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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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.

Funding for Newark Castle?

A ruined building

The ruined courtyard of Newark Castle, looking towards the gatehouse.

In July 2013 I was travelling across the country for work. This involved changing at Newark; the name rang a bell but as I hadn’t been there before I didn’t think much of it. I was scheduled to wait at the station for an hour but I had a good book to keep me company so I didn’t mind much.

Walking into the waiting room I suddenly realised why I recognised the name. One wall was entirely taken up by an enormous black and white photo of a castle. Newark is a quiet town, and the castle is a ten to fifteen minute walk from the station. Unsure how much time I would have, I ran all the way there.

In that short visit I felt like I discovered a jewel. Newark is a wonderful ruin. From across the canal it looks splendidly complete, but from the east you appreciate how good a job Parliament did in demolishing the castle in the 17th century. My post-graduate research focusses on slighted castles – the likes of Newark itself, though it falls outside my time period. It has a very impressive gatehouse, which I’m dying to explore, and a fascinating history which includes the death of King John.

Since that summer day on which a train journey was transformed from mundane to fun, I’ve had a soft spot for Newark. So it was with no small amount of pleasure that I read the news of plans to turn the castle into a tourist attraction with a visitor centre. It perhaps isn’t the most famous of castles, which is a shame given its history and surprising given the way the picturesque way it mixes ruin with remains. That said, it manages 150,000 visitors a year which is nothing to complain about. The intention is to spend £800,000 which will cover  turning the gatehouse into a visitor centre and opening the tower next to it to the public. Hopefully there will be something about the excavations carried out by Pamela Marshall.

Something which stuck out is that the exhibits will cover crime and punishment in Norman England. Three of my interests overlap at Newark: slighting, gatehouses, and prisons. Newark has four oubliettes – underground prisons accessed only from the ceiling. Oubliettes are unusual enough in England, but four is downright peculiar. County towns had a special role to play in administration and law enforcement. My hope for Newark is that the displays avoid sensationalising the imprisonment angle as you might find at Warwick.

It is interesting that it currently costs £70,000 to maintain the castle. I don’t have much of a yardstick to give that context, but it would be interesting to know how that’s spent. I sincerely hope they get the full funding, and that more people can enjoy Newark Castle. I’ll be making time to revisit myself.

For some photos from my visit to Newark Castle, click here.

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Castles to Crenellations

A crowd gathered in front of a reddish tower

During the tour of Chester Castle I hopped onto the battlements to take a few choice photos.

Finding time away from a part-time PhD isn’t easy. But in November I gave a talk at CBA North West annual conference. The topic of the day was castles and it was a chance to revisit some of my previous research. My BA dissertation was on the subject of castle gatehouses and approaches in North West England. I was ecstatic when two and a half years later part of it was published in the Castle Studies Group Journal. It gave me a very nice sense of closure. After all there’s a finite number of castles in the region, and only a fraction have gatehouses surviving to such an extent that they can be reasonably discussed.

November was a hectic month partly because I was finishing a 20,000-word chapter. That took priority, but returning to a familiar subject was almost a break. The paper which got published is available online, so the question became what angle can I take to freshen things up. Of course most people wouldn’t have come across my paper before, but I wanted my talk to complement what I’d already done.

While it was fun to revisit a topic I enjoy but hadn’t thought seriously about for nearly two years, there were two major highlights of the day which made it stand out. The first was shortly before lunch. CBA North West had arranged a tour round Chester Castle. I’ve been to Chester before, but had never actually been inside the castle. It’s not usually open to the public, and in fairness anyone expecting a grand or intimidating medieval fortress would have been disappointed as most of what survives is post medieval. I got lucky though. The Agricola Tower is the main part of the Norman castle which still stands. It was built c1200 by the earl of Chester, and best of all was the main entrance to the castle before it was greatly expanded in the 13th century. Sadly Chester Castle isn’t always open to the public, but we were able to visit the Norman chapel above the gate passage and even look out from the top of the tower.

In the afternoon a pair of talks covered fortifications on the Isle of Mann, including the impressive Castle Rushen which may have been partly demolished by Robert the Bruce. The UK’s islands have their fair share of interesting sites, including Carisbrooke Castle in the Isle of Wight, but Castle Rushen had embarrassingly completely passed me by. In particular my ears pricked when Robert the Bruce was mentioned as he was responsible for slighting a few castles during the Anglo-Scottish wars. Despite this, the North West has surprisingly few cases so it was particularly interesting to hear of this.

To finish on a self-centred note, returning to a subject I had previously considered closed was a good idea. As it happened, it complemented part of my current research on the destruction of castles as well as resulting in some interesting feedback. As well as adding Castle Rushen to my list of sites to visit, I’ll be adding Goodrich Castle on the friendly advice of one of the audience who bored that a plinth in the gate passage could have been used as a bench, suggesting how these structures may functioned as social places.

Where next with gatehouses? For now, there isn’t a ‘next’, just an ongoing interest in a subject which provides a nice diversion from my primary research topic.

For some photos of the day, click here.

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