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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’. 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’. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.