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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