‘Sowing Seeds and Reaping Rewards’: relict plant studies at medieval castles

In 2020, the Castle Studies Trust funded Dr Karen Dempsey to undertake an innovative new line of research in castle studies, namely to explore the use of plants in castles in medieval Ireland. In this article, Karen explains what she and her colleague Dr Fiona MacGowan discovered.

Over the course of this Pandemic many people have a newfound or renewed appreciation for the green world that we live in. This might take material form by growing potted plants at home and if fortunate caring for a garden space of your own or somewhat less tangibly, the contemplation of changing seasons in your local park. The (anecdotal) health benefits we might feel from these activities are increasingly underscored by health professionals who assure us of the roles of green spaces in wellbeing. This connection is not a modern phenomenon – plants (and gardens) played a significant role in the diet, healthcare and spirituality of people living as part of castle households.

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Sowing Seeds of Interdisciplinary Work’, the Castle Studies Trust funded project, showed how relict plants can deliver new insights into everyday life at medieval castles. Relict plants – understood to be the descendants of plants grown, cared for and used by (medieval) people – were identified through botanical surveys at four geographically diverse but culturally similar medieval castles: Adare, Co. Limerick, Castleroche, Co. Louth, Carbury, Co. Kildare and Castlecarra, Co. Mayo (as detailed in my previous blog post). As an initial step in researching relict plants, particular attention was paid to archaeophytes, those plants which arrived in Ireland pre-1500 CE. I believed that these plants may have participated in the various colonisation processes of the twelfth century. Their introduction could be linked to new gardening and other health practices especially those related to novel plant medicines which were emerging across Europe at this time but were perhaps previously unknown in Ireland.

Relict Plant Findings

Botanical surveys began during mid-2020 in the very wet months of June and July after a hot May.

Over the course of the survey eight archaeophytes were revealed (Table 1) as well as a range of rare and common native plants. You can read Dr MacGowan’s botanical report here. These findings are significant: four of the eight plants were historically recorded as present in medieval gardens. The plants – comfrey, mallow, milk thistle and hedge mustard – are widely recognised as having medicinal properties (Fig 1). They feature in medieval recipes, continued as part of the tradition of plant medicine captured in Culpepper’s Herbal of 1653 and some, like milk thistle, remain in use today (see Table 1).

Figure 1 Milk thistle at Castleroche; Hedge mustard and Hemlock (Conium maculatum) at Carbury; (pictures by Dr MacGowan)

Table 1 List of Archaeophytes and neophytes at four selected castles in Ireland [1]

Figure 2 Castleroche, Co. Louth, sited for maximum spectacle across a locally significant elevation at the foothills of the Mourne Mountains

Relict Plants in their Castle Contexts

Castleroche was the first site surveyed for our fieldwork. It is spectacularly situated on a locally significant rocky outcrop, framed to the north by the foothills of the Mourne Mountains (Fig 2). The castle has been long understood as a defensive site, believed to have been positioned as authoritative infrastructure to exercise territorial control. Its’ patron, Roesia de Verdun (d.1247) is renowned as the only historically attested woman to have founded a castle in thirteenth-century Ireland This castle while now in ruins was once a busy place with an associated village replete with a weekly market and annual fair. I considered this site to have great potential for relict plants given that historic sources noted the presence of ‘gardinia’ (gardens associated with castles) coupled with the high-status of its’ patron who had a considerable number of estates across England and France. These connections must have given her and her staff access to, and knowledge of, different cultural traditions including gardening and medicinal practices. We were delighted to identify three archaeophytes: Hemlock (Conium maculatum), Mallow (Malva sylvestris) and Milk thistle (Silybum marianum). Milk thistle is a particularly important identification, it is very rare in Ireland and Britain. For medieval people, it was culturally and symbolically tied to the Virgin Mary as well as understandings of fertility and motherhood (Fig 3). This allows us to reconsider the idea of Castleroche only as a frontier site; perhaps there was a diverse resident population for much longer than previously understood. Their health concerns may be represented by the continued occurrence of these plants. Exploring the botanical legacy of Castleroche adds further layers to the story of this complex site.

Figure 3 The Unicorn Rests in a Garden (from the Unicorn Tapestries) 1495–1505. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/70007568
Figure 4 Carbury, Co. Kildare: a multiperiod castle complex comprises a motte, an early masonry focal building with later additions including an Elizabethan extension crowned with multisided cut stone chimneys

A less well-known castle but equally deserving of attention is the medieval settlement at Carbury (Fig 4). This multiperiod complex comprises an earthwork castle, a twelfth or very early thirteenth-century masonry castle with later additions including an Elizabethan extension and related gardens (Fig 5). Carbury is entangled with generations of nobles. It acted as a central node in shifting political allegiances and dynastic disputes within the territory of Leinster. The longevity in occupation of Carbury is interesting, it attests – at least in part – to its suitability as a residence. Is this reflected in the immediate castle landscape? Is there a possibility that the early-modern gardens here overlay medieval predecessors? Four archaeophytes were found at Carbury: Hemlock, Comfrey (Symphytum officinale), Hedge mustard (Sisymbrium officinale) and White stonecrop (Sedum album), three of which were adjacent to or within the masonry castle and the fourth – Comfrey – which was found within the hedgerow that forms the historically significant boundary to the castle landscape (Fig 6). These plants are not uncommon, but perhaps their relative ubiquity is reflected in their suitability for use within different plant medicine traditions. Comfrey is particularly notable, known as knitbone, it was widely used as a healing poultice for broken bones throughout medieval medical texts. Pharmacologically, this plant contains allantoin, which promotes the creation of new cells and healing of connective tissue. Relict plant studies at Carbury allows us to reflect on how this place was a home to many different generations of people who participated in caring roles (for plants and people) whilst also being a locus for political tensions.

Figure 5 Aerial Imaging of Carbury Castle with evidence for potential gardens surrounding the castle.
Figure 6 Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) and Hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) noted among other medicinal plants in hedgerow with Carbury Castle in background

With these exciting discoveries at both Castleroche and Carbury, we were very hopeful that the survey at Adare Castle would be equally rewarding. Adare was an important castle as the caput of the Geraldine family. Unlike the other sites, it has been subject to major study including detailed historical and archaeological investigation. Adare Castle was constructed on a pre-Norman power centre from which the castle emerged as a large D-shaped earthwork with a surrounding large ditch and river-fed moat (Fig 7). This later formed the inner ward, which was further enclosed by an external wall to the north-west with a single mural tower and a gatehouse to the south. The outer court is enclosed by masonry walling which is augmented by a ditch to the north and west. At Adare, the grounds are intensely managed, with manicured lawns and ongoing pesticide use (Fig 8). Unfortunately, this was particularly pronounced in the inner ward, the area I have suggested was likely to have contained an enclosed garden. Disappointingly, only one archaeophyte was identified: Weld (Reseda luteola). This dyeplant was predominantly used to give a bright colourfast yellow but also used medicinally to treat chest complaints. A number of neophytes – those plants whose introduction post-dates 1500 CE – were found in the associated areas surrounding the castle as detailed by Dr MacGowan. Species such as Himalayan pheasant berry (Leycesteria formosa) were identified, indicating that relict plants studies can also illuminate the afterlife of the castle when it  played a role as a romantic ruin in the eighteenth-century landscape of Adare Manor. This shows the potential for relict plants studies to add layers to castles stories across their life histories.

Figure 7 Plan of Adare Castle with possible garden (after Dempsey 2021 and O’Keeffe 2015)
Figure 8 Adare Castle, inner ward subject to extensive pesticide use

The final site, Castlecarra, falls lower down the social hierarchy of medieval Ireland than the other three castles but it was still an important baronial residence (Fig 9). It is situated on the eastern shore of Lough Carra. The castle now comprises a large three-storey focal building set within a very compact enclosure which is a later, potentially fifteenth-century addition. The castle was constructed as one part of the c. 1236 Anglo-Norman territorial expansion into Connacht. This site, like the others, has a long history of occupation. An early-modern (sixteenth-century?) house was constructed c. 125m NE of the castle, and the surrounding landscape appears to have been remodelled to suit a new tradition of landscape gardening which included a ha-ha and tree-lined avenue of Hornbeams (Carpinus betulus) (Fig 10). Archaeophytes were not recorded at Castlecarra but numerous native species as well as neophytes were present. This absence is remarkable but perhaps native plants at Castlecarra served the castle household needs. For example, Purging buckthorn (Rhamnus catharticus) was identified. This plant is native but rare in Ireland, and it was used medicinally as a purgative, as the name suggests. The botanical profile of Castlecarra leads to further questions around the transmission and sharing of medicinal and plant knowledge.

Figure 9: Castlecarra, Co. Mayo on shore of Lough Carra
Figure 10 Castlecarra, Co. Mayo: a multiperiod site with medieval castle that forms part of the landscape of an early modern (c. later 16th / early 17th house). Ordnance Survey Map 1925, Castlecarra to lower left and historic home including outbuildings and gardens centrally placed. https://maps.archaeology.ie/HistoricEnvironment/

Research, Heritage Futures and Reflection

One of this project’s aims was to test and refine the methodologies of relict plant studies for medieval castles. In Ireland there are currently 96 species recorded as archaeophytes (but with no established dates of introduction).  Despite the findings of some notable plants, the overall numbers of archaeophytes at the castle sites in ‘Sowing Seeds’ seemed low. Of course, our findings may have been constrained by single survey days, unseasonal weather as well as conservation and management issues – both present-day and historic. Future work is necessary. It is important that sites have the benefit of multiple visits across a wider seasonal survey period. Nevertheless, the baseline botanical surveys of this project will be of use for future research within and outside of castle studies. It has also revealed the need for a detailed survey of archaeobotanical evidence from excavations in Ireland to establish  as far as possible exact introduction dates for particular plants.

Including a wider range of plants and castles over a longer time span would provide comparative material with a greater capacity to capture change over time. Neophytes were noted in the botanical surveys but not part of the research agenda for ‘Sowing Seeds’. Their occurrence at castle sites may be revealing of expanding connections with sixteenth-century colonising and trading practices beyond Europe. Later medieval towerhouses are of particular interest as they are often situated within less managed and therefore within potentially better-preserved landscapes. But equally, native plants should also be included. For example, self-heal (prunella vulgaris) and pellitory-of-the-wall (Parietaria judaica) occur widely and were both used as medicinally. It would be of great interest to compare and contrast different plants at castles whether native, anciently introduced or more recent. Consideration too could be given to the afterlives of medieval castles as romantic ruins as indicated at Castlecarra and Adare. This would develop a wider appreciation of the long lives of medieval castles that continue in dialogue with contemporary communities as heritage today. Relict plant studies enable castle studies to participate in emerging conversation around green heritage and climate change.

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‘Sowing Seeds’ was a novel project – both conceptually and methodologically – I wanted to find a way to explore potential ‘green identities’ of castle households. Accessing the relationships medieval people may have had with their environments (as we might term it today) offers a different way of telling stories about the medieval past whose narratives are often caught into concerns of power, authority or control. By including botanical surveys of relict plants in castle landscapes, we have expanded further the multidisciplinary approach of castles studies. We can show how stories of castles are richly textured: populated by many people and plants over the course of their lives and beyond into their afterlives as romantic ruins and archaeological monuments. Doing this for the first time meant engaging with new material and unfamiliar sources from archaeology, history, and medical knowledge to heritage and folklore. This wide-reaching research methodology is a core strength of this project. It enables a dialogue between different disciplines that are traditionally separate or rarely integrated. These findings are a beginning: they encourage new avenues of future research on castles households relating to human-plant relations, plant medicine and related concepts of care. The results also invite conversations with heritage agencies regarding site management and conservation practices of both biodiversity and past vegetation. Rather than offering conclusive findings, we have revealed tantalising hints and a vast array of potential new avenues in which to take this research.

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Acknowledgements

This research was generously funded by the Castle Studies Trust. Their support enabled new ideas to be explored. As an early career researcher being awarded a grant to undertake (potentially) interpretatively risky work is a wonderful opportunity.

Helpful commentary and feedback was received from two assessors whose insights improved this report.

Thanks to Dr Fiona MacGowan for participating in this research project and carrying-out the botanical surveys at the selected sites.

Thanks to the landowners of Castleroche, Castlecarra and Carbury, and the Office of Public Work who manage Adare, for access to the sites for this project.


[1] Dates in the table refer to the first historic botanical record of these plants in Ireland and Britain, and * denotes their occurrence in lists of species included in medieval gardens (Harvey 1981)

Barns in the Bailey: Agricultural buildings within castles

Castles were more than military sites, being political, judicial and economic centres too. Duncan Berryman of Queen’s University Belfast looks at one of those aspects, the important but little studied area of agricultural buildings in castles.

The domestic considerations of castles were as important to daily life as their defensive functions. Castles were also the centres of estates; Clare Castle (Suffolk) is a good example of an estate centre with manors in the surrounding region and further afield while Caister Castle (Norfolk) was the centre of a much more compact estate. Manorial centres were generally undefended courtyards of domestic and agricultural buildings. However, many of these were moated sites and their lack of defensibility might be debated. Sites such as Chalgrove (Oxfordshire) and Coolamurry (Wexford) had substantial moats and may have had complex bridges (Page et al. 2005; Fegan 2009). These complexes saw high-status accommodation sitting alongside the barns and animal housing that served as the manorial farmyard. Many smaller castles would have been the centres of smaller estates and would have also functioned as manorial centres. Agricultural buildings were vital to this operation and would have been found within baileys or associated enclosures. To investigate these buildings, it is essential to take a multidisciplinary approach by combining archaeology with documentary and pictorial evidence. The agricultural buildings have often been left unexcavated as they are seen as less important, and less interesting, than the domestic complexes.

Artistic reconstruction of Clough Castle (Down). Many motte and baileys would have had a similar appearance, often with timber structures on the motte instead of the masonry buildings presented here.

Documentary sources related to Ireland indicate that many smaller castle sites had agricultural buildings within the surrounding area. This is clearly illustrated at Cloncurry (Kildare), where an extent records that beside the motte was “an old haggard close [farmyard] in which there are two small granges [barns] each of eight forks … [t]here is also there, beside the gate an ox-house … [and t]here is a dovecote” (Murphy & Potterton 2010, 175). There is also a record of a barn of ten forks at Castlemore (Carlow), as well as a mill and other timber and masonry buildings (O’Conor 1998, 32). The forks referred to in these accounts are probably the cruck blades of the barn, thus ten forks produce a nine-bay barn that could be the equivalent size of a barn like Bredon (Worcestershire). At Lough Merans (Kilkenny), the motte sat on a promontory in the lake and had an associated bailey containing a granary, stables, and a sheepcote (O’Conor 1998, 30). The motte of Inch (Tippararery) also had a granary and sheepcote, additional buildings were stables, a fish-house, a dovecote, and a malt kiln (O’Conor 998, 29). These examples suggest that, in Ireland, castles were playing important roles as the centres of manorial farms and wider estates. The perceived need for a defensive motte may have been carried over from an earlier period, but it continued with the construction of tower houses in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (McAlister 2019, 28-35).

Bredon Barn (Worcestershire). Barns of a similar size were found within castle baileys. They would have been constructed from masonry or timber

A brief survey of larger castles in England does show that these castles had a small number of agricultural buildings. The main buildings identified were stables, dovecotes, barns, and granaries. These buildings are unlikely to have functioned in the same way as they did in rural manorial centres, but they are a reminder that some agricultural processes occurred within the castle. Stables were obviously for housing the riding horses of the lord or king and their entourage, but they probably also housed the cart horses used by the castle staff to bring goods in from the market. There are records of stables at Hereford, Leeds (Kent), Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham, and the stables of Kenilworth (Warwickshire) are still extant (Colvin 1963). The dovecote was an important source of food in the form of squabs (young pigeons). A dovecote was recorded at Dorchester (Dorset) and one has been identified in the south-west tower of Bodiam (Sussex) (Colvin 1963; Thackray 2003). The existence of barns might suggest that sheaves of wheat or barley were being brought into the castle and threshed there, providing grain for flour and straw for the stables and other floors around the castle. There is evidence for barns at Acton Burnell (Shropshire), Bamburgh (Northumbria), Hadleigh (Essex), Weoley (Warwickshire), and Pontefract (Yorkshire) (Colvin 1963; Emery 2000; Roberts 2002).

The stables of Kenilworth castle (Warwickshire). This was a particularly grand building, but stables were vital for the lordly lifestyle.

The c.1610 plan of Castle Hedingham (Essex) indicates that there may have been an agricultural complex beside the main castle enclosure (Emery 2000, 113). To the top of the map are buildings labelled stable and barn and an area marked barnyard, in manorial sites this would indicate a complex of crop storage buildings including several barns and a granary. Returning to Clare Castle, the 1325 accounts of the constable indicate that there were a pigsty and poultry house within the castle compound (Ward 2014, 64).

Agricultural buildings are found in areas away from the main domestic complex of the castle, and these areas are often left unexcavated. They were most often made of timber, and thus leave little trace in the archaeology compared to the stone-built structures elsewhere. It is possible that there were more agricultural buildings within castles, or close to them, and they have not yet been identified. This research highlights the importance of using documentary and pictorial sources alongside archaeology and reminds us that lesser castle complexes may have been surrounded by a significant range of buildings.

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References

Colvin, H.M. (ed.) 1963, The History of the King’s Works Vol I & II (London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office).

Emery, A. 2000, Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Fegan, G. 2009, ‘Discovery and excavation of a medieval moated site at Coolamurry, C. Wexford’, in C. Corlett & M. Potterton (eds), Rural Settlement in Medieval Ireland in the Light of Recent Archaeological Excavations (Dublin: Wordwell Books).

McAlister, V. 2019, The Irish Tower House: Society, Economy and Environment c.1300–1650 (Manchester: Manchester University Press).

Murphy, M. & Potterton, M. 2010, The Dublin Region in the Middle Ages: Settlement, Land-Use and Economy (Dublin: Four Courts Press).

O’Conor, K.D. 1998, The Archaeology of Medieval Rural Settlement in Ireland (Dublin: The Discovery Programme).

Page, P., Atherton, K. & Hardy, A. 2005, Barentin’s Manor: Excavations of the moated manor at Harding’s Field, Chalgrove, Oxfordshire 1976–9 (Oxford: Oxford Archaeology Unit).

Roberts, I. 2002, Pontefract Castle: Archaeological Excavations 1982–86 (York: West Yorkshire Archaeology Service).

Thackray, D. 2003, Bodiam Castle (Swindon: The National Trust).

Castle Studies Trust Christmas Quiz – the Answers

So how many did you get right? Find out below

  1. Lincoln (2020 project)
  2. Pembroke (2018)
  3. Shrewsbury (2018 and 2019)
  4. Pulverbatch, Shropshire (2017)
  5. Pleshey, Essex (2015)
  6. Druminnor, Aberdeenshire (2019)
  7. Thornbury
  8. Warkworth (2020)
  9. Ruthin
  10. Ravenscraig, Aberdeenshire
  11. Hoghton Tower, Lancashire (2019)
  12. Wigmore
  13. The Wirk (2020)
  14. Slingsby, Yorkshire – article by Bethany Watrous on her digital reconstruction
  15. Caus, Shrophshire (2016)
  16. Gleaston, Cumbria (2015)
  17. Laughton (2018, 2019)
  18. Shrewsbury again (found during 2018 execavation)
  19. Clifford, Herefordshire (2017)
  20. Ballintober, Ireland (2014)

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Castle Studies Trust Christmas Quiz

To help keep you entertained during this strange and hopefully unique Christmas the Castle Studies Trust has prepared a Christmas quiz. Can you name the castles these pictures are or images are taken from either our projects from all years or blog posts during the year?

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  1. Where is this?

2. Where did this CST funded excavation take place?

3. Where is this?

4.What motte and bailey castle, which we funded a geophysical survey for, is this?

5. Where can you find this bridge which the Trust co-funded post excavation work on?

6. In which Scottish castle did the geophysical survey we funded find this well?

A latter coming protruding from a circular opening in the ground.
Photo by Iain Ralston and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0 licence.

7. Where is this?

8. Where is this great tower?

9. This is a reconstruction drawing of which castle?

10. Where is this castle built by a queen?

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11. Where is this castle?

12. The entrance to which border castle is this?

13. Where is this base a tower? It’s one of the projects the CST has funded

14. Where is this?

15. The plan of which castle is this, which the CST funded work on?

16) Which castle is this? We funded a building survey on it previously?

17. For which castle are these aerial images of, which include results of the geophys survey the CST funded on it?

18. These pieces of Saxon pottery were found at which excavation the CST funded?

19. This is a CST study day at our first ever excavation we funded? Which castle?

20. The CST funded a buildings survey of this castle. Where is it?

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Ballintober Castle – revealing the past of the former O’Conor caput

In the Castle Studies Trust’s first year of grant awards it gave a grant to survey Ballintober Castle in County Roscommon, caput of the O’Conors. Project lead Niall Brady explains below how that work has been built on and what has been discovered since.

The Castle Studies Trust grant of 2014 for Ballintober Castle permitted a detailed baseline topographical survey of the 14th-century Anglo-Norman castle, constructed in the early 1300s by Richard de Burgh, earl of Ulster, and taken over by the O’Conor kings of the Connacht before the end of the century, after which it became the caput of the O’Conor Don line and was lived in continuously until the O’Conors abandoned the castle for more suitable accommodation at nearby Clonalis House in the 1700s.

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Location of excavation cuttings 2015-2018, by Dan Cearley

The castle remains a striking ruin in the small village of Ballintober and access to the site is prohibited because of its dilapidation. The 2014 survey feeds into a long-term plan by the O’Conors who retain ownership to rehabilitate the site so that it can be accessible once again and enjoyed. Since 2015, the Castles in Communities research fieldschool has taken a leading role in developing this initiative as a community-engaged anthropological and archaeological Summer fieldschool that sees groups of up to 70 students and staff coming over from America in July, working closely with the O’Conors in Clonalis House and the village represented by the Ballintubber Tidy Towns organization. Additional survey, coupled with geophysical survey, field survey and excavation has made great strides in revealing the complex history of the castle, while a conservation management plan for the castle was completed independently in 2016.

The fieldschool’s work has also extended outside the standing walls of the castle. In reaching eastwards across the present-day village, the project has confirmed the presence of a deserted settlement that would have been integrally related to the castle. In short, Castles in Communities has revealed the deserted manorial village that was associated with the castle and the findings indicate that the medieval settlement footprint was fully twice the size of the present-day village. Excavation within the deserted settlement area is focusing on taking cross-sections across former property plots and the houses within.


Photograph of cutting opened along the castle entrance in 2019, where evidence for two principal phases of construction have been identified. Siobhan Boyd, project director, explaining the findings.

Excavation inside the castle has progressed along the east side of the interior, where perimeter walls are lower and there is no risk of destabilizing standing remains. Attention has focused on the corner towers, and the perimeter wall. The southeast corner tower is circular in plan but its interior was robbed-out at some point in the past, leaving only a narrow and thin occupation deposit that retained post-medieval ceramics. The northeast corner tower is rectangular in shape, and excavation revealed a large building joined to the tower and running south from it. That building is late in the construction sequence and is itself joined to an earlier masonry structure that lies inside the walled perimeter. The indications for an early phase of castle building that might pre-date much of the standing perimeter walls is also indicated at the castle entrance, where excavation has begun to reveal two distinct phases of construction.

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The project will continue in 2021 after Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.

Niall Brady

Project Director (one of 6)

Castles in Communities

https://sites.google.com/view/irelandcastlesincommunities

email: nbrady@adco-ie.com

Sowing Seeds of Interdisciplinary Work: Relict Plants at Medieval Castles

Thinking Green

Like medieval monasteries, castles had gardens. These could be places of rest, play and display as well as productive centres for (some of) the food to supply the castle household while also providing curative or medicinal plants. We know that in the Middle Ages, plants were highly valued for their culinary, fragrant and medicinal properties; and, they were considered to have mental and spiritual benefits. What do we know about the plant-life of the medieval castle and its green spaces?

Surviving architecture indicates that some of these spaces were enclosed with relatively high walls, often surmounted by a parapet or at least crenelated. Excavations tell us something about what plants were at castles but there is no certainty about what was grown in their gardens.1 Seeds can be tricky to identify in the archaeobotanical record from reasons as diverse as poor preservation to sampling issues. Beyond general mentions of gardens, medieval historians have noted references to bowers (arched trellis covered with vines or climbing plants) and possible water features as well as hawthorn hedging, roses and juniper trees.2 Many medieval manuscripts show luxurious images of trellising and water features in a verdant green dreamland (Fig. 1). I am not going to suggest that exact replica sites of mythical gardens existed but perhaps we can use these images as a reference point.

Figure 1. GR12994 Garden of Paradise, c.1415 (tempera on panel) by Master of Oberrheinischer (15th century); 26.3×33.4 cm; Stadelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany; German, out of copyright.

So, we know what gardens might have looked like and some of the things that may have been present. What then, do we know about gardening?3 Certain castles, such as Richmond, have latrines that empty into the garden space suggesting that medieval people were good at composting! (Fig. 2) But what about plant propagation and curation? What plants or flowers were grown? Or how?

Figure 2. ‘Cockpit’ Garden at Richmond Castle, latrine on eastern wall. Authors own.

Nurseries were established at monasteries across Europe in the later medieval period; one existed in London by at least the late thirteenth-century4 and at Kilmainhaim, Ireland during the early fourteenth century.5 Perhaps they also existed at castles? Some medieval manuscripts show images of plants in pots – isn’t that very interesting? (Fig. 3). So possibly plants in pots, like elite households, were on the move.6 If plants moved with their households what types were selected? Were they transplanted to grow in new locations? While extensive archaeological excavation might be able to answer these questions – what if we look at the evidence in front of us: the modern ecological landscape?

Figure 3. Plants in Pots. Book of Hours, Belgium, Bruges, between 1500 and 1526. M.363 fol. 24. http://ica.themorgan.org/manuscript/page/29/112393

Might the modern landscapes of medieval castles give some clue to plants of the past? The study of relict plants – those that survive from the past – involves the examination of modern landscapes for the presence of plants that may have been deliberately planted and cared for by people in the past. An ecological survey of Welsh castles completed in 1994 by Ann Connolly noted that there were clusters of plants with known medicinal uses present at castle sites but notably absent from suitable surrounding terrain.7 This included wild sage (Salvia verbenaca) at Montgomrery and wild rocket (Reseda luteola), as well as henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) at Rhuddlan. The implication is that these plants were deliberately planted at these sites for their medicinal use.

Pioneering work has been completed on relict plants in from medieval monastic gardens in Norway8 and Iceland.9 Fiona MacGowan, working in Ireland noted the presence of yellow wallflowers (Erysimum cheiri) at the windows of the main focal building at Lea Castle, Co. Laois (2014; Fig 4). These are non-native to Ireland and were thought to be frame the windows and waft in good smells. Relict plant studies, as part of wider analyses, is becoming established as a novel way to gain insights into past communities’ growing or cultivation practices as well as potential medicinal and dietary concerns.

‘Sowing the Seeds of Interdisciplinary Work’, the project funded by the Castle Studies Trust sets out to build on this work, and understand if surviving plants at medieval castles which were possibly planted, grown, cared for and used by medieval people can further inform us of medieval lived experiences in the garden and possibly with gardening. Ecological surveys will be carried out at four geographically distant but culturally similar medieval castles sites with diverse landscapes: Adare. Co. Limerick, Castleroache, Co. Louth, Mocollop Castle, Co Waterford and Castlecarra, Co. Mayo (Figs 4-7).

From the selected sites, only Adare has been subject to archaeological investigation and therefore has an associated archaeobotanical report to be analysed.10 Castlecarra is surrounded by woodland which has the potential to be ancient; it is included in the Lough Mask and Lough Carra Special Area of Conservation (Site code 001774). It will be part of the survey. All four have associated settlements and a variety of religious houses from parish churches to abbeys. At Mocollop and Castle Carra these spaces will also be surveyed owing to their relatively undisturbed surrounding landscapes. They will provide an interesting set of comparative sites.

Figure 5. Castle Carra, Co. Mayo. Main focal building of castle complex. Large protruding latrine in the foreground. Authors own.
Figure 6. Castleroche, Co. Louth. Extensive castle complex. Image courtesy of Dr David Whelan.

Working with Dr Fiona MacGowan, an ecologist who has a passion for the medieval, we will carry-out the ecological surveys over the late summer (hopefully). Once compiled the ecological reports will be used to expand our knowledge of what plants may have been used or grown at Irish medieval castles by contextualising the results within appropriate historical and folkloric traditions. These findings will be analysed together with of archaeological, historical and architectural details of the four castles sites. We are sure that the results will demonstrate the potential of relict plants studies to enrich our understanding of the ‘green’ lives of people in the past.

Figure 7. Mocollop Castle, Co. Waterword. Ruinous castles situated in a working farm. Image courtesy of Niall C.E.J. O’Brien

Footnotes

  1. Caple 2007
  2. Thorstad 2019
  3. Dempsey 2020
  4. Harvey 1985
  5. Reeves-Smith 1995
  6. Smith 2018
  7. Connolly 1994
  8. Arvid Åsen 2009
  9. Kristjánsdóttir, Larsson & Arvid Åsen 2014
  10. Dunne 2007; Dunne & Kiely 2013

Bibliography

Åsen, A. P., 2009. Plants of possible monastic origin, growing in the past or present, at medieval monastery grounds in Norway, in Plants and Culture: seeds of the cultural heritage of Europe, eds. J.P. Morel & A.M. Mercuri. Edipuglia Bari: Centro Europeo per i Beni Culturali Ravello, 227–38.

Caple, C., 2007. Excavations at Dryslwyn Castle 1980-1995. London: Society for Medieval Archaeology.

Connolly, A., 1994. Castles and Abbeys in Wales: Refugia for Mediaeval Medicinal Plants. Botanical Journal of Scotland 46(4), 628–36. https://doi.org/10.1080/13594869409441774

Dempsey, K. in press. Planting new ideas: a feminist gaze on medieval castles. Chateau Gaillard 29.

Dunne L. 2007. Adare Castle, Raising Bridges and Raising Questions, in From Ringforts to Fortified Houses: Studies on Castles and Other Monuments in Honour of David Sweetman, C. Manning (ed.), Dublin, Wordwell, pp. 155-170.

Dunne L. & Kiely J. 2013. Archaeological Excavation Report 01E1153 – Adare Castle, Co. Limerick Medieval Castle”, Eachtra Archaeological Reports, 16, pp. 1-265, online: http://eachtra.ie/index.php/journal/eachtra-journal-issues-as-standalone-pdf/#Issue16

Harvey, J.H., 1985. The first English garden book: Mayster Jon Gardener’s treatise and its background. Garden History 13, 83–101. https://doi.org/10.2307/1586825

MacGowan, F., 2014. Ecological Report for the area around Lea Castle, Portarlington, Co. Laois. Unpublished Report.

Reeves-Smyth, T., 1999. Irish Gardens and Gardening Before Cromwell (Barryscourt Lectures 4). Cork: Gandon Editions

Smith, S., 2018. Rills and Romance: Gardens at the Castles of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth and Edward I, in The Medieval and Early Modern Garden in Britain, eds. P. Skinner, & T. Tyres. London & New York: Routledge, 40–55.

Thorstad, A. 2019. The Culture of Castles in Medieval England and Wales. The Boydell Press. Woodbridge.

To stay up to date with news from ‘Sowing the Seeds’ subscribe to our newsletter, and you can read more of Karen’s work on academia.edu.

Our five projects for 2020

The results are in, we’ve decided which projects we will be funding for 2020.

But before we get to the announcement, we want to thank all the applicants who proposed projects. It was a difficult decision, with exciting and innovative approaches to a group of fascinating castles. This year marks a milestone for us: we are award £30,000 across the successful projects which is the most we’ve given in a single year.

So without further ado, here are the five projects we will be funding in 2020. We hope you are looking forward to discovering more about them.

Lincoln Castle

Photo by Gustavo Faraon, licensed CC-BY-NC 2.0

The project will develop a reconstruction drawing of the castle, as it would have been in the latter part of the 12th century, founded by William the Conqueror, in the second half of the 11th century.

Shrewsbury Castle

We will be funding a second year of excavation, following on from 2019, this time to understand the rampart of the inner bailey.

Sowing the Seeds

Castlecarra is one of the sites to be investigated. Photo by Karen Dempsey.

The aim of the project is to try and understand better everyday life in castles by seeing if there are any surviving plants at four Irish castles that were planted, grown, and cared for by medieval people.

The Wirk

Could the Wirk be a Norse castle? Based on the island of Rousay, this stone tower is situated close to the old parish church and recently discovered Norse Hall. However, no one knows what this tower was used for or even when it was built.

Warkworth

 Photo by Karl Davison, licensed CC-BY-NC 2.0

Using various forms of geophysical survey to try and understand the subsurface features for the former caput of the Earls of Northumberland.

Donate regularly for invitation to exclusive site visits

Regular donors will be invited to all exclusive visits to the projects we fund.

Those who are able to donate £500 a year or more (excluding Gift Aid) will also have the opportunity to attend our annual special castle visit to major/privately owned castles. In 2020 this will be at Edinburgh Castle on Saturday 6 June where we will visit parts of the castle not open to the public.

Any new donations by standing order or payroll giving will be matched by a generous supporter for the next two years up to a maximum of £2,000 a year in total.

You can donate regularly via payroll giving or by setting up a standing order. Please return the form to the address on the forms, with the gift aid form if applicable.

A Large and Eclectic Crop of Fascinating Applications for the Castle Studies Trust to Consider

The deadline for grant applications passed on 30th November. We’re going through the various projects now. Altogether the 13 projects, coming from England, Ireland, and Scotland are asking for over £88,000. 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:

Bamburgh, Northumberland

Photo by Thomas Quine, licensed CC BY 2.0.

The main aim is to recover evidence for the base natural topography around the approach to the main gate of the once royal castle, from the area of the medieval village, and explore how this was altered, presented and exploited to create a sense of theatre for visitors to the site.

Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire

Photo by Sean Wallis, licensed CC BY NC 2.0.

A geoarchaeological auger survey of the moats that surround this former royal castle and palace of Thomas Becket. The survey aims to answer such questions as what were the moats original profiles, when were the moats filled and how do the two moats compare with each other.

Dunollie, Argyll

Photo by Paul Lloyd, licensed CC BY NC SA 2.0.

To try and understand the date of the construction of the castle owned by the MacDougall clan through various through buildings and materials analysis including radiocarbon dating and mortar analysis.

Fraoch Eilean, Loch Awe

Photo by Andrea Hope, licensed CC BY SA 2.0.

To try and understand the date of the construction of the former royal castle through various through buildings and materials analysis including radiocarbon dating and mortar analysis.

Hoghton, Lancashire

The aim of the project to continue the work the CST funded in 2019 with excavations and building survey. Further excavations will try and understand the purpose of the structures found in the 2019 excavation season and if they were related to the original great tower.

Holme Pierpont, Nottinghamshire

To build up an understanding of this late medieval great house, never previously researched. The work will include a mixture of desk research, building survey and geophysical survey of the parkland surrounding it. The house is the most complete of the three late medieval brick-built houses in Nottinghamshire.

Lincoln, Lincolnshire

Photo by Ben Keating, licensed CCY BY NC SA 2.0.

To develop a reconstruction drawing of the castle as it would have appeared in the second half of the 12th century. Lincoln Castle was founded by William the Conqueror in the late 11th century.

Shrewsbury, Shropshire

To fund a second year of excavation, this time to understand the rampart of the inner bailey. The geophysical survey carried out in the 2019 suggested there could be remains of buildings there, possibly even a late Saxon church. Shrewsbury was a very important border castle up until the 13th century and frequently used as a base for English raids into Wales.

Sowing the Seeds

Hortus conclusus depicted by Meister des Frankfurter Paradiesgärtleins

The aim of the project is to try and understand better everyday life in castles by seeing if there are any surviving plants at four Irish castles that were planted, grown and cared for by medieval people. The research will involve ecological surveys at each location.

Strongholds of Wessex

Photo of Silbury Hill by Greg O’Beirne, licensed CC BY SA 3.0.

The aim of the project is to understand the military organisation of the northern part of Wessex (Wiltshire and West Oxfordshire) from the transition from Saxon to Norman rule between the 9th and 12th centuries. The work will involve documentary research, landscape and place name surveys. Sites examined will include Castle Combe, Cricklade and Silbury Hill.

The Wirk, Orkney

Rousay - The Wirk

Could the Wirk be a Norse castle? Based on the island of Rousay, this stone tower is situated close to the old parish church and recently discovered Norse Hall. However, no one knows what this tower was used for or even when it was built. The work would involve a geophysical survey of the surrounding area as well as two trial trenches to try and find dating evidence.

Thermal Imaging of Castles

A thermogram of Cirencester Roman amphitheatre by Dr John Wells, licensed CC BY SA 4.0.

To test how useful thermal imaging could be in understanding castles. The thermal survey using a FLIR camera of two castle facades in different climates. within the UK—Caisteal Uisdein, on the coast of Loch Snizort, and a castle farther south and slightly inland, Castle Rising.

Warkworth, Northumberland

Photo by Barry Marsh, in the public domain

Using various forms of geophysical survey to try and understand the subsurface features for the former caput of the Dukes of Northumberland. The survey will focus on the bailey inside the 12th-century curtain wall as well as the strip of land outside but on the early earthwork castle, the motte and field near the entrance to the castle.


The applications have been sent to our expert assessors who will go over them. And if you want to know more about how the assessment process works, we have a brief summary.

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.

2017 grants: who has applied?

The deadline for grant applications passed on 15th December and we’re going through the various projects now. Altogether the 11 projects, coming from all parts of the British Isles and Italy, are asking for over £50,000. They cover a wide period of history and types of research. For a little more detail, here are the applications we’ve received:

  • Abergavenny Castle, Wales – a geophysical survey of the whole site. The castle was an important baronial site and saw a lot of military action from when it was first built in the 11th century up until it was slighted (partially demolished) in the Civil War.
  • Bamburgh, England – assess and conserve a large collection of medieval metal work dating from the 8th to the 11th century discovered in the west ward. Bamburgh was a major elite fortress from the early medieval period so the project should help potentially understand how the site changed over the centuries.
  • Caldicot Castle, Wales – geophysical of the whole scheduled area. Building on the previous resistivity survey in the project will use all three types of survey technique to get the best understanding of any below ground remains of this major baronial site.
  • Castle Pulverbatch, England – geophysical and photogrammetric surveys of the site, one of the finest examples of a Norman motte-and-bailey castle in Shropshire.
  • Clifford Castle, England – geophysical survey and excavations to help understand the morphology of one of the earliest castle sites in the UK, and one of the principal castles on the Anglo-Welsh border. Please note this is a privately owned site and not accessible to the general public.
  • Dinas Bran, Wales – geophysical survey of the most extensive and complete Welsh-built castle to understand what structures lie beneath the surface.
  • Edinburgh Castle, Scotland – mapping and categorising suspected conflict damage at this iconic castle.
  • Fotheringhay, England – understanding the morphology of the caput of the honor of Huntingdon and 15th-century palace associated with the House of York and birthplace of Richard III, using ground penetrating radar and small unmanned aircraft. Please note this is a privately owned site and not accessible to the general public.
  • Lathom House, England – analysis of masonry dating from the late 15th-century castle built by Thomas, Lord Stanley either found via excavations or potential reused in the current building.
  • Lecce, Italy – to help with the publication of a history of the castle of Lecce which was founded by the Normans.
  • Lough Key, Ireland – to improve understanding of the medieval MacDermot lordship of Moylurg and its relationship with the Rock of Lough Key.

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.