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How to spot: A castle hiding in plain sight

Published: 18 April 2017
Posted by: English Heritage
Category: History In-depth

We all know a castle when we see one…or do we? Famous stone castles, that reveal the power and wealth of important medieval families, are hard to miss – but there are more than 700 early castle sites that are a little bit harder to spot…unless you know what to look for.

Mysterious Mound? Could be an Earthwork Castle

Known as earthwork castles, most of these were built in the decades following the Norman Conquest in 1066. They were constructed from timber, and the main fortifications were deep ditches and earthen banks, topped by wooden fences and gatehouses. The timber has long since rotted away, and the earthwork ramparts have eroded down so they’re less deep than they were originally. You need a leap of imagination to picture what these sites once looked like.

The most common type of earthwork castle – and the real Norman innovation – is the motte and bailey castle. The motte is an artificial mound made from layers of earth and stone, usually shaped like an upside-down pudding bowl, with steep sides and a flat top. The Normans would build a rectangular timber tower on top (the keep or donjon), and dig a deep ditch around the outside.

Donjons were often prefabricated offsite, then erected like enormous flat-pack furniture at the top of the mound. The tower would have been decidedly uncomfortable to live in, and was primarily used as a watchtower, firing post, and as a last-stand refuge if there was an attack. In quieter times, nobles would live in a timber hall nearby.

The bailey is the outer fenced enclosure surrounding the motte, containing domestic buildings and animal enclosures. Some castles had more than one bailey (a good example of this is Castle Rising in Norfolk below). The bailey was the working part of the castle – the Normans were a cavalry army, and secure stabling inside the bailey’s defences was essential.


Castle Rising Castle in Norfolk

The sides of the motte and surrounding earthwork banks were originally topped with daunting timber palisades (where wooden posts are fitted so closely together they form a solid wall). The motte was sometimes smeared all over with a layer of clay, so attackers wouldn’t be able to climb up. Ditches were originally steeper and deeper. They’ve filled as rain and wind has washed soil into the ditch over 900 or more years, and the sides have eroded and slipped downwards.

There’s also another type of earthwork castle called a ringwork castle. These have an outer bailey, but instead of the motte mound, they have another circuit of banks, ditches and a timber palisade inside, with the timber tower enclosed within. The earliest ringwork castles actually predate the Conquest of 1066, and were built by the Anglo-Saxons and Viking settlers.

Why Were They Built?

The majority of earthwork castles in England were built in the years immediately after the Norman Conquest in 1066 as a way of quickly taking control over an area. Castles were often sited within a pre-existing Saxon settlement – locals’ homes would be destroyed in order to make way for the conquerors. They were quick to build, and could be constructed by unskilled forced labourers using basic materials. The first step was to establish a perimeter rampart, which would be dug within a few days.

The Motte itself would then take a team of 100 men around forty days to complete – lightning-fast compared to the time required to build a stone castle. Sometimes really hastily constructed mottes started to slump, and didn’t survive later attempts to rebuild with heavy stone. Some mottes have scars on their sides where unconsolidated areas within the mound are collapsing internally.


Reconstruction drawing of Skipsea Castle in Yorkshire. Peter Dunn © Historic England Photo Library.

In the twelfth century, there was another flurry of motte-building during the ‘Anarchy’ civil war between Stephen and Matilda, who were battling for the English throne from 1135 to 1154. The motte would be used to attack or besiege another castle or settlement, then as the fighting moved on, the timber tower would be disassembled and moved to the next location, and the motte abandoned.

In most places mottes fell out of fashion by 1200AD, although they continued to be built in the north into the 1300s. New stone castles didn’t need earthen mounds, as they had large stone walls and stone towers to provide defence instead. Stone was considered to be more impressive and high-status too. Many later castle sites have the remains of a Conquest motte or ringwork castle hidden somewhere inside them. Other mottes were reused by later landowners as prospect mounds – reshaped into picturesque hillocks that give a good view over the land.

When you’re exploring an earthwork castle, take a minute to try and imagine what it might have looked like in its prime, as a place of military strength, fear and brutality. What might the people forced to help build the castle have thought? What sort of activities might have taken place here? Perhaps some people were comforted to know there were powerful soldiers nearby – others may have been terrified!

What to Spot:

  • Castle ditches are always on the outside of the bank, making the inside of the site easier to defend and making the rampart look as imposing as possible
  • Look for traces of the original entrances into the castle’s enclosures – the banks may flare out, creating a longer passageway you’d be forced to travel through.
  • Even if the earthworks have been partially destroyed or are much lower than they once were, try to trace their original route. Look for a line where the ground may be slightly higher and a little dryer, or the grass and vegetation a little yellower. The ditch line may be greener, wetter, or have slightly different plants growing there.
  • In some places, you may be able to spot the line of the original kidney-shaped bailey preserved in the modern field boundaries. Have a look from a good vantage point at the site, or check out a map or aerial image online. Skipsea Castle, as you can see from the reconstruction drawing above, is a good example of this.
  • Think about the location: Is this an important strategic position, perhaps near a river, or area of natural high ground?
  • Can you work out what happened here? Was the site reused and redeveloped, with later phases of castle-building in stone? Or was it abandoned?

There are other mounds in the landscape that can look a bit like castles – prehistoric and Roman burial mounds and flat-topped Medieval windmill mounds have sometimes puzzled even the archaeologists! Have a look at (from Historic England) to see what’s known about this particular site.


Clifford’s Tower in York is part of the old York Castle

See For Yourself: Castles To Visit

English Heritage has 203 medieval sites in its care, and you can trace the evolution of castles across the country. Some Earthwork castles to explore include:

  • Clifford’s Tower in the heart of York was one of two Norman Motte and Bailey castles built in 1068-9, soon after the Norman Conquest. The site has witnessed many brutal chapters of history.
  • Skipsea Castle, in east Yorkshire, was an important motte castle, surrounded by a semi-natural moat. But recent evidence indicates the mound was actually first constructed in the Late Stone Age (three and a half thousand years earlier!) before being reused as a castle.
  • Totnes Castle in Devon was raised in 1068, and the later stone ‘shell-keep’ traces the line where the original wooden palisade fence would have been.
  • The massive earthworks around Old Sarum in Wiltshire were actually constructed by Iron Age people around 500BC – but were so impressive they continued to be used by the Romans, Saxons and Normans. William the Conqueror summoned all the major landowners to this site in 1086 to swear an oath of allegiance to him.
  • Castle Acre Castle, Norfolk not only boasts a Norman castle, refortified and built in stone in the 1100s, but also the remains of a whole planned settlement – you can still walk up the village street and through the bailey gates.

About The Author

Mary-Ann Ochota is is a broadcaster and anthropologist who gained her MA from Emmanuel College, Cambridge University in 2002 and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Her book Hidden Histories: A Spotters Guide To The British Landscape is available now.

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