Why use archaeology to understand slighting?

Archaeology and history should go hand-in-hand when trying to understand the past.

In my previous post, I mentioned that when I started researching slighting it was for my dissertation as part of a Masters in history. My undergraduate degree was in ancient history and archaeology and I swapped discipline to see how things worked on the other side of the fence. People should be both archaeologists and historians and don’t think it’s terribly helpful to have a divide between the two. That’s hardly a new or revolutionary take, but there still needs to be more cooperation between the disciplines.

In any case, having spent a year focused mainly on the documentary sources I felt that not only was there untapped potential for the topic of castle slighting but I came to the conclusion that archaeology would be absolutely integral to understanding this phenomenon.

There are a few problems with the contemporary written sources, especially as they they are almost always light on detail and though they may record orders to slight castles and don’t note whether the action was carried out.

In contrast, archaeology offers an opportunity to find out what slighting involved – were there particularly parts of a castle which were targeted, what methods were used, and what this might tell us about the motivation for demolishing a castle. It also gives us a chance to test whether individual orders to slight a castle were ever carried out and find cases of slighting which were missed from the historical  record.

Used together, archaeology and history can reinforce each other but it is important to use them critically. Degannwy was slighted by the Welsh in 1263, and excavations in the 1960s found ample evidence of destruction on the site. Even without the documented history of the site, the sheer scale of the destruction would indicate slighting – it was deliberate, and far more extensive than siege damage would be.

Degannwy Castle straddled two hills. According to written history it was slighted on a few occasions, but later use means archaeologists have only been able to identify the slighting from 1263. Photo by Kevin, CC-BY-NC.

While historical sources can provide a useful framework to relate the archaeology to, they can be too tempting at times. Weston Turville is one of 20 castles which according to contemporary records were slighted by Henry II after the rebellion of 1173–74. So when archaeologists digging there in 1985 found that the ditch around the motte had been deliberately filled in they concluded that this related to Henry II’s order. However, the pottery mixed with the ditch fill dated from the late 11th or early 12th century; this doesn’t mean it is entirely impossible that the fill was a result of Henry II’s orders, but does remind us to keep an open mind and not over-reach in an attempt to match the archaeology with the historical record. At Weston Turville, the ditch may in fact provide evidence of two separate episodes of slighting, one in the late 11th or early 12th century and one which could correspond to 1174, though the pottery recovered from higher in the ditch was harder to date.

There are still many, many sites which have yet to be excavated or where later construction has obscured evidence of slighting, like Edinburgh or Stirling, but by using archaeology complemented by the historical record I was able to build a more interesting picture than had been possible before.

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What is castle slighting?

This is the first of a series of posts exploring some key aspects of castle slighting.

Last month I was examined on my thesis, the culmination of years of researching castle slighting. My student record shows that I began my PhD in 2012, but I started thinking about this subject in 2010 towards the end of my undergraduate degree. A post-graduate degree seemed like a fun next step as there were no exams and it would let me research castles even more. Before I had even been accepted onto the course I had decided the topic of my dissertation: castle slighting. One year and 20,000 words just scratched the surface, so eventually I took this topic and developed it into a PhD.

But what is slighting and why have I spent six years researching it?

In short, slighting is the process of damaging a building to remove its value. For castles, this can mean compromising its defensive, social, and administrative uses. It’s also worth thinking about what it isn’t. It’s not damage caused by a siege, or stones stripped away by robbing later on. So when King John’s men undermined a corner of Rochester Castle’s great tower, that was simply the kind of damage caused by a siege. The reason for driving the mine under the tower was to force the defenders to capitulate. When a place was slighted, the damage had a different meaning. But had John knocked down the tower after he captured the castle that would have been slighting.

There are plenty of slighted castles about the place, and some of the most striking ruins have been slighted: Kenilworth, Corfe, and Scarborough to name just three. It’s the kind of thing that grabs the imagination, but the explanation for castle slighting has usually been pretty simple. It was done to prevent an enemy from using a fortification against you. It looked to me like a potentially rich subject that would repay closer scrutiny. With plenty of rebellion and political power plays providing a backdrop for many cases of slighting, I expected it to be fun to research and to have some interesting conclusions come out of it.

Corfe Castle was slighted in the 17th century. The ruins are a lot more glamorous than most of the sites I looked at. Photo by Jim Champion.

So I began my journey into slighting combing through books, journals, and excavation reports. With archaeological interest in castles stretching back to the 19th century – with varying degrees of documentation – there is no shortage of information on the archaeology of castles. Lila Rakoczy examined slighting caused by the English Civil War, but no one had attempted to do the same for the Middle Ages.

Most castles weren’t slighted; if I had to guess, I’d say perhaps 10% met this fate so it made sense to make my study broad. I looked at the whole of the Middle Ages and England, Scotland, and Wales. If you’ve picked up a book on ‘English’ castles you’ll probably notice that it treats Wales as part of England and doesn’t mention Scotland at all. There were different circumstances in each of these countries for the building and use of castles, but I wanted to examine them altogether to see how slighting varied based on context.

The ruin of Kenilworth is one of my favourite castles, and the 17th-century slighting is such an important part of the place’s history. For most castles slighted in the Middle Ages we don’t have majestic ruins as the extra centuries of decay have reduced most sites to buried archaeology. I’m not jealous, honest, because at least I had Bothwell Castle to provide a healthy dose of style. But the architectural skeletons which still stand give an idea of how some slighted sites may have appeared centuries ago.

Get an eyeful of Bothwell Castle, isn’t it fab. Slighted in the 14th century. Photo by Robert Brown.

Archaeology has a huge amount to tell us about how, when, and even why buildings were demolished. This isn’t something restricted to castles, but can be seen throughout history.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting some more thoughts here on slighting, and guiding you through a subject which has fascinated me for years. I hope you find it interesting too!

3D models

Recently the charity I’m a trustee of has been publicising one of its projects to produce a 3D model of Holt Castle in the county of Wrexham (or Denbighshire if you go by historic counties). I first visited Holt in 2010 with my dad when I was researching my BA dissertation. It didn’t feature in what I was doing, but we were tracking along Cheshire’s border with Wales and it would have been a wasted opportunity not to visit.

Not much remains today thanks to the work of Parliament in the 17th century. Slighting, but not the right time period for my PhD. That’s why this reconstruction – based on a range of sources including historic plans and inventories – is so important in understanding the site. It really does transform it.

This got me thinking. What other 3D models are available online? A quick search of YouTube produced a few results, but it’s not necessarily easy to tell what lies behind the reconstruction. With recreations there is always a degree of educated guesswork, but the key for the video supported by the Castle Studies Trust was minimising that through exhaustive research.

A few really stood out. The first is of Corfe Castle in Dorset. It’s high on my list of sites to visit for obvious reasons when you watch the video. I really like the way it’s done, contrasting the reconstruction with the present state of the castle and using actual camera footage to create a unique feel. It’s simple and looks plausible. It’s not clear what it’s based on, but the fact that the people behind the video are from the University of Portsmouth bodes well.

Next we have Weoley Castle in the West Midlands. It’s a longer video, and takes you on more of a tour of the castle, closer in style to the Holt video than the Corfe example, but unlike Holt sticks strictly to the exterior. Sadly I don’t know what the creator based the reconstruction on, but it does look good.

Finally, there is Wartenburg in what I assume is Germany. Magelan skupina who produced the reconstruction are a commercial archaeological company and the six-minute video shows how much information goes into the reconstruction and goes inside the building as well. Enjoy!