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.