Tag Archives: castles

Seminars CCLXIX & CCLXX: From opposite ends of the Mediterranean

I’ve just had a look through my seminar notes from March 2019 and decided that two still bear the telling. As ever, it is good of those who still read here to bear with my efforts to reduce the backlog in the face of the fact that things continue to occur meanwhile… But back then when my backlog is, at the beginning of the month I was present on the 4th when Professor John Moreland addressed Leeds’s Institute for Medieval Studies Medieval Group with the title, “Sheffield Castle: archives, excavations, and augmented reality, 1927-2018”, and then I was around again on the 27th when Dr Helen Birkett addressed the IMS Medieval History Seminar with the title, “News, Current Events, History: The Preservation of News Texts from 1187/8”. I’ve got no way to tie these together except that they were in the same month in the same university and I saw them both, but why should we need more, eh?

Poster for seminar by John Moreland at the University of Leeds

Seminar poster by Thomas Smith

So to begin with Professor Moreland’s paper, I have to admit that I did not previously know that Sheffield had had a castle. But there was one, and a recent bequest had enabled the University’s then-untroubled archaeology department to start a partnership up with the contract organisation Wessex Archaeology (who for reasons unexplained have an office in Sheffield) and the university’s department of Computer Science, to go over the work that had been done on it and try to synthesize the results of old and new digs. The castle has been dug quite a lot, apparently, being located, under what was between the 1960s and very recently the city market, by an amateur archaeologist in the 1920s and then dug for a decade, with some more work on its perimeter in the 1950s and new work just beginning at the date of this paper. The paper was as much about why what had been done had been done as what it actually was, but the basic story was that some kind of castle was probably put here in the 12th century by one William de Loyelote, built up rather with a gatehouse after license was given to crenellate in 1258, and then possibly burnt in a sack of the city of 1266 by a man really genuinely called John De Eville. There was some rebuilding thereafter and it was still a going concern in the 16th century, and indeed in the English Civil War though perhaps not going enough as it fell to siege in 1644 and 1646 and was slighted in 1649-1650.

Archaeological digging at the site of Sheffield Castle in the 1920s, 1930s or 1950s

Archaeological digging at the site of Sheffield Castle in the 1920s, 1930s or 1950s – sadly, Sheffield’s website doesn’t say which

The question that now arises is what bits of this actually survive. The 1920s-30s digs found lots, and some of that was photographed in situ, very luckily for such old archaeology, but that archaeologist, Leslie Armstrong, tended to date what he found from known history, such as the 1266 burning, so that various wooden structures showing destruction by fire he considered to be pre-1266 and everything above them to have been the 13th-17th-century building, which Professor Moreland though would likely prove wrong given the relative depths of stratification. In that case, this fire must have happened earlier and the 1266 sack of the city may not have hurt the castle at all. Another point of difference was over the material that Armstrong considered to have been ‘Saxon’, an alleged cruck-built building in the central courtyard and some of the material culture. Professor Moreland, however, thought that there was no pre-Conquest material at all, and that Armstrong was just after pushing his native city’s origins back to when it could be ‘Germanic’ rather than ‘French’, this mattering rather more in the atmosphere of the 1930s, though not always that way round… The oldest remains Professor Moreland had been able to date were late 11th-century, at which point there seems to have been a Norman motte with maybe a wooden gatehouse. But by this stage he had five minutes left to talk, so we didn’t get all the details of that I might have wanted, and the promised ‘augmented reality’ ironically never materialised, then or now. However, you can find out more! Wessex Archaeology have a good web-page on the digs, including their 602-page site report which, I admit, I didn’t read for this post (or at all), and a video by Professor Moreland explaining what the augmented reality stuff would have been like.1 Also, not very long after this paper, there emerged a book, so it is certainly possible for you to learn more.2

Dr Birkett’s paper was a very different sort of thing, not just because it completed within the time allowed but also because it was a proper old-fashioned text-mining medievalist study, which as I only now find out, had already been published at the point when she gave it to us.3 The object of the search was to find out how people in the West found out about the recapture of Jerusalem by the forces of Islam, under the famous Saladin, in 1187. We know that it created enough of a furore that eventually King Richard I of England, King Philip II Augustus of France and Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa all went out to try and get it back – but how did the news actually get to their royal ears?

Poster for seminar by Helen Birkett at the University of Leeds

Poster again by Thomas Smith

Obviously, the answer was probably letters, but what I hadn’t expected was firstly that we would have any such letters surviving, and secondly where they turn up. These were surprises because actually, there are 13, but none are actual autographs by people of 1187; instead, such texts were later copied into chronicles and histories, or just copied; we have some loose copies which got used as bindings, and one rather mystifying copy of a letter from Patriarch Heraclius of Jerusalem (the Latin patriarch, despite his name) that now survives in the Arxiu Parroquial of Cardona, of which town we heard only a couple of posts ago so you know it’s in Catalonia. In fact two such letters made it to Catalonia, but it doesn’t seem to have raised the same response as other places… But from the image I was pretty sure it was a local copy – I know the scripts! – so there was a kind of response even so.

But that is a whole book’s worth of study and for someone else. Better questions to ask might be, as did Alan Murray, of course present, whether multiple copies of such letters were being sent, or whether one was sent and then copied for dissemination, and Dr Birkett thought the latter. There is a particular one by a Templar called Terricas (apparently) which exists in more copies than any other, and Dr Birkett thought that the actual man’s journey westwards to seek help could be tracked. I don’t, myself, see why that precludes him fetching up in, say, Genoa, and then writing his letter and having copies sent hither and thither; but of course, I haven’t seen it, and either solution does explain why what we have is not the original letters, and reminds us that in this era (and to be honest, our one too) a letter only arrives because someone or a chain of someones physically brings it; that process also attracted questions, but answers are hard to provide. Dr Birkett herself was more interested in why these texts were still being copied up long after they were ‘news’, because outside the chronicle texts the preservation rarely seems to have been part of a plan; their homes were often blank folios in manuscripts made for other purposes. It is possible that, since Jerusalem was never recaptured (unless we count Emperor Frederick II’s attempt, which because the Church judged him to be a bad guy we seem never to do), this was ‘news’ that never got old. But the samples are very small, and I was myself wary of any generalisation of plotting trends of 2-4 manuscripts. But the questions are still interesting to ask, and maybe there are more answers to be found.

That will have to do you for this week. Next post will be some more current news and then I have an old musing that never before got written up about the role of the blog in/as scholarship, so please stay tuned for those, and if that’s not enough I hope to have more critique of a certain historian of early medieval military matters ready to go after that, surely therefore something for all tastes. Stay well and safe till then!


1. It is Sheffield Castle, Sheffield, South Yorkshire: Final Archaeological Evaluation Report, by Ashley Tuck, 201540.05 (Sheffield 2020), online here.

2. John Moreland, Dawn Hadley and Ashley Tuck, Sheffield Castle: Archaeology, Archives, Regeneration, 1927–2018 (York 2020), online here.

3. Helen Birkett, “News in the Middle Ages: News, Communications, and the Launch of the Third Crusade in 1187–1188” in Viator Vol. 49 (Turnhout 2018), pp. 23–61, DOI: 10.1484/J.VIATOR.5.119573.

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Piled-up Pasts in Ankara I

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This week we leap forward in my past to February 2018 when, somewhat unexpectedly you may think, I was in Ankara. Actually the reasons for this have been piling up in our narrative: firstly the post held by my good … Continue reading

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Finding the Medieval in Rome III: Emperor Hadrian, Defender of the Popes

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Obviously, the subtitle of this post is not true. Not strictly. How could it be, after all, when Hadrian, ruler of the Roman Empire from 117 to 138 CE, and respected chief priest of it too, probably didn’t even know … Continue reading

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A visit to my local castle

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By the time this post goes up, my officially-ordained break from work will be over and there will be, already is, really quite a lot to try to catch up on before teaching restarts and we resume the will-we-won’t-we dance … Continue reading

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In Marca Hispanica XXXVI: Castell de Montclus

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I have again to apologise for a gap in posting. I’ve been on holiday! I did mean to have something ready for posting before I went, but the preparation overwhelmed everything, sorry. Now I’m back, and back in the past, … Continue reading

Seminar CCXLVII: remains of unrestrained lordship

We now come to the other paper from the first quarter of 2017 I said I still wanted to talk about, which was one of the open lectures which the Institute for Medieval Studies at Leeds runs. These can cover quite a range of topics, and in this instance it was high medieval English archaeology. It’s been a while since Leeds had any medieval archaeologists but we like to stay in touch, and accordingly on 7th March Professor Oliver Creighton of the University of Exeter came to talk to us and the willing public with the title, “The Archaeology of Anarchy? Landscapes of War and Status in Twelfth-Century England”.

Marginal illustration of King Stephen directing one of his commanders, drawn c. 1230, British Library, MS Arundel 48, fo. 168v

Marginal illustration of King Stephen directing one of his commanders at the Battle of Lincoln, 1141, drawn c. 1230, British Library, MS Arundel 48, fo. 168v, from the British Library’s website under their normal terms of use but also available through Wikimedia Commons

The ‘Anarchy’ in question is what historians have for a long time tended to call the wider civil situation engendered by the struggle for the English throne between the Empress Matilda, widow of Emperor Henry V of Germany hence her title, by this time husband of Count Geoffrey of Anjou and most relevantly heir designate of King Henry I of England, and King Stephen, who despite having sworn support for Matilda to the dying Henry still swept in and grabbed the English throne for himself in 1135 when Henry died. During the ensuing struggle, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “Christ and His saints slept,” and every lord who could got away with whatever injustices and self-aggrandisements he could.1 Taking its rhetoric more or less literally, scholars of the older generation observed that a wash of castles got built without the theoretically-required royal permission, that some lords even started minting their own coin and in general everything went badly until it became possible to arrange terms between Stephen, whose eldest son died at a critical point, and Matilda’s son the future Henry II, so that England could finally concede without enduring a woman on the throne.2 The scholarship has moved on since then, recognising that obviously quite a lot of people were willing to see a woman on the throne rather than Stephen, that for others the problem might have been more with this particular woman than gender as such, given that Stephen’s queen (also Matilda, just to help) gets a much more positive write-up in the same sources, and that the castles and mints were probably in many cases begun with one or other royal permission, because the lords were able to play the contendors off against each other in this situation.3 What hasn’t really been done is to see what this looked like on the ground on any scale, and that is what, with the help of the Leverhulme Trust, Professor Creighton had been doing. He had picked 12 sites in or around the key zones of contention, Wessex and the Thames Valley, and gone over them with resistivity sensors and a fine-toothed field survey, and thus had some sense of what kind of remains the supposed anarchy had left behind, which I didn’t at the time realise had already produced a book whose summary we must have been hearing.4

Pickering Castle depicted with the twelfth-century counter-castle visible, from Wikimedia Commons

Pickering Castle as it still stands, with the Anarchy counter-castle visible as a mound at the top left of the picture; photo by Pauline E, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

The findings broke down roughly into two headings, I suppose, one of which was definitely war. Several of the castles involved in Professor Creighton’s study area had been built as part of military campaigns (including one incomplete siege castle and the town of Wallingford where the siege castle itself wound up being besieged), and the resistivity surveys had often shown up subsidiary earthworks and fortifications that had probably formed part of trying to reduce or outflank these places.5 Given the work that Henry II later had to do to raze castles of which he didn’t approve and the fact that at least one of these ‘temporary’ fortresses, the Rings at Corfe, was besieged again in the English Civil War (as opposed to the civil war in England that we’re now discussing…), I do wonder if we can always be sure that these extra works were early-twelfth-century in date.6 The other thing that comes up a lot round them is arrowheads, apparently, however, where the dating is a bit more certain, and I certainly have no interest in suggesting there wasn’t fighting at these locations.

The Rings earthwork at Corfe Castle

The Rings at Corfe Castle, supposedly a siege earthwork set up by King Stephen and then used again in 1646, photo from Castles and Fortifications of England and Wales

There was, apparently, a great variety of castles in this era. It wasn’t as simple as every lord flinging up a motte and bailey and daring all comers to challenge his right to exploit the local peasantry. While I expect a lot of that was happening, what is more obvious is bigger ventures like whole fortified villages (Boteler’s Castle), whole towns (Cricklade or Wallingford) or whole fortified islands even, or just very large castles, and even reactivated hillfort settlements whose roots are probably very old indeed. Some churches and monasteries were fortified too, and all of these places tended to reorganise their local landscape in ways that must have outlasted the military purposes they were possibly only meant to fulfil briefly.

Motte of the erstwhile Beaudesert Castle in Henley-in-Arden

Motte of the erstwhile Beaudesert Castle in Henley-in-Arden, on what was probably also an Iron Age fortified site, photo from Castles and Fortifications of England and Wales

The other thread that is visible in the material culture, therefore, is in fact the lordly self-aggrandisement that the old scholarship was so keen on condemning. We already had the coins from which the quasi-independent minting is known, of course, but we also see a sharp increase in the preservation of seal matrices, of heraldic decorations (including harness pendants and strap-ends with devices on), fancy architecture and new Church and monastic foundations, all the works, it seems, of lords whose position now either allowed or required them to make more effort in saying something about themselves and their status, which of course makes one wonder who the audience was for all this material and architectural display.7

Five silver pennies of the Anarchy in England, on display at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow

Five silver pennies of the Anarchy in England, on display at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, image used as masthead for the exhibition’s extremely informative website, linked through

One could choose to see it all as a vulgar display of power meant to cow the local peasantry and gentry into falling into line behind these newly assertive lordships, one could see it as competition between the lords, perhaps for the loyalty of exactly those same gentry and peasantry, one could see it as an attempt to gain sufficient ground by half-forced concessions from more-or-less-royal authority that when things eventually settled down the lords would be established as much grander than circumstances had previously allowed, or one could just see it as defiance of the crown and a genuine attempt at independent lordship, and this just being what that looked like. Obviously, the archaeology does not itself tell us which if any of these things it represents, and Professor Creighton didn’t try, but just like the similar kinds of activities that people studying the south of France and Catalonia a century or so before have spotted, it is tempting for historians to try and make patterns out of it anyway.8

It has to be said that the lecture didn’t do much, or even try, to shake me out of the impression that if you were not in charge of one of these castles, it must have been a bad time to be trying to make a living in England; the scale at which people, settlements and stuff seem to have been being moved around, presumably without much choice in the matter, and the lack of recourse they can have had about it, all helped me understand in more depth where the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle‘s picture was coming from. In that respect, although Professor Creighton had not done what one commentator, local postgraduate Victoria Yuskaitis, wondered about, mapping textual and archaeological data together, he was already making them work together in a new way, yet one that seemed to reinforce the older scholarship as much or more than the newer stuff. That may be something for people in the field to consider…


1. Michael Swanton (transl.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London 1996), s. a. 1137, at the end of a full page-and-a-half complaining of seigneurial abuse, extortion and torture.

2. For an old-fashioned view like that you’d have to go to R. H. C. Davis, King Stephen, 1135-1154, 3rd edn. (London 1990) or the less durable H. A. Cronne, The Reign of Stephen, 1135-1154: Anarchy in England (London 1970), though even then cf. John le Patourel, “What Did Not Happen in Stephen’s Reign” in History Vol. 58 (London 1973), pp. 1-18, on JSTOR here, or Edward J. Kealey, “King Stephen: Government and Anarchy” in Albion Vol. 6 (Boone NC 1974), pp. 201–217, on JSTOR here.

3. Now you could get your updates in any or all of Marjorie Chibnall, The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother, and Lady of the English (Oxford 1992); Edmund King (ed.), The Anarchy of King Stephen’s Reign (Oxford 1994); Jim Bradbury, Stephen and Matilda: the Civil War of 1139-53 (Stroud 1998); David Crouch, The Reign of King Stephen, 1135-1154 (Harlow 2000); Donald Matthew, King Stephen (London 2002); Edmund King, King Stephen (New Haven CT 2012) or Paul Dalton and Graeme J. White (edd.), King Stephen’s Reign (1135-1154) (Cambridge 2012); it’s not what you’d call an under-researched area. On Matilda and gender-expectations specifically, though, add Jean A. Truax, “Winning over the Londoners: King Stephen, the Empress Matilda and the Politics of Personality” in Haskins Society Journal Vol. 13 (Woodbridge 1996), pp. 42–62; Heather J. Tanner, “Queenship: Office, Custom, or Ad Hoc?: the Case of Queen Matilda III of England (1135-1152)” in Bonnie Wheeler and John Carmi Parsons (edd.), Eleanor of Aquitaine: Lord and Lady (New York City NY 2003), pp. 133–158; and Patricia A. Dark, “‘A woman of Sublety and a Man’s Resolution’: Matilda of Boulogne in the Power Struggles of the Anarchy” in Brenda M. Bolton and Christine E. Meek (edd.), Aspects of Power and Authority in the Middle Ages, International Medieval Research 14 (Turnhout 2007), pp. 147–164.

4. Oliver H. Creighton and Duncan W. Wright, with Michael Fradley and Stephen Trick, The Anarchy: War and Status in 12th-Century Landscapes of Conflict (Liverpool 2016), to which we can now add Duncan W. Wright and O. H. Creighton (edd.), Castles, siegeworks and settlements: surveying the archaeology of the twelfth century (Oxford 2016), which seems to be the fieldwork reports from this project.

5. On the incomplete siege-work at Burwell, see as well as the coverage in Wright and Creighton, Castles, siegeworks and settlements, Duncan W. Wright, Oliver Creighton, Steven Trick and Michael Fradley, “Power, conflict and ritual on the fen-edge: the Anarchy-period castle at Burwell, Cambridgeshire, and its pre-Conquest landscape” in Landscape History Vol. 37 (Abingdon 2016), pp. 25–50.

6. I had special reservations about the use of beakheads in architecture, such as we have seen here from Iffley Church in Oxford, as hard dating indicators for building in the 1120s-1160s, on the basis that they weren’t used outside that time. That sounds like a self-fulfilling diagnostic to me, and even Iffley threatens to stretch it.

7. The ways seals fit into this also seems to me a possible area of question, mainly because their use was spreading all over Europe at this time, which probably wasn’t a result of the conditions in England; see Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, When Ego was Imago: signs of identity in the Middle Ages, Visualising the Middle Ages 3 (Leiden 2011). On the coins, meanwhile, see M. A. S. Blackburn, “Coinage and Currency” in King, Anarchy, pp. 101–124, updated by Martin Allen, “The York Local Coinage of the Reign of Stephen (1135–54)” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 176 (London 2016), pp. 283–318 and Allen, “Pembroke: a New Mint of the Empress Matilda in the Reign of Stephen?”, ibid. Vol. 179 (London 2019), pp. 295–297.

8. As the previous note suggests, there were ways in which looking outside the British Isles might have added to this study. I’m thinking here straight away of Pierre Bonnassie, “Descriptions of Fortresses in the Book of Miracles of Sainte-Foy of Conques”, transl. Jean Birrell, in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe (Cambridge 1991), pp. 132–148, but as well as Bedos-Rezak, When Ego was Imago, one could suggest Thomas N. Bisson, The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government (Princeton NJ 2015) or even Karl Leyser, “The Crisis of Medieval Germany” in Leyser, Communications and Power in Medieval Europe: the Gregorian revolution and beyond, ed. Timothy Reuter (London 1994), pp. 21–49, for a sense that some of these developments were being experienced more widely.

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Site of a Byzantine Last Stand

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Having thus celebrated some achievement, it’s time to go back into the past again this post and pick up the story of the 2015 trip to Sicily. As you may remember, I had got through my report of the International … Continue reading

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A Black Country Motte-and-Bailey

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As I mentioned a few posts ago, one of the last things I did before leaving Birmingham professionally behind me in August 2015 was squeeze in a visit to Dudley Castle, which came as something of a surprise to me. … Continue reading

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In Marca Hispanica XXX: three castles in one day, part 3 – Tona

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I haven’t done a very good job of explaining my itinerary on last year’s Catalonia trip, I realise, but I’ll remedy that next post but one and in the meantime complete the epic three-castles-in-one-day road-trip. The last stop on this … Continue reading

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In Marca Hispanica XXIX: three castles in one day, part two – Taradell

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Returning to fortifications in higher places, you may remember that my reporting backlog was left hanging on the way down from the Castell de Gurb on the 20th April 2015, when I and my esteemed driver managed to visit three … Continue reading