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.
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.
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