outcrop, prominent in the landscape. In the foreground is a beach.
Bamburgh Castle on the coast of Northumberland. Photo by Michael Hanselmann via Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Standing on a rocky outcrop on the coast of Northumberland, Bamburgh’s history stretches back to the early medieval period when it was home to a palace of the Kings of Northumbria. Bamburgh Castle itself was owned by royalty at various points, and rebuilt in the 18th century.

Bamburgh is a massive site: its history has been illuminated by excavations, and there is still more to learn.

Dr. Joanne Kirton and Graeme Young of the Bamburgh Research Project plan to carry out a geophysical survey and a masonry survey of the castle’s outworks.

Dunoon

The mound at Dunoon Castle. Photo by Rosser1954 via Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC-BY-SA 4.0.

A castle at Dunoon was first mentioned in the late 13th century but may be older. The ruins visible today date from the 14th century. It stands on a hill on the coast of the Firth of Clyde. The castle was besieged and captured multiple times over its centuries-long history and became a royal residence.

Despite the castle’s royal links, little is known about its layout and dating. Dr. Manda Forster’s team at DigVentures will carry out geophysical surveys (resistivity and magnetometry) of the mound and the area around it to find out where there may be buried walls, foundations, or other archaeological remains.

They will also organise workshops for the local community to learn how geophysics work. So as well as learning more about the castle, they may inspire the next generation of archaeologists!

Lowther

Google Map of the medieval Lowther Castle

The present Lowther Castle was built in the 17th century, but a few hundred metres north lie the medieval remains of a castle and possible deserted village. Lancaster University Archaeology Unit surveyed the earthworks in the 1990s, but there has been no other archaeological investigation since.

Being able to date the site would be a crucial step in understanding the Norman influence in the region. Could this be part of the remains of the Norman conquest of the Kingdom of Cumbria in the late 11th century?

Dr. Sophie Ambler has devised the project to carry out geophysical surveys at Lowther Castle followed by excavations. Working with the University of Central Lancashire and Allen Archaeology, this aims to establish the site’s building chronology.

Picton

Picton Castle in 2021 by Ruth Sharvile, via Geograph. Licensed CC-BY-SA 2.0.

Pembroke’s Picton Castle is a medieval building with later alterations and additions. It is uncertain when it was built and by who, but it is likely to have been established in about 1300 by Sir John Wogan. Picton has an unusual layout but may have parallels with French medieval castles.

Neil Ludlow and the Dyfed Archaeological Trust will carry out a measured survey of the building, recording its structure and creating a photographic record of the site. This will be an invaluable resource to understand the site, and help show the castle’s development over the centuries.

Wigmore

Photo of Wigmore © Philip Hume

Wigmore was amongst the early castles established in England in the wake of the Norman conquest. It was founded by William Fitz Osbern, Earl of Hereford and later became the home of the Mortimer family. They were an influential family in the Welsh marches, and they developed the castle to reflect their growing power.

Small-scale excavations at Wigmore and geophysical surveys in the 1990s demonstrated the archaeological potential of the site, but what is missing is a reconstruction of how it looked during its heyday.

Chris Jones-Jenkins will create a reconstruction of how Wigmore Castle used to appear. This will draw on archaeological and historical sources to bring the reconstruction to life. You may also have seen Chris’ work with his reconstructions of Ruthin and Holt.

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Header image: Bamburgh Castle by Michael Hanselmann via Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Is the Wirk a Castle? Evaluating previous excavations

Delayed by the pandemic, at long last our 2020 project to see if the Wirk, in the Orkneys, was a castle is now complete. Project leads Sarah Jane Gibbon & Dan Lee look at what they found.

A programme of archaeological fieldwork funded by Castle Studies Trust was undertaken at The Wirk, on the island of Rousay, Orkney by the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology during 2020-21 (UHI Archaeology Institute). The Wirk comprises the remains of an upstanding stone-built tower with the site of an adjoining hall range to the east, which are stylistically considered to be 12th century in date. The site was part of a high-status Norse settlement with a medieval chapel nearby (below the present St Mary’s kirk) and Norse hall further to the south at Skaill (Research projects – Landscapes of Change: Archaeologies of the Rousay Clearances & the Westness Estate (uhi.ac.uk)). The project aimed to characterise The Wirk with geophysical survey, undertake evaluation excavation to assess the hall and recover material suitable for radiocarbon dating.

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1.    Clouston’s excavations at The Wirk in the 1920’s showing investigations in the tower (Credit: Orkney Library & Archive, used with permission).

The Wirk was excavated in the 1920s by J. S. Clouston, who had excavated at other Norse castle sites in Orkney. Later dates have since been suggested for the The Wirk (16th century), however the date of the buildings, their function and the relationship between the tower and range remained open to debate. Clouston’s excavations focused on the tower and exposed the remains of a hall and ancillary buildings upslope to the east. He made a detailed plan of the site showing the tower and hall. Few finds were recovered but they did include a highly decorated stone finial now on display in Tankerness House Museum, Kirkwall. The impressive tower survives today, but the hall is not currently visible in the neighbouring field.

1.    Clouston’s plan following his excavations, detailing the hall to the east of the tower, with Trenches 1 and 2 (after Clouston 1931, Early Norse Castles)

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Geophysical survey in 2020 was used to characterise the buried remains of the hall range and identified additional features in the vicinity (Geophysical survey at The Wirk reveals buried walls of the hall – Castle Studies Trust Blog). Evaluation excavation in two trenches in 2021 targeted the eastern hall range and located substantial wall footings just below the ground surface (part of an ancillary building in Trench 1 and the southern external wall of the hall in Trench 2). Excavations concluded that the tower and hall range were built at the same time (contra some earlier interpretations by Clouston). Clouston just exposed the footings of the hall walls, without fully excavating around them, but his plan of the site was proved to be very accurate. The hall may have had raised wooden internal floors, certainly in the lower western part, perhaps supported by an internal scarcement (although excavations were too limited to be conclusive).

Excavations in Trench 1 exposed the wall footing of the ancillary buildings at the eastern end of the hall (Credit: Dan Lee)
Excavations in Trench 2 exposed the substantial southern wall of the hall (Credit: Dan Lee)

A significant assemblage of c.13th century worked and moulded red sandstone was recovered from Trench 2 nearest the tower. The red sandstone is interpreted as ecclesiastical in origin and likely to have originated from the former medieval kirk nearby, rather than the hall. The Wirk was unlikely to have been an ecclesiastical building due to the raised floors and association with the tower. Radiocarbon dates from material (charred grain) found in deposits abutting the southern external wall of the hall returned Late Iron Age dates (Pictish period mid-7th to mid-8th century AD). This material is most likely derived from the disturbance of earlier activity at the site during the construction of the hall, hinted at by the surrounding geophysical anomalies, rather than dating the hall itself. It was concluded that the tower and hall are contemporary and likely to be 12th century in date, based on architectural style and stratigraphic relationships observed during the excavations.

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Featured image: View of The Wirk during excavations (foreground) looking south to St Mary’ Kirk and Skaill (Credit: Bobby Friel @TakeTheHighView)

Raby Castle 3D Digital Model Nears Completion

As we draw towards the end of the year, Julie Biddlecombe-Brown, Curator at Raby Castle checks in on the 2022 research project funded by the Castle Studies Trust as this chapter draws to a close.  

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What a busy year 2022 has been and yet, this project has been one of the highlights. Working with Durham University Archaeological Services, the castle exterior was fully scanned over the summer and the scans imported into specialist software that enables us to view and fully manipulate the images. The quality of the scanned images are superb and can be used in multiple applications;  as a base model for 3d imaging (shown below) or overlaid with the HD photographic detail to provide a record of every elevation, down to the individual stone, providing inspiration for new visitor-facing interpretation and vital data for the castle architects. The team at Durham University have shared the incredible detail captured on the scans with their counterparts at Raby – demonstrating how the drone was able to access areas that have previously been very difficult to view; testimony to the skill of the drone pilot but also enabling an unrivalled view of the battlements – even into the machicolations.

Alongside the images, Raby Castle has benefitted from the experience and knowledge of Durham’s Senior Archaeologist Richard Annis in reviewing the complex interior of the building against historic plans and research notes compiled by Raby’s dedicated volunteer group. With the scans and historic plans to hand, Richard has explored the building from top-to-toe, focusing on intersections between the medieval fabric and later interventions. This has identified spaces known to the castle team which had not appeared on any of the earlier plans, enabling detailed measurements to be taken as part of the broader survey.  In addition to the overall survey which will be of immense benefit for the quinquennial survey and subsequent building monitoring and maintenance, this project sought to produce a 3d digital model of the castle that could be used to demonstrate different phases of the castle’s history. The team at Durham University Archaeological services have produced a Terra model (below) which will now be separated into phases for the conclusion of the project in December. The castle have engaged audio-visual specialists Heritage Interactive to work with them to produce new interpretation for visitors that will incorporate the models and the research findings.

Image of Raby Castle from 3D Digital Model

Special thanks from the Raby Castle team are owed to the Castle Studies Trust Trustees who visited in October to check on progress. The afternoon spent at Raby was valuable for both the Trust and the Castle, drawing on expertise and debating anomalies in the castle architecture. The discussions will feed into the final report being produced by Durham University Archaeological services alongside the model. We look forward to sharing the end results once the final report and model have been completed.

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A large and eclectic crop of fascinating applications asking for over £100,000 for the Castle Studies Trust to Consider

The deadline for grant applications passed on 1 December. We’re going through the various projects now. Altogether the 15 projects, coming from all the home nations and one from Ireland, are asking for over £110,000. They cover not only a wide period of history but also a broad range of topics.

We will not be able to fund as many of these projects as we would like. To help us fund as many of these projects as possible please donate here:

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In a little more detail here are the applications we’ve received:

Bamburgh, Northumberland: The aim of the project is to better understand the outworks to the north of the castle, by using various geophysical survey techniques and a preliminary survey of the masonry remains, it will include a 3D model of the recently excavated Elmund Tower and provide materials for interactive displays.

Barnard Castle, Co Durham: The aim of the project is to try and understand a lot more about the outer ward of the castle, using a variety of methods including geophysical survey, aerial survey and test excavation

Cavers Castle, Roxburghshire: Through a combination of building survey and excavation to try to understand the early form of this important baronial castle.

Dunoon, Argyll: A community-led geophysical survey project to understand better the form and scale of this important castle that was the seat of the Lord High Stewards of Scotland. The original castle dates back to the 1200s and the remains above currently ground date from the fourteenth century.

Fun Kids, Castle Podcasts for 7-13 Year Olds: To produce a series of 8 podcasts for children aged 7-13 to engage children to explore a what, how and why of 8 castles. The series will focus on a variety of castles and build awareness of less common castles that families can explore.

Galey, Co. Roscommon: Geophysical and topographical surveys to explore the possible motives behind the placement of, as well as immediate landscape context, morphology and any attached settlement and industrial activity, that occurred at a lakeshore-sited late medieval Gaelic-constructed tower house castle.

Hartlebury, Worcestershire: The seeks to explore what looks like a possible civil war bastion ditch, which seems to have been partially revealed in a 2022 drone survey of this former bishop’s palace with remains dating from the fifteenth century. This will be done through geophysical survey and excavation.

Lowther Castle, Cumbria: Through a combination of geophysical survey and excavation to try to learn more about this ringwork castle and settlement, thought to date from the late eleventh century. the aim is to try to discover if it dates from this period and was therefore a Norman plantation; and also its history after its foundation.

Millom, Cumbria: The project will involve a drone survey to assess the condition of the 14th century fortified manor combined with a geophyisical survey to understand if there is any link between it and the nearby church and monastery.

Muncaster, Cumbria finds assessment: To make a complete assessment of the finds from the 2021 excavations which took place near the 14th century tower along with two nearby kiln sites.

Muncaster, Cumbria geophys and archaeology survey: To carry out a geophysical survey of the area surrounding the castle and to investigate a large stone feature in the cellar of the castle to understand its purpose and possible date

Northern Frontier, Beacon Hill Yorkshire: A geophysical survey of Pickering Beacon Hill, a siege castle used for the siege of Pickering in the lead up to the Battle of the Standard (1138) to better understand the landscape at the time and see how much life was disrupted during the period known as the Anarchy.

Picton, Pembrokshire: The aim of the project is to achieve a full understanding of the form, functions and affinities of the medieval part of Picton Castle through a building survey. It has an unusual plan with no close parallels within Great Britain, but shows some affinities with castles further afield including, possibly, Gascony in France

Snodhill, Herefordshire: Excavation to explore the early masonry defences and attempt to resolve the entrance arrangements and to do a geophysical survey of the Eastern Bailey

Wigmore, Herefordshire: To provide a digital reconstruction drawing of Wigmore Castle using a mixture of archaeological and archival evidence

We will not be able to fund as many of these projects as we would like. To help us fund as many of these projects as possible please donate here: Kindlink Donation Form App

The applications have been sent to our assessors who will go over them. You can see how the assessment process works from our blog back in January 2016: How the Castle Studies Trust Selects its Projects – Castle Studies Trust Blog

A Window to Pontefract Castle’s Past

During the summer of 2022, Wakefield Council and Wessex Archaeology undertook several geophysical surveys of Pontefract Castle funded by the Castle Studies Trust. Ian Downes, Senior Heritage Officer at Wakefield Council explains what they found.

We were trying to discover if there were traces of the castle’s rich archaeology hidden under the ground. Specifically, we were looking for several service buildings between the kitchens and Royal apartments which had been mentioned in maintenance records for the castle, Victorian paths listed in ordnance survey maps, as well as any evidence of buried weaponry from the Civil Wars bombardment in the 17th century.

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This was not the first-time surveys of this nature had been conducted, most recently West Yorkshire Archaeology Service were commissioned back in 2010.

This image from the 2010 survey shows the resistivity results for the northern half of the bailey and two large but undefined masses of high resistance (ASWYAS)

Three techniques have been utilised here: Resistivity, Magnetometry and Ground Penetrating Radar.

Resistivity measures the ability of the ground to conduct an electrical signal between two metal probes. In its simplest form this gives us a clue about buried walls and ditches, as the latter holds water much better than a wall and the resistivity is lower. This technique is relatively quick, easy and cost effective, but has limited depth and tends to only reveal that which is relatively close to the surface.

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Magnetometry, or to be more specific magnetic gradiometry, records tiny variations in the earth’s magnetic field. These could be caused by the filling in of a ditch, a fire or magnetic items in the soil. This again doesn’t have a great depth but can help backup findings from our other two techniques. The ability to spot iron objects on a Civil Wars site that was bombarded by cannon fire is also useful.

Our third method was ground penetrating radar.  It uses a form of electromagnetic radiation similar to that used in radios, microwaves and mobile phones and employs the same technology used to detect aircraft. However, instead of sending signals into the air we direct them into the ground and measure how long it takes for those waves to bounce back. The signal bounces back better from solid objects than soil, so it can help spot buried walls or pits, and the time taken to receive the signal tells us how deep down they are

Results

Raw data from the magnetometry results (Wessex Archaeology)

We had varying success with the surveys. Unfortunately, outside the curtain wall, where we hoped to find Civil Wars evidence, the surveys didn’t show any clear results.  There were more anomalies below the queen’s tower than elsewhere, but this may be the result of later landscaping works to accommodate the later road around the castle.

The resistivity survey however had more success. Here we can see evidence of the modern paths (pink) and the remains of an elliptical path in the northern survey area which matches the design of a Victorian path system, seen in an 1881 ordnance survey map.  No images survive of these paths, so it is exciting to find some evidence of their existence beyond the original plans.

Interpretation of the Resistivity results (Wessex Archaeology)

The final survey technique, using deeper ground penetrating radar, shows a large grey area which is also seen on the resisitivity survey above. Its undefined shape and proximity to the surface suggests it is possibly rubble. However, it’s the dark orange feature about 1m down that is by far the most revealing.

Ground penetrating radar results (Wessex Archaeology)

For us, this was an exciting and unexpected discovery, as the design and shape of the structure, including the buttresses on the corners, closely matched a building seen on a 16th century drawing of the castle by Ambrose Cave.  He had been commissioned to survey the castle for Queen Elizabeth I in 1560 and it shows a number of buildings along the same section of curtain wall, including the small entrance porch, seen below with the elaborate pinnacles. 

Extract from Ambrose Cave’s Elizabethan Survey 1560

We believe it shows a 15th Century chapel that replaced the Norman Chapel which can be seen in the Eastern corner of the bailey. It was assumed from this drawing that it stood away from the curtain wall which can be seen in the background.

However, the design of its entrance closely matches the shape found in the radar survey, including the buttresses on the corners. Its possiblelocation now suggests that it was built against the curtain wall like the other buildings in the castle and was perhaps shown just forward of it for simplicity.

To have been able to finally locate this building and with such clarity and certainty is an exciting discovery for us. This new evidence adds to our knowledge and understanding of what used to be one of England’s greatest castles and will help to inform future interpretation of the site, provide a focus for potential future fieldwork and finally solves the mystery of where the 15th Century chapel actually is!

We are extremely grateful to the Castle Studies Trust for their funding which allowed us to carry out the geophysical surveys. We also acknowledge the support of Wessex Archaeology and West Yorkshire Joint Services in the production of this article.

You can find out more about the project in our short videos which can be found on the Castle Studies Trust Youtube channel

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The Story Behind the Timber of Old Wick Castle

In five short videos Drs Will Wyeth, Coralie Mills and Hamish Darrah look at the project funded by both the Castle Studies Trust and Historic Environment Scotland to date a timber found at Old Wick Castle, Caithness, and in turn help us understand better this little understood castle.

In the first video Dr Will Wyeth gives the background to the project:

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In the second video Hamish Darrah gives more detail on the wood they found

While in the third one, Coralie Mills looks at how they dated the timber

In video four, Will looks at what the dating of the timber means:

Before summing up in video five about what the significance of the research is.

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Castle of Old Wick: The tale of a tower, a timber and time

In the first of two blog posts Coralie M Mills and Hamish Darrah of Dendrochronicle look at how they managed to test and date a piece of timber found in a wall socket of the tower at Old Wick Castle, Caithness. A second article by Dr Will Wyeth will look at the historical context behind these surprising findings.

A single surviving timber fragment in the ruinous tower of Castle of Old Wick in Caithness was recovered, studied and dated through the support of the Castle Studies Trust for this Historic Environment Scotland (HES) project. The outer end of the timber was visible within a socket in the north west wall of the tower at about second floor level.  Exposed to the elements, in fragile condition and at risk of further decay, it was recognised by HES as a means of dating this relatively featureless tower, variously ascribed to the 12th or later 14th century for initial construction. Therefore, our mission to recover this fragile lone timber was rather nerve-wracking and undertaken very carefully. Fortunately, it went well, and we recovered it in one piece in September 2021.

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Inspecting the timber on site in September 2021 Photo: H Darrah 22.09.21
The weathered outer face of the timber before any intervention (Scale in 1cm intervals). Photo: H Darrah 22.09.21

Back at base we recorded the form of the timber and sub-sampled it for dating and species identification. The sampled cross-section had two centres and was intact to sub-bark surface in one corner.  The species proved to be alder (Alnus glutinosa), a common native tree of wet places including in northern Scotland. This ruled out the possibility of dendrochronological dating, given the absence of suitable alder reference data, and led to Bayesian radiocarbon ‘wiggle-match’ dating using five-year blocks of rings sub-sampled at known intervals across the 80-year tree-ring sequence.  The radiocarbon dating was undertaken by SUERC and Bayesian analysis of the only two viable sub-samples provided a ‘wiggle match’ date of cal AD 1515–1550 (95% probability), with highest single-year probabilities in the range cal AD 1515–1535 (68% probability). The results represent the bark edge position and the felling date of the timber. There is a possibility this is naturally storm-thrown material being used rather than a tree being felled for the job, in which case the date is the death date of the stem, but either way it is unlikely this stem was dead for long before it was worked.

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Radiocarbon ‘wiggle-match’ dating of the timber from Old Wick Castle, by SUERC. The result was based on two of three sub-samples; the outermost rings sub-sample was excluded due to possible historic ‘contamination’ while in situ.

This is a short irregular length of timber, 46cm long, 12cm wide and a maximum height of 19.5cm at the exposed face, tapering to 6cm at the inner end. The outer face is heavily weathered, and we cannot tell whether that face was worked or how far the timber projected originally. At the better-preserved inner end, the timber has an axe-cut notched, faceted face which had no structural function in the socket and was just sitting free within the void behind the timber. It has no clear joinery evidence such as a mortise or trenail. Therefore, our preferred interpretation is that the notched end is the consequence of axing off the branchy top of the stem, but we cannot rule out the possibility that it represents a re-used timber. If the notched end is seen as a deliberate feature, then it may have been designed to allow this timber to be propped against another element of a structure, perhaps in something temporary like scaffolding, and could signify re-use of the timber in this context. Other than this notched feature, the only other woodworking evidence is of an axe being used to shape the timber from the round into a rectangular form.

Above, record shots of the four side faces of the Castle of Old Wick timber. Black and white grid on scale is at 1cm intervals. Photos: Hamish Darrah 30.09.21.
Close up of the faceted, notched inner end.
Photo: Hamish Darrah 30.09.21.

Alder is often naturally multi-stemmed and can also be coppiced. However, eighty years is well beyond the stem age expected in any coppicing system. This is more probably natural unmanaged material. Based on the overall form, the double centre, the direction of knots and the taper on the timber, we do not think this timber is cut from a managed coppice stool or the base of a tree but rather from the upper branching top of a substantial stem. Therefore, the stem could have been a good bit older than 80 years when felled, as any tree stem will have more rings near the base than at the top. The stem must have been several metres tall after 80+ years of growth. Therefore, while we do not know how long the original timber was, this surviving short length of timber may be an offcut, with the bulk of the stem used for another purpose. Alder sill beams have been found in medieval Inverness and Perth, perhaps selected for alder’s rot resistant properties, and alder is also known to have been used as crucks historically in northern Scotland.

The socket holding the timber is much deeper than the timber, at least 70cm deep, with packing around the timber and a void behind, suggesting the socket was not built with the dimensions of this alder timber in mind and may be earlier than the timber, which would make the timber part of a secondary feature. Based on our observations of the timber’s position and character, it is clearly not part of a floor joist, and is more likely a fixture for a lost internal fitting or small structure. If the timber was used fresh in this context, our preferred interpretation, the dating results represent the time when this timber fixture was added to the castle. However, if the notch is interpreted as evidence of timber re-use than the date is a terminus post quem (date after which) for this phase of alteration to the castle. The structural and historical evidence is considered further by Will Wyeth in his separate blog piece:

Multi-stemmed alder trees in Sutherland, northern Scotland. Photo: C Mills.

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Castle of Old Wick: Hot Fire and Cold Murder: Looting and Legitimacy in late medieval Caithness

In the second of two articles on the Castle Studies Trust / Historic Environment Scotland co-funded project to date the timber left in a wall socket at Old Wick, Dr Will Wyeth offers an explanation for the surprising date of the timber.

Past investigations of Castle of Old Wick provide a context for the most recent research on this enigmatic Caithness castle. The archaeological evidence combined with historical details give sharp insight into an episode of violence and destruction at the castle in the life of Christian Sutherland, the Lady of Berriedale.

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Based on some similarities with Cubbie Roo’s Castle in Orkney, Old Wick’s standing fabric – a unornamented stone tower with small windows – has been dated to the 12th century. A survey in 2016 led by Dr Piers Dixon of Historic Environment Scotland (HES) was the first comprehensive assessment of its standing buildings and earthworks since the publication of MacGibbon and Ross’s Castellated and Domestic Architecture in the late 19th century. Dixon’s study queried the consensus of the castle’s high medieval origins, pointing to regional comparators whose documented history sat more comfortably in a date range beginning in the 14th century. My review of archaeological and historical evidence for Castle of Old Wick in 2019 substantiated the conclusions of the 2016 survey.

Ground plan of earthworks and floor plans of stone tower, Castle of Old Wick, from 2016 survey. Copyright HES

Nevertheless, the simple stone towers of Caithness are poorly understood. They are fairly numerous in the county but our understanding of them relies on an unproductive mixture of simplistic architectural study and a reliance on references in historical sources.

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Dr Coralie Mills’ and Hamish Darrah’s research gives scope to uphold Dixon’s assertion, and challenge a 12th century date for Castle of Old Wick. Their analysis of the fragment of alder has given the first substantive dating evidence for the castle with a felling date range of 1515-50 (95% probability).

Interior of the tower at Old Wick copyright HES

The slot in which the timber was recovered, located on an internal wall face within the tower, was argued by Dixon to be part of a hanging lum. This is a form of fireplace common to buildings of middling and high status in late medieval Britain, also helpful for dating the construction of the tower at Old Wick. A hanging lum is a fireplace whose hearth and flue are built against, not within, a wall.

Mills and Darrah suggest that the alder was a replacement for an earlier timber used for the same purpose, i.e. to support a hanging lum, therefore, the felling date corresponds with a period of repair, restoration or improvement of the interiors of Castle of Old Wick in the early 16th century.

Looting and legitimacy

The historical context is one where violence both within and between kin groups is a feature of elite society in late medieval Britain. Typically, these disputes centred on rights of succession to property and titles. Those held by women were the most precarious. In 1517 two parties from the extended Sutherland of Duffus family met to settle a violent succession dispute at Drumminor Castle in Aberdeenshire. William Sutherland of Duffus agreed to an arbitration on the matter of assisthment (compensation for loss) and kynbut (compensation for manslaughter) with Christian Sutherland (the Lady of Berriedale) and her son and heir, Andrew Oliphant. William and his accomplices were held responsible for the murder of Christian’s elder son Charles. Duffus was also accused of seizing and looting two of her properties: Berriedale Castle and Castle of Old Wick.

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The family dispute which led to the murder of Charles Sutherland originated in the legitimacy of Christian’s inheritance of several estates on the death of her father, Alexander Sutherland (d. 1451×1471), including those in Caithness but also Duffus and elsewhere. William Sutherland’s father, also William Sutherland of the fittingly named Quarrelwood, contended that Christian was illegitimate. The court of the Bishop of Aberdeen had found in favour of Christian in 1494, but two years later Quarrelwood violently seized Castle of Old Wick. This was very likely not the same occupation mentioned in the 1517 document. Still unsatisfied, Quarrelwood pursued his case in the court in Rome for several years, until a settlement of sorts around 1507, when Christian surrendered her father’s Duffus lands.

Drumminor Castle, where in 1517 Christian Sutherland agreed to arbitration to settlement with her kinsman, William Sutherland of Duffus (copyright HES)

We don’t know exactly why she reached this settlement but it may be telling that her husband’s kin, the Oliphants, had spent substantial sums (not entirely selflessly) on supporting her legal case and accommodating Christian and her children during the difficult years of legal wrangling. We also can’t be sure if the 1517 document references this settlement, or another outburst of violence.

It is tempting to connect the episode of refurbishment at Castle of Old Wick implied by the radiocarbon dating and the documented evidence of looting at the castle which took place before the  1517 settlement, with the implication of subsequent repairs implied by that settlement. I think this is the best conclusion, but others are possible. Between 1515-50 the castle was held by at least seven different parties, but evidence suggests that they were either in financial difficulty or held the castle to generate money from its lands, not as a family seat. Only when the senior branch of the Oliphants take over after 1548 is there a compelling reason to think that the castle was systematically renovated: this is the best alternative scenario to that suggested above.

Archaeologists’ efforts over the last six years have drastically altered our understanding of the Castle of Old Wick. But they have also shed light on the story of Christian Sutherland and violence and upheaval occasioned by her kinsman’s legal contestation. This research demonstrates the value of revisiting the smaller castles of the world, for the potential to challenge an existing consensus as well as shed light on lesser-told stories from the medieval past. 

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To read the first blog by Dr Coralie Mills and Hamish Darrah click here: