Pleshey Castle: a gatehouse fit for royalty

Progress has continued to be made in the understanding of Pleshey Castle, as project lead Patrick Allen explains.

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Since the publication of the article on Pleshey Castle in Current Archaeology (Issue 344, Nov. 2018, CST blog 15/09/20), we have been able to reconstruct in detail the gatehouse of the timber bridge over the motte moat, whose upper chamber is identified from building accounts for 1460-1 as the Queen’s privy chamber (‘Q’ on Fig.1). It would have been occupied by Queen Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, who held Pleshey between 1445 and 1461. Pottery dating, documentary evidence and the style of the floor tiles, however, suggest that the gatehouse was built in the 1380s by Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, and the upper chamber would originally have been occupied by his wife, the duchess Eleanor. In the late medieval period, it was usual for accommodation to be provided above gateways. This gatehouse at Pleshey closed off the keep and the lord’s private quarters from the rest of the castle, but although it would have provided a degree of security it should not be confused with the heavily fortified gateways of castles with a more obviously military role.




FIGURE 1: Plan of the castle, with the queen’s chamber over the bridge gatehouse (Q) and the king’s chamber (K) immediately to its east, with the line of the timber bridge shown in blue. (Drawn by Iain Bell).

The physical character of the gatehouse can be reconstructed from specialist building material reports by David Andrews, Paul Drury and Nick Wickenden. The gatehouse was built of flint, with greensand dressings for the foundation plinth, corner stones, and door and window mouldings, with a peg-tile roof and lead gutters. Together with the chapel and the keep (which was timber but had a stone façade) it was one of the few stone buildings in the castle, as even the great hall in the bailey was of timber on stone sleeper walls. The ground floor room next to the gateway had a simple gravel floor and was probably a guardroom, but the upper chamber was luxurious. Its floor was of decorated glazed tiles made at Penn in Buckinghamshire, with three different roundel patterns (Fig. 2). Fragments of glass and lead cames show that the chamber had leaded glazed windows, while part of a chimney pot found in a spread of demolished roof tile implies that it was heated by a fireplace. The walls were plastered and decorated with simple painted designs, rather like modern wallpaper.

Three designs of Penn decorated tile floors as reconstructed by Paul Drury, based on tiles found in the demolition rubble of the bridge gatehouse. (Drawn by the Drury McPherson Partnership).

The chamber would have been dominated by a large four-poster bed with richly embroidered silk or fine wool hangings for curtains around it, as well as the tester for its canopy and the valence at its base. Several sets of these hangings are described in an inventory of goods seized from the castle following Thomas of Gloucester’s arrest and murder in 1397 (Dillon and Hope 1897). The chamber may have had tapestry wall hangings, also described in the inventory. The carpets that are mentioned would have been more like rugs and most of the decorated floor would have remained uncovered.

There was a general improvement in the private living quarters in the castle in the late 14th century, especially with the addition of fireplaces and privies. In the 1450s, when Pleshey was held by Queen Margaret of Anjou, the building accounts suggest that the keep had become guest accommodation, with the Queen’s chamber in the gatehouse and the King’s chamber next to it, approached by a ‘revealing’ or audience chamber (‘Q’ and ‘K’ on Fig. 1; Ryan 2010, 252). Queen Margaret would have been an absentee landlord as she spent most of her time at court, but these chambers would have been prepared for occasional visits. One such visit probably occurred when she ordered major building works at Pleshey early in 1458. After the defeat of the Lancastrians in 1461 Pleshey passed to the Yorkist Edward IV and, from 1465, Queen Elizabeth Woodville. Several entries in the building accounts for the 1460s record cleaning and refurbishment work before royal visits, and the gatehouse accommodation would still have been of a high standard, fit for a queen, eighty or so years after it was built.

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References

Dillon, Viscount and Hope W.H.St.J. 1897, ‘Inventory of the goods and chattels belonging to Thomas, Duke of Gloucester and seized in the castle at Pleshey, Co. Essex, 21 Richard II (1397); with their value as show in the escheator’s accounts’, Archaeol. J., 54, 275-308 (transcript from PRO E 136/77/4): Available:

<https://www.archaeologicaldateservice.ac.uk/…/view/archjournal/contents.cfm?vol=54>

Ryan, P. 2010, ‘The fifteenth-century building accounts of the Duchy of Lancaster in Essex’, Essex Archaeol. Hist., 4th ser., 1, 248-60

Featured image courtesy of Chelmsford Museums Service.

Mary of Guelders and Ravenscraig Castle

Amidst the tower blocks and industrial landscape of Kirkaldy in Fife is an unexpected sight. Perched on a triangular promontory overlooking the Firth of Forth stands the crumbling ruin of a fifteenth-century fortress. Now fiercely guarded by an abundance of resident seabirds, Ravenscraig is one of Scotland’s lesser-known medieval castles, yet it deserves a closer look, not least because it is a rare surviving example of a castle commissioned by a woman, in this case Mary of Guelders, queen of Scotland (d.1463).

Mary of Guelders and James II

Mary of Guelders first arrived in Scotland on the 18th June 1449 when she stepped onto the shores of Leith ahead of her marriage to James II at Holyrood Palace. Born in Guelders (today the province of Gelderland in Holland) and raised at the Burgundian court, Mary brought illustrious connections to her new home. The match, it seems, was met with approval on both sides: in 1457, Mary’s uncle the Duke of Burgundy sent James the gift of Mons Meg, the famous cannon which can still be seen at Edinburgh Castle today. James’ love of artillery, however, was to also be his downfall. Three years later at the Siege of Roxburgh the 29-year-old king met an untimely end when another of his cannons exploded and killed him. Mary, as this previous blog post has shown, was present at the siege, and following her husband’s tragic death, the newly widowed queen ordered for Roxburgh to be razed to the ground. From 1460 until her own death three years later, Mary acted as regent of Scotland, ruling on behalf of her young son, James III. It is also from this point that she becomes visible to us in the historical record as a prolific patron of architecture.

Mons Meg, Edinburgh Castle. Photo by Lee Sie, licensed CC-BY-SA 2.0.

The nature of the evidence means that we don’t know too much about Mary’s actions during her marriage, but the few glimpses we can glean suggest that she played a relatively active role as consort, including at her husband’s first parliament in 1450. She was also present at the siege of Blackness Castle in 1454 (which James afterwards gave her as a gift to celebrate the Scots’ victory), and she appears to have been the driving force behind the couple’s foundation of a hospital at Fale near Glasgow. It is during her brief stint as regent, however, that Mary’s enthusiasm for building projects really becomes apparent: she not only commissioned Ravenscraig, but also Trinity College Kirk in Edinburgh, as well as improvements to Falkland Palace, which included the first recorded instance of a gallery in Scotland. Recent dendrochronology carried out by Dr Coralie Mills and Hamish Darrah on the tower of St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh on behalf of Historic Environment Scotland has also revealed Mary’s likely involvement in the fifteenth-century alterations there. Ravenscraig was therefore one of a number of works which Mary undertook during her regency.

The Apse of Trinity College Kirk, Chalmers Close, Edinburgh. This is all that remains of Mary’s foundation, which once stood on the site of Waverley train station and was partially rebuilt in its new location during the nineteenth century. Photo © Rachel Delman.

Shortly before his death, James II had gifted the estate of Dysart to Mary, after which she funded her major works at Ravenscraig entirely from her own revenues. We know from the Exchequer Rolls that she spent 600 pounds Scots on the castle, but it could have been considerably more, as the accounts of the queen’s lands for the first term after the king’s death are missing. Building began in the east, but Mary died before she could see the castle finished, at which point the regular flurry of works ceased altogether. Part of the castle was inhabitable before her death, however, as in 1461, the queen’s steward was able to stay there for 25 days along with several of her servants.

A view of the east range of Falkland Palace containing the sixteenth-century royal apartments of James V and Mary of Guise. Mary of Guelders’ apartments and gallery are no longer visible, having been demolished to make way for the current buildings. Photo © Rachel Delman.

From the outset, Ravenscraig appears to have been intended to have a strong military appearance and is believed to be the first castle in Scotland designed to withstand cannon fire. For this reason, it has been treated as something of an enigma by historians and heritage professionals, who often regard the military design as being at odds with its supposedly intended use by Mary as a dower or “retirement’’ house. Yet the two are not necessarily incompatible. Mary’s decision to fortify the castle and to protect a vulnerable piece of coastline made perfect sense given the changeable nature of relations with the English at this point.

Ravenscraig Castle, looking north. Photo © Rachel Delman.

It was also not unusual for women elsewhere in Europe to be involved in military endeavours at this time. Mary’s contemporaries in Renaissance Italy, for example, frequently acted as military managers, fortifying towns and cities and supplying provisions and resources. Closer to home, Margaret of Anjou, with whom Mary negotiated terms in 1460, was also commissioning works on several English castles around this time, including the refurbishment of the keep of Pleshey Castle in brick. Equally, Mary’s aunt, Isabella of Portugal, in whose court the queen of Scots had been raised, was a politically active and energetic architectural patron. Mary therefore came from a tradition whereby architecture was commonly adopted as a language of female power. It is also possible, particularly given the circumstances of James’ death, that Mary intended for Ravenscraig to be part of a larger commemoration project for her husband, which also included her mausoleum at Trinity College Kirk in Edinburgh.

The termination of the works at Ravenscraig upon Mary’s death in 1463 suggests that she was very much the driving force behind them. James III showed little interest in his mother’s project, instead granting the castle to the Sinclair family, who completed the building. Nevertheless, the remains stand as a testament to the ways in which Mary chose to materially express her authority as regent. They also pose a challenge to the overwhelmingly male narrative that has long dominated castle studies, reminding us that women could, and did, play active and sometimes innovative roles in shaping the physical and social life of late medieval castles.

Ravenscraig Castle is now owned by Historic Environment Scotland. It is free to visit and open all year round. For updates from the Castle Studies Trust, subscribe to our quarterly newsletter.

Carreg Cennen in the Wars of the Roses

The striking ruins of Carreg Cennen Castle in south Wales have a rich history, bound up in power struggles between the Welsh and English and the Wars of the Roses. Dr. Dan Spencer takes us on a journey through its past.

Carreg Cennen Castle on a limestone crag. © Dan Spencer

Carreg Cennen was most probably founded by the Welsh prince of Deheubarth, Rhys ap Gruffydd, in the late twelfth century. It is situated in a prominent position on a high limestone crag overlooking the River Cennen. Carreg Cennen was later captured by the English during the conquest of north Wales in the late thirteenth century. Edward I granted the castle to John Giffard, Lord Giffard of Brimpsfield, who extensively rebuilt the castle. Carreg Cennen was acquired by Henry, duke of Lancaster, in 1340, and thereafter by marriage to his son-in-law, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, son of Edward III. The duchy of Lancaster subsequently passed into royal ownership, upon the accession of Henry IV, Gaunt’s eldest son, to the throne in 1399. Carreg Cennen was captured by the rebels of Owain Glyn Dŵr in the early fifteenth century, with repairs carried out during the reign of Henry V.1

The main approach to the castle © Dan Spencer

In 1455, Welsh landowner Gruffydd ap Nicolas seized the castle, taking advantage of a power vacuum in south Wales, where many of the principal royal offices were held by absentee officials. This move was not welcomed by the government of Henry VI. Gruffydd subsequently came into conflict with Edmund Tudor, earl of Richmond, a half-brother of the king, in the following year. Richmond eventually emerged victorious from the struggle in the late summer of 1456, at which time it appears that Gruffydd relinquished control of Carreg Cennen.2 The earl died of the plague later that year, with the task of maintaining royal authority in southern Wales thereafter entrusted to his brother, Jasper Tudor, earl of Pembroke.

In 1459, civil war broke out when the Yorkist lords, Richard, duke of York, Richard Neville, earl of Salisbury, and his son Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, attempted to seize power. This development prompted Jasper to install a garrison in the castle, which remained in place until at least the following year.3 It is not known how large the garrison was, and Carreg Cennen appears not to have seen any military action at this time. This is not surprising, as potential attackers would have been deterred by its strong defences. It was also in a relatively isolated location, far removed from the main areas of conflict.

One of the towers, with buttresses at the base © Dan Spencer

Instead the fate of Carreg Cennen was decided by events elsewhere. The decisive clash of the conflict took place at the Battle of the Towton on 29 March 1461, the largest engagement of the Wars of the Roses. The Yorkists led by Edward IV were victorious, with Henry VI and his remaining supporters forced to take refuge in Scotland. Later that summer, Edward delegated the task of subduing Wales to some of his trusted supporters, who included William, Lord Herbert.4

By the end of 1461, the Yorkist commanders had succeeded in conquering almost all of Wales (with the main exception of Harlech in the north-west), and Jasper Tudor fled overseas. This left Carreg Cennen as the last remaining Lancastrian fortress in the south. In the spring of 1462, Lord Herbert instructed his half-brother, Sir Richard Herbert, and another member of the gentry, Sir Roger Vaughan, to take control of the castle. They set off from Raglan Castle, Herbert’s ancestral seat, with a force of 200 gentlemen and yeomen and soon reached Carreg Cennen. The defence of the latter was led by Thomas and Owen ap Gruffydd, sons of the recently deceased Gruffydd ap Nicolas. It is unclear whether they had been given this responsibility by Jasper Tudor, or if they had exploited the situation to take control of the castle. Either way, the brothers were said to have a large force under their command and had a strong defensive position. Nevertheless, the futility of the Lancastrian cause prompted them to surrender under terms. They were pardoned in return for pledging allegiance to Edward IV.5

The view from the castle © Dan Spencer

On Lord Herbert’s instructions, the castle was provisioned, and a garrison was installed for its safeguard. This consisted of a small force of nine men, who served there from the beginning of May until mid-August. These men each received 4d. per day in wages, the standard rate for footmen or archers at this time, as well as 1s. 10d each per week to pay for their expenses.6 The garrison was required, as is explained in a surviving letter from Edward IV, because ‘the said castle was of such strength that all the misgoverned men of that country there intended to have inhabited the same castle and to have lived by robbery and spoiling our people of the country’. However, as the letter went on to explain ‘we soon after were advised that the said castle should be thrown down and destroyed’ to avoid the inconvenience of expending money on maintaining its defence. The source of this advice is unspecified, but it could have been from Lord Herbert, who, as chamberlain of south Wales, was acutely aware of the financial burden of paying for its garrison. This was an extraordinary decision, as no other castle was slighted  by royal command at this time, which may have reflected Yorkist concerns about its potential as a formidable fortress in an area with Lancastrian sympathies. It could also have stemmed from more general unease about law and order in the region. The king therefore issued orders to Herbert to oversee its destruction. A labour force of 500 men was recruited who used a variety of tools to ‘break and throw down’ the castle.7 The extent of the destruction is unclear, but at the very least the labourers made the place uninhabitable, with Carreg Cennen thereafter falling into ruin.

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Dr. Dan Spencer is the author of The Castle in the Wars of the Roses, published by Pen & Sword, which is due for release on 30 October: https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/The-Castle-in-the-Wars-of-the-Roses-Hardback/p/18426


Footnotes

[1] J. M. Lewis, Carreg Cennen (Cardiff: Cadw, 2016), p 1; H. M. Colvin, The History of the King’s Works, volume 2 (London: H.M.S.O, 1963), p. 602.

[2] For Gruffydd’s seizure of the castle and conflict with Edmund Tudor see, William Rees, ed., Calendar of Ancient Petitions relating to Wales (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1975), pp. 184-6; PL, I, pp. 392-3.

[3] For the garrisoning of Carreg Cennen by Jasper see, TNA, DL 29/584/9249; DL 29/596/9558.

[4] For an overview of these events see, Anthony Goodman, The Wars of the Roses (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1991).

[5]. For the occupation of the castle by the sons of Gruffydd ap Nicolas and its surrender see, TNA, SC 6/1224/6; SC 6/1224/7.

[6] TNA, SC 6/1224/6.

[7] Quoted from TNA, SC 6/1224/7, whose Middle English text has been modernised.


Shrewsbury Castle – more than meets the eye

Shrewsbury Castle Excavation Director, Dr Nigel Baker, reviews the second season of excavations at the castle which has just ended, with an unexpected conclusion.

Shrewsbury Castle has sometimes been described (most often by the writer of this blog!) as one of the best-preserved shire town motte-and-bailey castles in the west of England. This remains true – at least in the sense that it has never been quarried away for gravel, nor had a prison or law courts built on top of it, nor was it demolished and redeveloped after the Civil War. Nevertheless, such a statement now requires a hefty footnote.

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A visitor, walking into the inner bailey at the foot of the motte sees crenelated curtain walls rising from the top of substantial ramparts: the impression of a classic castle sequence with earth-and-timber fortifications renewed in stone, is overwhelming. The 2020 work has however shown that neither the ramparts nor the western curtain walls are quite what they seem. Excavation to a depth of more than two metres in the western rampart has shown that at least half of its height was a product of the post-medieval centuries – with a substantial contribution probably made by Thomas Telford during his ‘restoration’ of the castle in 1786-90, enhanced by his simultaneous lowering of the ground level across the interior.

Shrewsbury Castle excavation trench in western rampartas viewed fromfrom C13 logis block. Courtesy of Nigel Baker

But the medieval strata below Telford’s rubble also show that the western curtain wall, and by implication the standing castle building, the camera regis of the later 1230s, can no longer be seen as simple improvements to the original earthwork castle as the ground beneath them was found to drop away sharply, the slope levelled up by a massive medieval earthmoving operation. It seems that the present outline of the castle – and the familiar view of it from the railway station below, are a product of the early 13th century (dating subject to confirmation when the pottery has been analysed) – dubbed Shrewsbury Castle 2 by the excavators. The ‘original’ motte-and-bailey, first heard of when it resisted a siege in 1069, must have had a perimeter that was around 25% smaller, confined to the original hilltop. This castle (inevitably ‘Shrewsbury Castle 1’) was nevertheless heavily fortified, as the substantial motte ditch found in 2019 shows. As originally conceived, the ‘inner bailey’ was little more than a lobe-shaped barbican, protecting access up onto the motte, with little room for buildings within it. One of the implications of this is that the most important buildings – like the royal hall – must have been on the motte top.

The medieval landfill operation is also of interest on account of the rubbish contained in its strata. Preliminary visual identification of the animal bones suggests that game species are present, possibly pike, possibly swan, and it is likely that further work on this material will add to the growing corpus of evidence for high-status diet on castle sites throughout the region.

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The excavation was funded by the Castle Studies Trust and supported by University Centre Shrewsbury under Professor Tim Jenkins and Dr Morn Capper. Archaeological direction was by Dr Nigel Baker and Dai Williams and the work was undertaken by local volunteers and UCS postgraduates and undergraduates.

Feature image courtesy of Dr Nigel Baker

Archiving at a Tudor Castle – Thornbury

Anyone interested in the study of the past knows the importance of records and documents for information gathering. Records and proper documentation are not just important for historians, but they played a central role in the everyday management of a medieval and early modern landowner too. Creating and maintaining accurate records was only half the battle. They needed to be kept safe and easily accessible for the landlord or estate managers. By the sixteenth century, most documentation was being stored in muniments chambers in elite residences. Royal castles and residences had muniments chambers for centuries and it started to permeate into the nobility and gentry as they began needing their own documentation close at hand. Below is an image from Hardwick Hall of the muniments chamber of Bess of Hardwick. Spaces could be large and purpose-built, like the chamber below, or a series of chests that could be locked.

Figure 1: Hardwick Hall’s muniments chamber. Image from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/30659367@N00/48975171787

By the late sixteenth century, muniments chambers were a necessity in any high-status house. The nature of these spaces is conveyed by Richard Braithwait’s (1588-1673) prescriptions that an earl ‘have in his house a chamber very stronge and close, the walls should be of stone or bricke, the dore should be overplated with iron, the better to defend it from danger of fire’.[1] For Braithwait, the bulk of documentation related to landownership demonstrating the connection between documents and lordship. The documents needed to be kept orderly with ‘drawing boxes, shelves, and standards…and upon every drawing box is to be written the name of the Mannor or Lordship, the Evidence whereof that box doth containe’.[2] His advice continues to help with the ease of retrieving the documents:

and looke what Letters, Patents, Charters, Deeds, Feofements, or others writings, or Fines, are in every box; a paper role is to be made in the saide box, wherin is to be sett downe every severall deede or writing, that when the Earle, or any for him, hath occasion to make search for any Evidence or writing, he may see by that Role, whether the same be in that box or not.[3]

The level of organisational procedure that Braithwait discussed concerning muniments rooms is a clear indication to their increasing use by the end of the sixteenth century. Moreover, the space itself needed to be practical and secure.

            Do we actually have any evidence that Braithwait’s description is accurate or was this a pipe dream? Nearly a century before Braithwait’s publication we have evidence of a well-organised muniments chamber at Thornbury Castle, Gloucestershire used to store the documentation of Edward Stafford, third duke of Buckingham (1478-1521). Buckingham’s son, Henry Lord Stafford, transcribed a list of manuscripts that were in the duke’s possession shortly before the duke’s execution (British Library, Add. MS 36542). The list describes the contents of six large chests. The chests bore alphabetical lettering on them, and Carole Rawcliffe has suggested that the duke had developed a simple, but effective organisational system for his documents. Each of the six chests recorded in Lord Stafford’s list was bound in iron with plate locks, padlocks, and strong iron bolts. Estate papers and records related to specific farms and manors were boxed together on a topographical basis, county by county, with a description of the contents of the box. Lord Stafford’s desire for the storage and organisation of the documents related to Stafford land was primarily for his attempted recovery of the lands confiscated by Henry VIII upon the execution of his father. Nonetheless, there was a methodical system that was in place for the Buckingham archive well before the duke’s execution in 1521. Knowledge of the system in place would have made for an easy retrieval of the record needed just as Braithwait advocated a century later. It also indicates that many of these records were created for multiple future uses: for legal purposes, financial purposes, personal use, and even royal use. It was essential that they could be retrieved, presented, and read if needed.

Figure 2: 14th century muniment chest, from the collections of The National Archives. Catalogue Reference: E 27/7 (image from Wikipedia).

Organisation was of course key, but the storage space needed to be secure as well. Storing the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of documents that were created by and for the Staffords meant that the space accommodating them needed to be substantial, controllable, and close at hand. This space is an essential part of the materiality of this corpus of these objects. Thornbury Castle in Gloucestershire was one of Buckingham’s primary residences. The south-western tower of the inner courtyard married the range accommodating the elite apartments of the duke and duchess to the range containing the steward’s apartments and the gatehouse. On the second and third floors of this tower was the muniments storage chambers. The uppermost was described in a later survey as the place where ‘evidents’ were kept.[1]

The top chambers were considered the safest places to keep important records. The close proximity of the muniment chamber to the duke’s and duchess’s bedchambers spatially recognises the importance of their safe keeping as well as their private nature. Not everyone had access to the south-west tower at Thornbury: it was theoretically controlled through its proximity to the high-status apartments. Placing the muniments chamber so close to the elite apartments and the steward’s bedchamber kept the documents under tight security, but also it linked the documents to the people most likely to use them. The space was hidden away from prying eyes and on a practical level from the potential of a kitchen fire and an easy walk from the elite apartments to the muniments chamber.

Today we think of archives as cultural – and public – statements about the past; however, the muniments chamber at Thornbury was deeply personal and individualistic in nature. Indeed, the records within the chamber were oftentimes personal with the names of tenants, the amount of rent owed, and their geographical location; it was essentially their personal data. The chamber became a space that held a living memory of the duke’s tenant base. For Buckingham, the muniments chamber was spatial soul of his lordship. It was a physical manifestation of his power; written down and recorded for posterity. For his tenants, however, the muniments chamber represented their powerlessness and the one-sidedness of early modern lordship. The documents are written testimony to the exploitation of Buckingham’s lordship. His tenants had no control over their information and the storage of it. Although the muniments chamber at Thornbury might be thought of as a shrine to Buckingham’s lordly power, it contained documents that were not static. They held the names and rents of the duke’s tenants, payments to household staff, and the buying and selling of resources all of which were changing. Although muniments chambers are an often neglected part of our understanding of castle space, they held records related to the wider network of power and wealth that the castle is meant to symbolise.

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[1] Richard Braithwait, Some Rules and Orders for the Government of the House of an Earl set down by Richard Braithwait (London, 1821), p. 18.

[2] Braithwait, Some Rules and Orders, p. 18.

[3] Braithwait, Some Rules and Orders, p. 18.

[4] See A. Pugin, Examples of Gothic Architecture, 5 vols (London, 1831-8), II, p. 32.

[This is part of a much longer article about the Buckingham archive as an object that will appear in the Welsh History Review volume 30 number 2 in December 2020.]

Rethinking Pleshey Castle – new discoveries from old records

Back in 2015 the Castle Studies Trust co-funded the post excavation & publication of Steven Bassett’s excavations 1972-1981 of Pleshey Castle in Essex. In the November 2018 issue of Current Archaeology (334) Patrick Allen explains how the review of the excavation materials has transformed our understanding of the castle and provided new insights into its character and development.

Around 5 miles northwest of Chelmsford in Essex we find a classic example of a motte and bailey fortification. Pleshey Castle offers invaluable insights into constructions of this kind, as while all of its buildings have long been demolished (apart from the late 15th-century brick bridge over the motte moat), its medieval earthworks have survived intact thanks to their never having been rebuilt in stone.

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Its motte is original, dating from c.1100, while the ramparts of the south bailey are largely the result of refortification which took place in 1167. A second bailey to the north of the motte is now buried beneath the modern village, but its original outline can still be seen in Pleshey’s semi-circular street plan and in 1988 was confirmed by excavation. Its defences were levelled in the 13th century and replaced by a much larger town enclosure, whose earthworks still surround the modern village.

Planof the castle shows the keep and buildings in the south bailey with excavation areas in red

Previous descriptions of the castle had assumed that the north bailey was part of the original castle and the south bailey added later – but recent reassessment of all available evidence has transformed this picture completely.

Evolving the castle

What can we unpick about the castle’s origins? Its earliest documentary reference comes from 1143, when Geoffrey II de Mandeville surrendered all his lands, including Pleshey Castle, to King Stephen. Yet scientific research suggests the site is much older. Analysis of topsoil buried beneath the motte, and a calculation of the rate of its formation, suggests that the castle was completed 30-40 years after the Norman Conquest.

As for when construction began, tree-ring dating of a timber from the north bailey palisade provides a date no earlier than 1083, and a construction date of c.1100 seems entirely plausible. This would link the castle’s creation not to Geoffrey II de Mandeville, but to Geoffrey I – a logical conclusion as the core of his extensive estates lay in mid-Essex and Pleshey is close to his chief manor of Waltham (now Great Waltham).

A section through the south bailey rampart shows how its earliest incarnation, as constructed c.1100 (Period 1), still survives at its base. Period 2 reflects the boundary’s englargement and refortification after 1167.

It is also becoming increasingly clear how the fortifications developed; Chelmsford Museums Service has been revisiting unpublished reports from an excavation that Steven Bassett undertook immediately to the south-east of the brick bridge in 1972-1981. Interestingly, a section that he recorded through the outer rampart confirms that the south bailey was also part of the original construction of the castle – that is, Pleshey boasted two baileys from its inception. Within this rampart (which was dated to the later 12th century by previous excavations headed by Philip Rahtz in 1959-1963), Bassett also found traces of a smaller, earlier rampart which had been built up in two stages, suggesting an initial temporary earthwork which was completed after a short interval.

As for later developments, historical accounts record that in 1157-1158 Henry II returned the de Mandeville lands to Geoffrey III on the condition that he dismantled the defences of his castles – but in 1167, Geoffrey’s younger brother William II de Mandeville was given permission to refortify. There is good archaeological evidence for a large-scale restoration of the castle defences after this date, following the same plan as before. Bassett’s excavation uncovered clear signs of a comprehensive clearing out of the moat during this period, and sections recorded by both Bassett and Rahtz (in an early dig) show the south bailey rampart being massively enlarged at the same time.

This, though, was the last major improvement to the castle defences. Its earth and timber fortifications provided sufficient protection against local insurrection, but the castle was not defensible against a major attack, and during the civil war that followed King John’s rejection of Magna Carta it changed hands twice. On Christmas Eve 1215 Pleshey Castle was seized by a detachment of the king’s army, and in the winter of 1216-1217 it was recaptured by the rebel barons – both times it was surrendered without a siege. The castle was militarily outdated, and after it was inherited by the powerful de Bohun family in 1227/1228 it became increasingly important not as a fortification but as their main residence and the administrative centre of a great aristocratic estate.

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Bridges and bailey buildings

Between Pleshey’s refortification in 1167 and the late 14th/early 15th century four successive wooden bridges spanned the motte moat. Traces of these trestle structures were recorded by Bassett as well as in a small trench excavated by Elizabeth and John Sellers. The final development of the south end of the bridge consisted of two stone pier bases which would have supported box-frame timber uprights and, in front of these, a wooden structure supporting massive raked timbers which carried the central span of the bridge over the wet part of the moat.

At the south end of the timber bridge (its late C14 foundations are shown on this plan) was a gatehouse whose uppper space has been identified as the Queen’s chamber described in the building accounts

These strong foundations were needed at the bailey end of the bridge to support the greater load there from the bridge’s superstructure, whose walkway would have sloped steeply from the motte down to the bailey. Meanwhile, the elevation of the outer face of the northern bridge pier shows its solid construction and its continuation to the east to form a retaining wall for the moat. This pier was later reworked to create a latrine in the late 15th century – when the wooden bridge was replaced by a brick one – evidence of this change still survives in the form of an inserted arch and changes to the upper stonework.

This elevation shows the northernmost pier base of the late C14 bridge and the retaining wall to its east (the lower stonework) that shored up the moat. It was rebuilt in the late C15 as a latrine with an arched outlet.

What of other structures? As mentioned before, all of the castle’s buildings have long been demolished, but it is possible to piece together some clues. A plan of the buildings that were present in the south bailey from the 14th century onwards can be reconstructed using evidence from Bassett’s excavations and a 1960s parchmark survey by Elizabeth and John Sellers. Furthermore, the function of some specific buildings can be identified thanks to Pat Ryan’s study of the surviving mid-15th-century Duchy of Lancaster building accounts for the castle.

We are able to locate the chapel at the west end of the bailey, which was excavated by Rahtz in 1959-1963. To the east, the hall is easily identifiable, with its adjoining kitchen, pantry, and buttery. On its north side, storehouses were ranged around a kitchen yard which was accessible from the main gate immediately to the east. To the west of the hall was a range of large private chambers at first-floor level, above a wardrobe and other storerooms. These were a ‘revealing chamber’ (audience chamber), and at the west end of the range lay the ‘King’s chamber’ and, beyond it, the ‘Queen’s chamber’. This relates to the period 1421-1483 when Pleshey became part of the Duchy of Lancaster, the private estate of the Lancastrian kings, and was granted to three successive Queens of England: Catherine of Valois, Margaret of Anjou, and Elizabeth Woodville, the wives of Henry V, Henry VI, and Edward IV respectively.

Bassett’s excavations also recorded part of a stone-built gatehouse at the south end of the bridge, whose upper chamber can be identified as the Queen’s chamber in the building accounts. The gateway and the room to its west, possibly a guard chamber, were surfaced in gravel and mortar, but material found in the demolition rubble indicates that the Queen’s chamber above was much grander, with a floor of Penn-type decorated tiles, painted plastered walls, and leaded glazed windows.

Bassett’s investigations date the completion of the building range along the north side of the bailey to the late 14th century. These buildings would have been constructed by the de Bohuns and completed by Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester (the youngest son of Edward III), who married Eleanor, the elder de Bohun heiress. It is she, as Duchess of Gloucester, who would have originally occupied the Queen’s chamber in its initial guise.

Exploring the keep

Our project also reassessed the results of the excavations focusing on the castle keep in 1907 and 1921-1922. There, the original excavators were puzzled by the ‘extreme thinness of the walls’, but we suggest that they should be interpreted as facades built around a timber-framed courtyard structure. The keep’s great hall has been located using its description in the building accounts, while the other ranges are thought to represent chambers with ‘ensuite’ accommodation, each with a fireplace and a privy (which survive as rectangular projections that are open to the interior, and enclosed, respectively).

A reconstructed plan of the keep, with added stair tower, fireplaces/chimneys and latrines

The final renovation of the keep – carried out on the orders of Margaret of Anjou and described in detail in the building accounts for 1458-1459, where the keep is referred to as a ‘tower’ – was finished in brick. The accounts also record that 29 oaks were felled for the work and that most of the money was spent on employing carpenters – confirmation that the keep was mainly built in timber, as suggested above. Two earlier periods of flint facades and additional structures are dated to the mid-13th/mid-14th century and the late 14th century respectively (by comparison of mortar types with well-dated structures recorded in Bassett’s excavations). No doubt the stone and brick facades made an essentially timber structure look more impressive.

The renovation of the keep was completed by building the brick bridge over the moat, probably in 1477-1480, according to Pat Ryan’s study of the building accounts. This was 20 years after the work on the keep itself – perhaps the works were delayed by the Wars of the Roses (1455-1487). The brick bridge is one of the earliest of its type in Europe and, with its wide span, was a very advanced design for its time. By the mid-16th century, though, the castle had become derelict, with the motte mound used as a rabbit warren, and it was sold by Elizabeth I in 1559. Ironically, the brick bridge was preserved only because the Duchy of Lancaster surveyors recommended that it be retained to maintain access to the warren. Today, it still stands as one of the few elements of the castle surviving above ground. Analysis of excavated evidence has enabled us to add much more colour to this picture, and to reconstruct Pleshey Castle’s appearance once more.

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The author would like to thank the following for grants towards the project: the Castle Studies Trust, the Marc Fitch Fund, the Essex Heritage Trust, and the Essex Society for Archaeology and History.

Featured image: Aerial view of Pleshey courtesy of Chelmsford Museums Service

Is the The Wirk a Castle? Archaeological investigations in Rousay, Orkney

With HES giving the provisional sign off for the excavation at The Wirk to take place in the week commencing 21 September, and the geophys survey to take place the previous week, project leads Drs Dan Lee and Sarah Jane Gibbon outline the background to the project and what they hope to find.

Located on the south-western coast of Rousay, The Wirk is located in one of the most archaeologically rich parts of Orkney. The Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) is undertaking geophysical survey, archaeological excavations and 3D modelling at this enigmatic castle site (pending approval from HES).

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The Wirk, meaning stronghold in Old Norse, and with the alternative name Westness Castle, is a small stone tower located close to the coast. It has variously been interpreted as a 12th century Norse Castle, a detached fortified bell-tower, a 13th century defensive tower for an incomplete church, a hall-house garderobe tower and most recently a 16th century tower and attached range.

The Wirk located on the side of  St Mary’s Church graveyard, looking south. credit: Bobby Friel @TakeTheHighView

Minor clearance and excavation in the 1920s identified similarities in construction between The Wirk and the 12th century Cubbie Roo’s Castle, on the nearby island of Wyre, considered to be one of the earliest stone keeps in Scotland. The Wirk is located in Westness which has been a large estate since at least the 12th century when it was the home of the Norse chieftain Sigurd of Westness (Orkneyinga saga). It is adjacent to Rousay parish church, likely to date from the 12th century, with standing remains of 16th century date on earlier footings.

Recently, the 12th/13th century date attribution of The Wirk has been rejected in favour of a 16th century date. This new interpretation is based on the built remains and 16th century architectural fragments which were found in the 1920s. However, architectural fragments of 12th/13th century date were also present and nearby archaeology, particularly the discovery earlier this year of a Norse hall at Skaill by the UHI Archaeology Institute would suggest this was a high-status place in the saga period. This is not to dispute that The Wirk may also have been in use in the 16th century when the estate was owned by a prominent Orkney family. One of the objectives of this project is to excavate trial trenches over Clouston’s excavation and at the eastern end of the site to identify the earliest phases of the tower and adjacent building. Upper parts of the tower were substantially rebuilt in the 19th century and so excavation will allow us to record parts of the site that have not been knowingly rebuilt.

Inside The Wirk tower, looking southeast, showing the entrance to an underground well or passage (Image: Dan Lee)

Along with the excavations, targeted geophysical survey around The Wirk aims to better understand any relationships between the tower and the buildings/features which surround it. 3D modelling of The Wirk and Cubbie Roo’s Castle will enhance our understanding of these comparable sites and allow the public to explore the remains online.

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References and further reading:

Clouston, JS 1931 Early Norse Castles. The Orcadian. Kirkwall

Gibbon SJ 2017 A Survey of Norse Castles in Orkney, in P Martin (ed) Castles and Galleys: A reassessment of the historic galley-castles of the Norse-Gaelic seaways. Islands Book Trust. Laxay. 226-248.

HES 2017. Skaill farm survey, The Wirk http://canmore.org.uk/event/1040199

HES 2020. The Wirk http://canmore.org.uk/site/2282

HES 2020. Skaill farm, Rousay http://canmore.org.uk/site/351514

Tabraham, C 1997 Scotland’s Castles. BT Batsford. London.

UHI 2019: https://archaeologyorkney.com/2019/08/06/norse-hall-discovered-at-skaill-rousay-orkney/

Featured image: View of The Wirk, located on the righthand corner of St Mary’s Church yard in the foreground, looking northwest to Midhowe and the Atlantic Ocean (Image: Bobby Friel @TakeTheHighView).

Looking ahead to 2021: grant applications are open

With the start of September upon us, the Castle Studies Trust is now accepting grant applications to fund project to run in 2021. Submissions opened on 1 September and close 1 December. We award grants of up to £10,000 to support research into castles.

Last year we had 13 applications from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales and were able to fund five of them. It’s always fascinating to see the ideas being suggested, from reconstruction drawings and excavations, to videos and surveys of vegetation around castles.

We decide which projects we fund near the start of the year, usually February. This year has been challenging with lockdown delaying work, but our projects have soldiered on as best they can. Hopefully by the time we sit down to discuss what to fund in 2021 things will have settled down.

So if you have an idea you have until the start of December to prepare an application. And if you know a researcher who might be interested, make sure they know about our grants.

We will share news of what projects are under consideration in December, once all the applications have come through. In the meantime, make sure that you are subscribed to our newsletter and blog so you can stay up to date.

Lead image: Lincoln Castle by Ben Keating, licensed CC BY NC SA 2.0.

Landscapes of Lordship: Searching for Laughton’s Anglo Saxon elite

In an article that first appeared in Current Archaeology issue 360 (March 2020) Duncan Wright and Samuel Bromage discuss how the two research projects which they undertook at Laughton-en-le Morthen, with CST’s funds, has shown how the siting of castles was influenced by the older patterns of high-status activity in South Yorkshire.

Castles are perhaps the most iconic buildings of the medieval period, which for many are synonymous with feudal warfare and conflict. In spite of this popular perception, the idea that castles were mainly built for military purposes has been questioned for some time, and archaeologists now point to a number of reasons for their construction. In England, even fortifications thrown up in the wake of the Norman invasion are no longer seen purely as tools of martial conquest.

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Instead, it is increasingly clear that earlier patterns of aristocratic life were important, and that the manorial residences of the Anglo-Saxon nobility in particular were chosen for the siting of early castles. Such targeting should not come as a surprise—the Conquest is understood as an exercise in elite regime change, which saw the near wholesale replacement of existing lords with incoming Norman tenants-in-chief. Yet, the way in which this transformation physically manifested is poorly understood. Few relevant sites have been subject to excavation, and where archaeological intervention has taken place it has often been piecemeal or of limited size. The Landscapes of Lordship project seeks to improve this picture, and recent work at Laughton-en-le-Morthen in South Yorkshire, funded by The Castle Studies Trust, offers a case study of archaeology’s potential to reveal more about this fundamental aspect of the Conquest.  

Anglo Saxon Elements

Laughton today is a modestly-sized village in the Rotherham district, perched high on a limestone ridge which offers impressive views, especially westwards towards the Peak District. The historic core of Laughton is focussed around the parish church of All Saints and the adjacent remains of a motte and bailey castle. A visit to the former provides the first hints of Laughton’s early history; an elaborate 10th or 11th-century doorway is located in the church’s north wall, and a similarly-dated grave slab is built into the eastern exterior of the chancel. Inside the church, a triangular-headed opening, a distinctive pre-Conquest form, covers a piscina—a shallow basin used to wash communion vessels. These pieces of stonework indicate the presence of an earlier building at Laughton, decorative fragments of which have been reused in later phases of construction. It is almost certain that this structure too was a church, as stone was almost never used for secular building in early medieval England.

Elaborate C10 or C11 doorway at the parish church.

In 2005 archaeological excavations due east of All Saints also found evidence of pre-Conquest activity, in the form of a circular grain-drying kiln. A significant assemblage of 10th—11th-century pottery was recovered from the excavations, highly unusual finds given that South Yorkshire was largely aceramic at this time. Documentary sources help to provide some context for the excavated material and that found in the church. The Domesday Book records that, prior to the Conquest, Earl Edwin of Mercia had an ‘aula’ or hall at Laughton. Edwin was a leading noble, but also a leading protagonist against the Norman regime. Brother-in-law of Harold Godwinson, Edwin, together with his younger brother Morcar, raised an unsuccessful rebellion against William the Conqueror after the Battle of Hastings. Dispossessed of his extensive lands, Edwin was ambushed and killed three years later.

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Exactly where Earl Edwin’s hall was located in Laughton has long been a mystery, with the popular belief that it lies under the earthworks of the castle. The Landscapes of Lordship project set out to test this idea, firstly through a scheme of topographic and geophysical survey. A detailed topographic model of the castle and the surrounding parts of the village was made using a drone, and earth resistance survey provided a plan of buried features from the bailey and an area of open ground to the south. The results from the combined techniques exceeded even the expectations of the team, identifying a host of important archaeological features. In the bailey, geophysics picked up a number of anomalies which were also detectable as a low earthwork—the size and shape of which is consistent with buildings, and probably represent the centre of Earl Edwin’s hall complex. To the south of the bailey, ditches seemed to form two sides of an enclosure, one side of which was interrupted by the apparent construction of the motte. 

Survey results from the first year of research funded by the CST

Although the project team were confident that these features were related to Edwin’s estate centre, it was decided that a targeted excavation would be best to confirm this conclusion. A second phase of work, also supported by the Castle Studies Trust, was instigated to ground truth some of these findings, with two trial trenches dug over the ditches to the south of the castle. Excavations uncovered a V-profile ditch with a distinctive narrow base, which would have served to locate a wooden palisade, supporting the premise that this was indeed Edwin’s compound. No datable material was recovered from the ditch but the material inside was notably clean and consistent, indicating that infilling had occurred in a short window or perhaps as a single event. Beyond the enclosed area, another more substantial ditch was found—this feature seemed to project southward from the castle and may be part of an enclosure surround the village, the form of which is preserved in the historic street plan.

Hunting the Hall

The Landscape of Lordship investigations, then, support the idea that Laughton was indeed the site of Earl Edwin’s ‘aula’ and other buildings, which were surrounded on all sides by a ditched enclosure enhanced with a palisade. Edwin and his entourage would have had exclusive use of the elaborate stone church, which topographic evidence demonstrates lay within its own small rectilinear churchyard. Outside of this high-status enclave, the find of a drying kiln suggests that Laughton acted as a point for the collection and processing of agricultural produce, potentially from an extensive area. Indeed, Laughton was the centre of a large territory incorporating several later parishes, the component settlements of which are now most discernible by their ‘Morthen’ place-names.

Ditch found during the excavation

At some stage, Laughton’s lordly compound was radically transformed—the palisade fence was taken down and the ditches rapidly filled in; in their place was constructed a massive earthwork motte across the western edge of the enclosure. A kidney-shaped bailey incorporated the most important buildings including the hall, but it is impossible to tell without more investigation whether these were maintained or replaced with new structures. Probably around the same time the settlement to the east of castle and church was surrounded by a rectilinear enclosure, effectively forming an extensive outer bailey of the castle. Such arrangements are not uncommon in England but perhaps the most famous is at Pleshey in Essex, where a semi-circular bank and ditch encircles the village to the north of a motte and bailey castle.

While the nature of the archaeological evidence does not provide absolute dates, the most compelling context for the apparently rapid changes visible at Laughton is the protracted conquest and subduing of northern England in the years following the Norman invasion. Once annexed, Laughton and its estate were quickly subsumed into a large territory given to Roger de Busli who established a centre at Tickhill where a sizeable castle was erected. Given that the main seat of authority lay at Tickhill, it is unusual that Laughton too was furnished with a castle and that it continued to act as an administrative focus at least temporarily. The explanation for Laughton’s perpetuated importance undoubtedly lies in its pre-Conquest past. As an important residence of Earl Edwin, a foremost member of the Anglo-Saxon elite, Laughton’s appropriation was clearly an attempt to assume a recognised place of power. Yet, the drastic overhaul of the site also embodies a conspicuous act of conquest, physically destroying the complex of a central opponent to Norman rule. It is possible that the processes of castle construction in itself was its raison d’être, acting as a material ‘seal’ of new authority in the eleventh-century landscape. Indeed, this may help explain the paucity of medieval finds from the excavation—the castle itself having experienced little or no use, as its primary purpose had already been met by its very building.

The work by the Landscapes of Lordship project has provided a unique insight into Laughton’s past, showing the importance of older patterns of high-status activity in shaping the process of castle siting in South Yorkshire. The project team now intend to employ this approach to further sites and regions, allowing a new archaeology of elite residence, conquest, and regime change to be written.

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Duncan W Wright was Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader of Archaeology and Heritage at Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln during the project and has recently been appointed Lecturer in Medieval Archaeology at Newcastle University

Samuel Bromage is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield. His doctoral thesis investigates the consequences of the Dissolution for urban development in Yorkshire.

Current Archaeology can be found here: https://www.archaeology.co.uk/

Castle Studies Trust Holiday Quiz Answers

To find out how many you got please find the answers below:

  1. Dubrovnik, Croatia (or Kings Landing in Game of Thrones)
  2. Palermo, Sicily
  3. The Alhambra, Granada
  4. Istanbul/ Constantinople, Turkey
  5. Roche Guyon, Normandy
  6. Carcassonne, Occitainie France
  7. Al Karak, Jordan
  8. Peyrepertuse, Aude, France
  9. Malaga, Spain
  10. Adrano, Sicily
  11. Montaner, Gascony, France
  12. Marksburg, Rhineland, Germany
  13. Shawbak, Jordan
  14. Cordoba, Spain
  15. Pfalz, Rhineland, Germany
  16. Rumeli Hisar, Turkey
  17. Klis, Croatia (Meereen in Game of Thrones)
  18. Marqab, Syria
  19. Almeria Alcazaba, Spain
  20. Narva, Estonia

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