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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Excavations in 2015

Towards the end of last year I began thinking about all the excavations taking place at castles. Over the course of the year a few came to my attention, mostly because I was spending a bit more time looking for news of excavations. It helps to stay on top of recent research. And the last thing I want is to miss news of an excavation discovering evidence that a castle has been slighted. So below are the excavations which caught my attention. I initially harboured the hope that it might become a comprehensive list, but sadly I just didn’t have enough time to do that.

  • Berkeley – one of the first things I did with the Castle Studies Trust was visit Berkeley Castle in May. The University of Bristol’s Stuart Prior leads the training excavation and it has been going since at least 2013. In 2015 they were looking at the defensive ditches and found evidence of 1,500 years of activity. The project is nominated in the 2016 Current Archaeology Awards 
  • Ballintober – in 2014 Ballintober was one of the first sites supported by the Castle Studies Trust. The survey was followed up by a community excavation in June/July 2015 by Foothill College. The community excavation will take place again this year.
  • Bamburgh – the Bamburgh Research Project has been active since 1996. Their work isn’t exclusively on the castle, trench 3 was re-examining an area which was excavated in the 1970s.
  • Gloucester – in December the BBC reported that a Norman castle has been discovered by Cotswold Archaeology under the site of a former prison. It’s one of those situations where everyone knew it was there, but it was very impressive to reach the remains of the great tower. Of course some news outlets chose to compare the keep to the Tower of London because that’s the most famous Norman great tower in the country. It’s not an ideal comparison, but Gloucester Castle was at least used by the monarchy for a while. The site is going to be redeveloped, so this might be as much as we can find out at the moment.
  • Halton – as this is the only excavation in the North West I was aware of I paid particular attention to  goings on at this Cheshire site. Taking place in July and carried out by the University of Salford’s Centre for Applied Archaeology, this was the first excavation at the site in 30 years. Interestingly they found two burials within the castle, which is distinctly rare. In fact, I can’t think of any other examples of burials within a castle.
  • Nottingham – York Archaeology Trust led the Archaeology Live! at Nottingham Castle, a training excavation in July and August. The work took place in the outer bailey which hasn’t previously been excavated. So far they’ve found plenty of 19th-century archaeology.
  • Norham – also in July, archaeologists returned to Norham Castle, having previously dug there in 2013. Part of the Flodden 500 Project, the intention was that 2015 would be the end of the work there. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to find much more information than that.
  • Swords Castle – another community excavation in Ireland, this time at Swords Castle. The plan is that the work will cover 2015 and 2016.
  • Wark – like the work at Norham Castle, the excavations at Wark were part of the Flodden 500 Project. Taking place in April, it built on work from the previous year which had established the castle was larger than previously appreciated.

All this talk of excavations has made me nostalgic for digging at Buckton. I want to get stuck in excavating a castle again!

Recently I produced a video putting Wressle Castle in its landscape context. The idea is to briefly illustrate the results of a landscape survey. I’ve put this post together to explain how I created the video with free software.

To start with, here’s the video itself:

It was inspired by a paper in Internet Archaeology “Google Under-the-Earth: Seeing Beneath Stonehenge using Google Earth – a Tool for Public Engagement and the Dissemination of Archaeological Data”. If you don’t want to click that link, it discusses how Google Earth can be used to create a landscape tour, showing features, locations of trench, and including a voice-over.  The purpose is to use Google Earth as an outreach tool.

I started out by establishing what it was I wanted the video to show and to write a script for the voice-over. The video starts out by putting Wressle into the context of northern England, highlighting some notable properties owned by the family who built the castle. It then zooms in to the parish of Wressle, showing key features such as the nearby river and the village. Finally it zooms in again to focus on the area immediately surrounding the castle.

Once I worked out what I wanted to show, the next step was marking it out on Google Earth.  It’s now free to use, and you can plot points and areas, labelling key features or showing the outlines of certain features as you choose. I then recorded the audio track, first on my phone and later using a USB microphone hooked up to my computer with Audacity for better audio quality. Audacity also allows you to edit the sound file. The audio track gave me a framework for the video around which I could base the timings for moving the camera. What I did notice was that as soon as I sat in front of a microphone and tried to read from a piece of paper it was very easy to trip over what I was saying. Rather than trying to do it all in one take, I recorded one or two sentences at a time. It was a bit painstaking, but worked in the end.

Google Earth has a tour function which will move the camera round in a manner you decide. However, as I wanted to sync the video to the audio, I felt I could do it by hand. I created pins on the map for key landmarks mentioned in the audio, and they appeared in the menu on the left. By double clicking on them in the menu, the camera smoothly zoomed in towards them. Check boxes allow you to toggle what appears, so if you want an invisible point which you can zoom to, you can still use the pins. I used the polygon option to create outlines of features such as ponds or gardens. By right clicking and choosing options you could alter the colour or fill of the shape.

To record what I had on my screen I installed Microsoft Expression, a free piece of software which allows you to capture all or part of what you see on your screen as a video. Google Earth has a toolbar on the left-hand side which lists the points you’ve marked. If you double click on one of those, the camera zooms to that point. You can also use the mouse to pan around. With the audio track playing so I got the timings right, I double clicked on the points I wanted the viewer to see and recorded the video.

Microsoft Movie Maker is another piece of free software, but is often installed on Windows computers by default unlike Expression. It allows you to shuffle video and audio about, trim it if you want, make sure they’re synced up, and add in still images in this case to complement the audio.

Altogether, a three-minute video probably took about 10 hours with drafting, re-drafting, recording audio, syncing it to the visuals, getting feedback and adjusting accordingly.

If by this point you’re still reading, I’d love to hear your feedback on the video so feel free to leave a comment below.

How to create a landscape tour

Warwick Castle’s identity issue

It’s five years since I visited Warwick Castle. I spent a long day visiting Kenilworth and Warwick. Kenilworth was my priority, but since I was in the area visiting a friend at the University of Warwick it seemed like a good opportunity to visit Warwick Castle.

The contrast between the two is stark. Whereas Kenilworth is the pride of English Heritage – with high visitor numbers, guided tours, a spectacular great tower, sprawling ruins – Warwick is a business. The cost of entry if near enough £25 for an adult, and that’s if you don’t want to visit the dungeon. But what’s the point of going if you’re not going to at least see the dungeon?

The courtyard at Warwick Castle is a bustling place and there are regulars shows of one sort or another: archery, birds of prey, guided tours, and sometimes jousting. When I visited this was interesting, but not the reason I was there so I skipped by most of it.

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The courtyard at Warwick Castle. Photo by John Mueller, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

By Merlin Group’s estimates, more than £6 million has been spent on repairs, restorations, and maintenance in the space of a decade.

The key difference between Warwick and Kenilworth is encapsulated by what you can take home with you. At the English Heritage property you can buy a lavishly illustrated guidebook with up-to-date interpretations. If you want to read about it at home they have online resources where you can read as much as you like. At Warwick, there was none (or at the very least I somehow missed it).

And that sums it up. Warwick Castle is treated as a theme park rather than a gateway to our history. That much is abundantly clear from Merlin’s other properties which include Thorpe Park and Alton Towers and its own website where they refer to it as such. This is not a universally popular approach, as demonstrated when Merlin Group proposed to build lodges and tents in a protected historic landscape known as Foxes Study. The Warwick Society are leading the opposition to the proposal.

On the one hand, the commercial nature of the property has funded its repairs and restoration. For context English Heritage’s recent budgets have typically set aside £16 million for maintenance spread across a portfolio of 420 sites. The average spending of £600,000 a year at Warwick is a considerable investment. If commercial considerations at Warwick are limited, it is worth considering who else could take the burden of maintenance.

More pressing than money is the fact that this castle is one of the most important in England. Any changes to the castle and its landscape must take that into account. I had more fun going round Kenilworth with its atmospheric ruins, rich historic, and engaging tours. Perhaps not everyone would, but it is certainly possible to enhance a site sensitively. It is also important to consider how much Merlin have contributed to our understanding of the site’s history. Considering there isn’t so much as a guidebook I’m not sure what that contribution is. For English Heritage, guidebooks at the accessible way to frame the most up-to-date work on sites. Merlin have the resources to invest a huge amount in understanding the castle.

But in the end perhaps a castle shouldn’t be a theme park?

Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society

It’s always a delight to see society’s make their publications open access, and hopefully it paves the way for other groups. The decision to upload volumes after ten years strikes me as a sensible approach.

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Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society

The Archaeology Data Service and the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society have announced the release of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society Transactions archive.

For further details of this are on the ADS website, see http://dx.doi.org/10.5284/1032950  Here you will find all of the Transactions volumes published from 1874 up to 2006, with the years 2007-2014 articles available in abstract form.

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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!

3D models

Digging Halton Castle Part 1

I had really hoped to be able to take some time off work to volunteer at this dig. Sadly it wasn’t to be. It’s strange to think that the last major excavation of a castle in the North West was five years ago. As if that didn’t make this excavation important enough, Halton is a stone castle which first belonged to the Earls of Chester and then the crown. A 17th-century engraving gives a tantalising idea of how Halton Castle once looked. I’ll be keeping a close eye on the updates to see what the archaeologists turn up!

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The ruins of Halton Castle with the 1738 courthouse on the right. The ruins of Halton Castle with the 1738 courthouse on the right.

The ruins of Halton Castle in Cheshire (SJ 537 820) stand on a prominent hill of red sandstone overlooking the estuary of the River Mersey to the north and west. July 2015 sees the first excavations at this medieval site since 1987. During the 1980s my old colleague and friend Robina McNeil led small-scale excavations in the inner bailey as part of a wider conservation programme across the castle ruins.(1) This work stabilised the castle fabric and highlighted the role of the site as a baronial castle linked with the nearby Norton Priory.

The 1399 gatehouse at Lancaster castle is similar in style to the lost 15th century gatehouse at Halton Castle, Cheshire. The 1399 gatehouse at Lancaster castle is similar in style to the lost 15th century gatehouse at Halton Castle, Cheshire.

The opportunity to excavate castles in North West England is rare, as was noted in 2007 by the authors of the North West Archaeological Regional…

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Ex Historia 7

The latest volume of Ex Historia was published today, and is available for free through the University of Exeter’s website. First published in 2009, it is run by post-graduate students at Exeter, and accepts submissions from around the country. The journal is entirely online, which cuts down on costs, but laid out like a print journal like the Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports.

For the last two volumes I have helped out as a subject editor, and it’s been a rewarding process to see the finished work. From my point of view it’s good to read about something other than castles and practice feedback skills. Compared to the amount of time I spend on other work, it doesn’t take very long.

Once the subject editors have given the articles a once over they’re sent of to experts for thorough review. So if you have a research paper you’d like feedback on, or have a book review in mind, I strongly recommend getting in touch with the Ex Historia team when they put out a call for papers latter in the year.

Now go ahead and check the journal out.

The journey of a library book

I’m not the best at returning library books, so I prefer to read in the library whenever possible and only borrow a book if I need to. A few times I’ve ended up with books in my possession longer than I should, and reminder email leave me crestfallen. But what if there was a better way to ask for books back? The Library of the Society of Antiquaries of London may have hit upon the most whimsical solution possible:

Librarians, like shepherds,
Purvey their pastoral care,
And whilst no wolves or leopards
Their dire intent declare,

Through time, and slow detrition,
The grander glories fade;
Books, borrowed for a mission,
Are frequently mislaid.

They are not dead, but sleeping,
The books that Fellows hold,
And some improve with keeping;
Their content turns to gold.

Yet underneath the dirt with
Octavos on those shelves
Which dusters rarely flirt with,
Stray volumes lose themselves.

For ages disregarded
That library book may be,
Whose absence has retarded
A pending Ph.D.

One journal’s single issue
That must have been misplaced –
Alas, how much we miss you!
Your partners go to waste.

Our books are seldom weighted
With marks of ownership;
Not one has yet been fated
To bear the bar-code’s strip.

So seemly is their binding
You’d take them for your own;
Excuse us for reminding,
You have a three-month loan.

You will discern no class-marks
Imprinted on the spines;
We deem such things are crass marks,
Nor do we scourge with fines

The Fellow who produces
A book long overdue;
For volumes have their uses,
And scholars are but few.

Dear Fellows, we importune
You: bring what books you hoard;
Be ours the glad good fortune
To see them all restored.

Why, then you’ll hear us voicing
A loud and cheerful sound;
For great is the rejoicing
When what was lost, is found.

I’m not entirely sure, but I think it was written by Adrian James, the Assistant Librarian. At the very least, it brightened my day and reminded me of a couple of books I need to return (though not to the Society).