Discovering Buckton Castle

It’s a great shame that there aren’t more castles around Greater Manchester. There are only ten, and most of them don’t have any above ground remains. My memories of visiting castles with my family are all from beyond Greater Manchester, going to the south where you can find Bodiam, or the north east with Dunstanburgh. To be honest, you wouldn’t plan a day out to visit Manchester Castle – mostly because it’s somewhere underneath Chetham’s School.

You might make a visit to Buckton Castle, but the recent moor fires mean it’s not a good idea right now. On a normal day, if you went up Buckton Hill it would mostly be for the view as the last remaining stones of the castle are buried. On a clear day you can see Beeston Castle in central Cheshire, or at least the hill it’s on.

The University of Manchester Archaeology Unit began digging at Buckton Castle in 2007. That summer’s season of excavations fell between the end of my A-levels and the start of my archaeology and ancient history course at Leicester. With some time on my hands and my own trowel I helped out as one of the volunteer diggers from the South Trafford Archaeology Group.

Part of what made Buckton so interesting to me as an 18-year-old was how little we knew about it. It doesn’t appear in the written record until 1360, when it was already abandoned, so we have to rely on archaeology to work out fundamental like when was the castle built and what happened there. At one point it wasn’t even clear whether it might have been an Iron Age hillfort or Roman outpost (it turned out to be neither). It was exciting to climb the hill up to the site knowing that at the end of the day we might descending with the answers. With so little known about the site, theories and ideas bounced around from trench to trench. It wasn’t quite that simple of course, and after three years of excavations there is a lot we still don’t know about Buckton, but some things stuck out. Though the castle probably wasn’t used for long, it was probably slighted and the gatehouse is one of the earliest in North West England.

Since I was involved in that first season of digging I was attached to the site. I knew a bit about it, so when I had an essay to write on castles in the first year of university I of course mentioned Buckton. I think it was about whether castles were defensive or symbolic (the answer is of course both), so I got to play out a current debate with a site I knew well. When picking a topic for my third-year dissertation I knew I wanted to research something to do with castles, and with some help from Neil Christie and Norman Redhead I settled on the gatehouses of castles in North West England. Of course Buckton featured again.

Buckton Castle

Then of course there’s slighting. I’m not sure how much Buckton being slighted led me to decide it would be a good topic to spend five years researching. It might have contributed, but my recollection is I was struck by how little discussion there was of how castles ended up as ruins. Whether that’s apocryphal or not, Buckton appeared in my thesis.

I was lucky enough to be one of three authors who wrote the book on Buckton Castle, published by the University of Salford’s Centre for Applied Archaeology who took over the dig. I’m proud of that book, but Buckton is still relatively unknown even amongst castle enthusiasts. To help with that, last year I rewrote Wikipedia’s entry on Buckton, which is read by around 300 people a month. It runs on Wikipedia’s front page on 12th July, so go ahead and check it out. You never know where an interest in castles might lead.

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Why bother with castle slighting?

Though castle slighting sounds like a pretty narrow subject, it has wide reaching implications. For the study of castles, it helps us understand how these buildings were perceived and treated and extends far beyond the countries I focused my attention on (England, Scotland, and Wales). It also sheds light on how medieval society functioned, and the role of castles within their wider setting. And just as importantly, it has implications far beyond the Middle Ages.

If you come across a slighted castle, there are two things you’ll likely find out: (1) it was probably slighted by Oliver Cromwell and (2) it was done to prevent it being garrisoned by the Royalist enemy. Number (1) has its own issues because it wasn’t just Parliament who slighted castles, that’s just what we have best contemporary documentation for. Number (2) is the simplified narrative you are likely to find around any slighted castle.

Dryslwyn Castle which was slighted by the English in the early 15th century rather than Oliver Cromwell, and may have been a physical act of closure at the end of the Glyndwr rebellion. Photo by James Stringer, licensed CC-BY-NC.

The trope that castles were slighted to prevent your enemy from using them was just one aspect of a much bigger and more complicated picture. Slighting gets to the heart of what made castles important: the combination of status symbol, social meaning, architectural symbolism, and of course military roles. There were many reasons for slighting castles, and they varied based on who was doing the damage and who the owner was – as well as where the castle was and when the slighting was taking place.

Visit one of Edward I’s castles in Wales like Caernarfon and Conwy and you will notice the vast town walls which connect to the castle. Castles and towns were closely linked, and a castle could create its own economy: the people living there would need to buy things and the lord of the castle might establish a market outside the castle so he could tax traders. If this there wasn’t a town there already, it might end up with one growing because of the castle. But what happens to a town’s economy when you remove the castle as a contributor?

In a nutshell, urban archaeology tells us it’s a complicated picture and the castle was one of many factors which could affect a town. It goes beyond economics, and locals reused building stone from a slighted castle. Once slighted, castles were sometimes repaired but when they were abandoned they became one of the best sources for good building stone in an area. That can make the archaeology of the castle complicated as you might find the initial slighting is overlain by destruction layers caused by people popping by the castle to pinch some stone for a new fireplace!

Deliberate destruction is something you find throughout history: from Ancient Egyptians and Romans chiselling away inscriptions or statues of political figures to the 2003 Iraq War when a crowd toppling down a statue of Saddam Hussein become an iconic image of his defeat. As I mentioned in the first in this series of blog posts, slighting is the process of damaging a building to remove its value. Destruction like this is meant to convey a specific meaning. Castles provide a well-researched field in which ideas and theories about destruction can be formed and tested. The approaches developed for castle slighting can be applied to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, prehistory, or even the present day.

Rievaulx Abbey was deliberately damaged after the Pilgrimage of Grace, but it’s rarely referred to as slighting because the term is typically used for fortifications. Photo by Archangel12, licensed CC-BY.

Orford and Pevensey

I’m spending 2018 helping English Heritage with their research. The chances were that if I worked on castles which were slighted, it would be via the English Civil War. It’s nice to beat the odds.

Orford is a fascinating place. The unusually shaped tower stands out more than it would have done originally since the curtain wall was gradually robbed out over the centuries. Orford itself was never slighted, unlike nearby Framlingham Castle. When Henry II founded Orford in 1165 it was his only castle in East Anglia and Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk was the most powerful person in the area.

Orford Castle

Hugh joined Henry’s sons in rebellion in 1173, and after the rebellion failed the earl’s castle at Framlingham was slighted. The work was overseen by Alnoth the Engineer who was also responsible for building Orford. To add an extra layer of intrigue, Orford Castle was built on land confiscated from Thomas Becket, but that’s another story.

In the tower there’s lovely chapel where you can see the remains of decorative plaster, a system of sinks and drains (including one in the basement with traces of red paint), and a prison which can only be accessed from a hatch in the floor of the tower’s entrance.

And then there’s Pevensey where slighting is more than just a tangent. You might recognise it from events such as the Norman Conquest. William landed at Pevensey Bay and then set up a castle in a corner of the Roman fort overlooking the bay. The outer walls are Roman with some medieval modifications, and though the castle was founded by William the Conqueror it was replaced and much of the castle we see on the east side of the fort was built in the 13th century. It was a royal castle for large stretches of its history and the episode that grabs my attention come during the reign of King John.

Pevensey Castle site in a corner of a Roman fort. The walls you can see today surrounded by a moat were built for Peter of Savoy, after King John gave orders to slight the castle in 1215. But were his orders ever followed? Photo by Vicki Burton, CC BY-SA.

In 1216 John was dealing with a rebellion; the barons objected to his rule and had invited the French prince to invade and take the throne. Having seen the French take Normandy from English rule during his reign, John was wary of an invasion and Pevensey was a likely place for the French to land. It would have been very symbolic for the French prince to land in the same place as William to Conqueror and lay claim to the kingdom. John gave orders to dismantle several royal castles along the Sussex coast, including Pevensey.

The interesting bit is it’s not really clear whether this was followed through. Of the standing ruins, the gatehouse may have been built around 1200, but aside from that the Roman walls are mostly intact and the rest of the castle is later than John’s reign. Excavations in the 1850s, 1920s, 1930s, 1960s, and 1990s haven’t found any clear evidence that the castle was slighted so it’s certainly possible that whoever was in charge of carrying out John’s orders decided to ignore them. In any case, the French prince didn’t land on the south coast but the east coast near Ely so John needn’t have bothered.

I’ve had great fun exploring the ruins of both castles and delving into their history. Another interesting aspect is that both were used as prisons. Underneath Orford’s entrance is a basement prison. It was kitted out with a latrine but that’s as far as comforts went with minimal light and no heating. It could only be accessed by a hatch in the ceiling (the floor of the entrance chamber) so was very secure.

Pevensey’s gatehouse (another fun piece of architecture with its D-shaped towers) has two rooms which could be prisons. In the north tower there is a metal grate in the floor which is the only way to access a bottle chamber. Is it an oubliette or a floor safe? The ladder would have been near vertical to access it, making life difficult for either use. Perhaps use as a dungeon is more likely, though the smell would have made the room above unpleasant to say the least.

Pevensey Castle’s gatehouse on a chilly and somewhat damp day in March

Then there’s the basement room in the south tower of the gatehouse. This is accessed by a spiral staircase and there’s a slot for a drawbar on the outside of the door. The old Ministry of Works sign describes it as a dungeon, and as a secure room it could certainly be used as such. We know that the castle was used for holding both high-status and ordinary prisoners so there may have been purpose-built rooms for securing the latter. This would fit the bill, although again there’s no form of waste disposal.

Sadly I’m not great photographer, but if you want to see some decidedly average photos of Pevensey and Orford.

Why use archaeology to understand slighting?

Archaeology and history should go hand-in-hand when trying to understand the past.

In my previous post, I mentioned that when I started researching slighting it was for my dissertation as part of a Masters in history. My undergraduate degree was in ancient history and archaeology and I swapped discipline to see how things worked on the other side of the fence. People should be both archaeologists and historians and don’t think it’s terribly helpful to have a divide between the two. That’s hardly a new or revolutionary take, but there still needs to be more cooperation between the disciplines.

In any case, having spent a year focused mainly on the documentary sources I felt that not only was there untapped potential for the topic of castle slighting but I came to the conclusion that archaeology would be absolutely integral to understanding this phenomenon.

There are a few problems with the contemporary written sources, especially as they they are almost always light on detail and though they may record orders to slight castles and don’t note whether the action was carried out.

In contrast, archaeology offers an opportunity to find out what slighting involved – were there particularly parts of a castle which were targeted, what methods were used, and what this might tell us about the motivation for demolishing a castle. It also gives us a chance to test whether individual orders to slight a castle were ever carried out and find cases of slighting which were missed from the historical  record.

Used together, archaeology and history can reinforce each other but it is important to use them critically. Degannwy was slighted by the Welsh in 1263, and excavations in the 1960s found ample evidence of destruction on the site. Even without the documented history of the site, the sheer scale of the destruction would indicate slighting – it was deliberate, and far more extensive than siege damage would be.

Degannwy Castle straddled two hills. According to written history it was slighted on a few occasions, but later use means archaeologists have only been able to identify the slighting from 1263. Photo by Kevin, CC-BY-NC.

While historical sources can provide a useful framework to relate the archaeology to, they can be too tempting at times. Weston Turville is one of 20 castles which according to contemporary records were slighted by Henry II after the rebellion of 1173–74. So when archaeologists digging there in 1985 found that the ditch around the motte had been deliberately filled in they concluded that this related to Henry II’s order. However, the pottery mixed with the ditch fill dated from the late 11th or early 12th century; this doesn’t mean it is entirely impossible that the fill was a result of Henry II’s orders, but does remind us to keep an open mind and not over-reach in an attempt to match the archaeology with the historical record. At Weston Turville, the ditch may in fact provide evidence of two separate episodes of slighting, one in the late 11th or early 12th century and one which could correspond to 1174, though the pottery recovered from higher in the ditch was harder to date.

There are still many, many sites which have yet to be excavated or where later construction has obscured evidence of slighting, like Edinburgh or Stirling, but by using archaeology complemented by the historical record I was able to build a more interesting picture than had been possible before.

What is castle slighting?

This is the first of a series of posts exploring some key aspects of castle slighting.

Last month I was examined on my thesis, the culmination of years of researching castle slighting. My student record shows that I began my PhD in 2012, but I started thinking about this subject in 2010 towards the end of my undergraduate degree. A post-graduate degree seemed like a fun next step as there were no exams and it would let me research castles even more. Before I had even been accepted onto the course I had decided the topic of my dissertation: castle slighting. One year and 20,000 words just scratched the surface, so eventually I took this topic and developed it into a PhD.

But what is slighting and why have I spent six years researching it?

In short, slighting is the process of damaging a building to remove its value. For castles, this can mean compromising its defensive, social, and administrative uses. It’s also worth thinking about what it isn’t. It’s not damage caused by a siege, or stones stripped away by robbing later on. So when King John’s men undermined a corner of Rochester Castle’s great tower, that was simply the kind of damage caused by a siege. The reason for driving the mine under the tower was to force the defenders to capitulate. When a place was slighted, the damage had a different meaning. But had John knocked down the tower after he captured the castle that would have been slighting.

There are plenty of slighted castles about the place, and some of the most striking ruins have been slighted: Kenilworth, Corfe, and Scarborough to name just three. It’s the kind of thing that grabs the imagination, but the explanation for castle slighting has usually been pretty simple. It was done to prevent an enemy from using a fortification against you. It looked to me like a potentially rich subject that would repay closer scrutiny. With plenty of rebellion and political power plays providing a backdrop for many cases of slighting, I expected it to be fun to research and to have some interesting conclusions come out of it.

Corfe Castle was slighted in the 17th century. The ruins are a lot more glamorous than most of the sites I looked at. Photo by Jim Champion.

So I began my journey into slighting combing through books, journals, and excavation reports. With archaeological interest in castles stretching back to the 19th century – with varying degrees of documentation – there is no shortage of information on the archaeology of castles. Lila Rakoczy examined slighting caused by the English Civil War, but no one had attempted to do the same for the Middle Ages.

Most castles weren’t slighted; if I had to guess, I’d say perhaps 10% met this fate so it made sense to make my study broad. I looked at the whole of the Middle Ages and England, Scotland, and Wales. If you’ve picked up a book on ‘English’ castles you’ll probably notice that it treats Wales as part of England and doesn’t mention Scotland at all. There were different circumstances in each of these countries for the building and use of castles, but I wanted to examine them altogether to see how slighting varied based on context.

The ruin of Kenilworth is one of my favourite castles, and the 17th-century slighting is such an important part of the place’s history. For most castles slighted in the Middle Ages we don’t have majestic ruins as the extra centuries of decay have reduced most sites to buried archaeology. I’m not jealous, honest, because at least I had Bothwell Castle to provide a healthy dose of style. But the architectural skeletons which still stand give an idea of how some slighted sites may have appeared centuries ago.

Get an eyeful of Bothwell Castle, isn’t it fab. Slighted in the 14th century. Photo by Robert Brown.

Archaeology has a huge amount to tell us about how, when, and even why buildings were demolished. This isn’t something restricted to castles, but can be seen throughout history.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting some more thoughts here on slighting, and guiding you through a subject which has fascinated me for years. I hope you find it interesting too!

Buildings have biographies

Every so often I check Google Scholar to see if there are new papers related to castle slighting. The term doesn’t feature very often in titles, so a good check is to see who cites existing works on the topic, which at this stage essentially means Lila Rakoczy’s work, particularly her doctoral thesis.

That’s how I came across Rachel Askew’s article in the European Journal of Archaeology, “Biography and Memory: Sandal Castle and the English Civil War“. This excellent paper discusses Sandal’s role in the conflict and concludes that it was used by Royalists because of its link to Richard III rather than because of strategic or landscape significance. The way a castle’s significance is linked to its owners – its biography as Askew puts it – comes through in the way some were slighted in the Middle Ages.

She delves into the history of the castle to explain its link to royalty, particularly Richard III’s attempted development of the site as a regional centre of administration, and how this contributed to its importance in the English Civil War beyond the (somewhat ailing) strength of its walls.

Askew makes astute use of material culture to show that habitation of the castle was significant as an affront to Parliamentarian sensibilities. Animal bones and artefactual evidence show that the Royalist garrison ate venison, usually reserved for the social elite, and conducted festivities which were likely disapproved of by Parliamentarians.

All this analysis is despite the fact a bulldozer was used to quickly remove the demolition levels in the 1960s and 1970s so that archaeologists could focus on the medieval levels. This leads Askew to an astute observation: this focus on the medieval period is often symptomatic of castle studies, whether looking at a single site or castles as a whole. Most works treat post-medieval activity in less detail. That is certainly the case in my thesis which terminates at c1500. In fairness that was strategic as Lila Rakoczy’s excellent 2007 thesis treated slighting in the English Civil War and I haven’t been able to find much evidence of slighting between then and c1500. That doesn’t entirely excuse me, and when setting out I considered exploring how castles were used after they were slighted which would somewhat have addressed this, but there was plenty of material to discuss before I ever got that far. She makes an interesting point that battlefields sometimes had religious buildings constructed afterwards. I haven’t noticed this in relation to castles slighted in the Middle Ages, but it’s a fascinating avenue of research. Was the religious building meant to memorialise or heal the conflict?

The biographical approach to understanding the castle takes into account its changing uses and how it was perceived over time. In my own research the treatment of castles is closely linked to their most recent owners, but there are some instances where the deeper biography of the place is a factor. One particularly interesting example from the Middle Ages is the destruction of Deganwy in 1263. It has a complex history, changing hands between Welsh and English and with Llywelyn the Great and Henry III both undertaking construction work there. Because of the link to Llywelyn, when the Welsh recaptured the castle in 1263 they could have left it intact. However they instead chose to almost completely level the site because it had become a symbol of English rule. Llywelyn’s role in rebuilding the castle was not forgotten, and a carved head with a crown may have been viewed as representing Llywelyn. This would explain why it was carefully buried instead of damaged like the rest of the castle. Moreover, when Edward I conquered Wales nearly 20 years later instead of rebuilding the castle which was the site of an English defeat and linked to Llywelyn the Great – a figurehead of Welsh identity – he chose to found Conwy on a separate site. The area a mile to the south west was easier to access because it was on low lying ground rather than on top of a hill, and had access to the sea which would have contributed to the decision to use a new site, but the significance of Deganwy’s biography in choosing not to revive it seems clear.

If you have access to the journal, Askew’s paper is an excellent read and well worth the time. I’m glad I’ve finally got round to ticking that off my reading list.

The lead photo is in the public domain and available here. Same for the second photo, available here.

Guest Post: Richard Nevell on the Castle Studies Trust

CeSMA Birmingham

What is the Castle Studies Trust?

Holt-Castle-screenshot.jpg

A blend of military architecture and domestic use has produced buildings as diverse as Carlisle and Edinburgh, both still used by the British Army, and Bodiam and Stokesay, designed at least partly for show and domesticity. Examining the medieval castle leads to an examination of medieval society.

The Castle Studies Trust was founded in 2012 to fund projects advancing castle studies. This year’s survey at Caus is the first time it has been investigated in-depth by archaeologists. This is despite the fact it is a one of the largest castles in Shropshire.

[Click here for Castle Studies Trust interview with Michael Fradley]

We used the latest survey techniques at Gleaston (Cumbria), using a drone to conduct a photogrammetic survey because the building is too precarious for people to enter. Given the perilous state of the castle, this gives us an invaluable record. The geophysical…

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What about Cheshire?

In June a rare kind of article appeared in The Archaeological Journal. Dr Rachel Swallow wrote “Cheshire Castles of the Irish Sea Cultural Zone”.

The article opens  with a quote from Norman Pounds some 26 years ago. 1990 was a very different place. Graham Gooch captained the England Test team, Star Trek was still on BBC 2, and some guy called Dave Grohl had just joined Nirvana as a drummer. For castle studies in Cheshire not that much has changed, at least not until the 2010s.

There were excavations at Beeston, the most famous and impressive castle in Cheshire, which finished in 1985.  Halton Castle was excavated between 1986 and 1987, and Watch Hill 1985. The results were variously published. Between 2007 and 2010 the University of Manchester Archaeological Unit and later the University of Salford’s Centre for Applied Archaeology carried out excavations at Buckton Castle, and in 2015 the CfAA excavated at Halton. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, the results of the excavations at Buckton were developed into a monograph. As for Halton, hopefully the future holds more excavation.

The view from Beeston Castle

The view from Beeston Castle

Of course excavation is not the only means to understanding a castle, and the development of LIDAR has made it possible to accurately map the landscape of a large number of sites. Measured surveys are still important, but LIDAR allows us to look at larger areas. Swallow uses some of this data in her paper, using it to demonstrate how some of the castles discussed used naturally elevated positions. A multi-disciplinary approach allows for the use of place name evidence as historical sources to cast light onto the early history of the castles under consideration.

The scope of Swallow’s article is more than Cheshire, looking instead at the west of the county and north-east Wales. It is often easier to look at castles on a county-by-county basis, partly because the shire system dates back to the medieval period so it is not completely abstracted from history. But what it does mean is that sometimes castles with a linked history can be overlooked. When preparing the monograph on Buckton Castle it was important to include an overview castles in North West England. This brought together a large body of evidence, but during this process it felt like there were missing pieces around the edges: especially the Welsh and Scottish borders, and to a lesser extent the eastern border with Yorkshire and Northumberland.

An important theme is that of “the importance of place” illustrate by the prolonged use and reuse of sites often dating back to the Iron Age. Cheshire has some particularly good examples, including the impressive Beeston Castle: a 13th-century enclosure castle occupying the site of a hillfort in a gap in the Mid Cheshire Ridge.

This re-examination of information shows that Cheshire is a rich area which needs further research. A number of peculiarities were demonstrated to be restricted to this area which further builds the case for more fieldwork. Importantly by looking at a large number of castles it has enabled Swallow to make deductions about other sites such as Watch Hill. Based on the morphology of the site she has suggested that Watch Hill originated as a prehistoric fort and was adapted into a castle in the medieval period. This had not occurred to the authors of the excavation report in the 1980s because they did not have other sites to compare it to. There is the distinct possibility that the site may have a longer history than previously appreciated.

The overgrown site of Watch Hill Castle

The overgrown site of Watch Hill Castle

Bringing together large amounts of evidence allows for patterns to be identified when on a small-scale we are left to supposition and one-on-one comparisons. That is one of the main things I am attempting to do with my thesis: collating a huge amount of information (published and unpublished) and using it to reach a nuanced understanding of castle slighting.

The approach Swallow used has pushed forward our understanding of castles in Cheshire and perhaps established a template for others to use elsewhere. There is no reason to restrict it to the North West, but it is an area which could most benefit from itu

Pleshey and Rochester

Last October was nearly 6 months ago and marked the end of the castle visiting season – for me at least. Shorter days means more time spent in the company of books; I won’t pretend that colder weather isn’t an issue, but for a really good castle I’ll happily face the challenge of snow.

I closed out October with two very different trips: Pleshey on 9th and Rochester on 17th. Both were excursions as part of a group, first a site visit with the Castle Studies Trust to one of the sites the charity funded work at in 2015, and then the Castle Studies Group’s autumn conference. The conference is a two-day event and sadly I had to miss the first but was able to visit Rochester and led round by the very knowledgeable Jeremy Ashbee. Rather neatly both have been touchstones in my research.

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The substantial motte at Pleshey is surrounded by a deep moat.

Pleshey is one of three castles linked to Geoffrey de Mandeville. He was the earl of Essex, constable of the Tower of London, and one of the richest men in England. During the civil war between Stephen and Matilda he changed allegiance several times, until he was imprisoned and the Tower and his castles at Pleshey and Saffron Walden confiscated. Pleshey and Saffron Walden were new castles and the towns around them created as manorial centres. The castles themselves were ordered to be slighted. It’s not entirely clear what the slighting involved, but Pleshey was certainly in use later in the medieval period. Once released from prison Mandeville went on a rampage, attacking lands in the south east and looting churches until he met a sticky end in 1144.

Pleshey was excavated in the 1970s and 1980s led by Stephen Bassett but the results were never published. The Trust is one of several organisations funding this process. On a sunny day in October, along with some trustees and donors, I went round the sites, guided by Nick Wickenden and Patrick Allen. The earthworks are still impressive, while the structures which once stood in the bailey and on top of the mound no longer survive. The site is privately owned and only viewable by appointment, so this was a good opportunity to have a look round.

Like Pleshey, Rochester casts a long shadow over my work. Both feature in my MA dissertation and PhD thesis. The first as an example of slighting and the second as a highly visual example of destruction. Most of the sites I examine survive as earthworks, so having a standing structure to draw analogies with is a luxury.

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Inside Rochester’s repaired great tower

In 1215 Rochester Castle was the scene of one of the most famous sieges in English history. The garrison was besieged by King John; the siege was eventually broken when one corner of the tower was undermined, collapsing part of the keep. There was discussion about whether the mine was below ground, tunnelling under the wall, or whether it took the form of hacking directly into the wall until it collapsed. Either is possible, but given King John ordered 40 fat pigs “of the sort least good for eating to bring fire beneath the tower” the logical conclusion is that a tunnel was collapsed.

Importantly the deep and highly visible wound on the tower was repaired, but not to the same quality. The design of the corner tower didn’t match the rest of the keep (it was round while the other corner towers were rectangular) and as you can see in the photo the windows were smaller and less ornate. All the same, the tower retains a very impressive air: imposing in height and a sight to behold when inside. The survival of the structure makes it useful for illustrating a range of points about castles, for example the way chapels shaped space in the medieval household. Of particular relevance to my own research is the scorched stone visible inside the tower. In parts the stone has turned pink by an undocumented post-medieval fire. While falling outside the scope of my PhD it’s a useful example to show that even otherwise durable stone buildings can carry the marks of damaging events.

While the tower is the main feature, the outer walls of the castle survive in places and a guided tour is an excellent way to learn more about it. The guidebook prepared by Ashbee for English Heritage is especially useful.

All in all two very good sites to end 2015 on, and two very different places. With April upon us, and the days growing longer and warmer, I think castle season is open again. The question is where to go next.

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Excavations in 2015

Towards the end of last year I began thinking about all the excavations taking place at castles. Over the course of the year a few came to my attention, mostly because I was spending a bit more time looking for news of excavations. It helps to stay on top of recent research. And the last thing I want is to miss news of an excavation discovering evidence that a castle has been slighted. So below are the excavations which caught my attention. I initially harboured the hope that it might become a comprehensive list, but sadly I just didn’t have enough time to do that.

  • Berkeley – one of the first things I did with the Castle Studies Trust was visit Berkeley Castle in May. The University of Bristol’s Stuart Prior leads the training excavation and it has been going since at least 2013. In 2015 they were looking at the defensive ditches and found evidence of 1,500 years of activity. The project is nominated in the 2016 Current Archaeology Awards 
  • Ballintober – in 2014 Ballintober was one of the first sites supported by the Castle Studies Trust. The survey was followed up by a community excavation in June/July 2015 by Foothill College. The community excavation will take place again this year.
  • Bamburgh – the Bamburgh Research Project has been active since 1996. Their work isn’t exclusively on the castle, trench 3 was re-examining an area which was excavated in the 1970s.
  • Gloucester – in December the BBC reported that a Norman castle has been discovered by Cotswold Archaeology under the site of a former prison. It’s one of those situations where everyone knew it was there, but it was very impressive to reach the remains of the great tower. Of course some news outlets chose to compare the keep to the Tower of London because that’s the most famous Norman great tower in the country. It’s not an ideal comparison, but Gloucester Castle was at least used by the monarchy for a while. The site is going to be redeveloped, so this might be as much as we can find out at the moment.
  • Halton – as this is the only excavation in the North West I was aware of I paid particular attention to  goings on at this Cheshire site. Taking place in July and carried out by the University of Salford’s Centre for Applied Archaeology, this was the first excavation at the site in 30 years. Interestingly they found two burials within the castle, which is distinctly rare. In fact, I can’t think of any other examples of burials within a castle.
  • Nottingham – York Archaeology Trust led the Archaeology Live! at Nottingham Castle, a training excavation in July and August. The work took place in the outer bailey which hasn’t previously been excavated. So far they’ve found plenty of 19th-century archaeology.
  • Norham – also in July, archaeologists returned to Norham Castle, having previously dug there in 2013. Part of the Flodden 500 Project, the intention was that 2015 would be the end of the work there. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to find much more information than that.
  • Swords Castle – another community excavation in Ireland, this time at Swords Castle. The plan is that the work will cover 2015 and 2016.
  • Wark – like the work at Norham Castle, the excavations at Wark were part of the Flodden 500 Project. Taking place in April, it built on work from the previous year which had established the castle was larger than previously appreciated.

All this talk of excavations has made me nostalgic for digging at Buckton. I want to get stuck in excavating a castle again!