Hidden Castles in plain sight

History is everywhere. Some of it is still in existence such as buildings, manuscripts and archaeology. Some are not and their physical existence has been lost to time. But just like a tree which still makes a noise when it falls in the forest even though no one may have heard it our history still exists although gone. One of my previous posts was titled the invisible castle and is about Rayleigh mount (https://fortheloveofhistory.home.blog/2019/04/11/the-invisible-castle-rayleigh-mount/), this week’s post follows on from that “invisible” castle and looks at the hidden castles around South east Essex. The castles where the architecture may have gone but there is still evidence of what it once was if one knew what they were looking at.

This blog idea came to my mind when I was out exploring back in July. I started to do some research into lesser-known historic sites in Essex and came across Bures Mount. Once believed to be a Motte and Bailey Castle created either during the invasion of 1066 or a bit later under the Anarchy (1135-53). Today all that remains is the mound which the Motte would have sat atop at which rises 10m above ground (although it is believed to have been higher) and 60m in diameter.

The land the mound is on once belonged to Roger the Poltewvin/Poitou until the arrival of William the Conquer in 1066 where the land was handed over to the Sackville family. In the Domesday book it is listed as Bura. The first reference to a mound was in a court roll in 1339 – ‘Bures at the Mount’. The location on top of the mound offered views of at least 3 miles in each direction. The area is within easy reach of the River Stour and near a number of roads. Nearby there was a local mill which fed off the Cambridge Brook which would have provided water to both the motte and the village beyond.

In 2011, an archeological excavation was carried out on the mound. From this it is believed that mount Bures was not a major mote and bailey stronghold but rather more just a defense look out point with palisade. No evidence survives which indicate any major fortfications or buildings which one expects to find at a stronghold. The area on the summit is considered to be quite small in area and would have housed nothing larger than a beacon and small tower.  Experts believe that the mound was built during the Anarchy to strengthen what is believed to have been a manorial estate which included the church of St John the Baptist which still stands today.

Unfortunately the gate was locked when I visited, so I was unable to get to the top of the mound but just walking around and seeing the sweeping farm landscape around gave me a good enough impression of the mark the mound had.

What is a Motte and Bailey Castle and why do so little remain?

Motte and Bailey Castles became popular in England after the Norman Conquest in 1066. They were already popular in Europe. In England there were Ringwork Castles and Burghs which were created during the reign of King Alfred the Great. However, the Motte and Bailey Castles would display a symbol of power and wealth as well as defense, making sure that everyone knew who was in charge.

(c) theworldofcastles.com

A cheap and simple form of defence, William set about constructing a number of these across England to place his stamp on his new realm. The first Motte and Bailey constructed was at Hastings and is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. It would be the first of 1000 constructed under the Norman invasion.

Timber, earth, wood and manual labor was all that was needed to construct one of these castles. The mound on which the wooden keep would be constructed was called the Motte. A raised earthwork varying in heights depending on the site. Sometimes the natural lay of the land was used and other times the mound was manually created by placing layers of earth on top of layers of shingle until it reached the desired height. The enclosure which would be connected to the motte by a bridge was known as the bailey. Within the bailey would be all the buildings required to run and maintain the motte and those living there.

What other hidden castles can be found in Essex?

There is Canfield Castle by the River Roding. Due to the lack of masonry findings, it is thought that this was a mainly timber construction. The mound reaches 40ft and was accompanied by a 28-foot-wide horseshoe shaped bailey with double ramparts and a moat thought to have been 20inches deep. IN the Domesday book the area is being listed as owned by the de Vere Family, which it stayed in for a time.

In 1215, the Barons of England would revolt againts King John, unhappy with his rule, Robert de Vere, who was the current owner of Canfield was one of these unhappy Barons. After the signing of Magna Carta in June the same year, King John took his revenge and de Vere had all his properties convesated including his seat at Headingham (also in Essex). All that Robert was left with was his property at Canfield. There are manorial rolls for Canfield which date until the 16th Century, where one can presume the castle was no longer in use and most likely had not been for some time.

Pleshey Castle

Pleshey Castle, Essex, is considered one of the best-preserved Motte and Bailey Castles in the country. Today all that remains is its 50-foot-high mound and some earthworks. However, when it was completed in 1106, a wooden keep followed by a stone keep later, stood atop the Motte, which was accompanied by a stone bridge around 1450s, which is still in existence today.

(c) CastleStudiesTrust

Pleshey has had a number of owners from its creation until it was dismantled in 1559 after being sold by Elizabeth I. The land at Pleshey was given to Geoffrey de Mandeville by William the Conquer, and it was he who started the first castle on the site, a wooden Motte and Bailey. The word pleche comes from the Old French meaning to intertwine. Geoffrey, among the usual ditches to defends his new castle hid closely woven thrown hedges surrounding it as well – pleasches hedges. It is believed that this is where the names of the town which eventually sprung up around the castle comes from. Geoffrey would be made high Constable of England and one of the most powerful men in Essex. Pleashley would become his seat.

The castle, which was now a stone keep came under the ownership of Thomas Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester through the marriage of the female line of the Mandeville’s in the 12th Century. Thomas married Eleanor de Bohun in 1376, and the castle became a royal residence and home for them both along with the village becoming a center for the arts and chivalry. In 1377, Thomas would become one of the guardians to the young King Richard II (Thomas’ nephew). Richard grew to resent Thomas and in 1397 he paid a visit to his uncle at Pleashley inviting him to London for a meeting with his other two brothers. On route there at Stratford the young King went ahead and Thomas was then ambushed, arrested in the kings’ name and shipped to Claid and imposionerd. When summons was sent for him to be returned and face trial news was sent that he had died, rumor on the orders of the young King. This infamous event appears in Shakespeare’s Play Richard the Second.

Archeology and documentary evidence tell us that the earthworks which remain today are the second lot of earthworks. The first were destroyed in 1158. The castle underwent a restoration in 1459-69. It is believed that there would have been a chapel within the bailey. Excavations of the site were carried out by S. R. Bassett from 1972-81. There are also detailed accounts of the building works at the site on the Castle Studies Trust website.

And finally….

The best surviving example of a Motte and bailey castle in Essex would be that of Mountfichet (one I have yet to visit). Constructed in 1066 on the site of what is believed to have been an Iron age hillfort followed by a Roman Signal Fort and then an Anglo-Saxon settlement which commanded views all around. It was constructed under the orders of Robert de Guernon, a cousin to William the Conqueror. He would make the site the main seat of his Barony. It was his son who would adopt the family name of Mountfichet, which was already in use for the area.

It would stay in the family for five generations when in 1215, it was attacked by King John as retaliation for Richard (great great grandson of Robert) Moutfichets involvement in the baron’s rebellion and the signing of the Magna Carta. The lands would be restored under King Henry III to the family but they never rebuilt again leaving the site to wreck and ruin.

It was not until the 1980s that what we see today was built. Mountfichet Castle is an open air museum to give both children and adults alike an idea of what life was like in a Motte and Bailey Castle and Norman village. It is a protected monument and only a small fragment of the stonework from the stonework which was added later still survives (along with the mound)

image from MountfichetCastle.com

Do you have any hidden Castles near you?


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