Not all castles are big and in your face, some are actually hidden in plain sight.
How you might ask? Surely everyone knows a castle when they see one… well that’s not always the case.
The big stone castles that are clearly visible, the famous ones that show the power and wealth that some people would have had, are not hard to spot. But not all castles are like this though.
Some aren’t as impressive anymore, some have fallen to ruin, others are just a field, a ditch or even a mound. There are over 700 castles like this in the UK and you’ve probably passed one without even realising it.
You might have been on holiday (or even at home) and gone out for a walk. You might have walked through a field and not even realised that there was once a castle there.
These sort of castles are a lot harder to spot though, unless you know what to look for.
What is the Obvious Sign?
Spotting a hidden castle is a lot easier once you know what to look for.
If you read my post last week, then you might remember that I said how castles weren’t always built out of stone, some were built out of wood. In fact, before 1100 castles were made out of wood.
But the issue with wooden castles is that they weren’t very strong and they caught fire easily. Which is why, after 1100, stone castles soon became the norm.
BUT you can still see the site where these wooden castles were built and the easiest way to tell if you are looking at a hidden castle is if there is a mysterious mound in the middle of a field.
This is actually known as an earthwork castle. This is a castle that would have been built from wood (timber), and the main fortification would have been deep ditches and earthen banks, topped with wooden fences and a gatehouse.
Obviously now you won’t see the wood as it would have rotted away, but what you can see is a huge mound.
Now, sometimes this will have eroded away, so you will have to have a little bit of imagination, but you can at least picture what the site once looked like!
Look for a Motte and Bailey!
There are plenty of different earthworks out there, however, the most common type of earthwork castle is a Motte and Bailey castle!
This is an artificial mound made from layers of stone and earth (think of an upside pudding bowl, with steep sides and a flat top). The wooden castle, which would have been a timber tower (also known as the keep or donjon) would be on the top.
There would also be a deep ditch around the outside. This is something which should be obvious and you can’t miss it!
A Motte and Bailey castle is super obvious once you know what to look for and there are plenty of them out there.
Around 1,000 Motte and Bailey castles may have been built in England by the Normans. They stopped being built in England from about 1170, however, they were still built in Wales.
Locations for Motte and Bailey Castles
If you’ve never heard of a Motte and Bailey before, then the first one was built at Mont Glonme on the River Loire in France in 990! Most of the Motte and Bailey castles that were built after this, followed a very similar pattern.
The only difference would be that they were modified according to their location, however, here are the main reasons why the location would have been chosen:
- They were built on the Highest Ground
- They often adjoined Rivers
- They often overlooked Towns
- They made use of existing sites of Roman or Saxon forts and Burhs
- They overlooked harbours
These are the key things that you can look for to help you identify if the location you are looking at is a Motte and Bailey Castle.
A drive through the English countryside gives the opportunity to identify the sites of famous Motte and Bailey castles as there is the evidence of the huge mounds of earth, or Mottes, on which they were built.
Famous Motte and Baileys include:
- Bickleigh Castle – Devon, England
- Brecon Castle – Powys, Wales
- Clare Castle – Suffolk
- Corfe Castle – Dorset (Original Anglo Saxon wooden tower built on a natural mound)
- Ely Castle – Cambridge
- Norham Castle – Berwick, Scotland
- Richards Castle – Worcester – built by Norman friends of Edward the Confessor before the Norman Invasion
- Shrewsbury Castle – Salop
- Stafford Castle – Staffordshire
- Thetford Castle – Norfolk
- Winchester Castle – Hants
- York Castle – North Yorkshire
Other Historical Things To Look Out For!
If you’re a history buff, then it won’t just be castles will interest you. Once you start looking out for castle locations, there are plenty of other things that you can look out for as well.
Becoming a castle spotting expert can take some time, everyone can spot a big stone castle, but not many can identify a Motte and Bailey without prior knowledge… but did you know there are other historic things that you can also identify?
I am by no means a history expert, as I am constantly learning about all things historical. For example, a few weeks ago I came across a field that looked completely different to what I would normally expect to see. However, I learnt that this was actually a ridge and furrow!
I learnt that day that a ridge and furrow is an archaeological pattern of ridges (Medieval Latin sliones) and troughs created by a system of ploughing used in Europe during the Middle Ages, typical of the open field system.
Now I know that this is something I’ll never forget and even though it’s something small, and not as impressive as a stone castle, I still think it’s pretty cool and it’s just one way to see the past.
To Sum Up – The Things You Should Look For:
- Castle ditches are always on the outside of the bank, this was done to make it easier to defend the inside. It would also make the rampart look incredibly imposing (it was always a good idea to try and scare your enemies)!
- Look for traces of the original entrances into the castle’s enclosures. For example, you might note that the banks may flare out, this would have created a longer passageway which you would have been forced to travel through.
- Even if the earthworks aren’t as high as they use to be, you should still try to trace their original route. You should 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.
- 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?
These are all things that you can use to help you figure out if what you are looking at was actually a place where a castle once stood!
Although it would be amazing to be able to have seen the original castle standing in all its glory, at least you will now be able to imagine what would have been. Your imagination is a powerful thing, so make sure you use it and enjoy your new ability to be able to spot hidden castle locations!