Eleanor of Aquitaine’s impact on English Castles

Sara Cockerill, author of the recently published biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, looks at her role in English castle development.

One of the areas which has stayed slightly “off-camera” as I have written about Eleanor is the question of her relationships with the castles of her era. The headlining castles built under Henry’s aegis show no signs of Eleanor’s input. More intriguing however, is her relationship with those castles which pre-dated Henry’s reign and which found themselves in need of a bit of TLC – not necessarily from a military point of view, but in order to function as homes as well as defences. Where this sort of work is concerned there seems to be some ground for tracing a link between Eleanor’s regencies and the initiation of refurbishment programmes.

To start with the most obvious example – the Tower. On Eleanor’s first arrival in London the Tower was uninhabitable, and the royal couple had to stay instead at Bermondsey Abbey. While it is clear that Henry II put Thomas Becket in charge of refurbishing the equally run down Palace of Westminster, money does not commence to be spent on the Tower until 1166 – during Eleanor’s regency, suggesting that she had some hand in the decisions as to its refurbishment. Quite what these were is of course a matter of some debate, but they included as well as defensive works, quasi domestic features, such as work to the chapel and living accommodation.


Tower of London Chapel of St John, By Slowking4 – Own work, GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34675029

Another castle which came under Eleanor’s review is Berkhamsted – initially given to, and refurbished by Becket, it was transferred to Eleanor,  who held the barony as part of her dower assignment, during the course of Henry’s quarrel with Becket, with the royal family spending Christmas of 1163 there; an event which involved numerous items of plate being sent from Westminster to dress the rooms to best advantage. In the years which follow, again during Eleanor’s regency, there is regular work noted in the accounts, on the “Kings houses” there, at the granary, the bridges – and the lodgings. Her interest in the property is further evidenced by her travelling to stay there as soon as she gained a greater measure of freedom in 1184, with the advent of her daughter Matilda, then in exile from Saxony. Eleanor and Matilda’s family seem to have spent the whole summer there. And finally – work stops on the castle just at the period when Eleanor departs to her retirement in Poitou. However even in retirement her steward for the Berkhamsted estate would travel to visit her at Fontevraud….

Berkhamsted Castle bailey from the motte including remains of buildings built in Eleanor’s regency

Other places where Eleanor was particularly at home and where her interest can be traced are Old Sarum (Salisbury) and Winchester – her main locations during her captivity. But everything suggests that she was sent there not because she disliked them, but rather the reverse. Both are places she positively chose to visit on more than one occasion as regent in the 1150s and 1160s. Winchester, of course, was Henry I’s main residence, and had benefitted from a constant programme of renewals ever since. Interestingly however its domestic architecture was thoroughly overhauled from the year after Eleanor arrived in England. In 1155–6 £14 10s. 8d. was paid for making the king’s house and the next year another £14 10s. was spent for work on just one chamber in the castle. In 1170 £36 6s. was paid, and in 1173 £56 13s. 1d. was paid for work on the king’s houses at Winchester and £48 5s. for work on the castle and provisioning it. Large sums of money were, interestingly paid for the King’s chapel, in the years when Eleanor was a frequent resident there in confinement.  To this period too can be traced the first indications of development of the gardens. Old Sarum for its part had a residential area which was modern, having been built as recently as 1130 under the aegis of the then bishop. During Eleanor’s residence at Salisbury in the 1170s and early 1180s, there was consistent expenditure including £47 on the houses in the year Eleanor came to live there. That Eleanor positively liked Salisbury is shown by the fact that after her release she chose to organise the wedding of André de Chauvigny to the heiress Denise of Déols there; and Winchester too was a voluntary stop for her more then once in her later years.

Old Sarum from the west in C12, (Model: John B. Thorp. Photo: Kurt Kastner)

In a similar category is Windsor castle. Though predominantly a project of Henry’s – the defensive remodelling smacks of his planning – Eleanor spent considerable periods of time here – bearing Matilda here when the castle must have been a building site, and visiting repeatedly both as regent when she may well have had a hand in the development of the domestic buildings, which were to form a family base for her descendant Henry III’s family. Again it is a castle she seems to have positively chosen to visit with Matilda on Matilda’s return, and again following her release.

Although of course Berkhamsted has fallen into disrepair, one can perhaps therefore trace Eleanor’s hand in creating a core of castles which could double as homes, which was to influence the lives of generations to come.

Featured image: Aerial photograph of Old Sarum site, on departure from Old Sarum airfield by Mark Edwards.

Pembroke Castle keep – William Marshal’s statement in stone

Neil Ludlow, co-project lead in both the Castle Studies Trust funded 2016 geophysical survey and 2018 excavations looks at Pembroke Castle’s most iconic structure, it’s keep.

Pembroke Castle is probably best-known for its magnificent cylindrical keep, begun in 1201-2. But why was it built? And how was it used? These and other questions are being explored as part of the wider study of the castle.

Great keeps like these were bold statements of power and prestige. At Pembroke, it seems the keep was also celebratory and commemorative, marking the marriage, ennoblement and inheritance of its builder, William Marshal – and in the most conspicuous way. But it was not intended for residential use: there is neither bedchamber, latrine nor water supply. Household accommodation was instead provided by the great hall, while a chamber block served the Marshal earls on their rare visits to Pembroke.

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Use of the keep, as intended, was restricted and episodic, probably confined to the handful of occasions when the earl visited. Access was clearly limited to those above a certain rank – for instance, there is only one spiral stair and no separate stair for lower ranks. And the interior had to be crossed to get to the stair, showing that its use was strictly controlled.

Pembroke Castle keep section drawing. Copyright Neil Ludlow

The main chamber lay on the second floor, which has a high-quality window and a fireplace. It may have been intended as an audience or reception chamber, and a setting for formal and ceremonial occasions. It has been suggested that its external doorway was served by an external bridge and stair from the curtain wall, but such an arrangement is inconsistent with the remains. The doorway may instead have led onto an appearance balcony, visible from the town before the outer bailey was added and allowing the earls to be seen by their subjects. Similar balconies existed at King Henry II’s round keeps in France.

Pembroke keep second floor door. Copyright Neil Ludlow

The first floor, at entrance level, may have been an anteroom or ‘waiting area’ for the second floor. It too has a fireplace. The uppermost chamber lies beneath the unique, masonry dome. It lacks a fireplace, suggesting events here were of short duration. Nevertheless, it is lit by a second elaborate window, while a decorative painted scene can perhaps be envisaged on the underside of the dome. It may have been a ‘prospect chamber’ for entertaining special guests. Other openings, at all levels, are very narrow slits which are too small, too narrow and too high up to have been used by archers, and were probably for light and ventilation only.

At summit level, at least one major change in design occurred during construction, which culminated with the crenellated parapet and concentric inner wall that now crown the keep. As originally built, the dome seems to have been circled by a wide, slate-lined drainage channel. The slates are fossilised, as a series of crests and troughs, within the concentric inner wall and seem to have been truncated when the present wall-walk was established. It is not known whether they were contemporary with the overhanging timber hourd, the sockets for which can be seen beneath the present parapet, but it is difficult to envisage how the two could have worked together.

Pembroke Castle keep from southeast (photo: Adam Stanford @ Aerial-Cam)

Hourds like this are now thought to have often been leisure-related rather than military,providing a viewpoint from which a lord’s estates could be shown off to his important guests. At any rate, this overall scheme was replaced, possibly before it was complete, by the present parapet, wall-walk and concentric inner wall. Another slate channel, within the latter, runs around the haunches of the dome and is of very similar design to the earlier drain. These substantial drainage arrangements may indicate that the dome was not roofed, perhaps instead being finished with slates like the domes of some later medieval church towers in south Pembrokeshire.

Much later alterations at summit level included the insertion of a floor beneath the dome – creating an attic space which was accessed from the wall-walk through a secondary doorway, and lit by crudely-inserted window – showing how the keep’s role changed through time, with loss of its original prestige. And much of the dome’s facework was robbed, perhaps to make the central ‘turret’ that now occupies the summit. Part of the second drainage channel was removed in order to create access to this turret, confirming that it is a later addition, but it was present by c.1600 when it was shown in a sketch of the castle.

Either one of these summit alterations may be contemporary with the partition in the body of the keep, the chase (or scar) for which survives in the internal plaster. The plaster contains coal fragments; a corresponding absence of charcoal suggests that the present finish may itself be late, but also means that it cannot be radiocarbon-dated.

Pembroke Castle keep from north (feature photo) Adam Stanford @ Aerial-Cam

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Hornby Castle Project – from Pre-Conquest to War of the Roses and beyond

Castle Studies Trust’s expert grant assessor Erik Matthews reveals the findings of the 10 years (and counting) excavation he has been directing of Hornby Castle in Wensleydale North Yorkshire.

  A programme of archaeological fieldwork involving excavation with some building recording has been in progress since 2010 with the new season due to commence as soon as conditions will allow. It has focussed on the site of a moated hunting lodge of the Dukes of Brittany referred to in a Charter dated to 1115. It was subsequently used as a “pleasaunce” for first the Nevilles of Redbourne in Lincolnshire and later the Conyers  before its destruction in a military attack at the end of the Wars of the Roses.

Pre-conquest origins

  Recent work has focussed on the kitchen where oven structures have been recovered with traces of a wooden tank for holding live fish prior to their cooking. A stone sink with a wooden drain leading into the moat to the north has been found with a cherry stone recovered from it. There was also traces of a fireplace which collapsed with the remainder of the building sending a plume of ash into the room. Following the discovery of residual artefacts of Pre-Conquest date from the kitchen floor including a carved walrus ivory handle, a sherd of Pre Conquest glazed pottery made in Northern Germany and piece of  fine worked bone casket, it was decided to section the floor to find evidence of an earlier structure beneath. Evidence of a wooden floored, stave walled structure was found which may be associated with the immediate Pre-Conquest tenant Arnekill who was of noble birth and related to the Earls of Northumbria.

   Examination of the remains of the kitchen front wall yielded evidence of the ferocity of the destruction of the complex with the recovery of a large stone cannon ball (below)from a heavy calibre cannon which had become embedded in it. Close by a carved Nidderdale marble capital was found which has been dated to the 12th Century and which may have come from a chapel in nearby.

Stone canon ball found in the kitchen front wall (copyright Erik Matthews)

The Great Tower – post medieval survival?

The 2019 season focussed on a section of the moat which located traces of a stone bridge abutment and wooden foot bridge surviving in the moat silts heading towards an earthwork in an adjacent field.  The main discovery has however been evidence of an ashlar clad stone Great Tower. Two wall foundations 2.8 metres wide sunk into a rock clad mortar embankment rising some 1.2 metres have been located to the north and west. The north wall includes the remains of a robbed out spiral stair. Internal features include an internal chamber with very thick walls which may have been a strong room, also a corridor from the floor of which an iron knife was recovered blade down! Evidence of an external doorway heading to the north towards the area of the most bank has been recovered and a small section of roofing lead together with lime slurry suggests an impressive structure. The close proximity of the foundations to the modern ground surface suggest tantalisingly that the structure may have survived as a ruin into the relatively recent past.

For more information about the excavation please contact Erik Matthews on rubyna dot matthews at btinternet dot com