Richmond Castle Excavation Day 14: Another eventful week!

By Excavation Director Jim Brightman of Solstice Heritage

Reflecting at the end of the second week—two thirds of the way through our dig at the Castle—it’s been an amazing journey so far. After the excitement of the tv cameras on Thursday and Friday, we are all now taking a well-earned Sunday off, allowing some thinking time for the theories and interpretations. Yesterday, we were privileged to welcome a group from the Castle Studies Trust (one of the key project funders and hosts of this very blog!) who came to look round the excavations and offer some of their wonderful expertise and knowledge to help bring focus to some of the stories we are revealing.

Entreance/exit of a likely small postern gate at the at the exterior of the curtain wall immediately beneath trench 1 (courtesy of Dr Peter Purton)

Trench 1 has proven to be the most complex in terms of the intercutting layers and structures (what archaeologists call ‘stratigraphy’). Although there is plenty of time left for our thoughts to change with new evidence, we currently think we have an original narrow door at the base of the curtain wall which was blocked during the medieval period. After this, a small square stone building was constructed against the wall, again at some point during the Castle’s medieval life. In terms of the large stone piers and low stone wall that we can see above ground, however, we are now confident that they are indeed 20th-century inventions built by the Ministry of Works.

One of the most interesting aspects of Trench 1 has been the fantastic amount of fine medieval pottery that has come out of both the mixed topsoil and upper layers, and now from sealed medieval deposits. With a major acknowledgement to the eye and experience of Erik Matthews, we can confidently say we have not only great examples of local and regional pottery, but also of imported French and Belgian pottery. This really shows the importance of Richmond Castle as a seat of power during its medieval heyday and the interconnected nature of authority spanning the Channel in this period.

Range of pottery found in trench 1 (courtesy of Dr Peter Purton)

With the end of the project in sight, over the coming week I’ll also wrap up the stories for Trenches 2 and 3, so do keep checking back!

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Feature image courtesy of Dr Peter Purton.

Medieval Climate Change at Caerlaverock – Fieldwork Week Two

Project lead, Dr Richard Tipping, looks back at the second week of fieldwork he and Dr Eileen Tisdall are undertaking to try establish whether climate change did impact the re-positioning of Caerlaverock Castle.

Home again – after one of the most torrid week’s fieldwork I can recall: whilst Northern Ireland had the extreme weather warnings just to the east, Dumfries had day-time temperatures exceeding 26⁰C all week. And you’ll recall that I was inside a wood, where breezes never penetrate.

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At Caerlaverock on the Solway coast, we are trying to work out the natural and human impact of huge medieval storm surges on the 13th century old castle. Last time I was looking at how the moat, and possibly the castle itself, was inundated with seawater and mud driven shoreward by storms. This week I focused on the coastline itself, away from the castle. Before the storms hit, the old castle was on the coast: it had a harbour. You can still walk along the degraded cliff to the west of the castle and imagine the seascape. After the storms, the coast lay some 250 metres south of the castle. A series of large gravel ridges, tens of metres wide, grew southward, beautifully revealed in LiDAR images that peel away the nearly impenetrable woodland.

A visualisation from the LiDAR data showing the gravel ridges that Richard has been investigating this week

Each of these ridges created shallow basins protected from tides. The harbour became pointless as a result. But all we knew from earlier work was that the youngest basin was formed around AD1400. How old were the earlier ones? Could we find sediment dateable by radiocarbon?

The fieldwork, I knew, would be hard. I’d looked for dateable sediment before, simply by coring the sediments in the basins, and found only one site; and now there was the woodland to contend with. All you can do is remain patient and optimistic: unglamorous, muddy and unspectacular work. The woodland meant that some basins couldn’t now be found, others where I couldn’t core systematically, and still others where systematic coring failed to find anything to excite. But I think we can date three of the eight basins and, usefully, these include the earliest basin and the basin that blocked the harbour. Stay tuned.

An image from the LiDAR data of the old castle and its landscape. The moat and outer ditches I and II have been the subject of Richard’s investigations over the two weeks.

But it was the ditches around the old castle that were the highlight of a difficult week. Sense was made of the moat. The builders formed one of the four moat sides from an existing stream channel: the moat here is a lot deeper because of this. But then the castle mound was not made parallel with this moat side. It does seem to be a very slap-dash construction. The attempted buttressing of the castle by stonework in the moat is shown here.

And we can now show that the mud of the storm surges penetrated beyond the castle, not by a great distance but enough that the old castle would have been surrounded in these extreme events, laid siege by nature while the younger new castle was laid siege by Edward I and the English in AD1300.

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Feature image courtesy of Historic Environment Scotland

Richmond Castle Excavation Day 8: Mysteries on mysteries

By Excavation Director Jim Brightman of Solstice Archaeology

So, we are very much at that point on the dig where we are in amongst the really fascinating medieval archaeology, but we are still teasing the answers out of what are turning into quite complex layers.

One place where we are still not sure about whether we are seeing medieval archaeology is in Trench 1: ironically the one trench sited right against the colossal curtain wall of the Castle! The small finds have been outstanding from the upper levels, including a selection of particularly well made and decorated medieval pottery—evidence of the high-status dining that would have graced the tables of the great and good. As we have investigated the substantial buttresses, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that a lot of the stonework around the trench may in fact be an invention of the Ministry of Works in the 20th century! It turns out that the enterprising work teams may have gone a little beyond their remit of consolidation and let their imaginations run free!

Trench 3 is the biggest mystery of all though. We have a clear sequence back through time: modern topsoil, early-20th-century building foundations, the Victorian and later parade ground and a post-medieval soil that had built up after the Castle had fallen out of use. Beneath this, we were hoping for the remains of a medieval building, and that is what we have found. Sort of.

Trench 3 flagstones

The exposed remains comprise a series of massive limestone slabs, not squared and dressed like flagstones but nevertheless laid with some skill. They look a little like a yard that we might see in front of a typical Yorkshire Dales farm, but there are a set of slabs laid at an angle as if forming the side of a shallow pond. If this wasn’t strange enough, the whole arrangement is curved in an arc, part of a much larger feature extending beyond the trench. So far, all our theories don’t quite fit with what we can see in the trench, so the only thing left to do is dig more—out and down—and see what is revealed!

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Richmond Castle Excavations Day 4: Big digging and big rewards!

By Dig Director Jim Brightman of Solstice Archaeology

A quick update today as the main theme has been deploying mattocks to really push on through the more modern levels to try and reach the undisturbed medieval deposits. That means the main excitement of the day was the small finds that continue to emerge from the mixed overburden and 20th-century landscaping: animal bone in considerable quantities, more medieval pottery, what appears to be a hobnail and something that looks suspiciously like window lead.

The highlight of the day, however, was uncovered in Trench 3 (see plan below)—an area where we the volunteers are diligently digging through the clay dump of the former military parade ground in baking heat! What at first we thought was a corroded button (we’ve had one of those already), turned out on closer inspection to be a 14th-century French jetton!

Jettons were one example of a growing system of trade tokens often used in lieu of coins in specific areas or for specific trades. Jettons, however, were primarily used as accounting tokens, providing a visual means of making calculations on a large wooden board. This find gives us a fascinating insight into both the mechanics of medieval trade centred on Richmond Castle, and also the way in which many great magnates held considerable land on both sides of the Channel in this period.

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Richmond Castle Excavations Day 3: Horses and Walls

By Dig Director, Jim Brightman of Solstice Archaeology

Things are moving apace despite the sweltering conditions this week. We are now three days into the excavation, and all three trenches currently open have yielded up a variety of medieval pottery sherds as well as plenty of more recent artefacts.

Given the anticipated depths of some of the remains we are looking for, the last two days have seen a concerted flurry of digging to get through the topsoil and 20th-century overburden, particularly in Trenches 2 and 3. Once again the volunteers have excelled themselves and maintained a wonderfully positive attitude—whether debating the merits of marmalade and boiled egg toasties (apparently it’s a thing) or trying to convince the trench supervisors that they’ve found a Roman road (it wasn’t, but a good effort nevertheless).

Jaw of Horse

Perhaps the most excitement that was generated among visitors to the Castle, however, was the discovery of a largely complete jawbone from a horse! Although it was a little too high in the deposits to be evidence for medieval stables (or a meal!), it was a real reminder to everyone that as we’re digging ever deeper, we never truly know what we are going to find.

From the point of view of our main aims for the excavation, the biggest news of the day is that we starting to see the hints of probably medieval walling in both Trenches 1 and 2. Trench 1 by Robin Hood Tower is butted against the standing walls of the castle, but a lot of the stonework in this area was rebuilt and consolidated by the Ministry of Works in the 20th century. What we are seeing here are the first signs of original medieval stones beneath the surface—very exciting!

Possible remains of a medieval wall

Trench 2, however, was targeted to find part of a range of buildings never before known and revealed through geophysical survey. As the sun started to dip at the end of the day, and as we were starting to think about packing up the tools, loose rock started to turn up through the centre of the trench. A little more careful trowelling by the team soon revealed what may be the rubble core of a wall—our first window back into this untouched medieval structure.

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Revealing Richmond Castle’s Secrets: Excavation Starting Monday 19 July

Jim Brightman of Solstice Archaeology, dig director of the Richmond Castle excavation, outlines what the next three weeks of excavations of Richmond Castle to mark the 950th anniversary of its founding. The excavation is being co-funded by the Castle Studies Trust along with Richmond and District Civic Society and Richmond District Council.

By way of an introduction to the Richmond 950 community excavation, I’m going to start with a bit of a personal reminiscence. I am a former pupil at Richmond School, and in the dim and distant past when I was in in Lower School (the old Grammar School building), the first topic covered in history lessons was the medieval period. I’d already been fascinated by the past through primary school, and I was ready for it to be my favourite class. I wasn’t disappointed. On a seasonably warm autumn afternoon, we all trooped up the hill for our first site visit: Richmond Castle.

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Many, many years later, having studied archaeology at university and spent my early career in and around the Peak District, I moved back home in 2012. The first time I walked back into town, I vividly remember thinking “was the Castle always that big?!”. Then as now, and as in the centuries preceding, the keep towers over the marketplace, easily the most prominent building in the town’s skyline. Indeed, I was so taken with this icon of my childhood love of history, that the outline of the Castle now features on my company’s stationery!

Richmond Castle’s Great from the Bailey near where some of the trenches will be placed. Picture courtesy of English Heritage.

With the 950th anniversary of the Castle’s original founding rapidly approaching, I was overjoyed at the opportunity to run a volunteer archaeology excavation as part of the wider celebrations being held in the town through the course of 2021. Having been fortunate enough to be involved in a lot of community archaeology projects through the course of my career, it felt like a real homecoming.

As we started developing the project, it became clear that there was a wealth of places within the Castle where targeted excavation had the potential to shed light on parts of its story that have remained hidden. Geophysical survey in recent years has revealed whole complexes of possible walls and structures beneath the grassy sward of the bailey, and Richmond 950 is the first time that they will see the light of day for many, many centuries.

Richmond Castle from the air. Most of the excavation will take place along the far wall where many remains have been located. Picture courtesy of English Heritage.

The volunteer archaeology project was made a reality by the kind support of several funders, all of whom believed in the vision of engaging local people directly with the tangible past in such a beautiful and historic setting. We are very grateful to the Castle Studies Trust, Richmond and District Civic Society and Richmondshire District Council for their huge generosity and support – I feel strongly we will repay your trust with a fantastic project!

As I write this on the eve of the project starting, we are almost fully booked in terms of volunteer places—a real testament to the interest in archaeology in and around Richmond. That said, if you are reading this and getting the itch to try your hand at archaeology, then there are still a few places available on our Eventbrite link; no experience is required and everything you need to unlock your inner Indiana Jones is provided! Even if you are just interested in finding out more, then the Castle is still open to visitors through the next three weeks while we are digging, and we would be delighted to talk you through the unfolding story of the archaeology.

See you in the Castle!

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Is the The Wirk a Castle? Archaeological investigations in Rousay, Orkney

Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon and Dan Lee (UHI Archaeology Institute / ORCA) project leads for the Castle Studies Trust funded project explain the reasons behind the excavations they are undertaking at The Wirk in the Orkneys and what they hope to achieve during their two week dig.

Located on the south-western coast of Rousay, The Wirk is located in one of the most archaeologically rich parts of Orkney. The Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) is undertaking geophysical survey, archaeological excavations and 3D modelling at this enigmatic castle site (pending approval from HES).

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The Wirk, meaning stronghold in Old Norse, and with the alternative name Westness Castle, is a small stone tower located close to the coast. It has variously been interpreted as a 12th century Norse Castle, a detached fortified bell-tower, a 13th century defensive tower for an incomplete church, a hall-house garderobe tower and most recently a 16th century tower and attached range.

View of The Wirk, located on the righthand corner of St Mary’s Church yard in the foreground, looking northwest to Midhowe and the Atlantic Ocean (Image: Bobby Friel @TakeTheHighView).DCIM100MEDIADJI_0558.JPG

Minor clearance and excavation in the 1920s identified similarities in construction between The Wirk and the 12th century Cubbie Roo’s Castle, on the nearby island of Wyre, considered to be one of the earliest stone keeps in Scotland. The Wirk is located in Westness which has been a large estate since at least the 12th century when it was the home of the Norse chieftain Sigurd of Westness (Orkneyinga saga). It is adjacent to Rousay parish church, likely to date from the 12th century, with standing remains of 16th century date on earlier footings.

Recently, the 12th/13th century date attribution of The Wirk has been rejected in favour of a 16th century date. This new interpretation is based on the built remains and 16th century architectural fragments which were found in the 1920s. However, architectural fragments of 12th/13th century date were also present and nearby archaeology, particularly the discovery earlier this year of a Norse hall at Skaill by the UHI Archaeology Institute would suggest this was a high-status place in the saga period. This is not to dispute that The Wirk may also have been in use in the 16th century when the estate was owned by a prominent Orkney family. One of the objectives of this project is to excavate trial trenches over Clouston’s excavation and at the eastern end of the site to identify the earliest phases of the tower and adjacent building. Upper parts of the tower were substantially rebuilt in the 19th century and so excavation will allow us to record parts of the site that have not been knowingly rebuilt.

Inside The Wirk tower, looking southeast, showing the entrance to an underground well or passage (Image: Dan Lee)

Along with the excavations, targeted geophysical survey around The Wirk undertaken in September 2020 aims to better understand any relationships between the tower and the buildings/features which surround it. The results show that the walls planned by Clouston are accurate and that they likely survive just below the ground surface. 3D modelling of The Wirk and Cubbie Roo’s Castle will enhance our understanding of these comparable sites and allow the public to explore the remains online.

 The start of the project was delayed in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and we will be glad to finally get on site for the excavations in July.

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References and further reading:

Clouston, JS 1931 Early Norse Castles. The Orcadian. Kirkwall

The Virtual 3-D Reconstruction of 12th-Century Lincoln Castle

Dr Jonathan Clark, Historic Buildings Director, FAS Heritage and project lead for the Castle Studies Trust funded 3-D Reconstruction of C12 Lincoln Castle explains how it was done and the challenges faced in doing it.

A virtual 3-D reconstruction of Lincoln Castle as it may have looked in the late 12th-century has been completed by Peter Lorimer, Pighill Illustration in collaboration with FAS Heritage.  The reconstruction was funded by the Castle Studies Trust and made possible through 15 years of archaeological research for the Lincoln Castle Revealed project. The project consisted of a £22m repair and restoration programme to conserve the site and renew the visitor experience funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Lincolnshire County Council and the European Regional Development Fund. The programme provided opportunities for research-led archaeology which yielded a wealth of new information about the site.

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Mondern day Lincoln Castle from the west copyright Andy Tyner Photography on behalf of FAS Heritage and Lincolnshire County Council
Lincoln Castle as it could have been in the late C12 copyright FAS Heritage and Pighill Illustrations

William the Conqueror established Lincoln Castle in 1068 in the walled enclosure of the former Roman colonia. The Lucy Tower motte was built in its southwest corner reusing the west and south walls to defend the new inner bailey. The next 100 years saw rapid development: originally earth and timber, the Conquest-period castle was replaced in masonry, a process now understood to have started by the 1080s including East and West Gates; by the early 12th century the stone enclosure of the bailey and internal gate ranges were complete, along with the Lucy Tower shell-keep and later Observatory Tower. Inner bailey buildings were also contacted during excavation including the Great Hall, stables, East Range and the Observatory Tower motte and ditch, all contributing information to the reconstruction. Evidence for a lost South Gate to match East and West Gates was found; along with a reappraisal of the early form of the Lucy Tower shell-keep it provided information about a former southern enclosure. This enclosure was abandoned, probably by the early 13th century, when the castle contracted to the form of the current enclosure.

It was the culmination of this intense century of development, arrived at by the late 12th century that was selected for the digital reconstruction.

Plan of Lincoln Castle in C12 copyright FAS Heritage

Archaeological excavation and detailed building recording formed most information about the early form of the castle, but the assembly of the 3-D reconstruction led to reappraisal of other parts of the castle; previously unnoticed anomalies were discovered which required further analysis.

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The lost southern enclosure and South Gate were both identified from fragmentary evidence and establishing the exact position and size of the original south wall presented a challenge. When reconstruction began there was little information on this wall except a projection of the line of the southern colonia wall. This placed the south wall slicing through the Lucy Tower motte – a relationship which did not seem likely. However, recent work on this part of the motte during a programme of banks stabilisation provided more information. A substantial medieval masonry wall measuring 3m wide and traversing the Lucy Tower motte west-east was revealed. The wall is probably founded on the Roman wall indicates the motte may have been constructed against it, flattening its southern side.

The Lucy Tower Motte after the removal of dense vegetation.  The fragmentary masonry remains of a structure can be seen towards the top of the trench. Copyright FAS Heritage

The reconstruction provides a sense of where concentrations of occupation were; around East Gate and Observatory Tower, the Lucy Tower, the Great Hall and around West Gate. With the discovery of South Gate it is easier to appreciate how these areas were autonomous. Other areas within the castle, particularly the western side, are presented as large open spaces; without further investigation these zones cannot be reconstructed easily.

The Lucy Tower, sat upon on an enlarged motte, can now be shown with its original east and west chamber blocks, internal ranges and window overlooking the city. With the tower, wing walls and South Gate, these formed a discrete enclosure.

Detail on the form of the Observatory Tower in the late 12th century can also be added. The tower is shown as a gaol tower which replaced a predecessor developed by Earl Ranulf during the Anarchy, later commandeered to become the county gaol. A stone ‘skirt’ around the base of the motte and a motte ditch were found and formed a hard circuit detaching the gaol from the rest of the castle.

The reconstruction will be made available across a range of media. The analytical process and collaboration with Pighill Illustration provided an opportunity to translate the archaeological study of the castle into a tangible representation. It enables the results of the research programme to be conveyed to a wide audience and goes hand-in-hand with the publication of a book about the Lincoln Castle Revealed Project in July 2021.

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Taking Care of Herself. Duchess Richardis of Schleswig and the siege of Sønderborg castle (1358)

Dr Stefan Magnussen of the University of Leipzig looks at the extraodinary case of Duchess Richardis of Schleswig who in the C14 protected her rights over a castle at the expense of her husband’s.

In south-western Denmark, not far from the mouth of the Flensburg Fjord, rises a red-brick castle called Sønderborg (Eng: Southern Castle). Although it is hardly known beyond Denmark, at least its name still radiates throughout Europe as the eponym of the dynasty that originated from it. We do not know today who built the castle, which was first mentioned in 1253, but the eventful history as a residence, in which many men have left an architectural imprint, is well documented.

Aerial photo of Sønderborg Slot (unknown photographer, 1994), © Museum Sønderjylland]

Yet there were also some women who left their marks – this is especally true for Queen Dowager Dorothea of Saxe-Lauenburg, who commissioned the magnificent palace chapel. One key figure, however, has more or less fallen into oblivion: Duchess Richardis of Schleswig, who played a brief, but prominent role during a royal siege of 1358. Not so much as a leader of defence, but rather as a ruler who self-confidently defended her own interests – even if it meant turning against her spouse.

Drawing of Sønderborg Slot in its supposed structural state prior to the massive reconstructions of 16th Century. Drawing by former Head of the Museum Sønderborg, Jens Raben (1880-1960), © Museum Sønderjylland

Overall, very little is known about this woman. She was born around 1320 as the daughter of the Counts of Schwerin-Wittenburg and probably married Duke Valdemar V of Schleswig around 1338, presumably in the course of alliance negotiations. As was customary in those years, she was probably assigned the ducal secondary residence of Sønderborg with the island of Alsen as life tenancy, which made her Lady of Sønderborg for almost half a century until her death around 1386. Nevertheless, apart from the fact that her chaplain came from her native Wittenburg, little is known about her regency. Even her burial place remains a secret.

The preserved Seals of Richardis of Schleswig, indicating her heritage from the Counts of Schwerin-Wittenburg. Source: Thiset, Danmarks Kongelige Sigiller, Tab. 42

And yet what makes this enigmatic princess interesting is her key role in her husband‘s conflict with King Valdemar IV of Denmark. Understanding this and her stuation, it is worth telling the story from the beginning: In 1340, King Valdemar IV inherited a difficult legacy, as his realm was almost entirely pledged to various neighbours. Before homage was paid, a series of treaties reorganised these pledges, transferring almost all of Jutland to Duke Valdemar V, who in turn mortgaged his territories to the Counts of Holstein, who were among the leading negotiators. Within a few years, the Danish king succeeded in almost completely redeeming his realm, with the exception of some districts like Ribe Castle on the North Sea, which was still in ducal possession. At the same time, the Duke also succeeded in redeeming two thirds of his duchy from the Counts, who, however, remained  holding  the ducal principal residence at Gottorp. Since the secondary residence of Sønderborg had also been ceded to the Duchess, the castle district of Ribe constituted the last ducal power base. Notwithstanding this, King Valdemar IV. pressed for this pledge to be dissolved in 1351, which severely curtailed the Duke‘s power. In turn, the duke allied himself with the loyal Jutish nobility and the Counts of Holstein against the Danish king. An early conflict was settled in 1353, but flared up again in 1358.

Map of medieval Denmark with the island of Alsen and the castles mentioned in the article, by Stefan Magnussen

King Valdemar IV now ventured an advance on the island of Alsen, which lay just off the coast of the duchy in the direction of the kingdom. Within three days he was able to bring Nordborg Castle (Eng: North Castle) under his control, making the conquest of Sønderborg only a matter of time. But it was not the Duke awaiting him there, but Duchess Richardis. The main source for the recreation of the processes now taking place is the contemporary and royalist Younger Zealand Chronicle, which, albeit otherwise only reporting sieges in short, recounts the meeting in surprisingly colourful words. Richardis, together with „her girls“, which probably referred to her dames, had approached the King outside her castle. As she was a fine, clever and, morever, eloquent person, the Danish king immediately recognised her noble personality and decided that his friendship with her brother was more dear to him than enmity with the Duke. Both sides thus agreed that Richardis would be allowed to keep her estate undiminished in return for her promise that no harm would derive from it. That these events actually occurred is witnesses by a preserved charter, which also informs us of another juicy detail: Richardis also banned her husband from staying in his castle. It was only on two days a year that he was allowed to stay there.

Seals attached to the Charter from June 19, 1358, source: Dansk Nationalarkivet, Ny Kronologisk Række (1980–1981), Nr. 832-c.

So, how can we explain these events and, above all, this dazzling account? Apparently, in the face of the siege, Richardis proved to be a princess with a sense of rank who knew how to protect her sphere of power. With Duke Valdemar V having only a small remaining territory and little income since the loss of his most important castle of Ribe, Richardis had little to rely on from her politically incapacitated husband. Yet, Richardis probably anticipated the royal dilemma, for her brother was one of the king‘s key allies. The duchess and the Danish king thus agreed on a mutually beneficial solution that would potentially establish a royal bridgehead at the doorstep of the Duchy. This agreement, however, had a crucial pitfall in that the castle de iure belonged to the Duke, which legally limited the authority of the Duchess to freely dispose of it. But both sides sought to actively influence the interpretative authority of this conflict between norm and practice via the contract as well as the chronicle. This is indicated by the comparatively extensive set of 21 seals, which may have been intended to symbolise broad support by local elites, but also by the very favourable account of Richardis, which was probably intended to strengthen her personal authority and thus bestow legitimacy on the agreement. Both seem to have succeeded in this endeavour, for in the winter of 1372/73 Valdemar IV was able to use Sønderborg castle as his bridgehead during his advance on the city of Flensburg, and Duke Valdemar V is never again witnessed on Sønderborg Castle until his death in 1364.

Even though Richardis has been forgotten down the years, her brief, but crucial role during the siege of Sønderborg is a vivid testimony to the often concealed power of princesses, who, instead of being a sidekick to their spouses, started themselves to kick if necessary.

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Bodiam – A Cultural Biography

Professor Matthew Johnson of Northwestern University takes a look the iconic Bodiam Castle.

Many readers of the Castle Studies Trust blog will be only too familiar with Bodiam Castle.  It is the most-discussed late medieval castle in England, and probably in Europe.  Over the last ten years I have worked with a team of researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Southampton, in partnership with the National Trust.  We carried out a new survey of the building, a topographical and geophysical survey of the surrounding landscape, and a synthesis of the extensive ‘grey literature’ on the site.  Our work was published in the 2017 volume Lived Experience in the Later Middle Ages; digital copies are freely available here.  We deliberately avoided older debates, and instead stressed a landscape of work and the variety of lived experiences of different people as they worked and moved around the castle and local landscape.

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In this short blog post, I want to highlight one point:  Bodiam needs to be understood as a multi-period site and landscape.  One of the mistakes of the old ‘defence vs status’ debates was to see Bodiam simply as a creation of the 1380s and of one man, Sir Edward Dallingridge.  Our work suggests rather that the building and its surroundings form a distinctive place with its own cultural biography that should be understood over the very long term, from the Palaeolithic to the WWII pillbox.  It is a place that has seen reworking and recasting by different social groups over the centuries and even over the millennia.

The castle viewed from the N, photo taken from the older manorial site, also known as the ‘Gun Garden’ or ‘viewing platform’.  The floodplain of the Rother can be seen behind the castle, with the Weald rising up beyond and the linear village of Ewhurst Green strung out along the horizon.

The stone fabric of the castle does, indeed, date largely to the 1380s, and the use-life of the stone structure was relatively short; it was probably derelict and rarely used by the end of the 15th century.  However, its story is not just that of one man.  Bodiam was a manor of the Wardedieu family, which Edward inherited through his marriage to Elizabeth Wardedieu.  Alice Beauchamp, a wealthy widow and subsequently warden of the infant king Henry VI,  married John Dallingridge, son and heir of Edward; John died soon after his father, and Alice became chatelaine of the castle for 35 years until her death in 1443 (Johnson 2020, 321).  Usually presented as the creation of a single powerful man, Bodiam then was one of the residences of a powerful woman for much of its active use.  The elaborate stacked, double suite of ‘private’ chambers at the upper end of the hall needs to be understood in this gendered context.

Much of the internal fabric, and most of the barbican, was ‘robbed’ of building stone in succeeding centuries; many visitors stopped to leave their mark in the form of graffiti.  In the 1830s, ‘Mad Jack’ Fuller bought and restored the site and landscape.  Fuller’s wealth came in part from his ownership of enslaved people on plantations in Jamaica, as the recent National Trust report describes.  In the 1920s, the castle was restored again by ex-Viceroy of India Lord Curzon; Curzon of course was also responsible for the restoration of the Taj Mahal.  His activities at Bodiam included the failed construction of a cricket pitch (the selected site, which he named ‘the tiltyard’ but which was in fact the basin of the old millpond, was not an ideal choice).  The later cultural biography of Bodiam, then, is part of a story of colonialism and postcolonialism.

University of Southampton students surveying what Curzon termed the ‘tiltyard’, in reality the former millpond, in April 2010.  The castle and WWII pillbox are in the background. 

However, it is the prehistory of the site – its enduring importance as a critical place in the landscape – before the 1380s that most fascinates me.  The castle itself was ‘fitted in’ to an earlier framework of manorial site, village tenements, river crossing and wharf.  The whole assemblage sits at the junction of the Weald and the Rother Valley. The Kent and Sussex Weald, with its rolling hills, heavy clay soil and extensive woodland, contrasts with the floodplains below, running out to Romney Marsh.  Climatic variation and the troubled history of land reclamation has meant that at different times, the valley has been shallow estuary, marshland, or fertile fields (it will return to shallow estuary in 100 years if climate change continues).  Bodiam sits at the lowest crossing point on the river Rother, on a N/S Roman road, at a point which was a ford but which had a bridge from the 12th century onwards.

When I lecture on Bodiam, I like to suggest to audiences primed for discussion of knights, gunports and the Hundred Years War that the critical moment in the biography of the Bodiam landscape is not the 1380s, but rather the Early Bronze Age, when the complex interaction between human and environment meant that peat accumulation in the valley stopped and was replaced by alluvium.  And I like to go back still further, to a time in the deep past when the valley was some metres deeper and the surrounding hills some metres higher, giving a less comfortable and more rugged feel to the landscape.

Jacquetta Hawkes (1967) famously said that ‘every generation gets the Stonehenge it deserves – or desires’; the same, arguably, is true of Bodiam.  The Bodiam for our generation is, in part, a place of cultural biography and long-term climatic change, where humans have worked with and through the landscape to create, maintain and transform a place that has had an enduring importance over the millennia.

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References

Hawkes, J., 1967. God in the machine. Antiquity 41, 174-80.

Johnson, M.H. (ed.) 2017.  Lived Experience in the Later Middle Ages:  Studies of Bodiam and Other High Status Sites in South East England.  St Andrews, Highfield Press. 

Johnson, M.H. 20201.  Bodiam and the Canterbury Tales:  some intersections.  Medieval Archaeology 64:2, 302-329.  https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00766097.2020.1835273