St John’s Close and the edge of the Park: the landscape of Warkworth

Dr Will Wyeth, Property Historian at English Heritage, previews the geophysical survey, funded by the Castle Studies Trust, in order to learn more about the landscapte around Warkworth castle.

Following the success of a survey of Warkworth Castle’s earthworks in late 2020 as part of a scheme of reinterpreting this most palatial castle (report forthcoming), we on the English Heritage Warkworth project team have sought to expand upon our understanding of the medieval complex by turning towards its immediate landscape. Although much of the medieval landscape is not in the care of the charity, which looks after over 400 historic properties and sites across England, the landscape has tangible and nuanced connections which the project wants to explore. The castle is among the most prominent features in this area (Figure 1); its location adjacent to the lowest crossing point of the River Coquet means that low, somewhat boggy ground extends across the area south-east of the castle as the river widens to its mouth by the coastal village of Amble.

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Figure 1. Warkworth Castle from the south-east, on the coastal road to Amble. The Great Tower, in the background, sits atop a large motte. In the foreground, low boggy ground flanks the south side of the raised coastal road. Out of shot on the right is the River Coquet as it widens to its mouth by Amble, and towards Coquet Island in the North Sea proper. © Will Wyeth

The plan of Warkworth Castle comprises a fairly typical motte and bailey, with stone superstructures of varying date and scale, and whose earliest iterations date from the late 12th century. While the antiquity of the settlement of Warkworth – laid out upon the north-south ridge of raised ground within this loop of the Coquet – is not known for sure, what is apparent is that the castle respects and influences the configuration of burgage plots and the coastal road ultimately linking Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and Berwick-Upon-Tweed. A walk around Warkworth village proper shows there are several important places and features which both relate to and indeed enrich the castle story.

Figure 2. The remains of the late 14th-century fortified bridge, comprising a gate-tower and multi-pier crossing, at the northern end of Warkworth settlement. Photo © Colin Park (cc-by-sa/2.0) – geograph.org.uk/p/6013384.

The church of St Lawrence, itself probably constructed on the site of an earlier medieval church, is located mere metres away from the late 14th-century fortified bridge (Figure 2) which spans the northern extent of the river’s loop. The identification as a ‘fortified bridge’ is perhaps misleading. Thought to have been completed around the time the Great Tower at Warkworth Castle was finished, the bridge may be better understood as a toll collection station, though its administrative and security characteristics are not necessarily contradictory.

Figure 3. Low, raking light of a Northumberland autumn sunset highlights the earthworks of ridge-and-furrow immediately south of the castle. © Will Wyeth

To the north, the coastal road carries on towards Alnmouth and onto Alnwick. It is in relation the immediate south and west of the castle, however, to which the Castle Studies Trust generously agreed to fund a further season of geophysical survey. Fields here testify to a legacy of cultivation which may be medieval in origin; traces of ridge-and-furrow are apparent immediately south and south-west of the castle (Figure 3), as well as in an area of ground rising gently from the river terrace, west of the Great Tower, across the river proper (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Rising ground on the west bank of the River Coquet, punctuated by pre-modern cultivation earthworks, viewed looking west from the Great Tower of Warkworth Castle. © Will Wyeth

This new geophysical survey targets a cluster of fields adjacent to a modern pedestrian route to the castle which may fossilise a medieval antecedent (Figure 5), which would substantiate theories about the architectural orientation of major elements of the southern curtain wall of the castle towards the south-west. It also looks to locate with confidence the position of a suspected medieval hunting park boundary and access gate, which are sporadically referred to in manorial documents associated with Warkworth Castle in the late medieval period, but whose origins may lie in the 12th-13th-century, or (when considering place-name evidence) earlier still. Currently the park boundary is probably represented by a linear bank (Figure 6) with a southern return going westwards.

Figure 5. Pathway leading to Warkworth Castle from the south, sandwiched between pre-modern cultivation earthworks. © Will Wyeth

One of the fields in question bears the name St John’s Close, which had previously been thought to indicate the presence of a chapel here. In fact, the name likely references the field’s ownership by the Knights Hospitallers in the late medieval period, of uncertain origin but attested in a 16th-century return. The field is depicted in an estate map (which for copyright purposes cannot be displayed here) at the corner of a hunting park.

Figure 6. In the middle distance are the best-preserved portion of a linear bank, the suspected remains of the medieval park boundary, which runs roughly north-south. The path in the foreground is the pedestrian route discussed above. The linear bank makes a rough 90-degree return westwards out of shot, on the left. © Will Wyeth

It is hoped that by firmly establishing the location of the medieval park boundary, any trace of a parallel routeway to the castle from the south-west, as well as the located of a gate into the park, English Heritage will be able to better draw the connections between castle and landscape which are now acknowledged as central components of castle culture. In turn, this will allow the charity to tell a more informed and more nuanced story about Warkworth Castle and the people who lived, worked and died here and hereabouts in its long history.

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Stories in Stone: Warkworth Castle and a new geophysical survey of its earthworks

William Wyeth, Properties Historian at English Heritage Trust and project lead on the Castle Studies Trust funded project to geophysically survey Warkworth Castle explains what he hopes the survey will achieve.

In 2019 English Heritage, a charity which looks after over 400 historic properties and sites across England, began a project to change the way in which the stories of the people and buildings at Warkworth Castle in Northumberland were told. The castle is a popular destination in the county, and is both connected with notorious figures from the past as well as featuring an iconic piece of medieval architecture and design in its late 14th-century Great Tower.

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Figure 1. Warkworth Castle from the south-east. The Great Tower, in the background, sits atop a large motte. In the foreground, the curtain wall is punctuated by the Grey Mare’s Tail tower. Archaeologists from Archaeological Services – Durham University are surveying the unenclosed strip of bailey

Warkworth is located at the foot of a narrow loop in the River Coquet, in coastal north-eastern Northumberland, about 25 miles north of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and 30 miles south of Berwick-Upon-Tweed, themselves both significant fixtures of the late medieval history of this area. Just north of the castle proper and nestled on three sides within the river loop is the small village of Warkworth, arrayed in quite typical medieval layout. At the north end of the high street, sitting on a rough north-south axis, is the parish church of St Lawrence, probably an early medieval foundation, as well as a bridge with a toll-collecting tower built in the later 14th century. South of the church, numerous narrow parallel plots of land spread out at right angles from the high street. The southern trajectory of the street is abruptly broken by the enormous motte (earthen mound) of the castle, which acts to physically separate the village from the land south of the river.

Figure 2. Looking north from the motte top down the high street of Warkworth village. The great tower casts an impressive shadow. © Will Wyeth

Among the most famous historical figures connected to the castle was Henry Percy, eldest son of the 1st Earl of Northumberland, though he is more familiar to us today as Harry Hotspur. The origin of his martial nickname is not certain, but is accounted for in several traditions, all of which confirm that they drew from his short-tempered and violent character. One later 16th-century source rhythmically noted “For his sharp quickness and speediness at need / Henry Hotspur he was called in very deed.”

Though the early history of the Percy Northumberland earls and associated figures will form a key part of the story of the castle when the interpretation project is completed in 2022, other questions about the castle, and especially its earlier history, remain as yet unresolved. Among these is the relationship of the earthworks – the motte and bailey – with the stone structures atop them, the oldest of which date to the later 12th century. The Castle Studies Trust has graciously agreed to fund a geophysical survey of much of the castle earthworks to resolve three big questions.

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The first touches upon the motte, which features the Great Tower of the 1370s, but was probably topped by an earlier structure. By assessing buried deposits around the tower, we aim to reveal traces of this earlier structure. But we also want to establish evidence for the means by which the Great Tower may have been provisioned, via a secure door to the motte-top outside the enclosing curtain wall which gave access to storage areas for beer and food in the tower’s north-west segment.

Figure 3. The secure door of the great tower, giving access to the motte top and outside the enclosure of the castle. Its infilling is a secondary feature. © Will Wyeth

The second question relates to the bailey. In common with other castles of this type, the bailey was filled with buildings, often (as at Warkworth) in their earliest phases arrayed along the inner face of the enclosing wall. But were there buildings here before, or were there also buildings here from later periods, but for which above-ground evidence has been lost? Findings from the survey here will greatly influence how we understand the formal approach to the bailey’s principal buildings – its Gatehouse, Great Hall and Chapel – but also the late medieval Great Tower. The results may also shed light on the peculiar overhauling of spatial arrangements in the bailey occasioned by the construction of a 15th-century Collegiate Church which straddled the span of the bailey, arguably fundamentally changing how the castle was to be experienced.

The last question also relates to the bailey, but here to a strip of the bailey which sits outside the embrace of the late 12th-early 13th-century stone curtain wall, on the eastern side of the castle. The omission of this area from enclosure is unusual, though it is not without analogies from elsewhere, which suggest areas like this could contain gardens. It may be instructive that just within the bailey and adjacent to this strip was the location of late medieval stables – perhaps this area came to be used for the grazing of horses, though whether this was its original intended purpose remains to be seen. In addition to all of this, however, is the possibility that when the motte-and-bailey was built, perhaps well before the earliest stone parts of the castle were erected, the earliest enclosing wall of the bailey also embraced this eastern strip, thereby creating a larger bailey than the present one.

Figure 4. The north face of the great tower, facing the high street of the village. The Percy heraldic lion, standing a full storey high and with metallic claws, is one of many such images across the castle. © Will Wyeth

We hope that the survey will allow us to answer at least some of these questions. Whatever the outcome, it is certain that the results will help change how we understand the story of Warkworth Castle and its previous inhabitants.

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Doon on the lochfront: Loch Doon Castle (Ayrshire, Scotland)

As part of his 2018 PhD thesis on Scotland’s early stone castles, Dr Will Wyeth assessed some of the country’s underexplored sites. One such was Loch Doon castle which provides a case study for two of Will’s key themes of his research, namely the castle’s orientation and its landscape.

Loch Doon was home to a series of small islands, one of which was largely occupied by a medieval castle, comprising an enclosure and within it, parts of a later medieval tower house. In 1935 the loch was dammed and in consequence of the resulting rising water level, the castle dismantled and re-assembled on the modern lochside to the west of its original position.

Original location of Loch Doon Castle, picture taken between 1902-18. Picture courtesy of Brian McGarrigle, Scottish Castle Association

Connecting its architecture with the emergence of scattered references in documentary sources, we believe it was built by the mid-late 13th-century earls of Carrick, among whose members were Robert de Brus and his son by the same name, later Robert I. The castle appears in the 1370s Scottish (as opposed to the revised early 15th-century English) portion of the ‘Gough Map’ as loghdone. Little store can really be set by its depiction there, owing to uncertain cartographic conventions, though it is noteworthy that it is represented by two castle icons – one on the loch island, another on the adjacent shore.

Loch Doon castle featured in an episode of the war which saw Sir Christopher Seton, brother-in-law of Robert the Bruce flee to the castle. It was besieged and thereafter was surrendered to English troops by Sir Gilbert de Carrick in 1306, who was probably a kinsman to Robert. While the meagre early history of the castle is reasonably well-known, what has hitherto not been explored in great detail are two other elements of Loch Doon Castle. What can it tell us about its builders? And is there evidence for a wider landscape to the castle, and what can this tell us?

Why build it on an island?

There is a significant volume of evidence, and discussion by many earlier and contemporary historians, regarding the long-lived tradition of natural, modified or artificial island lordship centres in Scotland. So was Loch Doon castle referencing this tradition, alive and well in contemporary Scotland? I argued that while there was no question of an island site’s defensive advantages, as well as an acknowledged similarity to the crannog tradition, Loch Doon castle was more of a castle than a crannog-like castle.

Loch Doon Castle Main Entrance, copyright Prof. Richard Oram

The way the castle’s formal entry point, its large pointed portal, opened nearly straight onto water, whilst its work-a-day entry (the sole other access) opened onto part of the island with a beach for ease of landing and more space, suggested similarities with the managed routes of access to castles specifically: the rest of the island can be imagined as small outer yard. Such routes and configurations may have been apparent in contemporary crannogs, but evidence is simply lacking. Both insular castles and medieval crannogs may have been built to draw attention to vast sheets of natural water for which terrestrial castles elsewhere used ponds and lakes. The castle’s long southern wall, forming the exterior face of its great hall, was designed for maximum exposure to the sun, but also towards routes from Galloway in the south.

A landscape context?

The castle is situated at the border of two counties; indeed, at the time of its construction, it was located at the south-eastern extremity of the earldom of Carrick. A routeway from the political heartland of medieval Galloway in Glenken runs through the valley of Loch Doon towards the royal centre at Ayr. Another route ran from another politically important area in eastern Wigtownshire into the valley of Loch Doon.

There is evidence for all kinds of medieval activity near to the castle. At the farm sites of Starr and Loch Head south of the castle are traces of rig-and-furrow cultivation assumed to be medieval in origin. The nearby farm of Portmark evidenced later medieval metalworking, and its name suggests a tangible connection to the castle; elsewhere, port– place-names mark the embarkation point for medieval crossing to insular lordship centres. Perhaps this was what the Gough map was representing as a second ‘castle’? Such composite island-waterside complexes are widely recognised in Ireland. Lastly, in the rugged hilly district south of the castle, in neighbouring Galloway, are a cluster of place-names connected to deer traps, from the Gaelic eileirig, as well as the location of a hitherto unattested hunt hall (possibly medieval in origin) at the aptly named ruined building named Hunt Ha’.

What was the castle ‘for’?

It is difficult to establish a conclusive answer. In 1306, Sir Henry Percy seized administrative and military documents stored at the castle for the English crown following its surrender. Whether these documents were at the castle as a matter of course (so making the castle a manorial centre of sorts) or because of the political violence unfolding across the kingdom is not clear. Both may be true. The evidence from the castle and its landscape suggests it was ‘doing’ many things. It was made to be seen from far and wide. Its position by a routeway through the rugged Galloway Hills is typical for castles in general. Its insular setting may reflect a castellar rendering of the crannog tradition, or a Carrick take on the watery landscapes of castles lowland Britain and Ireland. The earldom’s main and older centre – Turnberry castle, on the coast in lowland Carrick and over 31km as the crow flies from Loch Doon – was its only other castle. Thus, Loch Doon castle may have as much been a retreat for leisure, for welcoming guests and the comital ensemble travelling to Galloway, as an administrative centre for the earldom’s extensive upland districts.

You can read Will’s PhD thesis for free on the University of Stirling’s website.

Conclusions from an almost-thesis

Research on castles has outgrown the walls of architecture, sprung from the rubbly tangle of archaeology and taken flight from the pages of law texts, charters and literary exposition. In the hands of an adept writer, these are small bumps on the road to timely completion. Presently, however, I find myself in the camp of the almost-complete thesis writers (PhD fourth-yearers: here is fellowship!). It is a credit to castle studies that there is so much to think and write about and, perhaps, get lost in. This post shares some of the most interesting conclusions from my work looking at early stone castles in two polities in medieval Scotland, the Earldom of Orkney and the Lordship of Galloway. Among the themes I examined was the transition from timber to stone architecture, the relationship of castle to landscape and the political context for castle construction in these areas.

Why Orkney and Galloway? To begin with, we cannot be certain why castles appeared in non-‘feudal’ Orkney in the first place. Secondly, one of Orkney’s early castle sites, according to accepted wisdom, is the prototype for a larger group of early castle sites in the earldom – and has influenced larger debates on castles in Scotland more generally. Cubbie Roo’s Castle, this foremost plank of Orcadian castellar wisdom is, I believe, a little younger than widely believed. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests Orkney was probably home to a stone castle founded around the middle of the 12th century, decidedly early for this part of the world.

Figure 1. View of site of Cubbie Roo’s Castle, Wyre, Orkney, in the distance atop the highest hill on the small island. The farm on the right may represent the 12th-century home farm. The ruined building on the left in the distance is the chapel site. ©William Wyeth.

If the castle site (but not the surviving architecture) is genuine, then the attendant landscape must be examined too, for Cubbie Roo’s and other Orcadian castles. Following a conventional model of castle as the centre of lordship, one would expect to find churches and important farm sites close to suspected or documented castle sites. This was simply not the case in Orkney. Cubbie Roo’s and the other castle sites I examined were, on present (chiefly place-name) evidence, sited on marginal lands of indifferent quality. Some preserved evidence of associated chapel sites, which fits with the conventional model of early castellar lordship.

The disconnect between terrestrial wealth and castle location opened three possibilities about the origin and siting of castles: firstly, were these defensive sites? If defence included a consistent grasp of the surrounding area, including major seaways through the Earldom, then the answer is no. Secondly, were these sites connected to maritime wealth? It is entirely plausible: recent research has demonstrated the wealth of the earldom derived massive fisheries exploitation. Thirdly, were these sites connected to ‘new’ arrivals to the Earldom? The political upheavals in the Kingdom of Norway (to which Orkney belonged) saw magnates appear in the Earldom with no obvious familial connection. The lack of obvious relationship with good farming land may be taken to suggest the castles were built on land acquired more for the purposes of castle building (and architectural showmanship) and maritime exploitation than the inherent wealth of the soil. The new men’s power derived from proximity to the Earl, not a direct ancestral claim to a portion of Orkney’s economic output. Orkney’s earliest castles, whatever their form, were the product and reflection of a shift in how comital wealth and power operated.

Figure 2. View from the top of Cubbie Roo’s Castle, overlooking the possible home farm. The island in the distance on the right (Egilsay) is home to the Church of St Magnus (visible by its distinctive round tower mid-way along the island’s profile); the cult of St Magnus was instrumental in the formation of distinctly Orcadian political identity in the medieval period. ©William Wyeth.

Galloway’s castles present a different challenge; though as a group they are more numerous than their Orcadian counterparts, the evidence for them is drastically more erratic. The exquisite (and displaced) Loch Doon Castle is more clearly understood than the hummocky mound of Castledykes outside Kirkcudbright, for example. On a cursory examination of both sites’ landscapes shows that Castledykes is much easier to understand. Kirkcudbright was the centre of the powerful Lordship of Galloway.  Its hinterlands feature no fewer than three monastic foundations by the Lords, and the probable extent of demesne estate concentration in the area around Kirkcudbright is one of the highest in the Lordship.

What of Loch Doon Castle? Any modern visitor will appreciate the eponymous loch is remote and difficult to access from the big towns of Scotland’s south-west. However, it was originally built on an island in the Loch and later dismantled and reconstructed on the shore. It initially sat on a substantial route-way between the Glenken in Galloway – another demesne area of the Lords – and the Scottish coastal royal burgh and castle of Ayr. Another route south of Loch Doon offered access to the southern area of Carrick and, via the River Cree, the Wigtownshire portion of the Lordship of Galloway, with its probable administrative centre at Cruggleton Castle. Though its landscape is presently dominated by fishing holiday cottages and forestry, place-name evidence suggests in the medieval period the area was exploited for its pastoral suitability, and analogous documentary evidence from monastic sources hint at mineral wealth too. Doubtless Loch Doon Castle also formed an upland centre in Carrick in counterpart to the lowland, maritime-oriented centre at Turnberry Castle (also surveyed during this project).

Figure 3. Loch Doon Castle, view from wall-top towards loch. The castle was moved stone-by-stone before the construction of damming schemes in the mid-20th century. It was originally located on the partially submerged island in the loch visible here. ©William Wyeth.

Lastly, an overview for all of Scotland. A small, prefacing section of my thesis examined the monuments record for all possible castle sites in Scotland, including the sites above and less conventional secular power centres in the 12th-14th centuries – palaces, enclosures, crannogs (artificial islands in lochs), duns and brochs. A growing body of evidence in Scotland suggests many sites typically understood as prehistoric (chiefly the last three aforementioned categories of sites) were re-occupied during the broad medieval period. One conclusion from this country-level study suggested that there were more medieval power centres (e.g. bearing evidence for occupation) per square kilometre in the western counties of Scotland than the east. This likely reflects the underlying patterns of early medieval lordship in Scotland over which the culture of castles was overlain. This may act as another, belated, nail in the coffin of the military-architecture thesis of castle studies in Scotland.

The framework of understanding castles through landscape as much as architecture and archaeology is one I hope to apply more widely to Scotland and, as I engage more fully with English castle studies in my new job, in the wider medieval world.