With the 2020 excavation report now published, Shrewsbury Castle Excavation Director Dr Nigel Baker looks back at the two years of excavations and what they reveal about this important castle of the Welsh Marches.
Before the excavations in 2019 and 2020 funded by the Castle Studies Trust, Shrewsbury Castle was one of the least well understood major castles of the Welsh Marches. Its visible form is that of a classic motte-and-bailey, with earthen ramparts surmounted by stone curtain walls. However, the archaeological project and associated research has shown that the historical reality is more complex than this.
First recorded as a consequence of being besieged by local rebels in 1069, many aspects of its recorded history follow a familiar Marches pattern: heavy royal expenditure in the 12th and 13th centuries as a campaign base and in the face of Welsh raiding, followed by decline into obsolescence and ruination in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, arrested temporarily by a return to active service in the English Civil War in the 1640s. Its later history was as a private residence, distinguished by its ‘restoration’ by Thomas Telford in 1786-1790, and finally its return to public life as a council meeting hall in 1925 and as the home of a regimental museum in the 1980s.
First of all, the Norman castle was not built on an empty site. It occupied the end of a ridge that was critical to the defence of the old Saxon borough, and the 2019 excavation demonstrated occupation here in the 10th or early 11th century, on a plateau or low knoll at about 68m AOD, higher than its surroundings, and at one end of the likely cross-peninsula borough defences. At present the archaeological evidence is limited to a single pit and its artefacts, but reading between the lines of the historical record, it is possible that the site was shared by a church dedicated to St Michael and perhaps a hall, maybe that of the pre-Conquest sheriffs.
The Norman castle of the 1060s wiped out all that had been there before, except the church, which appears in Domesday Book; this also records the loss of 51 tax-paying households when the castle was built. It consisted of a large motte overlooking the river, elevated to a height (80m AOD) equal to that of the royal and episcopal halls within the old borough, with a substantial ditch, discovered in 2019, around its base. West of the motte was a small inner bailey. Extending south was a much larger outer bailey, separated from the English borough further south by a second cross-peninsula ditch and supplemented in the 12th century by earth ramparts around the bailey perimeter. The small size of the inner bailey, in reality perhaps more of a barbican, suggests that the royal hall, documented from 1246 but probably present from the beginning, was on the motte top.
It is not yet clear when the earth and timber defences began to be replaced in stone, but stretches of thin, slabby rubble in the curtain walls and motte wing walls may be indicative of work in the late 12th or early 13th century.
Major changes took place throughout the 13th century, some documented, some suggested by the excavations. The single surviving medieval building, often called the hall, is fairly certainly the camera regis or royal chamber built in 1239-41, a date consistent with the dendrochronological evidence from the building. It may have been constructed as part of a larger rebuilding campaign that saw the west side of the inner bailey expanded westwards by pushing a terrace out over the gradient behind a newly-built ashlar curtain wall. This is one of the conclusions of the 2020 excavation trench through the western rampart, which found medieval tipped strata at a level below that of the natural gravel seen in the interior of the bailey in 2019.
Meanwhile, the east side of the motte was subject to erosion by the River Severn and the consequent partial collapse of the motte was recorded by an enquiry held in 1255; in 1269-71 a ‘great wooden tower’ fell down and was said to be totally destroyed. The motte top was repaired towards the end of the 13th century with a new wall built across the damaged side in red and white striped masonry. The motte ditch appears to have been infilled, mainly by the deposition of rubbish, and a new castle well, which survives, was dug within it.
As the town grew, the outer bailey was built over. In 1220-c.1250 when the town walls were built, the outer bailey was walled continuously with the rest of the town and no longer separated from it; the tenements that had been established there continued to pay their ground rents to the crown while those outside, further south, paid theirs to the borough.
Two early plans show what had become of the castle by the end of the 16th century. The Burghley Map of Shrewsbury of c.1575 shows the main building unroofed, a smaller building (perhaps St Michael’s) in ruins, and just one roofed building standing in the inner bailey in the area of the surviving well. A sketch plan by the master mason John Smythson of 1627 likewise shows the main building, and most of the curtain walls, in a ruined condition; it also shows a gatehouse of which there is no other evidence.
Restoration came in 1643-44 when the castle was garrisoned by the Royalists, and the borough’s mayoral accounts record expenditure on the main gate and its new barbican, a new postern gate, walls and outworks. The castle was captured for Parliament in February 1645; what appears to be battle-damage can be seen on the woodwork of the main gate and around the openings of the main building but this identification now needs confirmation by battlefield archaeologists. After its capture, the Parliamentarians continued the Royalists’ restoration of the main building, its roof and gallery built with timber felled in the winter of 1647. The castle was finally de-munitioned in 1686 and became a private residence.
Thomas Telford’s ‘restoration’ of the castle in 1786-1790 for Sir William Pulteney was nothing if not brutal. The excavations in the inner bailey have shown that the interior was levelled down, scraped bare, and at least some of the material used to enhance or even create the ‘ramparts’ around the perimeter. Illustrations show that, until 1786, the motte top was still occupied by a 13th-century round tower and the ruins of other, as yet unidentified, buildings. These were all swept away and replaced by Telford’s ‘Laura’s Tower’, a fine, two-storey summerhouse in the Gothick style.