What is on top of Shrewsbury’s Motte?

Dr Nigel Baker, Excavation Director of the Shrewsbury Castle Excavation 2022 outlines what he hopes him and his team hope to find over the next two weeks with the main focus on the previously unexplored motte.

A third season of excavation funded by the Castle Studies Trust is about to begin at Shrewsbury Castle. In 2019 a trench was excavated across the interior of the inner bailey and in 2020 an inner bailey rampart was sampled. Attention has now turned to the top of the motte, and to the north curtain wall. The excavations, the first ever to take place at the castle are carried out by a team of local archaeological volunteers under the direction of Dr Nigel Baker and David (Dai) Williams together with students of University Centre Shrewsbury (University of Chester) led by Dr Morn Capper.

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The motte top excavation will establish just how much damage Thomas Telford did to the medieval motte when he was modernising the hall and landscaping the castle in 1786-1790. Ruins on the motte top were cleared to make way for a Gothic summerhouse known as Laura’s Tower, with a garden laid out around it. The team will be looking in particular for surviving evidence of the Tower of Shrewsbury, the timber watch-tower, assumed to be of 11th-century origin, that is known to have collapsed in 1269-71.

Vertical view of Shrewsbury Castle Motte (copyright James Brennan Associates)

The irregular plan of the motte top seen in the drone photo (undertaken by James Brennan Associates for the current conservation management plan for Shropshire Council, the site owner) arises from a number of factors. Originally probably oval, the straight line across the bottom of the picture is a pale sandstone wall with red sandstone stripes built, probably by Edward I’s masons, across the damaged side of the motte after a landslip into the river below in the 13th century. Laura’s Tower occupies the bottom left corner, set off-centre on the base of a 13th-century tower demolished by Telford. The lobed shape of the motte on the left of the photo results from at least two phases of medieval building incorporated in the retaining walls: an angled structure with a high chamfered plinth and recessed masonry panels, superimposed over a projecting curving rubble footing. These remains were seen and recorded for the first time this year as part of the ongoing CMP work.

A second trench is to be opened on the north curtain wall. A long stretch of this wall is unusually consistent in its fabric, with small, squared rubble and two offset courses. 18th-century illustrations show however that a projecting bastion formerly stood in this area, of which no trace can be seen in the standing masonry. The suspicion is that a major part of the wall here has been rebuilt, and the trench is designed to explore this question – and to establish the nature of the surrounding stratigraphy.

Part of the north curtain wall of Shrewsbury Castle. The even coursing apparent over this long stretch of masonry is at odds with the complex fabric visible elsewhere in the wall and with 18th and early 19th-century illustrations showing a projecting bastion in this area. Excavation will seek to confirm whether or not this stretch has been rebuilt, and to locate in plan the features seen in the illustrations. Copyright Nigel Baker

In addition to an introductory display to be mounted in the on-site marquee, there will be two further displays in the town running concurrently with the excavations. In Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery in the Square, Dr Capper’s team is assembling a display featuring artefacts found in the first two seasons, while in Castle Gates Library (the former Grammar School buildings) a display is in place that explores the evidence for the former castle outer bailey, within whose perimeter the library stands.

The excavations run from July 18th to 28th. Visitors are welcome every day except those when the castle is closed (Thursday 21st and Thursday 28th).

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Unravelling the past of Hoghton Tower

Steven Spencer and Elena Faraoni of the Hoghton Tower Preservation Trust, look at the results of their work, funded by the Castle Studies Trust in 2019, in trying to find out more about Hoghton Tower in Lancashire.

Hoghton Tower sits 650 ft above sea-level in the heart of the Lancashire countryside. The stories of its visitors and family members are documented and shared whether it be in books, portraits, family albums or documents in the Lancashire archives. But there is one story which has always intrigued us and that is: what was the first tower of Hoghton Tower and where was it? It is clear when looking at the building today that this, like many other historic houses, is a ‘patchwork’ of different projects by different generations interlaced and blended…but where did Hoghton Tower start? Where was the original tower?

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 There are some clues: the ageing of the stone, the position of the well house, family stories passed down the generations, the shape of the windows and a mysterious mound of stones on the north side of the buildings. One of these stones has an intriguing mason’s mark… Spurred on by the interest of a group of our amazing volunteers who had just finished some research into historic graffiti and masons’ marks it was time to do some investigation under the guidance of Dr Mike Nevell and his team at Salford University. We designed a research project based on archaeological digs, building recording, geophysics and archives research based on the key exam question “where was the great keep of the Hoghton Tower hill?”

North side of Hoghton Tower (copyright Hoghton Preservation Trust)

 Thanks to the grant from the Castle Studies Trust, work quickly got underway. Through a series of Salford-led workshops, the team surveyed, recorded and reviewed old photographs and pictures.

Then there was the wonderful five-day archaeological dig.

As they passed through the perimeter fencing on to the dig site, the usually mild-mannered volunteers underwent personality transformations as pairs of friends and even married couples were ‘pitted’ against one another. Was this the site of a 14th century Pele Tower, a 1643 victim of the First Civil War, who would make the crucial find?

Under the patient guidance and control of the Salford team, the test pits were marked out and the excavations began, to many this was the chance of a lifetime and was eagerly embraced. Each find was announced with enthusiastic shouting from the discoverer and muted derision from those yet to make a meaningful contribution.

Hoghton Tower Gatehouse from inside the courtyard (copyright Hoghton Tower Preservation Trust)

As the week progressed, 14th to 19th century finds were unearthed, thankfully shared out between the eight test pits. Clay pipe bowls (1640 to 1680), a musket ball, heat affected glass, sherds of medieval pottery and fragments of medieval roof tiles. Below a stone rubble layer, evidence of a stone-built structure was revealed in the form of large dressed stone blocks, together with walls and a stone flagged floor.

Spurred on by the whole experience, and encouraged by the de Hoghton family, the volunteers have produced and presented an ‘Outdoor History’ tour which aims to share the latest thoughts and discoveries. 

Was this the site of the Hoghton Tower? Did we find anything categorical? Well yes and no. The archaeology revealed previously unrecorded stone structures. These together with the artefactual evidence were able to confirm that this part of the hilltop was occupied during the late medieval/early post-medieval periods. The geophysics also gave us other areas that warrant more digging and researching. So, some confirmation but also a lot more to understand and discover on this windswept hill!

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Featured image of Hoghton Tower, copyright Hoghton Tower Preservation Trust