The art of the reconstruction

When walking round ruined castles, it can be difficult to picture how they once were. There may be missing floors, the roofs aren’t the same, and entire buildings might have vanished. Even when a structure appears to survive intact, we are usually missing the interior – how it was decorated, the furniture, even how light changed throughout the day.

Reconstructions are a wonderful tool for bringing castles back to life. This year, the Castle Studies Trust is funding one such reconstruction. Chris Jones-Jenkins is helping us understand how Ruthin Castle would have looked. You might recognise his name from 2015, when he worked on one of our very first projects, the digital model of Holt Castle, or from his various work with Cadw and English Heritage.

We caught up with Chris to learn a bit about what goes into these illustrations and how he got into reconstructions. Older illustrations, like those done by Alan Sorrell decades ago, were done by hand while a lot of reconstructions today are done on a computer. Chris has experience of both, and they are very different processes. When working by hand, you need to start off by choosing your viewpoint and deciding what it is you’re going to show. With a digital reconstruction, you have the option to change the position of where you’re looking from. Chris reconstructs everything in the image and the viewpoint might be the last thing to be settled. With Holt for example, if that had been reconstructed 20 years ago the viewpoint would have been one of the first things decided – what to show, what to discreetly tuck away, and how to balance highlighting everything you want. Instead, as Chris created the whole thing digitally it was possible to use the model to create a flythrough video.

A plan of Ruthin Castle from Thomas Pennant’s 1781 edition of ‘A Tour of Wales’, from the collection of the National Library of Wales. Image in the public domain.

A wealth of information goes into reconstructions. For Holt and Ruthin, any standing remains are taken into account and modelled, while historical evidence such as paintings or documents are used to fill in the gaps where parts of the structure are missing. Chris trained as an architect and early in his career so has an eye for how buildings are put together, complimenting his skill as an artist and years of experience with historic buildings. Will Davies and Sian Rees have been helping with the research into Ruthin Castle and how it appeared, giving Chris the best information possible to work from. There was a survey of the curtain wall, but done to the wrong scale, which kept the team on their toes.

Working with some kinds of source material you get a feel for how useful and accurate it is. For instance, in the 17th century Randle Holme made some useful plans of Holt Castle in pen and ink. He also created a view of Ruthin Castle, but for some reason his work here wasn’t as reliable. The test is that the parts of the castle that still survive weren’t well illustrated by Holme, so his work needs to be used carefully.

A lot of time and effort goes into reconstructions. It can take over six months from start to finish, with drafting, redrafting, tinkering with details, and pausing to research a particular feature or issue. Over this time, the reconstruction grows from a plain model to a textured, colourful building. Reconstructions have an element of educated guesswork, but attention to detail is important. If you misstep and include something not appropriate for the period there are eagle-eyed heritage lovers who spot this kind of thing! New information is being uncovered about Ruthin, which directly informs Chris’ work. But there are some questions, like the forms of buildings, which are only likely to be answered by excavation.

Chris has been working on reconstructions since the 1980s, and aside from the change in technology has noticed an interesting trend. Previously, there was often emphasis on showing the structure while more recently the organisations commissions reconstructions want to populate these buildings, showing daily life inside.

Talking to Chris, one thing that cropped up is that reconstruction artists don’t often get to hear what the public think about their work which is a real shame as it can make a world of difference to a site. So when going round a historic site, if you see a reconstruction that captures your imagination or helps you understand the place better, pass on that positive feedback.

The image at the top of this page shows the a work-in-progress version of the reconstruction. Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter so you don’t miss news about the finished reconstruction and our other projects.

The six projects we’re funding this year

From 15 high quality applications we had to choose which ones we could fund. It certainly wasn’t an easy decision, but we have managed to support six different projects – the most we’ve supported in a single year – with a total of £22,000. You can learn more below, and if you would like to hear about the results when they are ready be sure to sign up to our newsletter.

Old Bolingbroke, Lincolnshire, England

Photo by David Hitchborne, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0.

Bolingbroke Castle was built by the Earl of Chester in the 1220s and Henry IV was born here in 1367. It is unclear how the Rout Yard and Dewy Hill were used, so Heritage Lincolnshire will carry out geophysical surveys at the castle to find out more about the site.

Pembroke, Pembrokeshire, Wales

Photo by ‘Jez‘, licensed CC BY-SA-NC-ND 2.0.

Founded in 1093, Pembroke is the oldest castle out of this year’s projects. Rebuilt by William Marshall, one of the most famous knight of his age, the castle was also the birthplace of Henry VII. Neil Ludlow and James Meek’s project will excavate in the outer ward to find out more about a late medieval hall. We also funded a geophysical survey at the castle in 2016.

Dig It!, castles of southern Scotland

With funding from the Castle Studies Trust Dig It! will be producing a series of eight videos exploring castles in southern Scotland, and sharing them with an online audience. By making it easier to access information about these important historic sites through YouTube and Wikipedia the project aims to inspire the next generation of castle enthusiasts!

Keith Marischal, East Lothian, Scotland


The Castle of Keith belonged to the powerful Keith family. The castle has since been demolished, with some parts built into Keith Marischal House which now stands on the site. Miles Kerr-Peterson and and Rose Geophysical Consultants will be carrying out a geophysical survey to search for the castle’s lost tower and great hall.

Laughton-en-le-Morthen, South Yorkshire, England


The castle is undocumented in medieval sources, but the earthworks of the motte-and-bailey castle are impressive: the motte itself is 9m tall. To find out more about Laughton-en-le-Morthen Castle, Duncan Wright will be carrying out a geophysical and aerial survey.

Ruthin, Denbighshire, Wales

Photo by Eirian Evans, licensed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.

First documented in 1277, Ruthin Castle was controlled by Reginald de Grey in 1282. This once great castle is a ruin today and much in need of interpretation. To help with this, Chris Jones-Jenkins will create a digital reconstruction of Ruthin. Chris also worked on the reconstruction of Holt Castle, which was built around the same time some 18 miles to the east.

Stay in touch!

We will have updates from these projects throughout the year. Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter so you don’t miss out.

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Another Bumper Crop of Applications for the Castle Studies Trust to Consider

The deadline for grant applications passed on 15th December. We’re going through the various projects now. Altogether the 15 projects, coming from all parts of Britain, are asking for over £63,000. They cover not only a wide period of history but also a wide range of topics. For a little more detail, here are the applications we’ve received:

  • Caldicot, Wales – a geophysical survey of the scheduled area of Caldicot Castle using magnetometry, resistivity, and Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR)
  • Dig It! 2017 Castles of South Scotland – enhancing public understanding and knowledge of some castles in southern Scotland, their purpose, their history and their relevance, particularly the lesser-known and least visited sites.
  • Dunyvaig, Scotland – co-funding a project to provide better understanding of the landscape context of the castle by conducting detailed topographic and geophysical surveys and carrying out trial trenching to gain key information regarding the preservation and the depth of the buried deposits.
  • Keith Marischal, Scotland – geophysical survey at Keith Marischal House, in search of a lost medieval castle and renaissance palace with a great hall reputed to be second in size to that of Stirling’s.
  • Lathom, England – excavations to find out the true size of Lathom Castle. You may recognised them from 2017’s grants when we funded analysis of masonry recovered from excavations between 1997 and 2009.
  • Laughton-en-le-Mortain, England  comprehensive archaeological investigation of the motte and bailey castle of Laughton-en-le-Morthen, South Yorkshire and its surrounding landscape.
  • Loch Kinord, Castle Island, Scotland – radiocarbon dating an early island castle: Castle Island, Loch Kinord, Aberdeenshire
  • Old Bolingbroke, England – revealing the history of Old Bolingbroke’s Castles: What can researching Bolingbroke Castle’s Route Yard and Dewy Hill tell us about Bolingbroke Castle?
  • Pembroke, Wales – test trenches at one of Wales’ greatest castles to confirm the site of the late medieval structure revealed in the geophysical survey funded by the CST in 2016.
  • Ruthin Denbighshire – co-funding reconstruction drawing of this great Welsh Edwardian fortress. Ruthin was the town where Owain Glyndwr’s rebellion against English rule started.
  • Sheffield, England – record and examine the architectural fragments stored on the site of the castle found in previous excavations.
  • Skipton, England – an archaeological/architectural survey will be produced of the gate structures and flanking round towers of the inner ward of Skipton Castle.
  • Snodhill, England – geophysical survey and excavations to answer some key remaining questions of this important Welsh border fortress re: the castle namely where was the entrance and function of the North Tower.

The applications have been sent to our expert assessors who will go over them. You can see how the assessment process works in one of our earlier blogs.