The Simple Act of Hospitality the Tudor Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Fresh from Fotheringhay

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

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

Exploring Shrewsbury Castle

This year we’re funding investigations at Shrewsbury Castle, one of the most important castles along the Anglo-Welsh border. Nigel Baker told us how the work has been going.

Phase 1 of the Castle Studies Trust’s Shrewsbury Castle 2019 project is underway. Archaeological research is a long and painstaking process, so instant results are not to be expected – it must have taken a whole three hours to establish for the first time a number of simple but really fundamental facts about the hitherto-unexplored inner bailey.

Work started on Wednesday 8th May with the arrival at the castle of Tiger Geo, specialist geophysical survey contractors. Using ground-penetrating radar and resistivity, the lawns of the inner bailey interior and the slopes of the ramparts were gridded out and surveyed; the geophysicists never stopped, nor did the rain. But two basic conclusions emerged on screen from the raw data.

Tiger Geo doing sterling work despite the weather.

The first is that a ditch did once encircle the base of the motte within the perimeter of the inner bailey. This implies that the flat area within the inner bailey must originally have been a crescent-shaped area less than twenty metres wide from motte ditch to rampart tail.

The second conclusion is that there is, under the grass opposite and parallel to the standing early 13th-century ‘Great Hall’ (which houses a very fine Regimental Museum), another big building range backing onto the motte ditch. Given that the standing first-floor Great Hall was built as a royal chamber block (‘camera’) in the 1230s-40s, there is a possibility that a real Great Hall awaits excavation in the summer. But we’ve already answered one of the project’s main questions, ‘how was the inner bailey planned?’ The answer is there were two main ranges of buildings and no room for anything else.

While Tiger Geo mowed the lawns, the writer was busy in a bush at the base of the motte, freeing-up a manhole cover sealed for a decade. Under, a 20th-century brick inspection chamber gives access to a stone well-shaft alongside. The writer had been shown it surreptitiously by a kind gardener in the 1990s but without the opportunity for much recording. Now it has been photographed (though not with stunning competence), measured at just over seventy feet deep from ground level down to water level, and the masonry identified as probably late medieval – and not something done by Thomas Telford in the 1790s. So – Shrewsbury Castle retains its medieval well.

The medieval well. It’s a dizzying 21m down to water level.

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Baffling Bolingbroke: understanding Henry IV’s home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A full report has been prepared by Heritage Lincolnshire.

Five New Awards and £100,000 in six years

We are excited to announce five grants totalling a record £27,000 that will advance our understanding of castles. These awards mean we have reached the landmark of giving away £100,000 in grants. It has taken six years for us to do that during which time the Trust has doubled the maximum amount we can award to £10,000.

Before you read about the five projects below, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter if you haven’t already.

  • Druminnor, Aberdeenshire – Using GPR for an investigation of the 15th century core of the castle – presently under a hardcore car park. This was the original caput of the lords of Forbes. During the 15th century they were amongst the most powerful families in the North-east of Scotland.
  • Hoghton Tower, Lancashire – This project aims to form an axis of research into Hoghton Tower’s unique physical history. The main focus will be to investigate and advance the knowledge of the pre-1560 site and specifically try to test the hypothesis that the north side building may form part of the ‘original’ Hoghton Tower.
  • Laughton en le Morthen, South Yorkshire – Excavation to try to confirm the findings of the geophysical surveys the CST funded in 2018. These indicated that the castle was placed right on the top of a high status Saxon dwelling.
  • Shrewsbury, Shropshire – Geophysical survey and excavation to determine how the castle buildings were laid out in the bailey. This will be the first time the well preserved motte-and-bailey castle has been excavated. First mentioned in 1069, Shrewsbury Castle was a key point along the Anglo-Welsh border and fell into ruin following the conquest of Wales.
  • Wressle, East Yorkshire – A geophysical survey of the area to the south of the castle ruins which had been covered by the previous earthwork survey funded by the CST, to get more information about the various garden structures there, as well as other details regarding the deserted village, moat and fishponds. The 14th century castle was one of the most important castles owned by the Earls of Northumberland.

Be sure to follow us on social media where we’ll be bringing you updates from the field, with work starting this month. In the meantime, here are some of our supporters discussing our work. we hope you’re looking forward to this year’s projects as much as we are!

The projects we’re considering for 2019

The deadline for grant applications passed on 30th November. We’re going through the various projects now. Altogether the 12 projects, coming from all parts of Britain and one from Ireland, are asking for over £75,000.* They cover not only a wide period of history but also a wide range of topics. In a little more detail, here are the applications we’ve received:

Collyweston, Northamptonshire

  • Contributing towards a community excavation at the early Tudor palace commissioned by Henry VII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort. According to building accounts the palace was built around three courtyards and was the first brick building in Northamptonshire. The palace was demolished in 1640 and the site has never been excavated before.

Druminnor, Aberdeenshire

[10] Druminnor Castle - "Woops!"
Using Ground Penetrating Radar for an investigation of the 15th-century core of the castle – presently under a hardcore car park. This was the original caput of the lords of Forbes. During the 15th century they were amongst the most powerful families in the North-east of Scotland.

Hoghton Tower, Lancashire

hoghton tower
This project aims to form an axis of research into Hoghton Tower’s unique physical history. The main focus will be to investigate and advance the knowledge of the pre-1560 site and specifically try to test the hypothesis that the north side building may form part of the ‘original’ Hoghton Tower.

Lathom, Lancashire

Excavation to establish the form and location of the southern perimeter of the curtain wall of the 15th-century castle known as the Northern Court of which nothing remains above ground from the period. It was one of the most important castles in the north west of England in the late 15th and 16th centuries. The castle was besieged twice in the English Civil War and then slighted. In 2017 we funded analysis of masonry recovered in earlier excavations, which indicated architectural links with Caernarfon Castle.

Laughton en le Morthen, South Yorkshire

Photo by Mike Neid

Following on from last year’s grant, this project would undertake excavation to investigate features identified during the geophysical survey. The survey suggested that the castle was built over an Anglo-Saxon lordly residence, and the excavation would test whether there is further evidence to corroborate this.

Lewes, East Sussex

Photo by Richard Gailey, licensed CC-BY 2.0.

This research aims to answer an intriguing question: why does Lewes Castle, East Sussex, have two mottes? Do they represent a highly distinctive architectural statement, or did burial mounds of possible Romano-British or earlier origins influence the form of the 11th century fortification?

Loughmoe, County Tipperary

Castles of Munster, Loughmoe, Tipperary - geograph.org.uk - 1542634
To produce the first-ever detailed survey and structural history of the building which dates from the 15th and 16th centuries, and to determine using geophysics the extent of the original castle and whether the renaissance part had a precinct, other buildings, and gardens.

Raglan, Monmouthshire

Photo © Jeremy Cunnington

Using inferences from previous geophysical surveys to focus on key areas of the lower terraces and bowling green of the castle potentially revealing more about the clandestine political activity of the Somerset family in the late 16th and 17 centuries.

Shrewsbury, Shropshire

Shrewsbury Castle looking West
Geophysical survey and excavation concentrating on the inner bailey to in particular examine the tail of the north rampart. Despite being one of the main fortresses on the Welsh border no major excavations have taken place in the bailey. Thus the medieval plan of the enclosure, and the missing domestic ranges that should be there, are completely unknown.

Snodhill, Herefordshire

Photo © Jeremy Cunnington

Excavations in this important Welsh border fortress that was in use from just after the conquest to the English Civil War. The aim is to answer some key questions about the castle e.g. the keep’s entrance and final form, to establish the form of the North Tower and along the south side to see if that was where the entrance was.

Tarbert, Argyll

East Loch Tarbert and Tarbert Castle - geograph.org.uk - 1624617
Funding post-excavation costs of a community archaeology project. The project will be trying to see discover a number of things about this royal castle including if there was a southern entrance into the outer bailey, and what buildings there were along the north east range of the inner bailey.

Wressle, East Yorkshire

A geophysical survey of the area to the south of the castle ruins which had been covered by the previous earthwork survey funded by the CST, to get more information about the various garden structures there, as well as other details regarding the deserted village, moat and fishponds. The 14th century castle was one of the most important castles owned by the Dukes of Northumberland.

The applications have been sent to our expert assessors who will go over them. You can see how the assessment process works from our blog back in January 2016. And don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter.

*The article was updated at 15:28, 10th December to remove Halton Castle.

The Castles that held Magic at Bay

The excitement of Halloween has quickly set upon us at the Castle Studies Trust, and we thought we would explore the connection between witchcraft and castles. Castles have a long history as the walls that confined accused witches; the prisons that kept their magic at bay.

Grab your brooms and cauldrons, we are headed to Leeds Castle in Kent. Leeds Castle was famously purchased by Queen Eleanor of Castile, wife of King Edward I, in 1278. The queen enhanced its defences and possibly commissioned the lake that surrounds the residence. In 1321, the castle saw military action when it was captured by the forces of Edward II from Margaret de Clare, Baroness Badlesmere. The winter of 1381 witnessed Anne of Bohemia, Richard II’s first wife, stay at the castle on her way to her wedding. The castle, thus, had a long history of the seat of female agency and power. It was not until the fifteenth century that the castle was used to enclose and suppress queenly authority.

Joan of Navarre, Queen of England and wife of Henry IV is the only queen of England to be imprisoned for witchcraft. In the autumn of 1419, the duke of Bedford and Henry V’s council reported a case of suspected witchcraft in the highest possible circles. Queen Joan was accused ‘of compassing the death and destruction of our lord the king in the most treasonable and horrible manner that could be devised’.[1] The queen along with her confessor, John Randolf, a friar of Shrewsbury, had according to contemporary chroniclers dabbled in sorcery and necromancy. The royal court and much of the public opinion quickly became ‘feverish with rumours of witchcraft’.[2] Queen Joan was imprisoned for nearly three years, and all her servants and property were taken from her. She was first imprisoned in Pevensey Castle in Sussex and in the last two years of her house arrest she appears to have been kept at Leeds Castle.

Leeds Castle in Kent, photo by Chensiyuan, licensed CC by-SA 4.0

Although imprisoned in the castle, Queen Joan’s surviving household accounts detail the purchase of luxury items, including minever and other furs, tartarin, silk laces, ords, and thread, sindon and Flanders linen.[3] The cash flow in the household accounts has led Alec Myers to conclude that these surely shows that the king did not believe that she had been practicing witchcraft in a treasonous way. The move to accuse and imprison Queen Joan had its obvious political and financial advantages for the king. Indeed, with the accusations of witchcraft the king was able seize all her possessions and revenues. Nevertheless, Queen Joan paid the price of her freedom for the accusation, whether it was false or not. The crime of witchcraft was used – in this particular instance – for the political manoeuvring of powerful men and the castle walls were meant to ensure the enclosure of a powerful woman.

Two of the Pendle witches, tried at Lancaster in 1612, in an illustration from William Harrison Ainsworth’s 1849 novel The Lancashire Witches. From Wiki Commons.

From Leeds Castle, we move to Lancaster Castle; a castle with medieval origins was used as a prison starting in at least the Tudor period. Nearly two centuries after Queen Joan was imprisoned, a castle would again contain the power of witches. In 1612, ten people convicted of witchcraft were held in Lancaster Castle soon to be facing the gallows. Their crimes included laming, causing madness and what was termed ‘simple’ witchcraft as well as sixteen unexplained deaths stretching back decades. Those accused included members of two major families which were headed by older widows, including Elizabeth Southernes and her two children, Elizabeth and James, and Anne Whittle and her daughter Anne Redfearne. Others were dragged into the affair: John and Jane Bulcock (a mother and son) Alice Nutter, Margaret Pearson, and Katherine Hewitt were all also involved in the trial as co-conspirators.

A watercolour by Thomas Hearne from 1778 of the west of Lancaster’s keep. The round tower next to the keep was demolished in 1796. From Wiki Commons.

Five of the ten people were tried at the castle itself with Judge Bromley presiding, accompanied by Judge Altham. The judges were assisted by Lord Gerard and Sir Richard Hoghton. The prosecutor was a former high sheriff of Lancashire, Roger Nowell, and the clerk of the court was Thomas Potts of London. A year later, Thomas Potts published his account of these events in a book entitled: The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster. Potts chose to dedicate his book to Lord Knyvett, the man who had arrested Guy Fawkes in 1605; the Gunpowder Plot still a fresh memory for many across the country. The political and religious atmosphere played a clear role in the prosecutions and convictions of those imprisoned in Lancaster Castle in 1612.

The Wonderfvll Discoverie of Witches in the Covntie of Lancaster by Thomas Potts (1613). From Wiki Commons.

The Pendle witch trials, like the imprisonment of Queen Joan, were bound up in the political, religious, and economic turmoil of the period. The role that the castle played in these persecutions may seem minimal at first glance; however, the power and significance that they held in these situation needs further investigation. The stone walls were thought strong enough to contain the magic that these people were accused of conjuring and that in itself is telling in terms of the force castles held in the minds of society. Castles did not only need to keep people out, but they were also used to keep people – and magic – from escaping.


[1] Rot. Parl., IV. 1186.

[2] Chronicles of London, ed. by C.L. Kingsford (Oxford, 1905), p. 73; Chronicle of London, 1089-1483, ed. by N.H. Nicolas and E. Tyrell (London, 1827), p. 107.

[3] See ‘The Captivity of a Royal Witch’ for the printed household account.

An Introduction to the Battle of Hastings

William the Conqueror, 1066, an arrow in the eye. The Battle of Hastings is one of those events that sticks in the mind. It was a defining moment in English history, and without the Normans we wouldn’t have castles dotted up and down the country. So how much do we know about what led to this point, and what happened at Hastings?

Why did William invade England?

The Bayeux Tapestry showing William with the papal banner

The story of the Norman Conquest and the battle of Hastings goes back before 1066. In 1051, Edward the Confessor promised William, Duke of Normandy, that when he died the Norman would become king of England. Harold Godwineson – a powerful Anglo-Saxon earl – met William and swore would recognise the duke’s claim to the English throne when Edward died. But there was a twist still to come. Edward the Confessor fell ill late in 1065, and on his deathbed made Harold his heir. On hearing the news of Edward’s death and Harold’s coronation, William sent a message to the pope, asking for his permission to invade England and take the crown.

The calm before the storm

Chateau de Falaise in Normandy, where William grew up. Photo by Elisa Pictures, licensed CC by NC-ND 2.0.

Harold had fought alongside William and expected the duke to attempt an invasion. The new king of England raised an army in May 1066 and camped in the south of England, ready to fight. With the pope’s support, William built a fleet of ships for his army but bad weather prevented them from crossing the Channel. This delayed the invasion for so long, that in early September Harold disbanded his own fleet of ships.

Everything happens at once

William landed at Pevensey Bay on the morning of 28 September 1066 and fortified the nearby Roman fort. Photo by Richard Nevell, licensed CC by-SA 2.0.

Harold’s younger brother, Tostig, was in exile and had been raiding England. In September he and Harald Hadrada, king of Norway, landed 300 ships in northeast England to claim the English throne. At the battle of Fulford on 20 September they defeated an Anglo-Saxon army led by the earls of Northumbria and Mercia. Harold marched north, and on 25 September faced the invading army at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire. Tostig and the Norwegian king were both killed in the battle, ending in victory for Harold.

While Harold’s army was recovering after a bloody battle and a long march, William’s luck changed. The weather turned, and he set sail across the Channel on 27 September, landing at Pevensey Bay in Sussex on the morning of 28 September. William and his Norman,  French, and Breton soldiers set up camp in the Roman fort at Pevensey. They began raiding the local area which happened to belong to King Harold himself. News of William’s arrival reached Harold in York on 1 October. He reacted to the news (and the insult) by marching back south, going via London to collect more soldiers.

The Battle of Hastings begins

Hastings 2006
William had moved his army from Pevensey to Hastings, a few miles away. On the morning of 14 October 1066, Harold marched his army to the ridge now known as Senlac Hill. He planned to fight on the defensive which suited strength of the shield wall. William’s forces arrived from the south. The two armies, both around 7,000 strong lined up for battle. The sound of trumpets marked the outbreak of fighting, and William made the first move by advancing his foot soldiers up the hill with the cavalry following.

Harold’s army holds strong

Battle of Hsatings 950th anniversary (121)
The shield wall was a fearsome obstacle, and hard to break. Harold’s disciplined army resists William’s first assault. As the first wave retreated, a rumour ran through the Norman ranks that William had been killed. Knowing he had to rally his soldiers or lose the battle, William rode in front of his army and lifted his helmet so they could see he lived.

William in control

Tapisserie de Bayeux – Scène 55 : le duc Guillaume se fait reconnaître.

Seeing the Normans fall back, part of Harold’s army followed them down the hill, attempting to route them. William managed to bolster his soldiers in time to turn and face the attack coming down the hill. Outnumbered and out of formation, Harold’s men had given up the advantage of the shield wall and were defeated.

Seeing how effective this was in reducing the strength of Harold’s army, William pretended to retreat another two times. The ruse worked each time, giving William the advantage.

Harold’s defeat at Hastings

Battle Abbey Gatehouse
In the midst of the hard fought battle, King Harold was killed. The Bayeux tapestry seems to show that he was hit in the eye by an arrow, while contemporary chroniclers suggest he was hacked down in the fighting. Either way, with their leader and his brothers dead, the Anglo-Saxon army broke.

Afterwards, William marched through southeast England, capturing important towns before arriving in London. He was crowned king of England on Christmas Day 1066 in Westminster Abbey. William ordered the construction of Battle Abbey on the field where he defeated Harold, with the high altar over where Harold fell.

To secure the conquest, William and his supporters built castles across the country, especially in important towns like Lincoln and Norwich to control the area. The Norman Conquest led to the age of the castle in England.

Make your own scene in the style of the Bayeux Tapestry and share it with us on Twitter. If you want more on Hastings and its impact you can read Peter Purton’s blog post or the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’s entries on William and Harold which were used when writing this piece.

Medieval Engineers: history’s forgotten builders

“King Henry II built the great tower at Dover Castle” is the kind of statement you will hear when visiting one of this country’s magnificent fortresses. But the King himself never lifted a single tool to get any castle built. While the hard manual work was done by labourers, and the finer details worked by master stone masons and carpenters hired because of their great skills, the general plan as well as the day to day running of the construction would have been overseen by an engineer-architect. Under Henry II, records survive telling us who they were (in this case, Maurice the engineer) but in most instances they are anonymous.

Dover’s great tower (the tallest building) was constructed by Maurice the engineer for Henry II. Photo by Mark Whibley, licensed CC BY-NC-ND.

This anonymity is not a surprise: the writers of medieval chronicles were interested only in the great who ruled society – kings, bishops, great lords. It was this gap that persuaded me to write my book The Medieval military engineer. From the Roman Empire to the sixteenth century (Boydell Press 2018).

Today, sappers and engineers form a key part of every state’s army, and was also true of imperial Rome. But in medieval times craftsmen were hired to carry out engineering roles and quite often the same people would have many skills, so that alongside building castles they might also design bridges, churches and cathedrals, or oversee the creation of, and sometimes operate, siege weapons. Because they were commoners, and with only a handful of exceptions, their names were not recorded throughout early medieval times. Often we only know them when (like Maurice) records start surviving showing what they were paid for their work. The great lords who also had hands-on military engineering skills were named in history, but were a tiny handful.

Many interesting questions become easier to answer as more records survive, such as how much did these engineers actually know, how they learnt their skills, how knowledge was transmitted across generations, and what part did they play as technology became more sophisticated?

The same skills that St Guthlac used to design and build a chapel (shown above) could be used to build castles.building a chapel. From the British Library’s ‘Guthlac roll’, made in the late 12th or early 13th century. Harley Roll Y.6.

Historians no longer see the years between the end of the western Roman empire and the European renaissance of the fifteenth century as one long period of ignorance, and we are more aware that change and improvement were continuous, witnessed with the development of ever more spectacular cathedrals and castles, but also mundane but vital skills such as bridge and ship building, irrigation schemes, and military equipment such as siege artillery – the trebuchet, taken up across Europe and the Islamic lands during the thirteenth century, was a game-changer, before giving way to gunpowder artillery during the fourteenth.

Change happened because people questioned existing conventions and came up with new ideas, but also because they developed the skills to put them into practice. It is time to give them the credit they are entitled to. Next time you visit a large stone castle, ask not just which lord lived there and paid for it, but who actually designed it, and admire their skills; and if despite its strength it was captured in a siege, who built the wooden engines that do not survive, or who undermined it, which decided the outcome?

Peter Purton, DPhil (Oxon), FSA.

Re-imagining Wressle Castle

Reconstructions are a wonderful tool for showing how places looked in their heyday. I contacted Peter Brears to ask about sharing one of his drawings of Wressle Castle in Yorkshire and he sent this magnificent illustration:

Wressle Castle is a quadrangular stone building. There is a river in the foreground, a village to the right, and gardens next to the castle and behind it.
Wressle Castle by Peter Brears, based on the 2014 survey. Click the image to enlarge.

One of our very first grants supported a survey by Ed Dennison Archaeological Services of the landscape around Wressle. It was more than just a castle, it was practically a palace. Wressle Castle was built for Thomas Percy in the 1390s: he was a royal favourite, and his family was one of the most powerful in northern England.

However, the ruins you can see today are just a small part of the castle which was slighted several time between 1646 and 1650. Peter’s drawing is based on our 2014 survey: you can see the gardens to the north and south of the castle, and in the small strip of land between the moat and castle. The  lower court and village are just to the east. And perhaps best of all, the castle is intact with all four sides.

If you happen to have access to The Archaeological Journal, Peter’s other reconstructions of Wressle are definitely worth a look.

Most importantly, thank you Peter for sharing this drawing, it really brings the castle back to life!