Keeping up with Pleshey

If you visit Pleshey Castle on one of its open days, you are struck by the size of the place. The castle was probably founded by Geoffrey I de Mandeville in the late 11th century, and while no buildings survive above ground the earthworks are impressive. Excavations at Pleshey in the 20th century uncovered a tower or keep on top of the motte, and buildings in the south bailey. The Castle Studies Trust and Chelmsford Museums Service are working together to interpret the results and make sure they are publicly available.

The castle is laid out in three segments: a north bailey, a south bailey, and a motte in between. The northern bailey, which contained a small market place, has been built over, but the motte and the bailey to the south still survive. A timber keep probably stood on top of the mound, and was modified over the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries.

The keep had a courtyard at the centre, with ranges along the north, west, and south sides, and a forebuilding to the east. The south range contained a hall (important for entertaining guests) and a kitchen (important for keeping the guests fed!). It was probably built after 1167, which was when William II de Mandeville was given permission to refortify the castle after it had been slighted.

Plan of Pleshey Castle’s keep. Drawing by Iain Bell, ©Chelmsford Museums Service.

In the mid-13th to mid-14th century, the keep on the motte was clad in flint, and the hall refurbished. In the late 14th century the living accommodation on the north and east sides of the keep was renovated, and fireplaces and garderobes (privies) were added.

Starting in 1458, the keep was clad in brick, replacing the flint walls. The work was ordered by Queen Margaret of Anjou and records from the Duchy of Lancaster (researched by Pat Ryan) mean we know a lot about how the work was carried out. A new bridge over the inner moat was built entirely in brick in 1477-80, and the gatehouse to the forebuilding was reconstructed in brick in 1482–83. Brick castles are not very common in England, but you can see an excellent example at Tattershall in Lincolnshire.

The chronology of the mid-15th-century changes to the castle should be understood in the wider historical context of the Wars of the Roses. The major refurbishment of the keep in brick was ordered by Queen Margaret of Anjou, but the outbreak of civil war in 1459–61 led to the usurpation of Henry VI by the Yorkist Edward IV, and Margaret went into exile. Edward IV ordered a refurbishment of the castle buildings when he married Elizabeth Woodville in 1464-5 and Pleshey was granted to her as part of her jointure. However, Edward IV was hard-pressed in the 1460s and had to fight to regain his throne in 1470–71, and most of the building works in this period appear to be routine repairs. The rebuilding of the bridge and keep gatehouse in brick in 1477–83 after an interval of 20 years appears to be the completion of Queen Margaret’s scheme of building works in quieter and more prosperous times.

This blog post was prepared by Patrick Allen and Richard Nevell. The photograph of the bridge is copyright Patrick Allen.

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!

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