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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A bank holiday in Eynsford

Bright sunshine, the first Test cricket of the English summer, and a tense finish as England and New Zealand tussled for the honours. What better way to spend a bank holiday Monday.

I chose to go to Eynsford Castle, a 40-minute train journey from London Victoria. It’s one of English Heritage’s free sites and I figured it wouldn’t be too busy. Best of all in 1312 the owner, William Inge, filed an official complaint that people with a claim to his land had attacked Eynsford Castle and left it damaged. The forecast for Lords cricket ground was overcast so I assumed I’d be able to take some nice photos in Kent.

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Walking from the station to the castle I wondered if I was going in the right direction. The signs for Lullingstone Roman fort were clear enough, but the ones pointing to Eynsford Castle were almost hidden. Once I got to the right place I had to double check I wasn’t trespassing on private land.

It wasn’t downhill all the way, but it did strike me that the castle was quite low in the landscape. This is especially clear when looking from the 12th century kitchens, where the curtain wall has collapsed. The river running through Eynsford is shallow enough that I spotted a few people paddling in what turned out to be glorious weather. Back at the castle, the earthworks of a moat are still visible and a sign beside the bridge to the entrance warns visitors of deep water. The castle is close to the river, and a raised bank  prevents it from flooding. I’ve not yet checked if anyone has come to a verdict on whether the moat was originally wet. It’s so close to the river it seems a waste not to use it, but on a warm fay in late May it is hard to see the amount of water in the river adequately filling the moat. Perhaps it was only meant to be shallow, more of a reflecting pool than an insurmountable barrier.

Inside the impressive flint curtain wall are the remains of the hall, reusing Roman tiles in the fireplace. As you turn left from the entrance there are three openings which the information boards tell you are garderobes. Certainly the one of the far right is a toilet as it has a chute down to the moat, though it does seem a bit odd to have three so close together.

While grey skies helped England at Lord’s I was expecting the same to provide a moody backdrop. As it was the sun burst through and while the sky was a brilliant blue in photos it made it tricky to avoid the buildings appear very dark.

I got to walk round the outside, seeing where part of the wall had collapsed in the 19th century. In the time I was there a few people showed up to wander round the ruins. One group brought a picnic which reminded me of the fatal flaw of my plan. With enough pictures under my belt I decided to call it quits.

Eynsford is a lovely quiet castle, with enough still standing to remind you of its medieval history.

 

Having a blast

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there

— L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between, 1953

It’s perhaps something you don’t need to be reminded of when researching the Middle Ages. Even when reading through old reports of excavations, it’s pretty self-evident. The further back you go, the fewer site plans and section drawings you get. Appendices detailing pottery and smalls finds disappear. Context numbers diminish.

These conspicuous absences give the impression of materials from another age. There is some interesting social history to be found in county archaeology journals from the 1930s where land owners occasionally begin archaeological digs as way to occupy unemployed men in the area.

Prepared as you may be for your visit to a foreign country, there will still be things which catch you off guard. Such as the use of explosives on archaeological digs.

Starting on 19 November 1934, excavations at Bungay Castle gave work to former servicemen who were unemployed at the time. Excavations within the great tower progressed well until they encountered gravel and fallen masonry, “effectively preventing further excavation until they could be removed with explosives.”1

I supposed in an age before JCBs digging through rubble would have been difficult, and presumably the excavators would have taken care not to damage what little remains of Bungay Castle, but the suggestion to use explosives still surprised me. In fact it turned the journal article into a real page turner.

I needed to know whether they ended up blasting their way through history!

Fortunately, the brief report in the Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History the following year informed the reader that it hadn’t been used after all. Having seen the effect explosives had at Corfe Castle, I’m glad they didn’t go through with it!

Bungay Castle. Photo by Martin Pettitt, CC-BY 2.0.

Bungay Castle. Photo by Martin Pettitt, CC-BY 2.0.

1Braun, Hugh (1934). “Some notes on Bungay Castle”Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History Vol. 22. p. 116.

Norwich and the art of the recreation

The throne room at Dover Castle. Photo by Richard White, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The throne room at Dover Castle. Photo by Richard White, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

It’s easy to forget that the buildings we take for granted as part of our historic environment would have looked completely different when they were in use. Ancient Athens and Rome were gleaming cities of pristine marble, and castles were austere military structures. But centuries upon centuries of weathering and wear and tear have changed them beyond recognition.

Castles were often whitewashed inside and out, and high status area could be richly equipped with tapestries and decorated furniture. To see how a reconstruction can utterly transform a space, you don’t have to look further than Dover Castle. As English Heritage’s flagship medieval property, they seem keen to keep it fresh and interesting for the 350,000 visitors who pass through its gates every year. The work at Dover cost £2.45 million and took two years to complete (a Time Team special offered insight into the work done there).

So it’s no small feat to recreate the medieval world in glorious technicolour, but that is precisely what Norfolk Museums Service hopes to do at Norwich Castle. In February it was announced that £1 million was coming from central government. The fundraising isn’t over, but that is a sizable step which will allow for a digital reconstruction of the great tower. The intention is to carry out “major restoration work of the 900-year-old castle, including architectural, archaeological, structural and environmental surveys”. It is also hoped that visitor numbers will increase by 100,000 every year, though it isn’t clear what the baseline figure is.

The restored King's Chamber at Dover Castle. Photo by Mark Abel, CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The restored King’s Chamber at Dover Castle. Photo by Mark Abel, CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0.

So what might a restored Norwich Castle look like? A lot of research was done by the English Heritage team behind the Dover Castle project, and might offer a guideline, especially as the emphasis at Norwich will be on the 12th century which is around the time Dover Castle’s great tower was built. Norwich’s keep was built between 1095 and 1100, while Dover’s was built during the reign of Henry II. Like its later counterpart, Norwich’s keep was built by the king of England and both are similarly proportioned: Norwich is 21m tall and measures 29m by 27 at the base, while Dover’s great tower is 25.3m high and about 30m by 30m. So straightaway it looks like some of the research underpinning the Dover project eight years ago will be appropriate at Norwich.

What was striking about Dover is the way the vibrant primary colours of the furniture and tapestries were transformed by the lighting. Under broad daylight, they looked gaudy but in the darker setting of the king’s apartments they suddenly looked much more stately.

It doesn’t matter how many times you are told that these places would have been lived in by the richest of society: it takes a formidable imagination to look at bare walls and try to picture these buildings as they appeared in their heyday. Maybe most of the money set aside for Norwich will go towards repairs and more muted restoration work, but I hope to see something similar to the work at Dover Castle.