Shrewsbury Castle: a 2020 vision, from Saxon habitation to C18 landscaping?

Project lead for the Shrewsbury Castle excavations Dr Nigel Baker looks forward to the forthcoming excavations at the castle, hopefully this year, funded by the CST

Last year, the Castle Studies Trust excavation – the first ever to have taken place within the walls of Shrewsbury Castle – produced three headline conclusions. The first was that the work of the young Thomas Telford there for his client, William Pountney M.P. in 1786-90 was, sadly, more destructive of the medieval original than had previously been recognised. The extent of his restoration of the house (now the Soldiers of Shropshire Museum) and the curtain walls has long been known. What wasn’t appreciated was that standing walls of ruined buildings and a 13th-century tower on the motte top were destroyed and reduced to their footings, and the interior of the inner bailey was, it seems, scraped flat, producing a lovely level lawn at the expense of any archaeological deposits overlying the natural gravel of the hilltop. Despite this, infilled negative features (pits and ditches) cut into the gravel survived and were found by our excavation trench. As a result, our second headline conclusion was that the motte was ringed on its landward side by a massive ditch, twelve metres wide: what we know as the inner bailey must, in the early Middle Ages, have been little more than a barbican defending the end of the bridge giving access up the motte.

C18 Remodelling?

But the extent of Telford’s work raises a question, first put to the archaeological team by Martin Roseveare, our geophysicist: if Telford had the inner bailey levelled flat, where did he put the proceeds, meaning the scraped-up earth and debris? Could the apparently well-preserved medieval ramparts ringing the bailey actually be down to the young Scottish civil engineer, rather than impressed English labour under the whip-hand of William the Conqueror’s henchmen? This is one of the leading questions that a second season of excavation at Shrewsbury Castle hopes to be able to answer, by digging on part of the western rampart known to be already disturbed by former Victorian greenhouses.

High Status Saxon Living

There are, however, other at least equally compelling reasons for excavating on this site. The third headline conclusion of the 2019 trench was that there was pre-Conquest activity within the area of the inner bailey. This was demonstrated by a pit, pit 20, containing Stafford-type ware (well known in late pre-Conquest Shrewsbury) and a type of pottery known as TF41a, an import up the Severn from Gloucester, never seen before in Shrewsbury. The question is, what was it doing there?

Top piece Rim of type 41a Saxon pottery from Gloucester
Lower piece: Rim of Stafford ware Saxon pottery

Shrewsbury is one of those castles listed in Domesday along with the destruction it caused to its ‘host’ shire town. Construction of Shrewsbury Castle took out 51 tax-paying tenements, a quarter or a fifth of the total built-up area, to the economic distress of the remaining inhabitants. Many of the destroyed plots will have lined the strategically important Chester to Hereford road that passes through the outer bailey. However, looming over the road and its plots, and the main gate through the pre-Conquest defences, was the hilltop on which the castle would come to be built. And on it, overlooking the gate, most likely on the Victorian greenhouse site, was the Church of St Michael, a church that became the castle chapel, but was listed in Domesday between the entries for two of the town’s pre-Conquest minsters and was served by two priests later in the Middle Ages, when it was a royal peculiar, exempt from episcopal oversight. This need not necessarily all add up to a pre-Conquest church – but the chances are very strong that it does, and that this church, which, overlooking the town defences,  may have had some kind of defensive role, was part of the context of pit 20.

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The clues are beginning to point to a high-status site, probably enclosed, with its interior ground level two metres above that of its neighbours, and its own church. For an analogy, one could do worse than look to Wallingford, whose castle in the north-east corner of the Saxon burh had probably taken over and re-fortified a royal site of some kind, possibly housing government functions, perhaps a mint, and a garrison of housecarls. Or one might look to Oxford, where St George’s Tower is now generally thought to be of pre-Conquest date. Shrewsbury seems to be joining the list of Norman town castles established on sites of political, not just tactical, importance.

But archaeology can be frustrating. While we hope that excavation of the Victorian greenhouse site in the west rampart may yield insights into the extent of Thomas Telford’s landscape gardening, the foundations of a pre-Conquest church and further clues to a high-status or even royal site preceding the castle, by 2021 the excavation team may well be singularly well-informed experts on…Victorian greenhouses.

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Our five projects for 2020

The results are in, we’ve decided which projects we will be funding for 2020.

But before we get to the announcement, we want to thank all the applicants who proposed projects. It was a difficult decision, with exciting and innovative approaches to a group of fascinating castles. This year marks a milestone for us: we are award £30,000 across the successful projects which is the most we’ve given in a single year.

So without further ado, here are the five projects we will be funding in 2020. We hope you are looking forward to discovering more about them.

Lincoln Castle

Photo by Gustavo Faraon, licensed CC-BY-NC 2.0

The project will develop a reconstruction drawing of the castle, as it would have been in the latter part of the 12th century, founded by William the Conqueror, in the second half of the 11th century.

Shrewsbury Castle

We will be funding a second year of excavation, following on from 2019, this time to understand the rampart of the inner bailey.

Sowing the Seeds

Castlecarra is one of the sites to be investigated. Photo by Karen Dempsey.

The aim of the project is to try and understand better everyday life in castles by seeing if there are any surviving plants at four Irish castles that were planted, grown, and cared for by medieval people.

The Wirk

Could the Wirk be a Norse castle? Based on the island of Rousay, this stone tower is situated close to the old parish church and recently discovered Norse Hall. However, no one knows what this tower was used for or even when it was built.

Warkworth

 Photo by Karl Davison, licensed CC-BY-NC 2.0

Using various forms of geophysical survey to try and understand the subsurface features for the former caput of the Earls of Northumberland.

Donate regularly for invitation to exclusive site visits

Regular donors will be invited to all exclusive visits to the projects we fund.

Those who are able to donate £500 a year or more (excluding Gift Aid) will also have the opportunity to attend our annual special castle visit to major/privately owned castles. In 2020 this will be at Edinburgh Castle on Saturday 6 June where we will visit parts of the castle not open to the public.

Any new donations by standing order or payroll giving will be matched by a generous supporter for the next two years up to a maximum of £2,000 a year in total.

You can donate regularly via payroll giving or by setting up a standing order. Please return the form to the address on the forms, with the gift aid form if applicable.

A Large and Eclectic Crop of Fascinating Applications for the Castle Studies Trust to Consider

The deadline for grant applications passed on 30th November. We’re going through the various projects now. Altogether the 13 projects, coming from England, Ireland, and Scotland are asking for over £88,000. They cover not only a wide period of history but also a wide range of topics. In a little more detail, here are the applications we’ve received:

Bamburgh, Northumberland

Photo by Thomas Quine, licensed CC BY 2.0.

The main aim is to recover evidence for the base natural topography around the approach to the main gate of the once royal castle, from the area of the medieval village, and explore how this was altered, presented and exploited to create a sense of theatre for visitors to the site.

Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire

Photo by Sean Wallis, licensed CC BY NC 2.0.

A geoarchaeological auger survey of the moats that surround this former royal castle and palace of Thomas Becket. The survey aims to answer such questions as what were the moats original profiles, when were the moats filled and how do the two moats compare with each other.

Dunollie, Argyll

Photo by Paul Lloyd, licensed CC BY NC SA 2.0.

To try and understand the date of the construction of the castle owned by the MacDougall clan through various through buildings and materials analysis including radiocarbon dating and mortar analysis.

Fraoch Eilean, Loch Awe

Photo by Andrea Hope, licensed CC BY SA 2.0.

To try and understand the date of the construction of the former royal castle through various through buildings and materials analysis including radiocarbon dating and mortar analysis.

Hoghton, Lancashire

The aim of the project to continue the work the CST funded in 2019 with excavations and building survey. Further excavations will try and understand the purpose of the structures found in the 2019 excavation season and if they were related to the original great tower.

Holme Pierpont, Nottinghamshire

To build up an understanding of this late medieval great house, never previously researched. The work will include a mixture of desk research, building survey and geophysical survey of the parkland surrounding it. The house is the most complete of the three late medieval brick-built houses in Nottinghamshire.

Lincoln, Lincolnshire

Photo by Ben Keating, licensed CCY BY NC SA 2.0.

To develop a reconstruction drawing of the castle as it would have appeared in the second half of the 12th century. Lincoln Castle was founded by William the Conqueror in the late 11th century.

Shrewsbury, Shropshire

To fund a second year of excavation, this time to understand the rampart of the inner bailey. The geophysical survey carried out in the 2019 suggested there could be remains of buildings there, possibly even a late Saxon church. Shrewsbury was a very important border castle up until the 13th century and frequently used as a base for English raids into Wales.

Sowing the Seeds

Hortus conclusus depicted by Meister des Frankfurter Paradiesgärtleins

The aim of the project is to try and understand better everyday life in castles by seeing if there are any surviving plants at four Irish castles that were planted, grown and cared for by medieval people. The research will involve ecological surveys at each location.

Strongholds of Wessex

Photo of Silbury Hill by Greg O’Beirne, licensed CC BY SA 3.0.

The aim of the project is to understand the military organisation of the northern part of Wessex (Wiltshire and West Oxfordshire) from the transition from Saxon to Norman rule between the 9th and 12th centuries. The work will involve documentary research, landscape and place name surveys. Sites examined will include Castle Combe, Cricklade and Silbury Hill.

The Wirk, Orkney

Rousay - The Wirk

Could the Wirk be a Norse castle? Based on the island of Rousay, this stone tower is situated close to the old parish church and recently discovered Norse Hall. However, no one knows what this tower was used for or even when it was built. The work would involve a geophysical survey of the surrounding area as well as two trial trenches to try and find dating evidence.

Thermal Imaging of Castles

A thermogram of Cirencester Roman amphitheatre by Dr John Wells, licensed CC BY SA 4.0.

To test how useful thermal imaging could be in understanding castles. The thermal survey using a FLIR camera of two castle facades in different climates. within the UK—Caisteal Uisdein, on the coast of Loch Snizort, and a castle farther south and slightly inland, Castle Rising.

Warkworth, Northumberland

Photo by Barry Marsh, in the public domain

Using various forms of geophysical survey to try and understand the subsurface features for the former caput of the Dukes of Northumberland. The survey will focus on the bailey inside the 12th-century curtain wall as well as the strip of land outside but on the early earthwork castle, the motte and field near the entrance to the castle.


The applications have been sent to our expert assessors who will go over them. And if you want to know more about how the assessment process works, we have a brief summary.

The Shrewsbury Castle excavation: end of dig report

The investigations funded by the Castle Studies Trust at Shrewsbury Castle, one of the most important castles along the Anglo-Welsh border have now finished. Dr Nigel Baker reveals the preliminary findings of those investigations.

Before the dig began two weeks ago, our geophysics survey showed (with complete accuracy as it turned out) a spread of hard material just under the grass directly opposite the castle hall – possibly the remains of demolished buildings. Almost immediately the turf was off it became apparent that the hard material was not rubble but a low ridge of gravel, curving slightly as it headed south towards the main gate. Cut into this road surface (as we took it to be) were round, flat-bottomed topsoil-filled cuts, probably Victorian and later flower beds.

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Excavating through the gravel immediately revealed further, cleaner gravel, that appeared to be of natural/geological origin; further testing demonstrated that all the gravel was natural – the natural/geological top of the hill. It had been levelled, planed-off horizontally, in the fairly recent past, possibly in 1925-6 when the castle was restored, and any archaeological layers or building remains above the gravel would have been removed.

However, at the east end of the trench the gravel was found dug away at a 45-degree angle by a single, massive cut, with medieval pottery in the soil within it. The cut was recognised as the edge of the great defensive ditch that formerly encircled the base of the Norman motte. This would have been about 12 metres wide; the geophysics suggests there was probably a bridge over it, just north of the excavation, opposite the present hall entrance. The objects found in the ditch include pottery – cooking pots and glazed jugs – from the period roughly 1100-1400, and a large quantity of animal bone from food waste. There were also two arrow heads or crossbow-bolt heads, both of the ‘bodkin’ type: sharp, square-edged heavy points designed to penetrate armour and clearly for military use rather than hunting.

The principal conclusion of the excavation was that, when the castle was first built by the Normans in or just before 1069, the motte, with its defensive ditch, was enormous, and the inner bailey was tiny – it was little more than an extra layer of fortification wrapped around the approach up to the motte.

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Exploring Shrewsbury Castle

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.

Tiger Geo doing sterling work despite the weather.

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.

The medieval well. It’s a dizzying 21m down to water level.

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Five New Awards and £100,000 in six years

We are excited to announce five grants totalling a record £27,000 that will advance our understanding of castles. These awards mean we have reached the landmark of giving away £100,000 in grants. It has taken six years for us to do that during which time the Trust has doubled the maximum amount we can award to £10,000.

Before you read about the five projects below, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter if you haven’t already.

  • Druminnor, Aberdeenshire – Using GPR for an investigation of the 15th century core of the castle – presently under a hardcore car park. This was the original caput of the lords of Forbes. During the 15th century they were amongst the most powerful families in the North-east of Scotland.
  • Hoghton Tower, Lancashire – This project aims to form an axis of research into Hoghton Tower’s unique physical history. The main focus will be to investigate and advance the knowledge of the pre-1560 site and specifically try to test the hypothesis that the north side building may form part of the ‘original’ Hoghton Tower.
  • Laughton en le Morthen, South Yorkshire – Excavation to try to confirm the findings of the geophysical surveys the CST funded in 2018. These indicated that the castle was placed right on the top of a high status Saxon dwelling.
  • Shrewsbury, Shropshire – Geophysical survey and excavation to determine how the castle buildings were laid out in the bailey. This will be the first time the well preserved motte-and-bailey castle has been excavated. First mentioned in 1069, Shrewsbury Castle was a key point along the Anglo-Welsh border and fell into ruin following the conquest of Wales.
  • Wressle, East Yorkshire – A geophysical survey of the area to the south of the castle ruins which had been covered by the previous earthwork survey funded by the CST, to get more information about the various garden structures there, as well as other details regarding the deserted village, moat and fishponds. The 14th century castle was one of the most important castles owned by the Earls of Northumberland.

Be sure to follow us on social media where we’ll be bringing you updates from the field, with work starting this month. In the meantime, here are some of our supporters discussing our work. we hope you’re looking forward to this year’s projects as much as we are!

The projects we’re considering for 2019

The deadline for grant applications passed on 30th November. We’re going through the various projects now. Altogether the 12 projects, coming from all parts of Britain and one from Ireland, are asking for over £75,000.* They cover not only a wide period of history but also a wide range of topics. In a little more detail, here are the applications we’ve received:

Collyweston, Northamptonshire

  • Contributing towards a community excavation at the early Tudor palace commissioned by Henry VII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort. According to building accounts the palace was built around three courtyards and was the first brick building in Northamptonshire. The palace was demolished in 1640 and the site has never been excavated before.

Druminnor, Aberdeenshire

[10] Druminnor Castle - "Woops!"
Using Ground Penetrating Radar for an investigation of the 15th-century core of the castle – presently under a hardcore car park. This was the original caput of the lords of Forbes. During the 15th century they were amongst the most powerful families in the North-east of Scotland.

Hoghton Tower, Lancashire

hoghton tower
This project aims to form an axis of research into Hoghton Tower’s unique physical history. The main focus will be to investigate and advance the knowledge of the pre-1560 site and specifically try to test the hypothesis that the north side building may form part of the ‘original’ Hoghton Tower.

Lathom, Lancashire

Excavation to establish the form and location of the southern perimeter of the curtain wall of the 15th-century castle known as the Northern Court of which nothing remains above ground from the period. It was one of the most important castles in the north west of England in the late 15th and 16th centuries. The castle was besieged twice in the English Civil War and then slighted. In 2017 we funded analysis of masonry recovered in earlier excavations, which indicated architectural links with Caernarfon Castle.

Laughton en le Morthen, South Yorkshire

Photo by Mike Neid

Following on from last year’s grant, this project would undertake excavation to investigate features identified during the geophysical survey. The survey suggested that the castle was built over an Anglo-Saxon lordly residence, and the excavation would test whether there is further evidence to corroborate this.

Lewes, East Sussex

Photo by Richard Gailey, licensed CC-BY 2.0.

This research aims to answer an intriguing question: why does Lewes Castle, East Sussex, have two mottes? Do they represent a highly distinctive architectural statement, or did burial mounds of possible Romano-British or earlier origins influence the form of the 11th century fortification?

Loughmoe, County Tipperary

Castles of Munster, Loughmoe, Tipperary - geograph.org.uk - 1542634
To produce the first-ever detailed survey and structural history of the building which dates from the 15th and 16th centuries, and to determine using geophysics the extent of the original castle and whether the renaissance part had a precinct, other buildings, and gardens.

Raglan, Monmouthshire

Photo © Jeremy Cunnington

Using inferences from previous geophysical surveys to focus on key areas of the lower terraces and bowling green of the castle potentially revealing more about the clandestine political activity of the Somerset family in the late 16th and 17 centuries.

Shrewsbury, Shropshire

Shrewsbury Castle looking West
Geophysical survey and excavation concentrating on the inner bailey to in particular examine the tail of the north rampart. Despite being one of the main fortresses on the Welsh border no major excavations have taken place in the bailey. Thus the medieval plan of the enclosure, and the missing domestic ranges that should be there, are completely unknown.

Snodhill, Herefordshire

Photo © Jeremy Cunnington

Excavations in this important Welsh border fortress that was in use from just after the conquest to the English Civil War. The aim is to answer some key questions about the castle e.g. the keep’s entrance and final form, to establish the form of the North Tower and along the south side to see if that was where the entrance was.

Tarbert, Argyll

East Loch Tarbert and Tarbert Castle - geograph.org.uk - 1624617
Funding post-excavation costs of a community archaeology project. The project will be trying to see discover a number of things about this royal castle including if there was a southern entrance into the outer bailey, and what buildings there were along the north east range of the inner bailey.

Wressle, East Yorkshire

A geophysical survey of the area to the south of the castle ruins which had been covered by the previous earthwork survey funded by the CST, to get more information about the various garden structures there, as well as other details regarding the deserted village, moat and fishponds. The 14th century castle was one of the most important castles owned by the Dukes of Northumberland.

The applications have been sent to our expert assessors who will go over them. You can see how the assessment process works from our blog back in January 2016. And don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter.

*The article was updated at 15:28, 10th December to remove Halton Castle.