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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The Simple Act of Hospitality the Tudor Way

Summers for me always mean getting together with friends and family for BBQs and picnics. The simple act of hosting a party comes with a range of logistics for the host to manage: buying, cooking, and serving food, providing entertainment, ensuring everyone is enjoying themselves, along with more practical tasks such as cleaning communal areas that guests will frequent. The Tudor period did not entail many modern-style BBQs in the backyard; however, hosting celebrations was a large part of elite culture. Scholars of hospitality in the medieval and early modern periods have long recognized its social and cultural significance. Generosity was a Christian value and was expected from those who could afford to provide it.

Hans Holbein the Younger, ‘Henry VIII dining in the great chamber’ (c. 1548). Photo from the British Museum, licensed CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Hospitality leaves very little trace in architectural remains, so historians must turn to documentary records to investigate how castles were used to host feasts and celebrations. Household Books are one such record that provide a clue into the extravagance and hierarchy of these revels. These documents were created as a sort of ‘how-to-guide’ for management and maintenance of a large residence. Unsurprisingly, households played a main role in the performance of hospitality and therefore, protocols for dining and hosting are a common feature in these records. King Edward IV’s Liber Niger is one of the most used sources for demonstrating the splendour of royal households, and many of the large noble households of the late medieval period take some instruction from the king. For instance, Henry Percy, the fifth earl of Northumberland (1477–1527) kept a detailed Household Book for the year 1512 in which daily ritual and splendour are of the foremost concerns.[1] The Northumberland Household Book (NHB)is specifically for the earl’s main castles of Wressle and Leckonfield in Yorkshire.[2] It gives exact numbers of servants, their role and responsibilities, instructions for dining etiquette, and seeing to the lord and his family. In a theoretical sense, it provides us with an image of the perfectly run noble household.

A quadrangular stone castle with a river in the foreground, a village to the right, and gardens next to the castle and behind it.
Wressle Castle by Peter Brears, based on the 2014 survey. See the CST blog ‘Re-imagining Wressle Castle’.

One of the concerns in the NHB is the procedure for eating. It tells us that the earl of Northumberland sat at the high table with his wife, Catherine Spencer, and his son and heir, Henry Percy. Northumberland’s other two sons, Thomas and William, served the food for the high table.[3] The NHB continues to list a total of sixteen people to attend the needs of the lord and his family, including ‘the childe of the kechinge that shall help the saide Yoman or Groome to dresse my Lords Metes and Servyce for the Howsehold And to be ath the Revercion’.[4] After the list of those serving the high table, the NHB lists the people who should sit at each of the tables in the great chamber and subsequently in the great hall. Controlling where people sat, the food that they ate, and the order of service was one way for a lord to visually display and reinforce the social hierarchy on a daily basis.

Text Box: Figure 3: A section from the Portrait of Sir Henry Unton (c. 1558 - 1596), held at the National Portrait Gallery, London
A section from the Portrait of Sir Henry Unton (c. 1558 – 1596), held at the National Portrait Gallery, London

Some days called for special feasts and the NHB isolates the principal feasts of the year when the household could expect a ‘great repaire of Straungers’ arriving at the castle. These days include: Easter, St George’s Day, Whitsun, All Hallows Eve, and Christmas. These celebrations did not just provide food for guests, but entertainment as well. For the Twelfth Night celebrations at Wressle in 1512, the ‘hoole chappell’ was directed to ‘sing wassaill’, a carol celebrating the service of the wassail drink at the evening banquet.[5] On All Souls Day, Northumberland’s chapel performed the ‘responde callede Exaudivi at the Matyns-tyme for xij virgyns’.[6]

In an earlier blog post for the CST, Dr Kate Buchanan explored ideas of a social gathering around Christmas time at Huntly Castle and the sensory experience that those present might have experienced. She demonstrates that hosts could – and oftentimes did – blend business with pleasure when it came to hospitality. This is definitely the picture from other fifteenth- and sixteenth-century household books. Celebratory periods brought family, peers, political allies, and even tenants together under one roof. Castles facilitated the gathering of a community and it was the space in which relationships could be forged. 

Hospitality was just one way that castles were used to promote and uphold the social hierarchy of Tudor England. We must remember that hospitality was not just an act that the host actively placed on the passive guest. It was very much a performance with the household servants as many of the main players. Servants prepared and served the food, attended to guests, and ensured that everyone adhered to protocol. Castles played a much greater role than being the theatres on which this performance took place. The great hall and the household chapel were key areas in the castle that hospitality was dispensed. These spaces brought everyone in the castle together for entertainment and allowed for interaction of people across the social and gender hierarchy. These interactions were of course heavily regulated. Although castles accommodated people from across the social spectrum, they helped to ensure, through visual cues, the social order of premodern England by promoting the owner’s wealth and status through ritual and display.

If you would like to know more my forthcoming book, The Culture of Castles in Tudor England and Wales will be available in September 2019 from Boydell Press.


[1] Henry Algernon Percy, The Regulations and Establishment of the Household of Henry Algernon Percy, the fifth Earl of Northumberland at his Castles of Wressle and Leakenfield in Yorkshire (London, 1905).

[2] The Castle Studies Trust has funded two projects at Wressle. You can explore the findings here: http://www.castlestudiestrust.org/Wressle-Castle.html

[3] The Regulations of the Earl of Northumberland,pp. 349-353.

[4] The Regulations of the Earl of Northumberland, p. 351.

[5] The Regulations of the Earl of Northumberland, pp. 342-3.

[6] The Regulations of the Earl of Northumberland, pp. 342-3.

Grant applications are open

As it’s September, we are now accepting grant applications for projects to run next in 2020. Grants are for projects which improve the understanding of castle and cover up to £10,000 and applications close on 28 November. Since we started awarding grants in 2014, we have given a total of £100,000 across 24 projects.

If you’re searching for ideas previous grants have supported fieldwork such as excavations at Shrewsbury and geophysical survey at Tibbers, and interpretative projects such digital reconstructions of Holt and Ruthin and a series of videos by Dig It! TV.

It is always exciting to see the applications come in and learn what people have in mind. Our website has more information on our grants, including the criteria projects are assessed on and the application form. If you have questions about grants or want feedback, please contact Jeremy Cunnington (our Chair) at admin@castlestudiestrust.org

Our work is entirely funded by our donors; if you can donate to support our work please do so that we can fund more projects in the future.

Fresh from Fotheringhay

We have the results of the survey at Fotheringhay Castle. You can find out more about what we found in Steve Parry’s excellent blogpost, complete with the earliest depiction of the castle.

The castle is most famous as the place where Mary Queen of Scots was tried and executed. It was thoroughly dismantled in the first half of the 17th century, leaving the motte intact but little else above ground. Thanks to work by the Museum of London Archaeology and funded by the Castle Studies Trust, we now have a better idea of how the castle was arranged.

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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More Medieval than Ever: Rebuilt Castles in East Central Europe

This is an edited version a talk given by Béla Zsolt Szakács gave at the Leeds International Medieval Congress in July 2018 and published in the Castle Studies Group bulletin.

Since the political changes of 1989/90, the countries of East Central Europe have been trying to overcome the century-long lagging behind Western European regions. An important element of the rebuilding of national identities in these territories is the ‘glorious’ medieval past. Understandably the visual expression of this medieval past is a focus of political and cultural interest. Castles are primary objects – so to say, victims – of this interest.

The year 2000 was celebrated in Hungary with a special pomp since it was not only the second millennium of Christianity, but also the 1000- year anniversary of the Hungarian kingdom was established by King Saint Stephen (c.1000–38). As a result of this, there was a great need of memorial sites, however, practically all important royal monuments and residences had been destroyed during the Ottoman wars and the Baroque period.

One of them is the royal castle of Esztergom, the former capital of the Hungarian kingdom and centre of the Catholic Church. Excavations of the surprisingly well-preserved Romanesque castle started in 1934 and the first phase was finished by 1938. By 2000, further elements of the royal (later archiepiscopal) castle had been identified.

Castle Hill in Esztergom in 1955. It was the site of the medieval castle and now the basilica. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Following the plans of Tibor Gál, a renowned Hungarian architect, a postmodern reconstruction was carried out at the site. The new building complex incorporated the Romanesque and Gothic remains of the palace with additions designed in a style that recalls, but does not imitate, the medieval past of the site. The courtyard was closed with a gate that never existed in the Middle Ages. Around the courtyard, remains of the Romanesque palace and a Gothic audience hall are standing. Although some of the windows were partially preserved, they were fully reconstructed, in other cases they were imitated by modern steel constructions. The results of the whole work were harshly criticised for being confusing and totally alien to the medieval original.

Esztergom Castle in 2013. Photo by Krystian Cieślik, licensed CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Another historic monument extensively rebuilt in 2000 is the Royal Palace of Visegrád. This romantic site – near to Esztergom and Buda, capitals of the kingdom – was a royal residence in the 14th century and an important hunting lodge of King Matthias (1458–90). It was destroyed during the Ottoman wars, and excavation of the remains began in 1934 and are still continuing. The most spectacular part is the north-eastern palace with its courtyard. The corridors around the courtyard were vaulted, the imprint of which were discovered during the excavations. With the help of the in-situ corbels and the excavated ribs a reconstruction of the east wing was carried out in 1952. This was continued with smaller additions in 1970, resulting in a complicated architectural complex of terraces, ruins and reconstructed building parts. In 2000 the palace was extensively rebuilt incorporating all the previously discovered and reconstructed elements. This was not a full reconstruction as the additions stopped where no information was available.

The Royal Palace of Visegrád in 2013. Photo by Allexkoch, licensed CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Nevertheless, this resulted in a still ruinous palace with many unverifiable details. The whole concept was based on the studies of Gergely Buzás, archaeologist and art historian (later director) of the local museum. His pioneering monograph published in 1990 contained a possible reconstruction. However, while the drawing is a scholarly attempt of a theoretical reconstruction, the building work in 2000 made permanent the understanding of the castle at a particular point in time. The vaulting reconstruction of 1952 has already proved to be erroneous, but has been never corrected. The present, much bigger volume of the reconstructed loggiaa (a covered gallery) is still debated.

The reconstructed loggia. Photo by EtelkaCsilla, licensed CC-BY-SA 3.0.

These actions, in 2000, were strongly connected to the memorial year and were supported generously by the government which needed representative sites for political purposes. They represented different methodologies: the postmodern reconstruction which did not imitate medieval forms but was inspired by them and a scientific reconstruction which claimed to be authentic. Visegrád was the most extensive but was followed by many other examples in the next decades.

One them was the castle of Diósgyőr in Northern Hungary, now part of the modern city of Miskolc. This important site was a royal castle built by King Louis the Great of Hungary (1326–1382) in the second half of the 14th century. Later it became the property of the Hungarian queens who made some modifications during the 15th and 16th centuries. Beside its political significance, this castle is regarded as an outstanding monument of Hungarian secular Gothic architecture.

Since the 18th century the building has been in a ruinous state: only the four towers standing on the four corners have been preserved more-or-less intact (but without the uppermost floors and the roofs), all the palace wings have been destroyed. The state of preservation of the ruins deteriorated during the last decades of the twentieth century.


The castle in 1933. From Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Shortly after 2000, plans were drawn up by architects in order to preserve the existing walls by new additions, which led to the idea of a radical reconstruction. The reconstruction was partial, keeping one of the towers in its ruinous state, and leaving the western wing unfinished However, many details were totally reconstructed which provoked heated debates.

The castle in 2016. Photo by CivertanS, licensed CC-BY-SA 4.0.

One of the reconstructed rooms is the knights’ hall. The vaulting system is authentic, but the form of supporting piers is not known. The present room has two windows and two portals on the south façade, although according to an 18th-century drawing, there was only one window and one portal. The additional portal is based on a stone-carving, but its shapes were not followed precisely and it fits better to the chapel rather than the knights’ hall. The windows’ shape follows its presumed 14th-century form, consequently the original late-medieval additions were removed. The reconstruction resulted in the destruction of one of the latest original elements of the medieval building in order to return to an earlier phase; unfortunately, the original form of this earlier window is not known: the present form is purely hypothetical.

The Knights’ Hall in 2018. Photo by ArBePa, licensed CC-BY-SA 4.0.

All the other wings were rebuilt with Renaissance windows, again without any archaeological evidence. In other cases original elements were destroyed because in their survived form they were not strong enough to support the modern reconstruction. Modern functions were also destructive, e.g. the royal apartment was replaced by an elevator. The amateurish furnishing of the interiors needs no further criticism.

So far we have seen some example of the recent castle reconstruction from Hungary. Nevertheless, such reconstructions can be found easily all over East Central Europe. I will limit myself to three well-known examples.

The first is from Croatia. The castle of Medvedgrad is situated above Zagreb and is a popular destination. It was probably built by the bishop of Zagreb in the mid-13th century. One of the most spectacular elements of this reconstruction is the chapel. This was totally reconstructed using the original carved stones of the supporting and vaulting system, the rose window and the portal. The lower castle ended in a keep which unfortunately collapsed in 1954. Thus the present building is a total reconstruction.

Medvedgrad’s reconstructed chapel (left) and keep (background). Photo by August Dominus, licensed CC-BY-SA 4.0.

The reconstruction works intensified after 1993, in a period when Croatia was fighting for its independence. The castle of Medvedgrad became a national monument, and a memorial was built there for the victims of the war of 1991–95. Although the castle itself never played an important historical or military role, its position above the country’s capital and the national ideology connected to it, predestined it to be the subject of an intensive and controversial reconstruction.

Medvedgrad

Similar national feelings inspired the reconstruction of the grand ducal palace in Vilnius. It was constructed in the 15th century and rebuilt during the subsequent centuries. During the Russian wars of the 17th century, the castle was heavily damaged and then stood abandoned for more than a century. After Vilnius was incorporated into the Russian Empire, the palace was destroyed in 1801. After long debates, the parliament decided in 2000 to reconstruct the palace as it was before 1801, although precise information was lacking and practically no original part was standing. Parallel to the building campaign, excavations continued which resulted in modifications of the palace project. By 2009 significant parts were ready and the whole complex was finished by 2013. Since then the palace is often used as the site of representative political venues.

A third example can be taken from Poznan, Poland. The castle was situated in the north-west corner of the town. Its medieval shape is practically unknown. The earliest depiction of the town is from 1617 and though it shows the town walls and some palaces, but the donjon is not represented. The whole complex was destroyed in 1945. During the years of 1959–64, the post-medieval buildings were partially reconstructed. The idea of reconstructing the medieval part emerged around 2000. Remains of a medieval tower were discovered which served as a basis for the rebuilding which process started in 2010 with the building complex being finished in 2013. During these works a tower was erected which dominates the façade and is connected to wings imitating medieval houses. As the medieval form of the palace is practically unknown, the entire reconstruction is extremely hypothetical. While the rebuilding lacks scientific basis, it evidently inspired political motivation, creating a new visual highlight in contrast to the towers of the cathedral and the town hall.

The reconstruction of Poznan Castle in 2012, close to completion. Photo by Kapsuglan, licensed CC-BY-SA 3.0.

The presented importance of the reconstruction in what is presently one of the most prosperous modern towns of Poland, is far from historical reality. Although Posnan was the early capital of Poland, it never played such a role after 1300. Rebuilding medieval castles is more popular today in East Central Europe than ever, however, motivation and methodology may differ considerably. In some cases the scientific background is more solid, although in all cases scholars needed to accept compromises. In other examples pure fantasy dominates the reconstruction, sometimes combined with modernist or post-modern architectural solutions.

Some of the reconstructors argue that the idea of the medieval castle is more important that its material originality. However, the medieval ideas are usually lost and when modern architects, archaeologists, or art historians try to recreate them, these will be certainly not authentically medieval. What they sell to the visitors is the memory of the medieval past; but this memory is a falsification. Whilst reconstructors usually admit that some parts of their work is uncertain, this is rarely manifested at sites, where visitors will believe that what they see is the real (or at least authentic) Middle Ages. That’s how present day reconstructions falsify our memory creating castles that are more medieval than ever.

Baffling Bolingbroke: understanding Henry IV’s home

In rural Lincolnshire, nearly 30 miles east of Lincoln, stand the remains of a castle once held by royalty. The remaining walls and towers of Bolingbroke Castle are still 3m tall in some parts, and you can make out its distinctive hexagonal shape. The buildings that once crowded together inside the castle have long-since disappeared.

Bolingbroke Castle was founded in the 1220s by Ranulf de Blundeville, Earl of Chester and Lincoln and through marriage it ended up in the ownership of the House of Lancaster. John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, lived here in the 1360s and the castle gave its name to his son Henry Bolingbroke, later crowned King Henry IV, who was born here in 1367. The history of the site is reasonably well documented, especially compared to castles not owned by the Crown, but there remain unanswered questions about its origins and development.

In 2018 we gave Heritage Lincolnshire a grant to delve deeper. They would carry out a geophysical survey to establish if there are buried remains immediately south of the castle and on Dewy Hill, which might be the site of an earlier castle, built before the stone one still visible at Bolingbroke.

Aerial photo of a green field surrounded by houses. At one end of the field stand the remains of a hexagonal castle.
Bolingbroke Castle on the left and the rectangular ‘Rout Yard’ on the right. Courtesy of Heritage Lincolnshire.

The plan was to use ‘magnetometry’. It works by measuring how magnetic the soil is and then plotting the results on a map. It allows you cover a large area quickly, and over the course of two days the Heritage Lincolnshire team surveyed more than five hectares (about five times the size of Trafalgar Square).

There is some natural variation in the soil, but typically human activity such as cooking hearths or stone walls have a different magnetic signature to the soil around them as they are made from different materials. Magnetometry can also be used to find filled-in ditches as the fill might contain traces of human occupation.

The first stage was to survey Dewy Hill, sitting 400m north-west of Bolingbroke Castle. It was excavated in the 1960s, and a digital survey of the terrain suggests a rectangular feature still survives. We hoped the geophysical survey would show how extensive the buried remains are, and the shape and size might give us an idea of what it is. Essentially, was it a castle or some other type of important place? There was a slight hitch…

But Heritage Lincolnshire did eventually get to take their magnetic gradiometer for a spin! Next, they surveyed the area south of the castle as it might contain an extension of the castle which has since been dismantled. Are there traces of this possible enclosure, or was there perhaps a garden here? In the later Middle Ages it was especially popular to shape the landscape around a castle. Right in the middle of this area is a rectangular piece of ground called the ‘Rout Yard’, but it’s unclear when it was created so the survey aimed to establish how this area relates to the castle.

Understanding the results takes a trained eye, and Heritage Lincolnshire have a highly skilled team of experts. They were able to find a few anomalies, but they either appear to be modern (there may be a concrete slab on Dewy Hill) or natural geological features.

The point of an exploratory project is to find out what lies beneath. Oddly, we expected something to be at Dewy Hill since earlier excavations suggested there might be some activity. The search for a possible bailey suggests that perhaps one did not exist or if it did it may have been insubstantial. That would mean the ruins we see today may represent the extent of the castle at its peak. Interestingly the fashion for having gardens might have passed Bolingbroke by. It was an important place, so may have begun to fall out of use by the time gardens became a common part of high-status medieval landscapes.

Despite the siege of 1643, the survey did not uncover ‘siegeworks’ which would have been built by the Parliamentarians. This might be because the siege was relatively short.

As a result of this work, we know more about how the surroundings of Bolingbroke Castle. Other types of geophysical survey may pick up different pieces of evidence, helping build a fuller picture of the area. Surveys like this are an important tool to understand sites, and Heritage Lincolnshire’s work will inform any future work at the castle.

Thank you to the owners, the Duchy of Lancaster, for allowing us to carry out the survey, to English Heritage who are guardians of the site, and to the volunteers from the local community who helped with the fieldwork. Projects like this really do take a village.

A full report has been prepared by Heritage Lincolnshire.

Wild Fire or Greek Fire? Game of Thrones and medieval sieges

It is a fact that millions more people have gained a view of medieval sieges by watching Game of Thrones than by reading books by experts or learning history at school, so it is worth asking: how true a picture does the blockbuster series give?

Across the seven series so far, we have seen many bloody captures of strongly fortified cities and castles by large armies of armoured warriors, supported by archers and fleets of ships. The attack on King’s Landing (series 2, ep. 9) provided some realistic glimpses: the preparations of the citizens and garrison for battle, the taking refuge in the keep of women and children – and the exemplary execution of attendants who tried to flee. The ominous clanging of the bells gave warning of assault heralded by banging drums and the landing and drawing up of the attacking army, the bringing up of a large battering ram to batter down the main gate while scaling ladders were prepared. As everyone knows, the city was saved when the dwarf prince Tyrion inspired his men by appealing to their commitment to their families and homes to launch a sally via a postern gate which took the besiegers in the flank, and, accompanied by the timely arrival of a relieving army, saved King’s Landing.  Prior to this, the invading fleet had been consumed by the launch of the lethal ‘wildfire’ via a fireship.

Bronn lighting the wildfire with a flaming arrow. Image ©HBO.

Was ‘wild fire’ inspired by the famous ‘Greek Fire’? The real ignis graecus (mentioned in numerous Latin chronicles) was invented by Byzantine engineer Kallinikos and used to save Constantinople from Arab attack in 672 AD: its exact constituents remain unknown to this day but like ‘wild fire’, it could not be extinguished by water (hence its main use at close range against enemy ships), and among its secrets was the means of propulsion – possibly by siphon mounted on the front of ships, or on castle towers. The original formula was lost but incendiary devices continued in use, especially during the crusader period, using plentiful supplies of oil. But never again were they so decisive.

Other regular features of medieval sieges appear in GoT. The threat of hanging hostages in view of the occupants if they did not surrender, shown in the siege of Riverrun (ser. 6, ep. 7–8), maybe echoed the threat of King Stephen to kill the child who became the ‘greatest knight’, William the Marshal, if his father did not surrender Newbury (1152): in both cases the putative victims were reprieved. In other respects too a realistic scenario is painted: the besiegers erecting defences to protect their rear, building siege towers and stone throwing trebuchets, and setting camp in a vast array of pavilions flying numerous banners; defenders gathering sheaves of arrows and relying heavily on crossbows which, used from behind stone walls, could be devastating.

The siege of Riverrun. Image ©HBO.

Riverrun yielded. At other times, the attackers avoided the risk of an assault by exploiting tunnels to enter – Tyrion and Daenerys captured Castly Rock (ser. 7, ep.3) through the sewers. In 1204, King Philip Augustus’ army stormed the middle bailey of Richard the Lionheart’s ‘impregnable’ Château Gaillard in Normandy when one of his men discovered a drain outlet in the ditch that led him up into the chapel.

GoT skates over many realities of medieval warfare, particularly questions of logistics. The siege weapons materialise from nowhere when in reality they needed time for construction. All are settled quickly, whereas most medieval sieges lasted a long time, and hunger and disease killed far more people than fighting. However, many episodes convey brilliantly the drama, the sheer terror, and the brutal horror of combat. So we should recognise GoT as brilliant drama rather than history, and look elsewhere for accounts of real medieval warfare. But while we’re about it, we can only imagine what a medieval general would have given for the three fire-breathing dragons Queen Daenerys unleashed at Meereen (ser. 7, ep. 9).

Dr Peter Purton (author of History of the Early Medieval Siege and History of the Late Medieval Siege (Boydell Press 2010).

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!

Going in search of Keith Marischal

In the later Middle Ages, the Keith family were some of the most important people in Scotland. Sir Robert Keith was made marischal of Scotland in 1293, a title that descended through his heirs. As marishal, Sir Robert and his successors were could hold courts during wartime and were responsible for maintaining order within the Scottish parliament. The castle at Keith Marischal, half a day’s journey from Edinburgh, was the family’s ancestral home.

For a family which was amongst Scotland’s richest in the 16th century, their seat was an important place which would have embodied their power and prestige. The great hall, the social heart of the castle, vied with royal palaces in its size. William Keith, 7th Earl Marischal was forced to sell Keith Marishcal during the Civil Wars, and, despite being an important piece of Scottish history, the castle was gradually demolished. Part of the castle survives and was incorporated into the later house built on the site, but much of Keith Marischal has vanished.

Stirling Castle’s great hall. Photo by ‘DeFacto’, licensed CC-BY-SA 4.0.

In 2017, Miles Kerr-Peterson suggested carrying out a geophysical survey to look for buried remains just north of where the house currently stands. He successfully applied to the Castle Studies Trust for funding, and in May 2018 he and Rose Geophysical Consultants visited Keith Marischal to search for the evidence in an area of 2 hectares.

Two methods were used: resistivity and ground penetrating radar (GPR). As different materials conduct electricity differently, testing the electrical resistance of the ground can be used to find features such as walls (high resistance as there is little water) or ditches (low resistance as ditches tend to hold water), and is effective to a depth of about 0.75m. GPR works by sending electromagnetic pulses into the ground and tracking how they are reflected. Part of the area north of the house is a carpark, which makes survey resistivity ineffective, but GPR can still be used.

Deciphering a geophysical survey takes a trained eye. The resistivity survey found several features, and working out what they are has been an interesting challenge. There are two features running in a mostly straight line perpendicular to the current house at the west end of the survey. The longer of the pair could be a drain, but it’s uncertain. And what are the features at the north end? The feature runs beyond the edge of the survey, so we don’t know the full shape and size of it. With trees nearby it could even be part of a root system, but the straight lines suggest it could be man-made and could be part of the lost castle.

GPR allows us to peer deeper, and to work out a rough stratigraphy of features. The survey was able to corroborate some of the anomalies found with resistivity. The pair of parallel features at the west end are visible, but the one on the right runs deeper. The fact it’s so narrow suggests it might be a drain. The GPR also found an anomaly at the north end of the survey area, lining up with the one found using resistivity. It was visible some 0.38-0.63m deep, which suggests it might be artificial rather than natural.

The results of the survey are certainly interesting. We didn’t find the extent of the lost Keith Marischal Castle, but most discoveries don’t happen overnight. Geophysics is an excellent way to identify areas of interest ahead of excavation. Without excavation, we can’t be sure about the interpretation of these features. If the anomaly at the north end of the survey is part of the lost castle, we don’t have a way of dating it without breaking out a trowel.

The survey was a vital step in the understanding Keith Marischal. Thanks to Miles and Rose Geophysical Consulting, any future excavations will know where to look. Keith Marischal has an exciting future, and the Castle Studies Trust are proud to be able to have played our part in supporting the work.

Dr Miles Kerr-Peterson is an affiliate in Scottish History at the University of Glasgow. His new book, A Protestant Lord in James VI’s Scotland George Keith, Fifth Earl Marischal, touches on the Keiths and is out now.