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

Weathering Extremes: Medieval Climate Change at Caerlaverock Castle

As work starts on the Caerlaverock Weathering Extremes project, Richard Tipping of the University of Stirling and Morvern French from Historic Environment Scotland explains what they hope to achieve the work involved in doing that.

Some 800 years ago, a newly built castle at Caerlaverock, on the Solway Firth, was abandoned and a new one was built higher up the hill. The first castle fell victim to climate change as huge coastal storms hit the Solway coast in the medieval period. This was the conclusion of University of Stirling researchers at Caerlaverock Castle in 2004. This May, with support from the Castle Studies Trust and Historic Environment Scotland, the same researchers are going back to Caerlaverock to gather more and better data.

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The Weathering Extremes project will look in more detail at the impacts these storm surges had on the old castle at Caerlaverock, the landscape, and its people. This castle was constructed around 1229, 800 years ago. Then, the castle was on the coast and had a harbour, and it had an important role in protecting Scotland from Edward I and guarding the entrance to the River Nith and Dumfries.  But in 1300, when Edward I invaded southern Scotland, he famously laid siege to a new stone-built castle, a couple of hundred metres inland and five metres or so higher. This is the castle that thousands of visitors see every year, one of Historic Environment Scotland’s most impressive and most-visited properties. As we recover from Covid-19, Historic Environment Scotland wants to enhance the visitor experience. This means learning more.

Alan Sorrell, Caerlaverock Castle in the 15th century, 1959 © Crown Copyright HES.

Today, the old castle, tucked at the bottom of the hill, is in an uninviting, ill-drained wetland. It was probably like this in 1220. The moat, earthworks, and ditches surrounding it all filled with freshwater peat. But suddenly, the peat-filled ditches were invaded by silt and clay. Analyses of microscopic organisms called diatoms, which are marine or freshwater algae, showed that the silt and clay was marine, coming inland from the coast, probably through the harbour. Huge storms seem to have repeatedly hit the coast, and large curved storm-ridges of gravel were piled up. Some gravel came from the west side of the Nith estuary, driven across by storms. New LiDAR imagery has detected at least seven ridges, each twenty to thirty metres wide and tens of metres long. When the storms ceased, the old castle ended up some 400 metres distant from the coast. This provides new evidence which wasn’t available when the old castle was last excavated two decades ago, and when combined with this new fieldwork we will know so much more about the chronology and impact of climatic events at Caerlaverock.

Aerial plan of Caerlaverock old and new

In 2004 the above features were dated by radiocarbon, but new techniques now allow radiocarbon dating to be much more precise. So, this year, Dr Richard Tipping and Dr Eileen Tisdall, environmental scientists at the University of Stirling, will go back to what they studied in 2004. They will study the sediments more closely and collect more and better samples, to trace the environmental legacy of the medieval storms. There is much we do not yet know. When did the storms first hit the coast and why did they begin? Had the builders already experienced the earliest of these but carried on building regardless, driven by military concerns, or did the climate change only after the old castle was completed? How long did the period of storm surges last – decades or centuries? How powerful were they? How far inland did they penetrate? The north Solway shore is low-lying, and floods could have extended for kilometres inland, as we know some did later in the ‘little ice age’. Do these past impacts have meaning for what is to come in the 21st century?

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In this initial stage of the project, Dr Tipping will establish a series of transects across the site and will then extract cores and samples for sediment description and stratigraphic analysis. Cores taken from the inter ridge basins will be used to locate in situ plant remains. More fieldwork will take place in the summer with Dr Tisdall and Dr Tim Kinnaird when further cores will be taken from the harbour and the outer moat of the old castle. Selected samples will later be subjected to radiocarbon dating and pollen and diatom analysis. Samples from the harbour will be optically stimulated luminescence dated by measuring the level of ionising radiation stored within the sands from exposure to light. From this we can calculate the last time the mineral was exposed to light, therefore finding out the dates of the sand deposits and the final period of the harbour’s use. We hope to have the first laboratory results later in 2021, with the final results due in spring 2022.

This fieldwork will enable us to better understand the use of the wider landscape at Caerlaverock, including medieval responses to climate change events and access to the coast for travel and trade. It will also tell us more about the medieval people who built the two castles, their experiences, and their motivations in locating the castles where they did.

Before visiting Caerlaverock Castle please check the website to see if it is open and to book a time to enter: https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/caerlaverock-castle/

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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

Understanding More About a C14 Nottinghamshire Mystery – Greasley Castle

Back in January 2021 Triskele Heritage were successful in a funding bid to the Castle Studies Trust for carrying out a research project at Greasley Castle in Nottinghamshire. Here James Wright of Triskele Heritage explains what they hope to achieve with this project.

The work will focus on the production of an interpretative phased floor plan. The castle, built in the 1340s, has an obscure history and the understanding of its architectural phasing is at best very cloudy. The site is now a working farm and a number of post-mediaeval structures have been conglomerated around the remains of what is suspected to be a fourteenth century courtyard house with projecting corner towers.

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The survey will act as baseline research data for a site which has not previously received serious fieldwork or publication. It will also provide a basis for further research and future conservation needs.

Work on the project will start in April 2021 and will be carried out by James Wright FSA alongside Dr Matt Beresford. We are supported in this endeavour by the landowners and Sarah Seaton of the Greasley Castle and Manor Farm History Project.

Greasley survey in action – photogrammetry

Project Background

Greasley Castle was developed for Nicholas, 3rd Baron Cantelupe (c 1301-55) after being granted a licence to crenellate by Edward III in 1340 (Davis 2006-07, 239). He was a significant figure who fought for the king in France and Scotland, served in parliament, founded Beauvale Priory and established a chantry at Lincoln Cathedral (Green 1934). Later owners of the site included John Lord Zouche – one of the few aristocrats proven to have fought for Richard III at Bosworth (Skidmore 2013, 330). After Zouche’s attainder, the castle was given to Sir John Savage in recognition for his military support of Henry VII in 1485 and remained in the family after his death at the siege of Boulogne (Green 1934).

The site is now a working farm and comprises two grade II listed buildings (NHL 1247955 and 1248033) overlying a scheduled ancient monument (NHL 1020943). The buildings sit along the northern perimeter of a 5.18 hectare earthwork enclosure and comprise a multi-phased U-shaped group of structures with an adjacent farmhouse to the north-west. The layout of the site is not well understood, but very limited prior research indicates the potential for a courtyard house with projecting corner towers.

The most substantive work on site took place in 1933 and comprised just two days of rather inadequate and poorly reported archaeological evaluation (Green 1934, 34-53). During the mid-2000s the wider landscape of the site was considered by the East Midlands Earthwork Project (Speight 2006). Greasley is routinely mentioned in surveys of castles stretching as far back as the antiquarian Throsby (1797, 239-42) and the early castle scholar Mackenzie (1896, 448-49). Although these initial commentators were of the opinion that little or nothing remained of the mediaeval castle, twentieth century authors, including Pevsner (1951, 76), his later editors (Pevsner & Williamson 1979, 135), Sarah Speight (1995, 70-71) and Oliver Creighton (1998, 479), noted in situ structures. In the twenty-first century a number of writers have pointed towards the tremendous archaeological potential of the surviving mediaeval architectural features (Emery 2000, 327; Salter 2002, 85; Wright 2008, 49-50, 65; Osbourne, 2014, 39).

Greasley survey in action: measuring

Crucially, the potential of the site has never been realised. Green (1934) noted that ‘it is not possible to be definite’ about the ground plan of the castle; a point later confirmed by Creighton (1998, 479): ‘the deficiency of the field evidence renders the exact nature and extent… obscure.’ The confusion surrounding the floor plan of the castle has been created by an overall lack of fieldwork and publication on the site. The paucity of research has led to a number of conflicting statements regarding the buildings archaeology. For example, the National Heritage List notes that the farmhouse was built c 1800 and has later nineteenth century elements (NHL 1247955); however, the most recent Pevsner edition notes that it is a seventeenth and eighteenth century building ‘with earlier origins’ (Hartwell, Pevsner & Williamson 2020, 240).

The proposed project to accurately map, assess and date the overall floor plan of the structures at Greasley Castle is long overdue and such building recording of manorial centres is specifically called for by the East Midlands research agenda (Knight, Vyner & Allen 2012, 94).

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Feature image copyright Neil Gabriel

References

Reconstructing Holt Castle, Denbighshire

Little physically now remains of Holt Castle, however, one of the first projects the Castle Studies Trust was for leading buildings reconstruction artist Chris Jones-Jenkins and the late and much missed Dr Rick Turner to digitally reconstruct the castle using a mixture of historical sources and recent archaeological excavations to bring the castle back to life with a series of images and a video fly through. Here, in a piece first published in History Extra in 2015 explains how it was done.

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History:

To secure his conquest of north-east Wales, Edward I created five new Marcher lordships in 1282, and gave them as reward to his political allies and close friends in recognition of their loyal service. The lordship of Bromfield and Yale was granted to John de Warenne, sixth earl of Surrey (1231-1304). It is not known when he started building Castrum Leonis or ‘Chastellion’ as Holt Castle was known in the Middle Ages. The castle is first referred to in 1311 some years after it was probably completed. Warenne’s master mason chose an open and relatively flat site above the west bank of the River Dee, close to one of the ferry crossings into Cheshire. This allowed him to create a symmetrical pentagonal castle with a tall round tower at each corner, and the main rooms ranged around an inner courtyard. There were up to three storeys raised above the original ground level, with the moat and up to additional three basement levels cut down into the sandstone bedrock. It was a revolutionary design and was one of a group of similar architectural experiments being undertaken by the other new Marcher Lords at castles such as Denbigh, Ruthin and Chirk. At all these sites geometrical complexity, architectural grandeur and the provision of well-appointed accommodation seemed to be more important than their defensive capabilities.

Holt Castle as it was in its pomp courtesy of Chris Jones Jenkins

            The sixth earl was succeeded by his grandson John, the seventh earl of Surrey (1286-1347). Described by Alison Weir as ‘a nasty, brutal man with scarcely one redeemable quality’, he was involved with the political upheavals of Edward II’s reign, including the loss of Holt Castle for a time to Thomas, earl of Lancaster. This John died without a legitimate heir, and Edward III intervened to settle his estates upon Richard FitzAlan, third earl of Arundel (c.1313-1376). His son, Richard the fourth earl (1346-1397) was one of the ‘Lords Appellant’, who had curbed Richard II’s powers and had the king’s closest allies executed or exiled during the ‘Merciless Parliament’ of 1388. It took nine years before the king was able to wreak his revenge on these powerful men. Arundel was brought to trial for treason at Westminster on 21 September 1397, and was convicted and beheaded on the same day. Richard II seized his estates and incorporated Bromfield and Yale into his new principality of Cheshire, with Holt Castle as its main stronghold. Building work was commissioned in 1398, which saw the Chapel Tower extended and included a water-gate, called ‘Pottrell’s Pit’ in later documents, linked to the river. Over the next year more than £40,000 in coin, jewellery, gold and silver plate was transferred from the royal treasury in London to Holt for safe keeping. When Henry Bolingbroke – later Henry IV – returned to England in 1399, he shadowed Richard II up the Welsh Marches and was quick to recapture Holt Castle. Despite being defended by 100 men-at-arms and being well provisioned, Henry’s men, including the French chronicler Jean Creton, were able to enter through the new water-gate and ascend ‘on foot, step by step’, to take the castle unopposed and so recover this vast proportion of the king’s disposable wealth.

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            Over the next 139 years, three more owners or stewards of the lordship of Bromfield and Yale were to be executed for treason. The first was Henry Stafford, second duke of Buckingham (1455-83). A year after his death, Sir William Stanley (c.1435-1495) acquired the lordship from Richard III. Despite his role at the Battle of Bosworth which brought his relative Henry VII to the throne, he was implicated in the Perkin Warbeck affair and was executed in 1495 after which Holt Castle reverted to the Crown. The last of this group was William Brereton (c.1487×90-1536) who was appointed steward of the castle where he held ‘great porte and solemnities’, before he was convicted of adultery with Anne Boleyn and beheaded.

            Holt Castle remained the property of the Crown and was to form part of the estates of the Princes of Wales. It was held for the king during the Civil War and in the 1670s, the buildings were sold off to Sir Thomas Grosvenor, who systematically dismantled nearly all the fabric and transported it to help in the building of his Eaton Hall, a few miles south of Chester. This has left us with the stump of rock and walling which survives today.

Reconstructing the Castle:

Two attempts have been made to understand the original the former appearance of Holt Castle: by Alfred Palmer in 1907 and Lawrence Butler in 1987. They had access to plans and views of the castle drawn in 1562 and 1620. The problem they faced was that these two sets of drawings are contradictory and they were hard to relate to what survived. Since 1987, new evidence has been made available:

  1. Documentary evidence for Richard II’s building work.
  2. The publication of a transcript of the Holt Castle inventory taken after Sir William Stanley’s arrest in 1495.
  3. The discovery of a new early-seventeenth century plan of the castle in the National Library of Wales.
  4. A programme of masonry consolidation, archaeological excavation and survey led by Steve Grenter, Wrexham County Borough Council, in partnership with the Holt Local History Society.

This new work prompted me to undertake another attempt to reconstruct Holt Castle. With the help of a grant from the Castle Studies Trust, I was able to commission the well-known castle reconstruction artist, Chris Jones-Jenkins, to develop a 3D digital model which was flexible enough to capture and assimilate the new data and modify the structure as new insights were gained.

The challenge has been to weigh each source of evidence and identify which strands should have precedence when contradictions emerge. A hierarchy was developed:

  1. The visible masonry of the castle and the modern topographical survey of the site provided the primary terrain model on which the remainder of the castle was constructed.
  2. The archaeological evidence for the rock-cut footings, the bases of three of the towers and the line of the channel leading into the water-gate provided other fixed points in the model.
  3. By considering the content and the potential reasons for the drawing of the three, early-modern ground plans and the two associated views, that of 1562 was assessed to be the most reliable for the details that it showed, the early seventeenth century plan for its dimensions, and those by John Norden of 1620 to be the most inaccurate, despite them being the ones most frequently published.
  4. The list of rooms and the route followed by the appraisers of the 1495 inventory provides the most comprehensive source for the internal layout of the castle. However, it became clear that those rooms without contents, such as the triangular ante-rooms to the towers and the latrines, were not listed.
  5. None of the views of the castle were architecturally detailed, and none showed all of the exterior or much of the inner courtyard. This information had to be derived from surviving details from other Edwardian castles in North Wales or from work undertaken in Richard II’s reign, when considering the projection from the Chapel Tower.
Holt First floor floor plan with with watergate to the fore and great hall and stable section to the right, copyright Chris Jones-Jenkins

The development of the model became an iterative process between the historian and the artist. Different combinations of layout and floor heights were tried, building on the fixed points surviving at basement level and rising up in an effort to accommodate all the rooms. Suites of accommodation began to emerge. Sir William Stanley’s great chamber led off the high end of the hall and controlled access in one direction to his counting house and the chapel, and in the other to the Treasure House and the High Wardrobe, where all the valuables were kept. Across the courtyard his wife, Elizabeth, had her own great and bed chamber, linked to the nursery. Above her accommodation was a chamber for her gentle women, well away from the yeomen’s dormitory under the lord’s great chamber. One range was dominated by the kitchen, rising the full height of the castle, connected at basement level to a larder, pastry house, well house and a wine cellar on one side and offices for the cook and butler on the other. As was normal the constable had a suite over the inner gate, but unusually a stable for 20 horses was created in a basement below the hall with access for the animals across the moat and up a ramp into the castle.

Holt Great Hall and Stables copyright Chris Jones-Jenkins

Working on this reconstruction, our admiration only grew for the original designer. He created a symmetrical plan and external appearance but produced complex internal arrangements to meet his patron’s needs. Holt is as much a chivalric ideal as a practical castle. An animation of the reconstruction of Holt Castle has been produced by Mint Motion of Cardiff and can be viewed here:

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Feature image courtesy of Wrexham Borough Council

Unearthing past excavations of Bungay Castle

Dr Lorna-Jane Richardson, University of East Anglia/Bungay Museum, looks at the 1930s excavations of Bungay carried out by Hugh Braun and also the possibility of future work at the site.

Bungay is a small market town on the border of Norfolk and Suffolk, and sits on a meander in the River Waveney at the very edge of the Norfolk Broads National Park. The town is in a good defensive position, sat on a sand and gravel river terrace, some 10 metres above OD, with wide views across the valley and surrounded by marshland. This ‘natural fortress’ (Braun 1934) had seen earlier, perhaps early Medieval, defensive structures built, suggestive of a burh. This site was chosen for the construction of a castle firstly by one of William the Conqueror’s stewards, William de Noyers, who constructed a motte and bailey structure. The castle was bestowed on Roger Bigod, a Norman knight who was awarded estates in East Anglia and given Bungay in 1103 by King Henry I. Roger’s son, Hugh, known as Bigod the Restless, was made Earl of Norfolk in 1154, and he ordered the construction of the stone keep. The Bigods were the most powerful family in East Anglia for much of the 12th and 13th centuries. After nearly two centuries in the hands of the Bigod family, who also owned Framlingham Castle further south in Suffolk, Bungay Castle reverted to the Crown and fell into disuse. In 1312, Edward II gave the Castle to his brother, Thomas Plantagenet, and it eventually passed to the Dukes of Norfolk in 1483. However, it was recorded as being ‘ruinous’ by 1362, and over the subsequent centuries, the site was used as a source for building materials, the gatehouse was converted into a residence for an eighteenth-century novelist, and the keep was also used as a beer garden by the King’s Head Inn at least until the early 1930s.

Dr Leonard Cane directing excavations at Bungay Castle in 1934

A group of Bungay dignitaries, led by the Town Reeve and local doctor Leonard Cane, leased the site from the Duke of Norfolk, and on 19th November 1934, the excavation of the site commenced. This excavation took place under the leadership of Dr Cane and Hugh Braun, an architect from London who had worked in Iraq with the Chicago University Expedition at the site of Nineveh. The excavation provided work for unemployed war veterans and interestingly, engaged the services of a local water diviner, one Mr John Davey who can be seen in Fig 2, to locate water and gold during the excavations. Further research is underway in an attempt to discover more about these veterans, and the role played by Mr Davey and his water-magic.

The excavations initially concentrated on the area between the keep ruins and the gatehouse, and around the keep itself, revealing buried walls which “would show the castle rising some twenty feet higher than before the excavation commenced” (Braun 1991, 23). The drawbridge pit was excavated, and the west wall of the keep was exposed, but other areas of the gatehouse and keep were left intact, after the excavation ran out of funds. Some of these areas were, according to Braun’s report, tidied and returfed ready for further exploration at a later date. These areas remain untouched, and no further excavations in the area of the gatehouse or keep have taken place since 1934. The excavations were subsequently published in the Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History in 1934, 1935 and 1936. There have been no further major archaeological excavations, although some unpublished monitoring work took place in 2001, 2006 and 2008 according to the HER, and geophysical work took place at the Castle in 1990 (Gaffney & Gater) and 2017 (Schofield). In 2017, what is now Cotswold Archaeology Suffolk undertook a detailed geophysical survey of the area of the inner bailey, which demonstrated very high potential for archaeological material and structural remains. These include evidence for buildings, a potential well, and a variety of pits some of which feature ferrous debris. Bungay Castle holds much potential for further archaeological work.

Map of the Castle Motte (Braun)

These photographs are from the Braun/ Cane excavations at Bungay Castle and are dated to 1935. They are part of the Bungay Museum collection, and there are around 40 images which feature the excavations, the people involved, and a variety local dignitaries and visitors to the site. In January 2021, I became curator of Bungay Museum, which was originally established in 1968 by Dr Leonard Cane’s son, Dr Hugh Cane. As part of this role, I plan to undertake further research into the contents of the museum collection, local contemporary news articles about the excavations, as well as Ministry of Works documents held at Kew, in order to develop new displays about the site and Bungay’s very own version of ‘The Dig’. Basil Brown himself would have certainly visited the excavations, as he lists the site in his notebooks, and he lived relatively locally. I hope my research will reveal more information about the names and lives of the veterans who dug the site, how the excavation was managed and run, more about the archaeological finds, and the mysterious role of water divination in the process. There are many interesting stories waiting to be told about the original excavations at Bungay Castle, and many more are waiting in the wealth of archaeology that remains in the ground.

1935 excavations in the Castle Keep

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Feature image: Bungay Castle copyright Andrew Atterwill

References

Braun, H. (1934). “Some notes on Bungay Castle”. Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and Natural History XXII.1, pp. 109–119.

— (1935). “Bungay Castle, report on the excavations”. Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and Natural History XXII.2, pp. 201–223.

Braun, H. and G. Dunning (1936). “Bungay Castle: Notes on 1936 excavations and on pot- tery from the mortar layer”. Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and Natural History XXII.3, pp. 334–338.

Gaffney, C., and Gater, J. (1990). Report on Geophysical Survey, Bungay Castle. Geophysical Surveys Bradford, Report 90/60.

Schofield, T. (2017) Bungay Castle, Bungay, Suffolk BUN 004 Geophysical Survey Report. Suffolk Archaeology Community Interest Company Report No. 2017/078.

Haverfordwest’s town wall revealed?

Neil Ludlow and Phil Poucher of DAT look at the results of the investigation at Haverfordwest Castle by Dyfed Archaeological Trust (DAT), as part of a major infrastructure scheme embracing the castle and its setting, has revealed what may be part of the medieval town wall, long thought to have been entirely destroyed.

The remains of the castle still dominate views of the town, particularly from the main eastern approach, crowning a steep bluff overlooking the Western Cleddau river. Founded around 1110 by one Tancard, a Flemish colonist, the castle appears to have begun as a partial ringwork and bailey, perhaps adapted from an Iron Age hillfort. Fortification in stone began under Tancard’s grandson Robert FitzRichard, a decade or so either side of 1200, with the erection of a subrectangular donjon; a curtain wall with at least one round mural tower was later added, possibly by the younger Marshal earls of Pembroke between 1219 and 1245. The castle was transformed into a palatial residence with the addition of an integrated suite of apartments of the highest quality, including hall and chamber-block ranges, and a terraced garden enclosure; they are traditionally attributed to Edward I’s queen Eleanor of Castile who received the castle and lordship two years before her death in 1290. The outer ward was also walled in stone, probably during the early fourteenth century. Although it played no part in the second Civil War of 1648, the castle was partially slighted on Cromwell’s orders and was subsequently used as a gaol, which closed in 1878.

Open to the public since 1970, and housing the town’s museum and County Record Office – but still perhaps an under-valued asset – the castle is now the subject of an enhancement programme to improve access, carry out essential repairs and redevelop the museum. The scheme extends to the castle’s setting, with improved landscaping and restoration of the surrounding burgage-plot boundaries. Preliminary archaeological work includes geophysical survey and test-pit recording.

Figure 1: The walling and archway from northeast. The castle donjon is at far left.

Investigating the castle exterior in early 2021, at the summit of the steep bluff, Andy Shobbrook of DAT came upon a stretch of walling that appears to have evaded previous investigations. Now of no great height, but probably truncated, it is pierced by a wide segmental arch of convincingly medieval form (Fig. 1). Although absent from published plans and descriptions of the castle, it is shown on the large-scale 1:500 map of the town produced by the Ordnance Survey in 1889, on which it is labelled ‘Arch’ in the Gothic script reserved for antiquities (Fig. 3). It lies just within the scheduled area of the castle, corresponding with its boundary, and appears to be in a stable condition.

Figure 2: Plan showing the conjectured layout of Haverfordwest in c.1300

The walling may be part of the medieval town wall rather than the castle defences. The town of Haverfordwest, which is notable for its three medieval parish churches – unique in Wales – was founded soon after the castle and by the close of the Middle Ages had become the de facto county town of Pembrokeshire. Defended by an earthen bank and ditch from an early period, probably before 1200, it was walled in stone after the issue of a murage grant in 1264. The defended area was relatively small, immediately next to the castle and always known as the ‘Castleton’ – while the extensive suburb around the extra-mural marketplace to the south received fortified gateways, they were never connected by any solid barrier (Fig. 2). The town wall had largely disappeared by 1700 and, while the gatehouses survived rather longer, the last were removed at the end of the eighteenth century.

Figure 3: An extract of the Ordnance Survey 1:500 map of Haverfordwest, of 1889,
showing the castle and walling (labelled ‘Arch’).

Vestiges of the wall were apparently still detectable in 1900 but all traces were thought to have been lost soon afterwards. Stretches of its former line are marked by property boundaries but its entire course is not precisely known, nor the points at which it connected to the castle defences. The walling discovered in 2021 butts against the donjon at the northeast corner of the castle inner ward, and runs northwest for 5 metres before petering out. The remains of a return at its northwest end correspond with a 90° turn shown on the 1889 map, on which it is shown to then run north-eastwards before turning west to continue along the outer edge of the castle’s northern ditch. But the medieval wall must have deviated from this line at some point, to run northwards to the eastern town gate. The arch is 3 metres wide but was probably always too low – and perhaps too wide – to represent an entry. Its function may simply have been to drain the area immediately to the west, which slopes steeply downhill towards the east and seems to have been a continuation of the castle ditch where it ran out at the crest of the bluff (Fig. 3). Two phases of work within the arch are possible, suggesting it was modified and perhaps narrowed at some point.

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Dún an Óir Castle: an uncertain future

Dr Sarah Kerr of Trinity College Dublin discusses the ongoing project to look at the impact of climate change on castles with a focus on the ones in West Cork, as they are battered by Atlantic storms.

Over the past two years, two small grants (Research Incentive Scheme, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland; and Higher Education Innovation Fund, UK) has funded research into the impact of climate change on built heritages, and the identification of those most vulnerable, particularly in West Cork, in the south-west of Ireland. Dún an Óir is one such castle at risk, on the edge of Ireland, on the brink of the West Cork cliffs and at the mercy of the increasingly frequent Atlantic storms and high winds.

Dún an Óir is a castle at risk, on the edge of Ireland, on the brink of the West Cork cliffs and at the mercy of the increasingly frequent Atlantic storms and high winds. Dún an Óir is an Irish tower house, a type of stone-built castle, smaller than the sprawling castles built by the Anglo-Normans, such as Trim, County Meath and, indeed, serving a different purpose. The relative small size of tower houses placed their construction within the financial reach of lords, emerging gentry and merchants in both rural and urban areas. Tower house construction commenced on the island of Ireland (Ireland hereafter) in the mid-fourteenth century and flourished in the fifteenth and sixteenth, construction ceasing by 1650. Their abundance led Terry Barry to state that Ireland was ‘the most castellated country in Europe in the late middle ages’ (Barry 2008, 129) or at least ‘one of the most castellated parts’ of the Irish and British Isles (Cairns 1987, 31; O’Connor 1998, 25). If so, then Munster in the south-west of Ireland was a focal point of this activity. The West Cork area in the south-western extent of Munster contains 47-known tower houses, many concentrated along the jagged and island-dotted Atlantic coast. The West Cork tower houses are of particular interest as they are the only castle type remaining in the region; plus, contemporary written evidence allows the majority to be ascribed to a certain clan.

Dún an Óir (Doonanore when anglicised) is located on the island Oileán Chléire (Clear Island), approximately 13km from the Irish mainland. It was built by the O’Driscoll clan in the mid-sixteenth on a coastal promontory (Figure 1). Located on the coast, along with several other known O’Driscoll tower houses, its occupants could oversee the movement of goods through Roaringwater Bay as well as charge passing vessels for anchorage, victualing and exploitation of the waters (Figure1). 

This once strategic position is Dún an Óir’s Achilles heel. The building and its immediate landscape are precarious, unconsolidated and unprotected (Figure 1). Exposed on a partially collapsed promontory, its long-term survival is unlikely and our time to understand it short.

Figure 1: Photograph looking north across Roaringwater Bay towards the Atlantic showing Dún an Óir on a rocky promontory.

Dún an Óir comprised four-storeys rising from a rectangular ground-plan. Access was through the south wall, although the east wall faced the neck of the promontory (where it connected to the remainder of the island). Much of the south wall has collapsed yet a garderobe tower remains to the east of the door (Figure 2). Above the doorway a mural staircase (built within the thickness of the wall) can be seen leading to at least the first and second floors. There is a vaulted ceiling between the second and third floors in the form of three pointed arches separated from one another by overlapping slabs.

Figure 2: Dún an Óir tower house, from the southeast, showing the mural staircase extending upwards along the south wall (with thanks to Finola Finlay and Robert Harris for the photograph).

A significant and surviving feature of Dún an Óir is its bawn (curtain wall): a stone wall which in this case abuts the tower house (rather than surrounding it) and stretches west to enclose the remainder of the promontory (Figure 3). Vicky McAlister’s recent book on tower houses indicates that the survival rate of bawns is low compared to the tower houses themselves (McAlister 2019, 22), recalling earlier suggestions that the current 1 in 5 survival rate may be representative of their former inclusion. Dún an Óir is a relatively rare example of preserved ancillary buildings within the bawn. Although they remain only as overgrown footings, there appears to be a kitchen with oven, and two more apparently feature-less buildings that appear to be contemporaneous with the bawn wall (Figure 3).

Figure 3: A simple plan of Dún an Oir tower house, bawn, and ancilliary buildings. The proximity tit he promontory edge is clear.

Dún an Oir’s bawn reaches to the edge of promontory, almost certainly to be further damaged or lost in this lifetime. With this seemingly fixed future, the onus shifts to the researching community in the present to document what we can: this is discussed further in a recent paper on the castle (Kerr 2019). The erosion to the promontory renders further buildings survey, as well as geophysical survey or excavation, no longer safe. Therefore, the next steps of fieldwork may include airborne LiDAR. Greater exploitation of innovative surveying methods may overcome the difficulties posed by the physical landscape and allow the tower house, bawn and ancillary buildings to be understood to a greater depth before the inevitable happens.

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Barry, T. 2008. The study of medieval Irish castle: a bibliographic survey. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature 108(C), 115–36.

Cairns, C. 1987. Irish tower houses: a Co. Tipperary case study, Group for the Study of Irish Historic Settlement.

Kerr, S. 2019. Reconnecting Cultural Landscapes: Dún an Óir, West Cork, Ireland, Landscapes, 20:2, 160-177, DOI: 10.1080/14662035.2020.1861725

McAlister, V. 2019. The Irish tower house, Manchester University Press.

O’Conor, K. 1998. The archaeology of medieval rural Settlement in Ireland, Discovery Programme Monographs.