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.

22107631015_39380ceab5_z

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.

22062451910_3d8094def8_z

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Advertisements

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

 

Every castle should have a laser (so you can create a 3D model)

Greater Manchester is not exactly famed for its castles, but of the handful distributed about the county Buckton is by far the most interesting. At the far east of the county, this 12th-century outpost was probably built by the Earl of Chester, an influential and powerful magnate.

Buckton Castle sits on top of a steep hill from which on a clear day you can see all the way to Beeston Castle in Cheshire. This is likely to be just a quirk of the landscape as the archaeological evidence indicates Buckton Castle was never finished, and was in fact pulled down. Whereas Beeston was built in the 1220s, the little available dating evidence for Buckton suggests it was built several decades before then.

All this is covered in more detail in the monograph of the excavations published by the University of Salford’s Centre for Applied Archaeology. The remains of the thick stone walls are buried, so that only lumps and bumps covered in grass remain. Recreation drawings help with that conceptual leap between what you see on the ground and understanding how it would have worked.

The next best thing would be a 3D model showing the remains of the castle in their current form. For me at least, more than a plan or photograph the model helps you appreciate the variations of the ground. Making a video of that model makes it easier for people to engage with, and lets the video maker be the guide. So until someone works out how to embed videos into printed books, the video at the start of this post will have to exist solely online.

I particularly like that video because the ditches and the height of the ramparts really stands out, but this video mapping a photograph of the site onto the model may be more to other people’s tastes.

A new future for Leicester Castle

A brick building

The great hall at Leicester was once part of the castle. Photo by Helen Wells, CC-BY 2.0.

On the quiet, Leicestershire has quite a good line in castles. There’s Kirby Muxloe, Ashby-de-la-Zouche, and if you don’t mind 19th-century architecture masquerading as something else Belvoir Castle stands on the site of a Norman fortification. Despite this, not many people know that the city of Leicester has its own castle.

Nestled in the corner of the Roman city near the River Soar, the castle was built in the 11th century. It was held by the Earls of Leicester until 1265 when Simon de Montfort was defeated at the battle of Evesham, and the castle came under royal control. As tends to happen, later urban development has disguised the castle. You wouldn’t know it to look at its reworked exterior, but the great hall dates from the 12th century. In fact when Leicester Castle was slighted in the 1170s after the Earl of Leicester rebelled against Henry II, the hall was left untouched. That’s where my particular interest lies.

It is the great hall, where the Parliament of Bats was held in 1426, that is the subject of some recent news. In a nice piece of historical symmetry, a recent development has the effect of bringing De Montfort back to the castle.

Rather than this being another internment along the lines of Richard III (who will be buried in Leicester in late March), the university bearing the earl’s name has leased the great hall from the city council and will be turning it into a business school.

As recently as 1992 the building was used as a courthouse, but since then it’s struggled to find a use. While I was a first year undergraduate student (back in 2007) at the University of Leicester as part of one of our modules we were split into groups and asked to come up with proposals for ways of using and maintaining Leicester’s historic buildings. My group was given the great hall; I don’t entirely recall what we suggested (probably a museum of some sort) though I do recall that one of our early ideas was to turn it into a venue along the lines of Laser Quest!

There are two highly encouraging aspects of the news. First of all is that the hall will be open to the public. This has been a rarity in the recent past. Secondly, De Montfort University will restore the building, helping to preserve a structure while regularly appears on English Heritage’s At Risk register.

Good news all round.

For more on Leicester Castle Levi Fox’s history of the site, written in the 1940s, is a good place to start.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.