The Roman Villa at Rossett #2 – Some background to the excavation

It is difficult to imagine this field as a beating heart of a villa complex life in northeast Wales, but here it is.

This short series focusing on the Rossett Roman Villa began yesterday with Part 1  – What is a Roman Villa? , which was an overview of Roman villas in general, looking at how they are defined, their key features, what is known about who lived in them, how they changed over time and how they are dated.

Today’s post, part 2, looks at the background to the decision to start excavating at the site, information assembled from press releases, the villa project’s Twitter releases (impressive!) and the information imparted by Stephen Grenter, Heritage Services Manager at the Wrexham Museum on the Open Day.  Part 3 will describe the excellent Archaeological Open Day that took us through what was happening in the three big trenches opened in the last two weeks, as well as plans for the future.  Again, I just want to say huge thank-you for such a great tour of the site and the sheer amount of knowledge imparted in such a relaxed but professional way.  I have included some of the information communicated on the day in this post, and much of the rest is taken from Caroline Pudney’s posts on Archaeology Chester, with thanks to both of them for being so generous with the information, but of course any errors are my own.

The Rossett villa before excavation.  Source: Archaeology Chester

The strategically important legionary fortress at Chester means that a Roman presence in the surrounding area was almost inevitable, and it has been known for a long time that there was a civilian settlement south of Chester at Heronbridge, Roman industrial activity in Holt (a brickworks and tileworks) to the east and at Halkyn Mountain to the west.  Also in the west, Ffrith has produced Roman remains, but it lies under the village so not much is known about it.  Up until now, however, nothing concrete was known about Roman activity in the Rossett-Burton area.

The Rossett site is located to the west of Burton and is the first villa known from northeast Wales, making it of particular importance.  Prior to any major discoveries, the existence of a Roman presence of some description in the area had already been inferred by archaeologists who had found Roman objects in local ploughed fields.  Ploughed fields are excellent for field walking, as the action of ploughing draws artefacts from lower down up to the surface of the field, and they are often clearly visible against the dark soil.  When the field is recently ploughed, there are no distractions like crop stubble or weeds.

A site plan taken from the geophysical survey of Rossett villa. Source: Archaeology Chester

Confirmation that from the 1st Century onwards Romans had at least passed through the Rossett-Burton area came with a discovery made by a responsible metal detectorist who reported an important find:  an inscribed lead pig that turned out to date to the 1st century AD, the century in which the Romans first arrived.   All of a sudden, the Burton area was in the archaeological spotlight.  A survey and excavation of the ingot site followed, funded partly with a grant from the Roman Research Trust and carried out by archaeologists from Wrexham Museum, the University of Chester and Archaeological Survey West.  There was sufficient time and funding remaining after the ingot investigations had been completed for further geophysical survey work to be carried out in a nearby field and this revealed a beautifully delineated buried structure with the typical layout of a Roman villa, staggeringly clear on the survey image shown below.  Additional structures were evident, but not so easy to interpret, and some of those too are now under excavation.


Background

The Rossett Ingot

The first indication of a site near Rossett was the discovery of a lead ingot or pig.  A pig is a roughly rectangular bar of mined metal that is shaped to be convenient for transportation to a location where it can be processed.  Its discovery was reported on the Archaeology Chester (University of Chester) blog:

Lead pig in situ. Portable Antiquities Service ID WREX-8D3982. Source: Archaeology Chester.

Our story begins in September 2019 when a lead pig (ingot) marked with the name of Trebellius Maximus, the Governor of Roman Britain from AD 63 to 69 was found near Rossett, Wrexham County Borough, Wales. A responsible, skilled, and knowledgeable local metal detectorist found an impressive metal signature while out detecting. He immediately contacted the local Finds Liaison Officer based at Wrexham Museum and the object was subsequently excavated with the help of staff at Wrexham Museum and the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust.

The find generated a lot of interest in academic circles and was widely reported in the media, because this is the first inscription known in Britain that mentions Marcus Trebellius Maximus, who was the governor of the province of Britannia between AD 63 and 69 during the reign of the Emperor Nero, one of Britain’s first governors after the AD 43 invasion.   An administrator rather than a soldier, he made no push to gain more territory, placing emphasis on consolidation and economic growth.  He was unable to secure the respect of the military and in AD 69, after the death of Nero and a period of instability in Rome, a mutiny in Britain forced him to flee.  He was replaced by Marcus Vettius Bolanus who had the twin assets of being both a Roman Senator and a soldier.

One of Julian Baum’s stunning impressions of Deva, showing the
beginning of Watling Street West (Margary 6a) and the Dee
crossing linking to roads south and west. Source: Julian Baum, Take27 Ltd.

Although as a legionary fortress Chester was an important Roman centre, with roads radiating out of it towards other Roman sites in all directions,  northeast Wales itself has not provided much data to support the idea of a significant Roman interest in the area, so the find raised two important questions that led to the decision to carry out further surveys and excavations in the area.  The first question raised by the pig itself was about the extent to which the Romans were exploiting local mineral resources from early on during their occupation of Britain.  The second concerned how a major new Roman find might shed light on the Roman occupation of northeast Wales, data for which is extremely thin on the ground to the northwest of Wrexham and southwest of Chester.

Not the most ideal conditions for excavating the ingot site!  Source: Archaeology Chester

The initial fieldwork, phase 1 of the project, took part during partial lockdown with atrocious weather conditions during September and October 2020, with financial support from the Roman Research Trust, the University of Chester and Wrexham Museum.   Although the surveys suggested some promising features, excavation by a small 6-person team, battling with rapidly flooding trenches only revealed remains from mainly much later periods.  The absence of Roman period finds during the excavations was, however, informative:

The absence of Roman archaeology and confirmation of alluvial deposits highlighted the likely watery or marsh-like setting that existed during the Roman and later periods. In turn this tells us that the ingot is reflective (perhaps) of a stray loss since no evidence of deliberate deposition or lead processing could be found nearby. [Pudnesy 2021]

The conclusion is that the lead was mined elsewhere and was lost in transit on its way to its intended destination.  The analysis of the lead at Liverpool University, which hopes to narrow down a source, is still ongoing but initial work suggests that it may have been mined from elsewhere in northeast Wales, perhaps at somewhere like Ffrith, where Roman remains have been found, including indications of lead mining, or Minera:

That the Romans mined lead at Minera has long been inferred; the mineral veins would have been easily discovered at outcrop, a Roman road passes close by, and residues of lead smelting have been recorded in a Roman context only three miles distant. Proof
remains elusive though ancient working is inferred by the discovery of a stone mortar. [Peter Appleton]

No further archaeological remains were discovered at the site during excavation.

Lead ingot from a river jetty site at the edge of Chester racecourse dating to 74AD.  Source:  David Mason’s book Roman Chester, p.45.

Other pigs have been found in the Chester area.  David Mason shows one in his book Roman Chester, excavated with the remains of a timber jetty at the Roodee (Chester racecourse on the side of the river Dee) in 1886 dating to AD74.  The text is abbreviated but reads “[Cast] while the Emperor Vespasian Augustus was consul for the fifth time and Titus, acclaimed Imperator, consul for the third time.  On the side is another inscription that reads “Deceangl” meaning that it was mined on Deceangli territory.  The Decaengli territory of northeast Wales ran along the borders of the Cornovii territory that occupied what is now West Cheshire, and probably extended up the Wirral.

Wales in AD47. To the east of the Deceangli, in what is now Cheshire, was the tribal area of the Cornovii, who were based at Wroxeter.  Source: Emerson Kent

Britain’s mineral resources were amongs the properties of Britain that was extremely attractive to Rome, and the territory of the Deceangli had numerous stone and metal resources including lead. Lead was used in building projects, but some of it was also a source of silver when subjected to a process called cupellation.  Lead mines at Prestatyn were established in c.75AD.  Others have been found at Meliden, Pentre-Oakenholt, Halkyn and Ffrith. Clwyd and Powys Archaeological Trust describes an ore vein that runs east to west at Halkyn.   A Roman ‘pig’ or ingot of lead was found in 1950 inscribed with the letters C NIPI ASCANI, the abbreviated name of a private lead producer, C. Nipius Ascanius, the lead thought to have been mined and smelted on Halkyn Mountain.  Excavations in the Pentre Oakenholt area of Flint have provided evidence of lead smelting, presumably from ores from Halkyn Mountain. Roman domestic buildings at Pentre Farm, Flint may have been the home of a mine supervisor.

Magnetometry results at Rossett Villa. Source: Archaeology Chester

There was sufficient funding from the Roman Research Trust grant left over for additional geophysical survey.  Stephen Grenter had visited the field in which the villa was found at an earlier date because pottery sherds and other small finds had been made there, and found additional objects that suggested that it would be worth carrying out additional fieldwalking and geophysical survey, so this was carried out.

The field walking recovered a total of 181 artefacts from the ploughsoil. A large proportion of artefacts were ceramic, including brick and tile (CBM).  A total of 76 sherds of pottery, 23 fragments of worked stone, 4 metal objects, 5 fragments of glass and one fragment of animal bone were also retrieved. Together with fragments of painted plaster and opus signinum, the assemblage reflected the likely presence of a Roman building, but potentially of higher status than we’d initially suspected. [Pudney 2021]

Geophysical survey (magnetometry) followed.  Geophysical survey results can be remarkably difficult to interpret, but the amazing scan of the villa’s foundations, was phenomenally clear, showing the perfect layout of a wing and corridor villa with rooms behind.  Other features suggested by the geophysical survey were not nearly as clear, and some of those are now under excavation.

The Rossett Villa

To the west of Burton Green, the villa is described as  Rossett Villa.  Clear evidence of Roman occupation in the immediate area had been indicated by objects produced in the process of agricultural ploughing as well as metal detecting.  These items included pieces of samian ware (terra sigillata, a Roman luxury ceramic), box tiles,  fragments of mortaria (food preparation mortars) and quern stones.   Other Roman objects  found in the general vicinity had been registered with the Portable Antiquities Scheme including Roman brooches and coins.  The presence of a villa had not been suspected as they are extremely rare in the northeast Wales/Cheshire areas.

Primary areas of villa occupation in Roman Britain. Source: Rowe, J.E. 2015.  Roman Villas of Wales.  M.A. Thesis, University of Regina, Saskatchewan

The Rossett villa is unusual in that its location is outside the main distribution area of villa sites.  The densest concentration of known villas is in the south of England.   Rossett is only one of two villas known in the area that potentially fell under the influence of the Chester legionary fortress, the other being located at Eaton-by Tarporley.  The discovery of signs of a hypocaust at Crewe-by-Farndon have led to suggestions that there may have been another a third one in that area (mentioned in the the Farndon Archaeological Assessment).  The nearest villa in Wales is at a substantial distance from Rossett, in a remote part of Ceredigion, near to Trawsgoed Roman Fort.

Some of the sites in the Chester area are connected to one another by the Roman road network, but it is not yet fully understood how northeast Wales was reached from Chester and how it was connected to west Wales, including the sites at Ffrith and Halkyn.

The wing and corridor villas at Sparsholt (top) and Lullingstone. These artists’ impressions are intended to provide an idea of what a villa might have looked like above the level of the foundations.  Source of Sparsholt image: Johnston, D.J. 1991 (cover photo).  Source of Lullingstone image:  English Heritage Lullingstone website)

The Rossett villa is located just off the proposed route of a potential Roman road from Chester. It has been suggested that the road may have run south from the fortress, across the bridge shown in Baum’s reconstruction of Chester above, before turning southwest and passing through Ffrith, where there is plenty of evidence both for Roman settlement remains and a stretch of Roman road, before proceeding via Bala to the fortlet at Brithdir to the south of Dolgellau.  This presumably also connected with the Cefn Caer fortlet at Pennal (about which I posted on another blog here), which guarded a crossing over the river Dyfi, connecting north and south Wales.  It is hoped that future LiDAR research will clarify the location of the road.  It worked a treat with clarifying Roman road 6A (also known as Watling Street West) that runs south from Chester via Aldford and Malpas to Whitchurch and beyond to Wroxeter (about which I have posted here).

The nearest villa to Rossett, as the crow flies, was actually at Eaton by Tarporley in Cheshire, excavated 1980-81 and again in 1982.  As far as I know, it remains Cheshire’s only known Roman villa, as reported by Morris in 1982 and 1983, and summarized  on the Heritage Gateway website.  The summary is copied here because it provides a useful illustration of the often multi-period character of villas:

Excavations of Eaton-by-Tarporley Villa. Source: Morris 1982 and 1983

During the laying of the Lake Vyrnwy-Liverpool water main in 1886, Roman tiles, mortar and a coin of Marcus Aurelius were found on the western fringe of Eaton-by-Tarporley (a). A field-walking programme in 1980 to investigate the context of these finds, led to the discovery at SJ 57176341 of a Roman winged-corridor villa, the first villa to be identified in Cheshire. Excavations were conducted on the site from 1980-82. These revealed 4 Roman phases.
Phase 1. Only two post-holes were found relating to the primary occupation of the site, perhaps beginning c. AD 150. The building was probably short-lived, quickly succeeded by the phase 2 construction on a different alignment.
Phase 2. A timber building was erected delimited to W and N by ditches perhaps serving to convey water to the site from a nearby spring rather than for drainage. Again the building seems to have been short-lived, this time destroyed by fire.
Phase 3. About the last quarter of the 2nd century, the first stone-built villa was constructed, of winged-corridor plan and of a single storey only. The S wing formed a baths suite. All rooms in the main range were decorated with painted wall-plaster and had floors of opus signium or mortared pebbles. One room here was heated, plus two in the N wing.
Phase 4. c.AD 350 the villa underwent thorough reconstruction. The colonnade was demolished and the living space extended out to this line. Thickening of the walls indicates a second storey was added at this time. No evidence survived for the destruction/abandonment of the villa due to Medieval stone-robbing and PM ploughing.
Medieval. Large numbers of pottery wasters were recovered from the villa, and excavation SW of it located a complex of 14th century pottery kilns. At some later date but still within this period, a building of unknown function was erected out of re-used Roman materials over the SW corner of the villa.  

The villa included a bath suite including a calidarium and tepidarium sitting over hypocausts (raised floors on short pillars, the spaces created heated with fires), and a frigidarium for cooling off.

Two different ideas about the appearance of Abermagwr in Ceredigion, a small villa dating to c.AD 230, both views drawn by one of its excavators, Toby Driver.  This demonstrates that although foundations may look much the same from one villa to the next, the actual appearance may differ considerably.  The two interpretations also usefully suggests that the survival of inorganic building materials, particularly wood, may potentially offer an alternative interpretation. Sources: RCHAMW (top) and Wales Online (bottom)

In Wales itself, the only other villa site known north of south Wales is in Ceredigion, less than a mile from Trawsgoed Roman Fort, and in a very remote area.  Abermagwr villa was first identified from aerial photographs taken during the drought of 2006, was subjected to geophysical survey in 2009 and was partially excavated in 2010 by by Jeffrey Davies and Toby Driver.  Described by its excavators as “a comparatively modest late third- to early fourth-century AD house,” was established around 230AD, which is interestingly around a century after the Trawsgoed fort was abandoned, and it is suggested that building material from the fort’s bathhouse was used to build the villa.  It had a very fine slate roof, and finds included pieces of a remarkable glass bowl that was made in Germany’s Rhineland. The villa burned down in c.330AD, and was abandoned.

This is a very poor showing for villas in northeast, northwest and mid Wales, and for Cheshire as well.  The scarcity of villas in this area seems to require an explanation, particularly as Chester was such an important fort, there was a civil Roman settlement at Heronbridge just to the south of Chester near Ecclestone, a tile and pottery manufacturing base was located immediately to the north of Holt and there was another pottery production centre at Plas Coch on the outskirts of Wrexham.  This was an area of prime agricultural land that one would have thought would be ideal for the establishment of one or more potentially profitable estates.  There are two primary reasons why sites do not occur on distribution maps. The first is because they were simply not built in certain areas, and the second is that they have not yet been found.  There are more reasons too, such as sites that have been completely destroyed, or those that whose building materials were robbed for the building of other buildings, but a complete absence of evidence in an area tends to fall into one or other of the first two categories.  In practical terms, this means that a gap on a distribution map is a question mark, not a sign that nothing was build there.  This is perfectly demonstrated by the Eaton-by-Tarporley, Abermagwr and Rossett villas, all of which turned up in places that were empty patches on villa distribution maps.   With more grants for future research, a lot more field work and a bit of luck thrown in, the Rossett and Burton areas may reveal more previously unrecognized archaeology, including that from both previous and later periods. Indeed, Toby Driver has recorded cropmarks at Rossett similar to those at Roman villas in other parts of Wales (noted on the Coflein website).  However, with the discovery of the Rossett villa, it seems likely that others will now turn up.

 

Conclusions

Findspot at the Rossett Roman villa excavation.

Even before I went to the Open Day, the team had made it clear in their reports that the Rossett and Burton Green finds are exciting hints of a greater Roman presence to the southwest of Chester than had previously been suspected.  Both the original discoveries and the work that has since taken place will hopefully form a platform for the launch of future survey and excavation work that will help to clarify how northeast Wales fits into the bigger Roman and Romano-British picture.  The team is hoping to reconvene next year for a six week dig, assuming that funding is forthcoming.

The last words today go to Dr Caroline Pudney:

Both the lead pig and the villa whisper to us of great potential. The prospect that this villa complex does not exist in isolation is very real. There are not many Roman villas known across north Wales. North east Wales specifically, was until now, yet to reveal one buried beneath its soils. Who knows how many more lurk beneath the surface? There are also a surprisingly low number known further west and south into Cheshire and Shropshire. This is strange considering the presence of a whacking great Roman fortress (Deva Victrix) and the civitas capital at Viriconium (Wroxeter). One would surely expect a richer character of rural settlement in this area than is presented in the known archaeological record to date.  [Pudney 2021] 


Follow the Roman Villa excavations, their post-excavation findings and their news about future work on Twitter using the hashtag #rossettvilla.  


Sources:

The main source of information about the Rossett discoveries is Dr Caroline Pudney’s report on the Archaeology Chester (University of Chester) website, which has been quoted extensively above:  The highs and lows of archaeology: In the footsteps of Trebellius Maximus. By Dr Caroline Pudney, 16th Apr 2021
https://archaeologychester.wordpress.com/2021/04/16/the-highs-and-lows-of-archaeology-in-the-footsteps-of-trebellius-maximus/

Additional background information as well as some notes about the villas in Cheshire and Ceredigion have been sourced as follows:

Books and Papers:

Clark, J. 2003.  Cheshire Historic Towns Survey.  Farndon. Archaeological Assessment.  Environmental Planning, Cheshire County Council
www.cheshirearchaeology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/HTS_Arch_Assess_Farndon.pdf 

Clark, J. 2003.  Cheshire Historic Towns Survey. Tarporley. Archaeological Assessment.  Environmental Planning, Cheshire County Council
http://www.cheshirearchaeology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/HTS_Arch_Assess_Tarporley.pdf

Greene, K. 1986.  The Archaeology of the Roman Economy.  Batsford

Johnston, D.E. 1994.  Roman Villas.  Shire Archaeology

Mason, D.J.P. 2007 (2nd edition). Roman Chester. City of the Eagles. Tempus

Morris, M.G. 1982.  Eaton By Tarporley, SJ57176341. Cheshire Archaeological Bulletin 8, p.49-52
http://www.cheshirearchaeology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/CAB-Vol-8.pdf

Morris, M.G. 1983.  Eaton By Tarporley, Roman Villa. Cheshire Archaeological Bulletin 9, p.67-73
http://www.cheshirearchaeology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/CAB-Vol-9.pdf

North, F.J. 1962. Mining for Metals in Wales. National Museum of Wales
https://www.aditnow.co.uk/documents/personal-album-128/Mining-for-metals-in-Wales.pdf

Pudney, C. 2021.  The highs and lows of archaeology: In the footsteps of Trebellius Maximus.  Archaeology Chester, 16th Apr 2021
https://archaeologychester.wordpress.com/2021/04/16/the-highs-and-lows-of-archaeology-in-the-footsteps-of-trebellius-maximus/

Rowe, J.E. 2015.  Roman Villas of Wales.  M.A. Thesis, University of Regina, Saskatchewan
https://ourspace.uregina.ca/bitstream/handle/10294/5853/Rowe_Jennifer_200205672_MA_HIST_Spring2015.pdf?sequence=1


Websites:

Aberdovey Londoner
Cefn Caer, the Roman auxiliary fort at Pennal.  By Andie Byrnes. 3rd February 2019
https://aberdoveylondoner.com/2019/02/03/cefn-caer-roman-auxiliary-fort-pennal/

Based in Churton
A touch of Rome just east of Churton #1 – Background to the Roman Road. By Andie Byrnes. 3rd April 2021
https://basedinchurton.co.uk/2021/04/13/a-touch-of-rome-just-east-of-churton-1-background/

Coflein
The Abermagwr Roman Villa, Cerdigion
https://coflein.gov.uk/en/site/405315/
Lane Farm Cropmarks, Rossett
http://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/409231/details.html

CPAT Regional Sites & Monuments Record
PRN 100020 – Ffrith Roman site (multiple site). Scheduled Ancient Monument FL164(FLT)
https://www.cpat.org.uk/ycom/ffrith/100020.htm
PRN 86912 – Ffrith, Roman Road
https://www.cpat.org.uk/ycom/ffrith/86912.htm
Holywell Common and Halkyn Mountain
https://www.cpat.org.uk/projects/longer/histland/holywell/hoindust.htm

Heritage Gateway
Historic England Research Records – Monument Number 71430 (Eaton by Tarporley villa)
https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=71430&resourceID=19191

Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales
The Roman villa that made history: Abermagwr Villa, Ceredigion. By Toby Driver, 24th July 2020
https://rcahmw.gov.uk/the-roman-villa-that-made-history-abermagwr-villa-ceredigion/

U3A Ruthin and District
Mineralisation and Mining at Minera, North Wales.  By Peter Appleton.  Date unknown.
https://u3asites.org.uk/files/r/ruthin/docs/mineralisationandminingatminera.pdf 

Wrexam.COM
Rossett Roman villa dig underway in ‘history-changing project. 6th September 2021
https://www.wrexham.com/news/rossett-roman-villa-dig-underway-in-history-changing-project-208603.html

Wrexham County Borough Museum and Archives
The Rossett Lead Pig
www.wrexhamheritage.wales/explore/#rossettpig

 

Andie

September 21, 2021

A site plan taken from the geophysical survey of the winged-corridor villa to the west of Rossett.

In this and the next two posts I will talk about the Rossett Roman villa.  Part 2 talks about the legwork, geophysical surveys and discoveries that built up to the Rossett Villa excavation, and part 3 will describe the truly excellent Rossett Villa Open Day on Saturday 18th September 2021, what visitors learned about what has been surveyed and excavated at the site to date, and what the plans are for the future.  Parts 2 and 3 will be posted early next week.

In Part 1 today, I simply want to look at what a Roman villa in Britain actually was and what we know about them in general terms.  I am far from being anything resembling a Roman expert, so this is intended to provide  a top-level context for the discussion of the Rossett villa itself.  Obviously this is a very short summary of an complex subject, so in Sources at the end, I have highlighted in orange the books, papers and websites that might be most of use to those wishing to read more about British Roman villas.

The archaeologist who guided us so excellently on the Open Day was Stephen Grenter, Heritage Services Manager at the Wrexham Museum, who balanced a natural gift for delivering information to a mixed crowd, with an encyclopaedic knowledge on the subject.  He was great.  Only a few points from his talk have been repeated here because most of his excellent explanations are incorporated in parts 2 and 3, but I just want to start with a huge thank you for such a great tour of the site, the enthusiasm with which so much information was imparted, and the friendly clarity with which the visitors’ many questions were answered.  For those wanting to keep an eye on the Rossett villa excavation, its aftermath and future plans, use the hashtag #RomanRossett on Twitter to keep you updated.

This is a very long post, something of an essay, so if you might find it easier to save it or print it off.  The entire post can be downloaded as a PDF here:  Rossett Roman Villa #1 – What are Roman Villas

This page is divided up into the following short sections:

  • The arrival of Rome in England and Wales
  • Rome in the ground
  • What is the purpose of a Roman villa?
  • What features make up a Roman villa?
  • Who lived in a Roman villa?
  • Dating Roman villas
  • Conclusion
  • Sources


The arrival of Rome in England and Wales

The emperor Claudius. Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica

The Roman Empire first dipped its toe into Britain’s Iron Age waters in 55BC, when Julius Caesar mounted an expedition to Britain.  It was not, however, until AD43 that the Emperor Claudius decided to expand the empire and shore up his precarious position by providing himself some kudos as a military leader, and sent in the legions once again.  This time, Rome came to stay for a very long visit, not leaving until the early 5th Century.  That, as author David Johnston evocatively points out, is as long as the time between Queen Elizabeth I and the present day.  For many generations life under Roman rule was simple normality.  400 years of Roman presence in Britain left an indelible stamp in the form of hundreds of archaeological sites, assemblages and individual objects, all connected by a phenomenal network of roads.

Aulus Plautius was the chosen commander of Emperor Claudius.  He was the man who led an invasion force to Britain and  landed in the southeast before expanding throughouth southern Britain.  Aulus Plautius first found himself in the territory of the prosperous and sophisticated Catuvellauni tribe, whose reach extended from Essex to Surrey under the leadership of Caratacus and his brother Togodummus.  Caratacus and Togodummus were defeated when confronted with the 40,000 men in four legions and supporting auxiliary forces.  Caratacus abandoned his family and fled to the Silures tribe in southeast Wales to rethink his strategy.  An alliance with the Ordovices was struck.

It was not until AD 47 that the Romans felt the need to turn their attention to the tribal areas of what is now known as Wales. Wales had many benefits from a Roman point of view, including rich mineral resources, fertile valleys and a long coastline. It would also have been a good source of manpower via voluntary enlistment or conscription. Perhaps most important, strategically, without peace in rebellious Wales, all Roman-controlled land to its east was potentially under threat. The first period of military hostilities between Rome and Wales lasted between AD 47 and AD 60, with multiple campaigns against the Marches and Welsh communities, starting in the southeast.

A gold stater (coin) of Caratacus, showing him on horseback in suitably fearsome mode. Source: Sunday Times

A significant event was the Battle of Caer Caradoc in AD 50, where Caratacus led armies composed of the Ordovices and Silures against the Roman military. In spite of the strategic advantage of Caratacus and his armies, holding the high ground, the Roman forces under the governor Publius Ostorius Scapula had weaponry, body armour and military experience that outclassed Silurian and Ordovician resources. Caratacus was defeated and ultimately taken into custody and carried to Rome where the Roman senate were sufficiently impressed by his speech that he earned a pardon from Claudius and lived out his life in Rome.

During the later 1st Century Rome began to expand out of the south of England towards the north.  Towns were expanded and administrative civic centres were established.  As well as soldiers, other professionals began to arrive from elsewhere in the empire, including officials, professional classes, traders and craftsmen, slaves and freed slaves.  Some of these arrivals may have brought their families with them.  Some of these newcomers stayed only on a temporary basis, others will have settled permanently, and all beginning to change the character of many areas of Britain.

The Romans did not have it all their own way.  For example, the Silures went on to defeat a Roman legion in AD 52, and there was a brief respite for British dignity when the Boudiccan rebellion in East Anglia in AD 60 required the redeployment of troops, including those stationed in Wales. Full-scale invasion of Wales was temporarily abandoned and a strategy of containment was practised in Wales, with all of the only permanently occupied military bases lying along the border. David Mason, in his book Roman Chester, argues that “while there is no evidence of military activity at Chester in this period, the whole of Cheshire and the neighbouring portions of north-east Wales was undoubtedly in the firm grip of the Roman Army by the mid-50s” and that Roman forces had been active in the area for more than 20 years before the fortress was founded at Chester.

Wales in AD47. To the east of the Deceangli, in what is now Cheshire, was the tribal area of the Cornovii, who were based at Wroxeter.  Source: Emerson Kent

In AD 73 under the Emperor Vespasian, Sextus Julius Frontinus was appointed Governor of Britain (AD 73-77), and it is during his tenure that much of Wales was fully conquered. Three legionary fortresses were established as campaign bases, at Caerleon (Isca Silurum), Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum) and the port of Chester (Deva Victrix) the latter on the river Dee, navigable at that time to the Irish Sea.  A number of temporary camps were also set up within Wales itself, setting the scene for “a network of garrison posts, incorporating fortlets and watchtowers, eventually linked by an all-weather road system” [Arnold and Davies] which was used to maintain control over rural areas.  David Mason comments on the strategic value of Chester’s location: 

Although of limited strategic importance during the initial phases of Roman penetration into the region, Chester came into its own with the expansion of the province in the AD 70s.  The occupation of the Cheshire Plain as a means of driving a wedge between the Ordovices and the Brigantes had long been recognized and in the period of consolidation following their subjugation it made sense to exploit this natural advantage by installing a legion in the area.

Northeast Wales, in which Rossett and Burton are located, was the territory of the Deceangli whose territory abutted that of the Cornovii in what is today West Cheshire.  Although there are a number of Iron Age hillforts in their territory, particularly along the Clwydian Range, there is no sign of conflict.  Unlike other areas of Wales it seems as though the Deceangli offered no significant resistance to the arrival or Rome, and probably functioned as a useful buffer zone between the Ordovices and the troublesome Brigantes in the northeast.  

Plan of the Chester legionary fortress at around AD75 showing the main features, including headquarters (principia), barracks (centuriae), the legionary commander’s residence (praetorium), workshops (fabrica), granaries (horrea), and baths (thermae). Source: Mason 2007, p.50, fig 20a

The establishment of the legionary fortress at Chester, the appearance of Roman roads and the presence of soldiers would probably have been seriously alarming to local inhabitants.  A legion was made up of around 5500 men but together with slaves, servants and ancillary personnel this could have reached a number in excess of 6600.  In addition, there were those who followed the legions, civilians who supplied the legions with the small luxuries of everyday life, as well as inamorata and unofficial families.  How this impacted the Deceangli residents is impossible to assess at the moment because no Iron Age homes or villages have been found in northeast Wales.  If Iron Age farms and/or villages had existed, It is difficult to assess whether any impacts caused by the legionary fortress would have been good or bad for local livelihoods.  It is possible that local villages could have benefited from opportunities to sell their goods, because food would have been an urgent and ongoing requirement for the Roman fortress in Chester, and farming communities would have supplied it, probably via middlemen who lived in the sprawl of buildings that grew up outside forts.  It is, however, also likely that the countryside was scoured for recruits to be pressed into the army, and taxes would have been imposed, which would not have been popular. The arrival of the Roman legion was always going to be a mixed blessing.


Rome in the ground

Chester Roman Amphitheatre.  Source:  English Heritage

Some of the structural remains of Roman buildings in Britain are visible above ground level, like bits of Roman walls in Chester that were later repaired and expanded in the Middle Ages, and still visible when you know where to look.  Some of Roman Britain was below ground until excavated and is now on permanent display, like the Chester amphitheatre.  Some sites have been excavated and reburied to preserve them, and others are currently under excavation.  Other buried sites have been identified via aerial photographs or geophysical surveys, but have not yet been excavated, and there must be dozens of sites that have not yet been recognized.   One of the most complete sites in Britain, under excavation for decades, is the walled town of Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum) in Hampshire, which is remarkable for not having been built over in modern times, apart from one or two farm buildings.  It is a complete Roman town, in the middle of farming country (and it was my first ever dig!).

Fortunately, even if you can’t see the remains of buildings in the field, you can learn about Roman Britain via its objects.  Finds from Roman sites fill museums throughout Britain, including the Wrexham Museum and Chester’s Grosvenor Museum.  The current Hidden Holt exhibition at the Wrexham Museum (open til January 2022), which I reviewed on an earlier post, is a brilliant example of how objects and information boards based on surveys, excavations and ongoing research can continue to illuminate Rome’s impact on Iron Age Britain.

Rome’s impact on Britain, dotted all over the urban and rural landscape and preserved either in the ground or in museums and excavation reports, is remarkable.


What is the purpose of a Roman villa?

Artist’s hypothetical reconstruction of Sparsholt villa in Hampshire under construction. Source: Johnston, D.J. 1991 (cover photo)

A simple definition would state that villas are essentially rural farms or farming estates, with residential facilities, which were common to many areas of the western Roman empire.  Villas are usually associated with well-watered lowland areas suitable for agricultural exploitation.  Buildings described as villas were dotted through the landscape at reasonable distances from one another to avoid conflict over land.  

Kevin Greene in his book The Archaeology of the Roman Economy (p.89), makes it clear that defining a Roman villa in terms of its job description is by no means straightforward:

Most British archaeologists would agree about the definition of perhaps 80 per cent of supposed villa sites in Britain, and will entertain no doubts about those endowed with fine mosaic floors and bath-houses.  The problem arises over borderline cases – when does a farm become a villa?  Excavation in Italy, Germany and Britain has demonstrated that many indisputable villas had humble origins, and developed gradually over several centuries from pre-Roman ‘native’ houses to rectangular buildings, first in timber and then in masonry or half-timbering. . . . At what point did they become villas rather than Romanised farmhouses?

It is a similar problem with much later landed estates, from the Middle Ages to the present day.  When does a wealthy farm become a grand estate?  Often so-called stately homes have rather more humble beginnings, sometimes as farms, and some of them have burned down by accident or have been deliberately demolished and, in both cases, rebuilt more than once over the centuries. 

An artist’s impression of the Roman villa Latimer in Buckinghamshire, showing some of the main external features of a winged corridor villa. There is always a lot of guesswork in reconstruction pictures, because all that is left are the foundations of the buildings, and some post-holes of wooden structures if lucky.  It is a useful way of visualizing what a building might have looked like, a way of imagining the past, rather than a set-in-stone vision of what it actually did look like, which is impossible to recreate.  Source: Johnston 1994, p.35

There are at least three ways of answering Green’s question.  The first is to say that all rectangular homes consisting of a run of rooms arranged along the horizontal axis are villas, whether simple or complex.  That certainly makes life simple, but function.  Another way of defining them is to say that they are Romanized rural homesteads attached to specific economic activities, made to a model that re-used a basic idea that was elaborated over time (i.e. the started off simple and became more complex).  Ken and Petra Dark distinguish between the more luxurious villa  and four types of “non-villa,” the latter defined as enclosed farms, unenclosed farms, dispersed settlements and villages.  

Greene makes the point that not all villas were built for agricultural enterprise, but could be associated with other economic activities and that still others might have very little to do with income generation, but were built where they were because they were nice places for non-resident owners to visit.   All these types of activity are very recognizable in today’s society.  This is explored below in Who Owned and Lived in Roman Villas?

Two different ideas about the appearance of Abermagwr in Ceredigion, a small villa dating to c.AD 230, both views drawn by one of its excavators, Toby Driver.  This demonstrates that although foundations may look much the same from one villa to the next, the actual appearance may differ considerably.  The two interpretations also usefully suggests that the survival of inorganic building materials, particularly wood, may potentially offer an alternative interpretation. Sources: RCHAMW (top) and Wales Online (bottom)

If the purpose of a villa is essentially analogous to a farm, or as a base light industry, like pottery manufacture or metalworking, one would expect the internal rooms of the villa to reflect the way in which people lived in them.  In the case of the more elaborate villas, some of the rooms can be understood as reception rooms because they have walls covered with decorative painting, and floors covered with sophisticated mosaics, but these were confined to the homes of the wealthy.  Sadly, most of the time, the archaeologist is left with rubble and rubbish, and these scattered remains rarely make it easy to decide which room was allocated to which everyday function.  As well as reception rooms, there will have been bedrooms, a dining area, a kitchen and storage areas, but it is not always possible to determine which room corresponds to which function.

Roman villas arrived rapidly, first appearing in southeast England during the 1st Century AD.  Various types are known, and most correspond to areas where there was fairly dense occupation during the late Iron Age, where tribal elites were in power, and with whom sophisticated material remains were associated.  Some villas were built over the top of Iron Age structures.  In south Wales, Whitton in Glamorgan is a particularly good example of an Iron Age farm that developed into a simple villa within the enclosure that had defined the earlier building.  Unless the Rossett Villa excavation reaches levels below the villa itself that change the picture (which would be terrific) no Iron Age sites are known in the immediate area, in spite of its water sources and excellent agricultural potential.

What features make up a Roman villa?

Villas are usually understood only from the surviving foundations of the building.  Most were robbed of their walls for other building projects, and wood has mostly rotted into oblivion.  There are very few clues about the appearance of internal and external walls.  Gaps in walls indicating doorways may provide evidence of  points of access and the width of a given doorway, but give no indication of what the doors looked like or how impressive they may have been. The location, size and character of window openings is only rarely preserved.  Furniture almost never survives.  

Of the four types listed by Ken and Petra Dark, aisled houses are shown at the top, and winged corridor villas (like Rossett villa) are shown beneath. Source: Dark and Dark 1997, p44-45

The foundations, however provide a lot of information, including the layout, scale and complexity of a building, and sometimes the floors and bits of fallen external and internal wall are preserved.  Thin outer walls sometimes suggest a single storey building whilst wide walls suggest that two storeys may have been present, although de la Bédoyère points out that even thin lower walls could support a second storey superstructure built of wood.  Imbrex and tegulae, Roman roofing tiles, found in amongst the rubble will suggest a tiled rather than thatched roof, but how the roof was built and what it looked like are rarely entirely clear.  It is worth remembering that buildings with similar floorplans may actually have had very different appearances above ground level.    

Ken and Petra Dark, building on the foundational work of the archaeologists R.G. Collingwood and I.A. Richmond from the 1960s, describe four main types of villa, based on the layout of the ground plan.  A simple “cottage villa,” a simple rectangle subdivided into rooms with no corridors or wings.  The “aisled house” was a slightly more refined version, with parallel internal walls or columns running the length of the rectangle to create parallel aisles, much like many churches today.  Most common in Britain is the “winged corridor” villa like Rossett villa, which includes a separate corridor or veranda running along the rooms, and has two or more protruding rooms that form the wings.  A “courtyard villa” extends the wings to create a u-shaped plan in which the house and its wings frame a square or rectangular space.  A “corridor house” is the same as a winged corridor villa, but minus the wings.  As with all typologies, these are just the basic forms, but of course there were many variations on these basic layouts.

The fully evolved villa shares some or all of the following features that are combined to make a recognizable entity:

  • A rectangular house consisting of a row of rooms.  The more elaborate buildings had a long corridor at the back of the rooms, and a wing at each end, sometimes a long veranda at the front
  • Located in a rural area, usually lowland, often floodplains
  • Consisting of a number of rooms separated by internal walls, usually including reception rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms, and a food preparation area
  • Thatched, slated or tiled roof
  • Stone walls with doorways and windows.  Windows were rarely glazed due to the expense
  • Plastered interior walls (the wealthiest of which were painted with patterns or scenes)
  • Floors that could be surfaced in a number of ways (the most luxurious of which were mosaics, but which were usually a lot simpler)
  • Storage areas, including under-floor storage (a cellar)
  • Internal columns and sculpted stonework
  • Use  of decorative stones like imported marble (for very wealthy owners)
  • Underfloor heating in the main reception rooms or just a central brazier to provide warmth (you would require something in Wales!)
  • A central courtyard around which other structures were built
  • Garden / kitchen garden / orchard
  • Ancillary buildings, sometimes including bathing facilities that included of one or more heated rooms on raised floors, but also including storage facilities and stables
  • High quality objects found within the confines of the villa building
  • Fields surrounding the villa

Some houses were very simple and included only a few of these features whilst others could be very elaborate.  Most lay somewhere in between, and no two were precisely alike.  Some began as a simple row of rooms, and were later modified with the addition of a corridor to allow rooms to be accessed individually.  Wings were often included in the original design but they too could be added later as the family grew, or the owner acquired more wealth and wanted to make the villa more impressive. Some villa complexes included outbuildings that created a courtyard, and some grew to include a second courtyard.  These elaborations simply extended the original concept of the villa, and did not re-invent it.  Even the so-called palace of Fishbourne in West Sussex is still recognizable as a villa, albeit a very ambitious one.

An undecorated tesselated floor made with chunky stone pieces under excavation in Bath. Source:  Wessex Archaeology

Looking a little more closely at some of the features that often survive, there are many that tell us a lot about how villas were built, as well as what sort of financial resources the villa owners had available to them.

When one thinks of Roman flooring, the word “mosaic” springs immediately to mind, but even in the most impressive of the villas like Bignor, mosaic floors were restricted to only a few rooms.  A mosaic floor is made up of up to thousands of individual pieces of stone called tesserae.  Ornamental mosaics made of very small tesserae in different colours are arranged in complex patterns to form patterns or scenes.  Very beautiful, these are works of art, and were correspondingly expensive, unambiguous indicators of wealth and status as well as good taste.  The costs involved in the creation of individual pieces of the right shape and colour, the copying of patterns and scenes, and the laying of the pieces to create the required scene must have been enormous.  There are much simpler versions as well.  Some tessellated floors are very simple arrangements of blocks of about two inches (5cm) square and all of the same local stone.  Nothing like the expense of an ornamental mosaic, they were still a significant investment.   More common were floors of opus signinum (a mixture of mortar and crushed pottery sherds or stone).  Examples of opus signinum have been found at the Rossett villa site.  

Imbrex and tegula tile arrangement. Source: Wikipedia

Roofing tiles, called imbrex and tegula (plural imbrices and tegulae), worked.  The arched imbrices, sit snugly over the upright edges of two facing tegula tiles, as shown in the above photograph, and the the triangular antefix tiles were placed to cover the ends of the imbrex.  Less wealthy homes could thatch their villas.

In some of the rooms that would have been used for receiving visitors and entertaining, where mosaics would have been laid, plastered walls were sometimes painted with either patterns or scenes derived from Rome.  Again, this represents a serious investment.  A piece of painted plaster was discovered at the Rossett villa, but no details about it have yet been released.

Screengrab of a YouTube video of the hypocaust at Brading Roman Villa on the Isle of Wight, showing how their hypocaust works to heat a room. Arrangements could be different, with the heat delivered by pipes instead. An excellent way of visualizing how a hypocaust worked.  Well worth a look – and there are other excellent animations on the Brading YouTube channel. Source:  Friends of Brading Roman Villa YouTube Channel

Under-floor heating was a sign of wealth.  Some homes were heated only by braziers in the main rooms, but under-floor heating (a hypocaust) was a sign not merely that the owner had the wherewithal to afford its installation, but sufficient slaves to maintain it.  See the animation to the left from Brading Roman Villa on the Isle of Wight to show how a hypocaust works.

Bath houses, operating in the same way as under-floor heating, were common even in some of the simpler villas.  They consisted of up to three rooms:  a hot room, a warm room and a cold room.  The floors of the hot rooms were built on short pillars called pilae, creating a space beneath the floor.  The space was heated by creating a fire in a furnace, the heat from which was passed through a short arched tunnel or pipes into the underfloor space before being expelled through the walls.   A separate bath building and, again, the slaves necessary to keep the heat coming, were indications of wealth, and was probably used to puff off a villa’s status.  It is thought that a side-building at the Rossett Villa may have been a bath house, but this has yet to be confirmed through more excavation.

Samian ware (terra sigllata) found at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall. Source: Vindolanda Charitable Trust website

Pottery is usually found in large quantities at Roman sites, and villas are no exception.  Pottery was used for preparing food, cooking, eating, drinking, storing, transporting, and at the top end, was displayed for its decorative properties.  The most prestigious of Roman pottery is terra sigillata (or samian), which was imported from what is now France (eastern Gaul) and often featured beautiful decorative motifs in relief.  These are often very complex and detailed patterns and would have been much-valued by their owners.  Another form of pottery, black burnished ware, is a very common in sites in southern Britain because it was manufactured in Dorset, but it is also found on sites in the north, where it must have been imported because of its desirable properties.  Sherds of both have been found on the Rossett site, together with other types as well.


Who owned and lived in Roman villas?

Whether they were simple or elaborate, villas were built by people who had ideas about what they wanted out of a building that would be both a home and a base for whatever commercial activity they were engaged in, usually on agricultural land, sometimes incorporating light industry, and were usually located in rural lowland areas. But who were the people building them?

Museum of London hypothetical but informed reconstruction of a villa room, including the original mosaic, from Bucklesbury villa. Source: Archaeology Travel

Guy de la Bédoyère comments that as well as having no names of any villa owner in Britain, we do not even know if a house remained with one family throughout its occupation, whether it was owned by one person and rented to another, whether a town resident employed a manager to care for the operation, or whether, in the bigger and more complex arrangements of multiple buildings, multiple families occupied the villa.  It is not even known whether villas were inherited by family members on the death of the owner, although it is assumed that this must have been the case, unless the villa was built with a financial loan, in which case it may have reverted to whoever had made the loan.  There’s no single answer to who owned both the villa and the surrounding land, but archaeology is always the realm of multiple possibilities.

Holme House villa in Yorkshire. Source: PJO Archaeology

First of all, building a villa required wealth.  Coinage was in use, but payments could be made in the form of farm produce (e.g. barley, wheat and oats), livestock (e.g. cattle, sheep and pigs), manufactured goods, and anything else that builders and craft specialists particularly required.  The arrival of Rome probably created wealth amongst the best-positioned farmers and craftsmen.  As the requirements of the Roman army and Rome’s administrators became clear, middlemen will have thrived, and certain craft specialists will suddenly have become important suppliers.  Farmers produced the food that fed the army.  There were doubtless many downsides to the arrival of Rome, but for those in a position to take up the opportunities offered, there was the chance to become very wealthy very quickly.  The opportunity to contribute to an organized economy, may have created layers of wealth in the areas around forts and towns.  “Romanization” of British people, at first a tactic, will have created its own momentum, and as this happened the once alien styles of Roman life were copied. 

I bought this piece of willow pattern china on eBay for £2.99 for a post I am writing about objects that I dig out of my garden. No-one would mistake it for a piece of 17th or 18th Century Chinese porcelain because for one thing it’s not porcelain (it is dishwasher proof, microwave proof and a very solid piece of crockery) and it is clearly not hand-painted. Finally, willow pattern was invented in Britain, not China.  It illustrates how something exclusive, prestigious and elite will always eventually find a path to the lower echelons in the form of something with a similar appearance but much less refined in all its elements.

Whether looking at buildings or objects, it is worth remembering that grand cultural innovations, originally exclusive to invaders or the super-rich, inevitably trickle down from the wealthiest upper echelons to those further down the status ladder as cheaper versions become available.  The process of fashion tied in with social ambition is an ancient phenomenon, but a useful analogue is Chinese porcelain in the 17th and 18th Centuries.  At first only the super-wealthy could afford Chinese porcelain, but as it became popular in Britain, local potteries began to make inferior copies and cheaper ways of producing it were invented, making it even more affordable.  Eventually, tea-sets and dinner sets that looked like Chinese ones were fashionable in all but the most impoverished households.  It’s the same with imported foods, like exotic spices and interior design.  As Rome became part of everyday life, and the wealthy, whether Roman or Romano-British, conspicuously differentiated themselves from the poor by their adoption of Roman ideas and designs, those who could eventually afford to copy the rich, even in small, simple ways, would do so, differentiating themselves from their own social inferiors.  Quality and integrity of concept was usually compromised in this process, but a degree of  the original idealized vision would be reproduced.

Gorhambury villa, near St Albans, was built within an Iron Age enclosure. Source: Neal et al 1990 (cover image)

Some of the villas were probably built by what are known as Romano-British landowners on their own land.  Romano-British is a term used to describe indigenous British people living under Roman occupation.  Rossett and Burton were on the land of the Deceangli, who were mentioned above.  Although not much is known about them, the absence of any records of conflict implies that the transition to a life under Roman rule was relatively painless, with life continuing much as it had before.  Still, the influence of Rome filtered within a generation into many areas of life, and villas began to spring up in the landscape.  Sometimes rectangular villas are built over the remains of circular Iron Age roundhouses, which suggests that they were built by local people rather than Roman opportunists and may have had something to do with the relationship between these villa builders and the Roman economy.   

Julian Baum’s reconstruction of the fortress at Chester and the outer buildings in the mid 3rd Century.  Source: Take27 Ltd

Where a villa does not appear to have been built on the site of an earlier Iron Age farm, this may have been the result of new opportunities being taken up by Romano-British entrepreneurs in the vicinity of major Roman centres.  Urban areas were a new concept in Britain in the 1st century AD, and they will have changed the economic landscape of Britain where they were established.  Agriculture and livestock herding, once exclusive to the support of families and the local elite would now be feeding the Roman army, and although there may have been tensions about how this happened early on, some form of commercial arrangements must have been arranged as time went on, and this could have lead to considerable improvements for farmers who could take advantage of such arrangements.  As discussed above, some of these new opportunities may have been converted into wealth-producing commercial ventures, and the role of middle-men in these commercial times would have been conspicuous.  Perhaps they too invested some of their newfound earnings into the building of villas where they could emulate Roman traditions, entertain in style, and display their growing status.

Artist’s impression of Great Witcombe Roman villa, Gloucestershire, in the 4th century. Source: English Heritage

Other villas may have been established by Roman arrivals, long term occupants of Britain such as retired legionnaires who wanted to remain, perhaps because they had families.  As mentioned above, legionnaires were not permitted to marry, but there was little to stop them forming unofficial relationships with local women and having families.  The illegitimate children of such alliances were given Roman citizenship if they enlisted in the army.  So in some cases, retired legionnaires may have wanted to stay either to remain with their families or because they could see a viable way of making a living, and in doing so incorporated Roman cultural and aesthetic ideals into their new homes or investments.

Villa owners would have shared the landscape with other Romanized sites such as burials and small temples, as well as more traditional farmsteads that owed more to Britain’s Iron Age past than Rome’s arrival.  In the Rossett area none of these have been discovered, but the discovery of the villa suggests that many more sites, of various periods, have yet to be located.  It is not known what sort of relationship, if any, villa owners will have had with more traditional neighbours.

Whilst we have no idea who lived in these villas, or even if they were all lived in on a full-time basis, they represent a considerable investment of money and time, and they were clearly highly valued as places of relaxation, commercial activity and social display.

Dating Roman villas

A reconstruction of how the early villa at Sparsholt may have looked, based partly on excavations. Source: Wikipedia

Although the earliest villas were simple, and the most complex appear only in the 3rd and 4th centuries, there is no straightforward progressive model that leads us from simple=early to complex=late, because although the earliest types are simple forms, the building of simple forms continues throughout the Roman occupation of Britain.  As complex villas were built over a period of two centuries, being able to state that they were “later” than more simple ones is not actually particularly helpful.

Size, internal complexity, external flourishes, the presence of mosaics and painted plaster, underfloor heating, and a separate bath house, sometimes very large, would be examples of wealthier villa complexes.  These may have been ambitious from the start, but more usually they grew in scope over time either as their owners became wealthier, as new generations tried out new ideas, or for that matter, as they changed hands.   Putting villas into their correct chronological, social and economic context therefore requires more than a simple model of progression. Small and simple villas were built at the same time as complex villas and so, it should be remembered, were traditional round houses. 

A selection of pottery found in Roman Britain showing some of the variety  of shapes and styles available. The British Museum display includes Black-burnished ware jars, a Rusticated Ware jar, a Central Gaulish Colour-Coated Ware beaker, Trier Black-slipped Ware with white trailed decoration, Nene Valley Colour Coated Ware, a coarse ware cheese press and other fine wares. Source: Wikipedia. Photograph by AgTigress

For most archaeological structures, typology is a useful analytical tool for describing structures, but in order to place villas in a chronological sequence additional information is required.  The objects found within the villa during excavation are much better indicators of date than the building itself, and can help to build up an idea of not merely when a building was first erected, but what happened to it through its life, and how long it was occupied for.  Some objects are more diagnostic than others.  Coins are invaluable, as they were produced during fairly narrow date ranges, which are known.  The value of pottery to dating depends on the type and the style.  Some pottery types were found throughout the Romano-British period, whilst others were specific to certain time ranges and are more useful.  Mosaics, where they appear, may be used to help date a building, thanks to research that has focused on putting known mosaics into a chronological framework.

At the top is Lullingstone villa in Kent in the 1st Century, in the middle is Lullingstone villa in the 4th century (both from the English Heritage Lullingstone website, and the photo at the bottom is Lullingstone as it is today, from Guy de la Bedoyere’s book Buildings in Roman Britain.

One of the best known villa sites is Lullingstone villa.  It is extremely useful for demonstrating the multi-period nature of some of these sites, and the odd things that can happen on their route from one state to another.  It was apparently built in the decades immediately following the Claudian invasion, in the 1st Century A.D. 

  • The earliest phase was very like the Rossett villa, a winged-corridor construction, with a row of rooms backed by a linking corridor and two short wings.  One wing contained a single room, beneath which was a late 2nd century cellar, that has sometimes been interpreted as a cult room.  Unfortunately, later modifications of the building have eliminated more information about the earliest phases.  Little is known about this phase of the structure as it is obscured by later modifications and reconstructions.
  • In the early 2nd Century another building was added to the north of the house, an unusual circular shape that may have been a shrine.
  • In the later 2nd century, a number of improvements were made, suggesting either that the owners were doing rather well for themselves, or that the villa had changed hands.  A bath suite was built onto the side of the house, with an external door at the far end, perhaps indicating that it was used by visitors rather than the owners.  The cellar, whatever its use in the past, was now unambiguously a cult room, decorated with wall paintings.  Again, external access was provided.
  • The most elaborate and luxurious version of the villa dates to the mid-4th century when gorgeous mosaics, a clear indication of wealth, were put down.

The greatest and best known of the villas are in southern Britain, and are deservedly regarded as the most impressive of Rome’s contributions to British cultural life.  These include Bignor, Woodchester and Fishbourne (the latter built on top of the remains of an early Roman military installation).

Screengrab of a YouTube animation of the Roman villa at Brading on the Isle of Wight, complete with mosaics and painted internal walls.  Even though this is a late villa, in the 4th Century AD, it is a simple wing and corridor type. Source: Friends of Brading Villa YouTube Channel

The Rossett villa appears to be along the simpler end of the scale, a step up from a simple aisled house, and typical of the winged corridor type that make up the majority of the villa types found in Britain.  Pottery from the 2nd to 4th Centuries has been found.  If Trench 1 turns out to be a bath-house, this would indicate an additional level of comfort and display, although I personally wouldn’t fancy the short walk from villa to bath-house on a typical Welsh wet winter day 🙂  Stephen Grenter was saying on the Open Day that surprisingly little pottery has been found, but as the dig continues, both this week (its final week in 2021) and next year, when they hope to open the site for another six weeks, hopefully a lot more diagnostic material will be pulled out to help to define more clearly both the date (including duration) and the character of the villa and its surroundings.

A final word

Flower mosaic from Sparsholt Roman villa in Hampshire. Source: Hampshire Cultural Trust

The winged corridor villa’s footprint is so familiar that it is almost an icon in books about Roman Britain, but at the same time villas are not well understood.  It is not known what most of them looked like, from the ground up, and they could have looked very different from one another in spite of the similarity of floor plans.  It is not known who lived in them or for how long, and although it is generally thought that they were owned by their inhabitants, exceptions may have occurred and there are few indicators to suggest which were owned, which rented (if any), whether there were absentee owners who left managers in charge, how often they changed hands, and what they cost to build or buy.  It is not even known how they relate to the local and Roman economies.  In spite of all the unanswered questions, archaeologists have done a great job of building what is known from the clues within and surrounding the villas distributed across Britain.

I would like to leave the very last words with an expert, so here are Ken and Petra Dark’s conclusions about villas and the landscape in which they existed:

Through the Roman period both the villa landscape and its extent changed and acquired new attributes.  Likewise, the social and cultural system that produced it, and was enacted through it, changed.  However, the villa landscape never came to cover the whole of Britain, despite its centrality to the society and economy in those areas in which it was established.  In other parts of Britain other landscapes continued to co-exist with it, whether the ‘barbarian’ native region to the north of Hadrian’s Wall . . . or the ‘native’ landscape of the north and west [Dark and Dark. p.75]

Hopefully, the Rossett villa will contribute more to our developing understanding the landscape of northeast Wales.

For those wanting to keep an eye on the Rossett villa excavation, its aftermath and future plans, use the hashtag #RomanRossett on Twitter to keep you updated

 

Sources (for parts 1 – 3):

Good further general reading about villas are highlighted in orange


Books and Papers:

Arnold, C.J. and Davies, J.L. 2002.  Roman and Early Medieval Wales.  Sutton Publishing

de la Bédoyère, G. 2001.  The Buildings of Roman Britain.  Tempus

de la Bedoyere, G. 2003.  Defying Rome. The Rebels of Roman Britain. Tempus

Clark, J. 2003.  Cheshire Historic Towns Survey.  Farndon. Archaeological Assessment.  Environmental Planning, Cheshire County Council
www.cheshirearchaeology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/HTS_Arch_Assess_Farndon.pdf 

Clark, J. 2003.  Cheshire Historic Towns Survey. Tarporley. Archaeological Assessment.  Environmental Planning, Cheshire County Council
http://www.cheshirearchaeology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/HTS_Arch_Assess_Tarporley.pdf

Collingwood, R.G. and Richmond I.A. 1969, 2nd edition.  The Archaeology of Roman Britain. Methuen

Dark, K and Dark, P. 1997.  The Landscape of Roman Britain.  Sutton

Davies, J.L. and Driver, T. 2018. The Romano-British villa at Abermagwr, Ceredigion: excavations 2010–15. Archaeologia Cambrensis, Vol. 167 (2018)

Davies, J. and Lynch, F. 2000. The Late Bronze and Iron Age.  In (eds.) Lynch, F., Aldhouse-Green, S. and Davies, J.L.  Prehistoric Wales.  Sutton Publishing

Greene, K. 1986.  The Archaeology of the Roman Economy.  Batsford

Johnson, P. 2002 (fourth edition). Romano-British Mosaics. Shire

Johnston, D.E. 1994.  Roman Villas.  Shire Archaeology

Mason, D.J.P. 2007 (2nd edition).  Roman Chester. City of Eagles.  Tempus.

Morris, M.G. 1982.  Eaton By Tarporley, SJ57176341. Cheshire Archaeological Bulletin 8, p.49-52
http://www.cheshirearchaeology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/CAB-Vol-8.pdf

Morris, M.G. 1983.  Eaton By Tarporley, Roman Villa. Cheshire Archaeological Bulletin 9, p.67-73
http://www.cheshirearchaeology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/CAB-Vol-9.pdf

Neal, D.S., Wardle, A., and Hunn, J. 1990.  Excavation of the Iron Age and Medieval Settlement at Gorhambury, St Albans.  English Heritage
https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-1416-1/dissemination/pdf/9781848021464.pdf

Richmond, I.A. 1969. The plans of Roman Villas in Britain.  In Rivet, A.F.L (ed.) The Roman Villa in Britain.  Routledge

Rowe, J.E. 2015.  Roman Villas of Wales.  M.A. Thesis, University of Regina, Saskatchewan
https://ourspace.uregina.ca/bitstream/handle/10294/5853/Rowe_Jennifer_200205672_MA_HIST_Spring2015.pdf?sequence=1

Salway, P. 1984, 2000. Roman Britain. A Very Short Introduction.  Oxford University Press

Websites:

Aberdovey Londoner
Cefn Caer, the Roman auxiliary fort at Pennal.  By Andie Byrnes. 3rd February 2019
https://aberdoveylondoner.com/2019/02/03/cefn-caer-roman-auxiliary-fort-pennal/

Based in Churton
A touch of Rome just east of Churton #1 – Background to the Roman Road. By Andie Byrnes. 3rd April 2021
https://basedinchurton.co.uk/2021/04/13/a-touch-of-rome-just-east-of-churton-1-background/

Brading Roman Villa YouTube Channel
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCuFMK_4SltShKivk0P1VG2g

Coflein
The Abermagwr Roman Villa, Cerdigion
https://coflein.gov.uk/en/site/405315/
Lane Farm Cropmarks, Rossett
http://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/409231/details.html

CPAT Regional Sites & Monuments Record
PRN 100020 – Ffrith Roman site (multiple site). Scheduled Ancient Monument FL164(FLT)
https://www.cpat.org.uk/ycom/ffrith/100020.htm
PRN 86912 – Ffrith, Roman Road
https://www.cpat.org.uk/ycom/ffrith/86912.htm

English Heritage
History of Lullingstone Roman Villa
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/lullingstone-roman-villa/history/

Heritage Gateway
Historic England Research Records – Monument Number 71430 (Eaton by Tarporley villa)
https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=71430&resourceID=19191

RCHAMW
Abermagwr: The remote Welsh Roman villa which produced a unique cut-glass bowl and early evidence for the slater’s craft in Wales
https://rcahmw.gov.uk/abermagwr-the-remote-welsh-roman-villa-which-produced-a-unique-cut-glass-bowl-and-early-evidence-for-the-slaters-craft-in-wales/

Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales
The Roman villa that made history: Abermagwr Villa, Ceredigion 
https://rcahmw.gov.uk/the-roman-villa-that-made-history-abermagwr-villa-ceredigion/

U3A Ruthin and District
Mineralisation and Mining at Minera, North Wales.  By Peter Appleton.  Date unknown.
https://u3asites.org.uk/files/r/ruthin/docs/mineralisationandminingatminera.pdf 

Wrexam.COM
Rossett Roman villa dig underway in ‘history-changing project. 6th September 2021
https://www.wrexham.com/news/rossett-roman-villa-dig-underway-in-history-changing-project-208603.html

Wrexham County Borough Museum and Archives
The Rossett Lead Pig
www.wrexhamheritage.wales/explore/#rossettpig

 

Milepost to the north of Crewe-by-Farndon

Someone has been tidying up the verges and hedges that flank the road that passes through Crewe-by-Farndon towards Worthenbury, and they have done such a good job that one of the mileposts that I went hunting for when I was writing the post about the Chester to Worthenbury turnpike (toll road) has been revealed.  And here it is!   It is in the grass verge on the west side of the road, just before Caldecott Farm.

If you want to know more about these 1898 mileposts, have a look at my post about them here.  They post-date the turnpike, which went out of service in 1877.  Turnpikes were all supposed to have mileposts, so it is probable that when Cheshire County Council was first established was formed on 1st January 1889, and when all of the local turnpikes eventually came under council control, they replaced the original ones, which were probably rather dilapidated by then, with nice shiny new ones.

Not so shiny and new now, but still hanging on in there!  It is located just short of a farm on the left heading south (the east), and is on the west side of the road about two or so metres to the right of a telegraph pole.  I will go back and get an exact What Three Words location for it next time I’m in that area, but for the time being it is roughly at ///rainfall.duplicity.proofs.

 

 

 

Shocklach motte and bailey castle(s) at Castletown

Two sites with one name

Shocklach East is on private land, but its north side can be viewed from the north over a short fence. The image has been stitched together from three photographs, hence the slightly odd appearance.

The name Castletown seems rather glamourous for what today is a wholly rural, agricultural landscape.  Castletown is located south of Crewe-by-Farndon and north of the village of Shocklach and west of the Castletown Farm on a peaceful country road.  On the Ordnance Survey map, which I was studying when working on the post about the 1854 Chester to Worthenbury toll road, there are some interesting details that merited further investigation.  Where the small Castletown bridge crosses a small stream, that eventually flows into the Dee, there are two fairly large sites shown flanking the road.  Collectively, even though they are near to Castletown, they are known as Shocklach Castle, although they actually make up two separate castle sites.

Map showing the sites at Shocklach either side of the Crewe-by-Farndon road as it crosses Castletown Bridge. Source: Public Map Viewer

A visit to the two-part site marked on the map means looking from the side of the road.  The site is not on a public footpath but is very close to the road, and some of the earthworks are clearly visible. As you can see on the above map, the site to the west can be seen from the Crewe to Shocklach road, whereas the one on the other side of the road is best seen from the lane that heads west to Castletown Farm.  For the purposes of this post, I have referred to these sites as Shocklach East and Shocklach West.

Click to see a bigger image.  The location of the Castletown / Shocklach mottes, south of Crewe by Farndon and to the north of Shocklach. Source: Public Map Viewer

The Shocklach site is a scheduled monument, which means that it is protected by the state.  It is recorded as Shocklach Motte and Bailey Castle by the government quango responsible for scheduled archaeological and historic monuments, Historic England.  Its listing code is 1012620, and it was first scheduled in November 1926.  The listing covers both Shocklach East and West.  It is well worth repeating Historic England‘s “Reasons for Designation:”

Shocklach Castle is of particular importance as one of a group of early post-Conquest (c.1100) mottes forming a defensive system aimed at curbing constant Welsh raids on the rich farming areas of south Cheshire. Additionally the site lies within an area containing the most important concentration of medieval monuments in Cheshire. These monuments include two shrunken medieval hamlets, a defended green lane, a Norman chapel, well preserved ridge and furrow, a ford across the River Dee, and a complex of communally owned watermeadows.  The monument is situated in a dingle thought to have been one of the ancient trackways utilised by the Welsh in their frequent raids into southern Cheshire.

It is difficult to imagine this sleepy road and its flanking fields having a strong military presence.  From the early 12th century onwards, however, the motte and bailey site sat on the edge of a settlement whose people were centred on successful economic activities including cultivation and probably livestock management, albeit fearful of attack from Wales.

Archaeological investigation at Shocklach West during the 1980s by the University of Chester (in those days called University College Chester) revealed a lot more than can be seen today.  As above, the site consists of two sets of earthworks, one to the west of the road, covered in trees, and one to the east, which is free of vegetation.  The two sites are scheduled together under one registration number, but it should not be forgotten that they are two separate entities, each of which needs to be understood in its own right.  Rachel Swallow, who excavated the site, talks about the confusion caused by the presence of two separate entities, one each side of the road:

There is a general, and historic, confusion about the function and purpose of the two monuments at Castletown.  The Ordnance Survey (OS) 25 inch maps of 1879 and 1911 clearly mark the monument to the east as a ‘castle’ and ‘moat’, with that to the west of Castletown Bridge as a ‘moat’. The survey of 1964 reinterprets the mound to the west as a ‘motte’, with the earthworks 30 metres to the east marked as a ‘moat’, but not as the site of a castle. In the early nineteenth century, Ormerod stated that the earthworks to the east appear unconnected with those he seemed to believe were of the Norman fortress to the west.

In the discussion below, the two will be dealt with separately first, before looking at how they might related to one another, but first a little look at what motte and bailey castles actually are.

Background – what is a motte and bailey castle?

Miniature from illuminated Chronicle of Matthew Paris (1236-1259), from BL MS Cotton Claudius D. vi, f.9, showing Henry I of England enthroned. Held and digitised by the British Library. Source: Wikipedia

Motte castles are medieval fortifications introduced into Britain by the Normans, made up of a defensive structure built on an artificial mound.  The bailey was a small group of buildings fenced and sometimes moated, attached to and protected by the motte castle. By the time that the Shocklach motte and bailey castle was built, either towards the end of the reign of William the Conqueror or at the beginning of the reign of Henry I, there were political and territorial disputes, particularly within Wales and along the Welsh-English borders.  One of the manifestations of this ongoing disruption was frequent cross-border raids to secure territories and resources.  

Armed dispute over territory and resources has a long heritage in Britain.  From the mid 4thmillennium BC there are the first signs of violence related to competition for resources, and it is likely that livestock raiding was an ongoing problem from that point forward.  It has been suggested, for example, that protection of livestock and  of grain, as well as of people, could have been a primary role of fortified Iron Age hillforts.  

When William the Conqueror arrived in 1066, he began to replace the existing aristocracy with those that he had brought with him, men that he could trust to support him to take control and enforce peace.  English names were quickly replaced by Norman ones in records and by Domesday, merely 20 years after the conquest, only 8 percent of landholdings were held in English names.  The Normans built castles to help them to govern and to demonstrate their power.  Castles, initially turf and timber, sprang up everywhere, later replaced by bigger stone structures.   As Crane observes:  “early Norman castles had more in common with Roman marching forts than with tribal hillforts.  They could be built with astonishing speed, they were virtually impregnable and their construction had more to di with military expediency than with cultural bonding.”

Dorling Kindersley reconstruction of a small motte and bailey castle showing the main features. Fortifications could be very small. Source: Dorling Kindersley Find Out website.

In a motte and bailey arrangement a fortification sits on a natural or artificial mound with an accompanying settlement in a walled/fenced area at its foot, sometimes surrounded by a moat or ditch.  Where the mound was specially built, it could be made of earth, rubble, or both.  A palisade, or fortified fence, surrounded the apex of the mound, on which some sort of tall fortified structure was built, providing views over the surrounding countryside to watch for any oncoming attack.  Most are now covered in grass and sometimes trees.   Where a bailey is also present a palisaded enclosure at the base of the motte, and connected to it, often contained buildings for people, livestock, and grain and water storage, and may surrounded by a bank as well.  These have often vanished from sight today.  Where water was locally available, these defences could also include moats (which in the soggy Cheshire area, might have doubled up as useful drainage ditches).  

Cardiff Castle’s shell keep. Source: Wikipedia

Motte and bailey castles are found in all areas where human population is found, including towns, villages and rural areas.  Although they are generally characterized as being located on high ground, in good strategic positions that are highly visible from the surrounding area, this is more difficult to arrange on the flat expanses and floodplains of Cheshire.  Historic England says that there are over 600 motte castles and motte-and-bailey castles are recorded in England, of which around 100-150 are motte castles without accompany baileys.

Although the best known examples were multi-purpose bases combining the functions of elite residences, administrative centres, strongholds for the protection of economic resources and the material objects that made up personal wealth, and, when needed, a garrison for military activity, there are many much smaller versions, particularly in rural areas, that worked as secondary support to bigger castles and served mainly as watch-posts with small garrisons attached.  Ruined sites and modern artistic reconstructions based on excavations indicate that these might be very modest affairs, with a motte might support a fortification that was little more than an elaborate, defendable shed overlooking a small enclosed gathering of buildings into which people and livestock could retreat, as the excellent reconstruction above from the Dorling Kindersley Find Out website suggests.  They became more elaborate as time went on, evolving into the shell keep, the successor to the the motte and bailey castle.  An example is the shell keep on a motte at Cardiff Castle, shown above the left, which shows how truly impressive they could become.

 

The Castle Sites

Aerial view of Shocklach East in the early 1980s the shadows highlighting some of the earthworks. Source: Morris 1983, plate 2, page 60

The earliest motte and bailey site at Castletown, known as the Shocklach castle, is thought to have been originally built by the Barons of Malpas sometime around 1100, the year in which Henry I acceded to the English throne, in a co-ordinated effort initiated by William the Conqueror and built on by William Rufus to demonstrate English power and to protect the region from frequent Welsh raids.  In the early Medieval period, Malpas, Shocklach and Castletown lay in Anglo-Saxon Mercia, but after the Conquest they quickly came under the control of Norman Chester.

The names and lives of the individual barons at this time are by no means clear, and the line of succession is particularly confusing.  Cotgreave’s 2008 research has ruled out a number of earlier proposals, but in spite of his efforts he has been unable to provide a definitive story of the 12th-13th Century Barons of Malpas.  The barony of Malpas had covered a huge chunk of southern Cheshire at Domesday in 1086, when it was under the lordship of Robert fitzHugh, and consisted of some 43 townships, but it was divided into two halves (moieties) at some point after Domesday, possibly due to the lack of descendent in the direct line.  Part of the barony was apparently granted to Gruffydd ab Owain at around the time that Shocklach was built, potentially “one of the Welshmen on whom Henry I lavished grants in 1102 as bribes for support against the early of Shrewsbury.”  Redistribution of baronial lands was common when kings rewarded loyalty with property.  However, the land seems to have then passed into the hands of two other families, the Patrics and the Belwards.  For anyone wanting to follow the story further, see Cotgreave’s paper (in Sources, below). 

Distribution of castle sites under the control of Chester. Source: Swallow 2013-14.

Although Shocklach was held by the Malpas manor, it was occupied by families, who owed service to Malpas.  Rachel Swallow, who excavated Shocklach West, describes how between 1208 and 1229,  it was granted to David de Malpas (1185-1252) whose daughter was married to Rhodri ap Gruffudd of Gwynedd (c.1230-1315), probably a diplomatic alliance to reduce hostilities between Cheshire and Gwynedd.  He apparently had no right to his wife’s lands and Shocklach passed to new families (Sutton and St Pierre) as moieties (i.e. the land was halved for sharing).

Whichever family built the first Shocklach motte-and-bailey castle, it was one of a number built along either side of the river Dee to protect English farms and resources against the Welsh.   Shocklach was only one location in a string of defensive sites.  Looking at the local Ordnance Survey maps, there are motte and bailey castles and, often separately, moats all around this area.   The map above, from Rachel Swallow’s excavation report, shows the distribution of all the local ones, forming, depending on how you look at it, either two very rough lines north to south (running either side of the River Dee) or one zig-zagging line that spans and incorporates the Dee.

Whatever else we take away from the artists’ motte-and-bailey reconstructions, like the Dorling Kindersley one above, when we consider the sheer volume of these structures on OS maps of the area, the overall impression is that defence of even small settlements was an everyday component of life, made particularly important by proximity to the Anglo-Welsh border.

Shocklach East

Shocklach East. Source: Swallow 2013-14

Shocklach East is most clearly visible from the lane that leads to Castletown Farm.  It consists of a D-shaped moat or ditch (which is now filled with trees and shrubs) that protected a motte, which remains free of tree cover.  The motte-and-bailey earthworks to the east at Shocklach are heavily eroded but are nontheless better preserved than those to the west, on the other hand, are larger and lower than those to the west,

The motte is in the southeast ern section of the site and is today c.4-5m high (measured from the base of the ditch).  This is not visible from the road. It is oval-shaped, and surrounded by a low bank.

The ditch is on three sides, occasionally referred to as a moat, with a causeway that gives access to the main enclosure on the northeastern side.

Swallow says that the D-shaped bailey to the south is typical of the area, with kidney-shaped bailey and similar to that of Pulford castle. It measures c. 70 x 78m internally, and it too is surrounded partially by a ditch to the north a by a stream valley to the south.  Suring the survey, it was recorded that the ditch was up to 2.7m deep.  Although now dry, the ditch would have been joined to the stream to form a small moat.  

This motte and bailey castle was not physically attached to the Shocklach West site, which is a full 30m away.

Shocklach West

Behind this dense hedge is Shocklach West. I did my best to lean through the mass, but absolutely nothing was visible through the wilderness of vegetation.

The Shocklach West motte has not been excavated and, indeed, it would be difficult to see how it could be done efficiently.  It is completely hidden from view by trees that have been established over large section of the land, and the roots will be playing havoc with the underlying contexts, rearranging any structural remains and moving around objects.  I did my absolute best to get some sort of view through the shrubs, but there is nothing at all visible at the time of writing (mid-September) due to the dense tangle of shrubs and weeds around the trees.  A return visit in winter after the leaves have fallen and the weeds have died down may reveal more of the outline of the motte.

This view, taken from near to Shocklach West, shows the sort of view that the structure on the top of the motte would have had.

Like most rural motte and bailey castles, only the most labour-intensive features have survived.  The motte is around 5-6m high, which is quite sizeable after centuries of erosive forces, and there are remains of a silted ditch on south, southwest and eastern sides, beyond which there is an outer bank.  On the north and west sides, the bend in the stream forms another line of defence.  The size is consistent with other motte and bailey sites in the Welsh Marshes dating from the 11th and 12th centuries, spanning both Saxon and Norman periods.

The site is located on a hill with superb views over the Dee valley to the west with the Welsh foothills in the distance, and across fields to the east.

Another view taken from near to Shocklach West, showing the sort of view that the structure on the top of the motte would have had, across the surrounding woodland towards the Welsh foothills.

Two Castles, two stories? 

Both castles benefitted from a potable water source provided by the stream, and may have been positioned partly in relation to the road that passed between them.  Both were located on good agricultural land, indicating that they had something to protect, and were fairly evenly spaced from other castles that dotted the Dee valley.  Medieval hamlets in the Castletown area may have been served by one or both of the castles.

View from Castletown to the east

Swallow offers a number of suggestions for why two castles were required so close together, which take into account that no excavations have taken place at one site, and little dating material was found at the other, making it uncertain if the two sites were precisely contemporaneous or if one preceded the other.  Here are some of the options that she discusses:

  1. The castles could have been used together to protect the road that passed between them, a major route between north and south along the border.
  2. After the paired mottes were built contemporaneously, a bailey might have been added to the east later, in a lower position that was strategically less valuable than the motte to the west.  Some objects found at the site lend support to this interpretation, as does the fact that the eastern bailey seems to post-date some medieval ridge and furrow fields. 
  3. The pair has similarities to another pair of mottes in East Chelborough, Dorset, where a second motte replaces the first.
  4. Documentary sources refer to dual lordship and moieties, and it is possible that the monuments were held by different interests, perhaps representing Caldecott and Shocklach.  Swallow suggests, for example, that the motte to the west could like within Church Shocklach township, rather than Caldecott or Castletown. 
  5. A toll gate recorded in the route between the two sites suggests that this was a popular route for travellers and traders.  Twin castles, or an earlier and later castle may have been established to ensure that territories on either side of the road both benefited from toll income.  Although the site may have been established initially for military purposes, commercial interests may have become important too.  

See Swallow’s paper, which is available online, for more details.

Contemporary sites at Castletown

There are other sites in the Castletown area near Shocklach East and West, which are also scheduled.

The first consists of the remains of a village or large hamlet, some farm buildings and a ridge and furrow field system. Like the two castles, these have been included under one listing by Historic England, with the identification number 1016588.  These include at least six tofts (house platforms) and crofts (small farming enclosures) that make up the remains of hamlets to the north and south of Castletown Farm.  As well as the surviving components of buildings there are visible remains of ridge and furrow cultivation that lie to the east of the hamlets.  Although these remains are divided, this is only because the later Castletown Farm was built over other parts of the former settlement.  

The nearby church of St Edith (Historic England 1228322) is not currently open to the general-interest public, but makes for a nice stroll if you are in the area, because it is lovely with its mellow red sandstone walls and its bellcote, even when only viewed from the outside, and still has weekly services.  Parts of the church, including the south wall of the nave and the south doorway date to the mid 12th Century while the north wall of nave  is probably 13th Century.  Later modifications in the 15th and 17th Centuries were very sympathetic to the original design.


Later history of Castletown

Swallow mentions that Castletown Bridge, which carries the road across the stream between the two castles, “was probably the site of the medieval toll gate, catching people and animals entering Cheshire from Wales to the south and west, as Shocklach castle guarded the only road into Cheshire at this point.”  Documentation suggests that a toll gate was present there
from at least 1290.  Swallow suggests that Shocklach castle had a defensive function until at least the latter part of the fourteenth century and probably became the site of a fortified manor house, mentioned in 1499, when the notorious judge Lord Dudley claimed rights to Shocklach, “and to have a toll for himself and William Brereton.”   Passing into the hands of the the Breretons, it then passed to the Hills and the Drakes.


Conclusion

Although today Shocklach sits in a peaceful area that consists mainly of farms and large fields divided by hedgerows, it is clear that from the early 12th Century, the twin mottes at Shocklach were important components in a wide line motte-and-bailey castles that made up much of the defence of the border between England and Wales.  Then too there were small hamlets and farms.  Although these lay on territory that was under dispute and where livestock and stored cereals may have been seen as easy pickings, they were supported by the presence of the castles.  Other nearby sites that are relevant are a Medieval field system at Castletown Farm and the local Shocklach Church, which retains a Norman arch.  The latter will be discussed on another post when I can gain access to the interior.  Between them these and other Medieval sites along the Dee valley the Castletown sites preserve part of the story of life along the Welsh-Cheshire border at this time.

Visiting: 
You can pull over on the edge of the relatively quiet road (pull well over in case of agricultural vehicles), but the site, on both sides of the road, is on private property so you cannot actually walk on or around the site.  You can only view it from the roads.  Before leaf-fall, Shocklach West is completely hidden by vegetation, but the north side of Shocklach East can be seen over a short fence.  I wouldn’t recommend it for a walk, because it is not on a public footpath, there is no pavement, the verges, where available, are narrow and uneven and the road is very bendy and rather narrow, not ideal for avoiding any traffic, most of which travels at some speed.


Sources:

Books and papers:

Cotgreave, P. 2008.  The Barony of Malpas in the twelfth century.  Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire (2008), 157, (1), 1–32.
www.hslc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/157-2-Cotgreave.pdf 

Reynolds, S. and White, G. 1997-98.  A Survey of Pulford Castle.  Chester History XXXVII, p.23-25

Pryor, F. 2010.  The Making of the British Landscape.   How We Have Transformed the Land, from Prehistory to Today.  Allen Lane

Swallow, R. 2013-14. Two For One:  the Archaeological Survey of Shocklach, Castle, Cheshire. Cheshire History Journal, No.53, 2013-4
https://www.academia.edu/4577267/Two_for_One_The_Archaeological_Survey_of_Shocklach_Castle_Cheshire_in_Cheshire_History_Journal_No_53_2013_4_Cheshire_Local_History_Association_2013_

Williams, R. 1983. Church Shocklach, Castletown:  the “moated” site. Cheshire Archaeological Bulletin 9, p.59–60
http://www.cheshirearchaeology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/CAB-Vol-9.pdf 

Williams, R. 1983. Castletown.  A Deserted Hamlet? Cheshire Archaeological Bulletin 9, p.61
http://www.cheshirearchaeology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/CAB-Vol-9.pdf


Websites:

Ancient and Scheduled Monuments

https://ancientmonuments.uk/114798-medieval-settlement-and-part-of-field-system-at-castletown-farm-shocklach-oviatt-and-district

Historic England
Shocklach motte and bailey castle, list entry 1012620
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1012620
Medieval settlement and part of field system at Castletown Farm
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1016588
Church of St Edith
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1228322

Archaeology and Metal Detecting Magazine
Shocklach: Its History and Archaeology. By Dave Sadler 5th September 2021
https://archmdmag.com/shocklach-its-history-and-archaeology-by-dave-sadler/

 

Adventures with Churton Honesty Eggs: Garlic mushrooms, pancetta and courgette on toast, topped with a poached egg

After a divine curry last night, both invented and cooked by my father, whose approach to all cuisines is always creative and full of glorious flavour, I went for something rather more conventional tonight.  Mushrooms and garlic are a classic combination.  Some diced courgette, pancetta, finely sliced spring onions, parsley, oregano or tarragon and, if you fancy it, spinach (or wild garlic in spring) are great additions, as is a good dollop of cream or crème fraîche.  The poached egg on top is essential, as it rounds things off beautifully.

The mushrooms and pancetta are fried in butter until beginning to brown, at which point the diced courgette is added until it too is golden. The finely chopped garlic is then added, and when cooked through, some flour is sprinkled over the top of the mixture and stirred until it is invisible, helping to thicken the stock, which goes in as soon as the flour has been absorbed, just a little bit at a time, stirring constantly.

When the sauce reaches the consistency that you like, you might consider adding the following:  finely sliced spring onions or chives, chopped parsley and oregano and a few turns of the pepper mill. I also like to add a slosh of dry sherry  at this stage.   Mushrooms and sherry are a frequent combination in Spanish cooking, and work deliciously together.  I also like to add a handful of spinach at this point if I have some, which cooks through quickly as the egg is poached.   If the sauce is too thick at this stage, again add some more stock or water, a little at a time, and stir well to incorporate anything that might be sticking at the bottom of the pan.

Whilst this is gently heating through, the egg is poached and a slice of rustic bread or sourdough is griddled or toasted.  Poaching eggs is easy if a few basic rules are followed.  The eggs should be fresh and at room temperature.  The water should be boiled, and a glug of white wine vinegar added.  The vinegar helps the whites to solidify.  Create a swirl in the water, which helps to spin the egg whites around the egg yolk, and take off the heat.  It will now poach in the hot water, the whites becoming opaque as the egg begins to cook.  It takes about two minutes depending on the size of the egg.  Drain the eggs well in a slotted spoon or on kitchen paper to remove the traces of vinegar.

Back to the mushroom mix.  At the last minute, a small dollop of whatever cream you have to hand goes in.  I like either crème fraîche or sour cream, but ordinary single or double cream works perfectly well too.  Heat it through gently.  Then place the toasted bread on the plate (buttered if required), spoon the mushroom mix over the top of the toast and then place the the poached egg carefully on top of the mushrooms.  Scatter sea salt over the top of it all, and add a few turns of the pepper mill, and dig in!  It’s incredibly filling, so I don’t serve it with anything else.

Lots of variations are possible. If you have access to wild mushrooms, that makes it even better, but I had button mushrooms that needed using up.  Nearly all herbs will work, including sage, lovage, chervil and marjoram.  Diced aubergine goes well instead of or as well as courgette.  Bits of bacon or parma ham can substitute for pancetta.  Cream sherry can be used instead of dry if you fancy a slight hit of mellow sweetness.  Alternatively, instead of sherry, Marsala wine, which is utterly divine in all sorts of sauces, is excellent with this dish. It is not always easy to get hold of, and must be used with care or it takes over entirely.

A vegetarian version can be done by leaving out the pancetta.  If often do the vegetarian version, and it is delightful.

If you want to make it into a bigger main course, the mix works wonderfully as an accompaniment for pork or chicken.

More adventures with Churton Honesty Eggs

 

History in my garden: A piece of a Hamilton / torpedo bottle

On the left is a complete Hamilton or torpedo bottle now in the Dumfries Museum. On the right is the fragment of a torpedo bottle found in my back garden. Source of image of Dumfries Museum bottle: Future Museum

I suspect we are coming to the end of the most interesting finds in my garden.  The new beds have been dug out and apart from three lilacs that are destined for the lawn, which will each have a circular bed around them for flowers, the digging has mainly stopped and we are now into laying membrane around trees and shrubs, over the top of which we are putting slate, wood bark and gravel.  This will help to keep down the weeds, and provide a variety of textures throughout the garden, but will seal any remaining objects in the ground, perhaps for future gardeners to find.  There are, however, still one or two pieces worth talking about in the existing collection of objects derived from the garden.

The torpedo bottle fragment from the garden

One of these finds, distinguished by the twist in the glass and its distinctive shape, is a fragment of a Hamilton / torpedo bottle.  Like the Codd bottle, described in a previous post, it was designed to keep gas in bottles of fizzy water.  The Codd bottle in some cases replaced the torpedo, which died out in the 19th Century and early 20th Century. Both were eventually replaced by crown caps that still seal many fizzy drinks today, particularly beers.

Joseph Priestley by Henry Fuseli. Source: The Bridgeman Art Library, Object no.42670, via Wikipedia

Fizzy (aerated, effervescent or carbonized) water, occurs naturally in the form of springs.  My favourite is San Pellegrino.  In 1772 Joseph Priestly set out to produce an equivalent of the natural sparkling water from a famous spring in Pyrmont in Germany, and achieved success by dissolving carbon dioxide in water.  This achievement was considered so important that Priestly, a radical minister, was awarded the Copley Medal, the Royal Society’s most prestigious honour.  The Science History Institute’s website describes the process as follows: “He had dripped a little oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid) on a mixture of chalk and water, caught the fixed air (carbon dioxide) that fizzed from the chalk in a bladder, and bubbled the fixed air through a column of water, which he then agitated at intervals.”  Natural spring waters, each with different properties, were used for their medicinal and therapeutic benefits from antiquity, and were similarly popular in Europe in the 17th and 18th Centuries.  Artificially produced carbonated water was also initially sold for its medicinal properties by pharmacists like J.F. Edisbury of Wrexham, who had his own mineral water works in Llangollen (and who has been discussed on a previous post), it was eventually mixed with fruit-flavoured syrups and sold to general consumers as a soft drink.

J.F. Edisbury and Co (Wrexham) advert showing a range of the carbonated waters that was stocked.  Source: The Wellcome Collection

It quickly became obvious that a solution was needed to keep the gas in the water once it was placed in a container.  At first earthenware bottles were employed by early producers such as Joseph Schweppe (the founder of Schweppes, of course), who set up his business in Bristol in 1794.  At that time, Bristol was a thriving port, third in importance only to London and Liverpool, and a hub for businesses of all sorts.  As Schweppe and other discovered, in earthenware bottles the gas soon escaped and the drink went flat.

Glass bottles closed with corks followed, but there were two potential problems with this approach.  First, a build-up of pressure in the bottle could cause the corks to fly out, resulting not only in a mess but, again, a flat drink.  Second, if the corks were not kept moist they shrank, with the same result – a flat drink and an unhappy customer.  This caused something of a problem between supplier and retailer.  The solution was to store bottles on their sides, but retailers were reluctant to go to this trouble because of the problems of stacking the bottles.

In 1809, William Francis Hamilton of Dublin filed a patent for a method of producing mineral water, which included a description of storage devices employed, one of which was a torpedo-shaped bottle with a tapering, rounded end that had to be stored on its side.  Torpedo-shaped bottles had already been in existence before Hamilton’s patent, and he seems to have been using torpedo bottles as one of a number of storage solutions.  However, the torpedo obviously won out and he apparently went into production of the bottles in 1814.  It took time for them to become popular, but by  the 1840s they were widely in use and they were used until the First World War.

Not all bottles are marked with manufacturer details.   Embossing only became popular in the latter half of the 19th Century, when it became something of a mania following the introduction of hinged moulds.  Usually the manufacturer’s name was added to the bottle, and was sometime accompanied by details of the product that the bottle contained.  The one in the photograph at the top of the page had none, but my fragment has embossed letters, which were built into the mould into which the molten glass was poured to produce the bottle.  The letters on my bottle are incomplete and show either “TERE” or “IERE” (the bottom of the T or I is missing).  It is possible that, if TERE, it read CHESTER, MANCHESTER, LEICESTER etc (all areas where mineral waters were produced), with the E representing the beginning of a new word.   Equally, the TER could be the last letters of WATER, and the E again the beginning of a new word.  The fragment of the final letter can only be a B, D, E, F or P.  Any guesses, anyone?

Lion Brewery (Chester) and Edisbury Chemist (Wrexham) bottles

The heavy embossing of the bottle indicates that this bottle was made in the late 19th Century, or later.  This is in keeping with the other bottles found in the garden:  from the Lion Brewery, Chester, J.F. Edisbury, Wrexham (both heavily embossed, the latter with a crossed-fox logo) and the Codd bottle.  Both the Hamilton / torpedo and Codd bottles were eventually made redundant with the introduction of crown caps, which Joseph Schweppe first employed in 1903.

 

Sources:

Books and papers

Hedges, A.A.C. 1975. Bottles and Bottle Collecting.  Shire Publications Ltd.

Hamilton, W.F. 1810.  Specification of the Patent granted to William Frances Hamilton.  The Repertory of Arts, Manufactures, and Agriculture, Sixteenth Volume, Second Series.
Available on Google Books: https://tinyurl.com/35bcf5tm

Websites

Future Museum
Hamilton Bottle
http://www.futuremuseum.co.uk/collections/life-work/social-history/home-life/housekeeping/hamilton-bottle.aspx

Science History Institute
Powerful Effervescence
https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/powerful-effervescence

Cheshire Proverbs 5: We shall live till we die if the pigs don’t eat us


“We shall live till we die if the pigs don’t eat us”

J.C. Bridge no.382, page 149


J.C. Bridge does not say why this proverb is supposed to be characteristic of Cheshire, and nor is he at all helpful as to its origins and meaning.  One of the puzzles in the proverb is the idea implicit in the phrasing that being eaten by a pig does not necessarily result in instant death. Alternatively, the phrase might be interpreted as suggesting that we will live until we are supposed to die unless the pigs get to us first, suggesting an interruption to the divine plan that would otherwise see us die on a certain date.  How to get nearer to the actual meaning?

Tantrabobus

Bridge, apparently in an attempt to elucidate the situation, makes the sole comment “We shall live till we die like Tantrabobus” and leaves us to make of that what we may.  I remained unenlightened.  I had no idea what or who a Tantrobobus might be, and the matter is still more than a little opaque.  The word was certainly a late 18th century colloquial term used in the U.S. state of Vermont.  The Only in Arkansas website describes it as follows:

A modern interpretation of the Tantrabobus. Source: Oxford University Press blog

A Tantrabobus, or ‘Haint’ was an evil monster rumored to live inside wells. According to Philip Steele’s book Ozark Tales and Superstitions, children were encouraged to never look inside wells lest the monsters place a spell on them and draw them down into the darkness forever.
[Ozark is an area shared between neighbouring Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma]

This story is echoed in various Arkansas-related websites and books, and was clearly a widespread legend, perhaps dreamed up and disseminated by parents to warn children against the dangers of deep wells.  Painting the ceiling of a house porch blue was supposed to scare off the haint.

Unless the origins of the well-inhabiting monster were in England, it’s difficult to see how it relates to a Cheshire proverb.  A slightly different word, however, does originate in England. “Tantarabobs” was apparently a Devonshire name for the devil, and the Oxford University Press’s blog offers another devil-related version:

Tantrumbobus is a relative of Flibbertigibbet, Hoberdidance, and Obidicut (also known as Haberdicut), the fiends mentioned in King Lear. I wonder whether English dander “to walk around; to talk inherently” and especially Old High German tantaron “to be out of one’s mind” are kin of the British devils, and, if so, whether those devils were also known on the continent.

All very interesting, but I still had no idea why anyone might be eaten by a pig before the date in Death’s personal organizer.

The country of the Gadarenes

Part of Newberry’s 1928 analysis of Seth as a black pig

In ancient Egypt, the pig is associated with Seth, the ambivalent but mainly trouble-making deity, in direct opposition to the good god Osiris, who Seth killed and dismembered, scattering his remains in the Nile (but don’t panic; he was re-assembled and resurrected by the goddess Isis). Following the Egyptian idea of evil and pigs being identified with one another, I had a look around and sure enough, the Christian devil is sometimes equated to a pig.  According to the Open Bible website, there are numerous verses that concern themselves with pigs.  One in particular, in Matthew 8:28-32, tells a story of transmogrification, whereby humans are converted into pigs (English Standard Version):

And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them. And the demons begged him, saying, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs.” And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters.

Fascinating and horrifying, but not an explanation of being eaten, unless “eat” is a metaphor for being transmogrified / transmigrated.  This is what Richard Jefferies (1848-1887) inferred in the late 19th Century.  His longer version of the proverb is “Ah well, we shall live till we die, if the pigs don’t eat us, and then we shall go acorning.”  He writes that the proverb is “a clear survival of the belief in transmigration, for he who is eaten by a pig becomes a pig, and goeth with the swine to eat acorns.” 

The story Jeffries recounts to illustrate this is the nearest I have found to an explanation of the proverb.  He tells the tale of a village elder who had been generous to everyone around him, but had suffered persecution.  He magnanimously ignored the offenses against him, but his rather less forgiving family consoled themselves with this proverb.  I take it from this that the family thought that the perpetrators would suffer some form of retribution roughly comparable to being consumed by pigs and forced to eat acorns. 

In other words, what goes around comes around.

All of that offers some sort of answer about the connection between the Tantrabobus, the pig and the devil, and also gets close to what the proverb may mean, but it doesn’t get us anywhere near to explaining why this proverb was considered by Bridge to have some peculiar connection to Cheshire.  So my final question concerned the role of pig in Cheshire farming through the centuries prior to Bridge’s 1917 book.

Pigs in Cheshire

Generically, because pigs are omnivorous, will eat agricultural and household waste and will happily forage in woodland, and because they have big litters of piglets that can be eaten or sold, they offer a useful complement to the big three livestock breeds: cattle, sheep and goat.  The big three give birth to only one or two infants at a time, and although these too can be eaten or traded, their great value lies in the fact that the females can be milked and used to produce dairy products.  In terms of both meat and dairy, livestock represents storage on the hoof.  If disease hits any of the big three herds, the recovery time can take many, many years.  The big three are therefore curated with great care, whilst pigs, being both easier to feed and producing multiple offspring, are inherently much more disposable.

Men knocking down acorns to feed swine, from the 14th century English Queen Mary Psalter, MS. Royal 2 B VII f.81v. Source: British Library via Wikipedia

During the Anglo-Saxon period, the pannage system involved the seasonal driving of pigs into woodland to feed upon acorns, nuts, rhizomes and roots.  In some areas this persisted well into the Medieval period.  Cheshire, once full of rich forests, was ideal pig territory, offering shade, food and shelter, because pigs, in their natural environment, are woodland dwellers.  Although often seen in Britain today in open fields, in their preferred habitat they forage with their leathery snouts for roots and nuts under trees, and they nest in hollowed-out depressions.  They cannot perspire, so they wallow in woodland mud and pools of water to keep cool in the summer.  Sociable creatures, they tend to form communities.

Image from the Hunterian Psalter folio 6r. Gathering acorns for pigs in November. Source: Glasgow University Library

In the later Middle Ages, there is plenty of evidence that pigs were increasingly managed as a resource, making use of their singularly indiscriminating appetites to trim down agricultural stubble, devour household waste (including food leftovers and household rubbish) and the by-products of dairying, and in Cheshire this was particularly related to cheese-making.   Many became enclosed in fields, gardens and even sheds.  A single pig could be kept by even the poorest householder, and the owner of several pigs could generate a good income by selling both piglets and fattened pigs for slaughter.  As late as 1550 it is recorded that pigs still roamed the streets in Chester, and they were probably even more prominent in everyday village life.

In the latter part of the 18th Century, pig keeping was usually an essential part of farming practise, even on farms dedicated to cheese-making.  Geoffrey Scard gives the example of a 25 acre dairy farm majoring on cheese, which had the following holding of livestock in the latter part of the 18th Century:

 9 crossbred Cheshire shorthorns, 2 yearling heifers, 2 heifer calves, 10 pigs and 20 hens.

Pigs were clearly an essential part of the economic profile of the farm.  Scard next gives the example of the much larger 243 acre dairy farm at Cholmondeley in the 19th Century.  The following animals were kept:

2 ponies, 3 carthorses, 51 milking cows, 16 two-year heifers, 17 yearling heifers, 15 heifer calves, 1 bull, 66 Shropshire ewes and lambs, 55 half-breed withers and 100 pigs.

Piglets of the Welsh pig breed. Source: British Pig Association

In simple numbers, pigs dominated, but as a balance to cattle and sheep.  In the late 19th Century, a breed known as the Welsh became popular.  A very pale pink-white, with big lop-ears, it was first mentioned in the 1870s when, according to the British Pig Association, there was a considerable trade in Welsh and Shropshire pigs into Cheshire, specifically for fattening on milk by-products, from cattle (and possibly sheep).  The milk by-products would have had to be disposed of and wasted if not consumed, so it was essentially free to feed pigs who became fatter and more valuable and were handy waste disposal units to boot.  By contrast, the feeding of cattle was expensive, so using milk by-products to feed pigs helped to pay for the upkeep of cattle.

From this we can conclude that the pig had an important role in Cheshire, and that this may account for why Bridge considered the proverb to be peculiarly appropriate in a book of Cheshire proverbs.

All of this is pure speculation, but what an awful lot of fun 🙂

For more about J.C. Bridge and this Cheshire Proverbs series, see Cheshire Proverbs 1.

An index of all posts in the Cheshire Proverbs series can be found on the Heritage page

Sources:

Books and papers

Bridge, J.C. 1917,  Cheshire Proverbs and Other Sayings and Rhymes Connected with the City an County Palatine of Chester Phillipson and Golder (Chester)

Hamilton, J.  and Thomas, R. 2012.  Pannage, Pulses and Pigs: Isotopic and Zooarchaeological Evidence for Changing Pig Management Practices in Later Medieval England.  Medieval Archaeology 56(1), p.234-259
https://www.academia.edu/15571794/Pannage_Pulses_and_Pigs_Isotopic_and_Zooarchaeological_Evidence_for_Changing_Pig_Management_Practices_in_Later_Medieval_England

Jeffries, R. 1948Field and Hedgerow: Being the Last Essays of Richard Jefferies.  Lutterworth Press
https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/7030

Newberry, P.E. 1928. The Pig and the Cult-Animal of Set. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology
Vol. 14, No. 3/4 (Nov., 1928), p.211-225

Scard, G. 1981.  Squire and Tenant:  Rural Life in Cheshire 1760-1900.  Cheshire Community Council

Websites

British History Online
Later medieval Chester 1230-1550: Economy and society, 1350-1550
https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/ches/vol5/pt1/pp64-80

The British Pig Association
The Welsh
https://www.britishpigs.org.uk/welsh

Only In Arkansas.com
Arkansas Superstitions: The Tantrabobus in Grandpa’s Well by Liz Harrell
https://onlyinark.com/culture/arkansas-superstitions-tantrabobus/

OpenBible.info
Pigs
https://www.openbible.info/topics/pigs

Oxford University Press blog
A few bogus etymologies: “tantrum,” “dander,” “dandruff,” and “dunderhead,” along with “getting one’s goat” by Anatoly Liberman
https://blog.oup.com/2017/09/tantrum-dandruff-dander-etymology/

Wordfoolery blog
The history of the word “bogus”
https://wordfoolery.wordpress.com/tag/word-origin/

 

Adventures with Churton Honesty Eggs: Seafood frito misto with tartare sauce

In Italy, frito misto usually describes food that has been given a coating of batter and then deep-fried.  On this occasion I deep-fried my seafood, but it was coated with flour rather than batter, so I may be playing fast and loose with the terminology.  Irrespective, it was delightfully crispy on the outside and beautifully hot and moist in the middle, which is at least in perfect keeping with the spirit of a frito misto.

In so far as tartare sauce is concerned, I often welcome the easy life that sauces in bottles provide, but tartare is always a problem for me as the bottled stuff is so very sweet.  I like my tartare sauce to be creamy but tart, with a lot of acidity.  Too much sugar ruins it for me, and by making the sauce myself I can modify the ingredients to suit my preferences.

This combination of crisp seafood and a soft but tart sauce can be served with whatever you fancy, which in my case is a salad based on garden lettuce and herbs supplemented with shop-bought items like cucumber and tomatoes that I have not yet started to grow (next year).

First, ensure that you have some kitchen roll to hand.  You will be using it a lot.

Next, dig out your eggs and make your mayonnaise (see my earlier post on how to make mayonnaise).  Lemon juice and/or white wine vinegar and a hit of mustard are standard components.  In the final stages of making the mayo, just as it begins to be fully emulsified, I add some herbs.  It’s a personal choice, but I like fresh dill, chives and parsley.  Don’t worry if the sauce becomes very solid, because that’s what you really need.  It needs to be structurally robust in order for the other ingredients to be absorbed without turning it all to liquid.  This is because other solid  ingredients are either wet or acidic.  Acid interferes with the emulsion and makes it much less viscous.

Your sauce should still be thick and gooey, so that when you touch it, it forms peaks like thoroughly whipped cream (just keep adding oil very slowly until it becomes nice and thick).  In the photograph it looks rather too solid for tartare sauce, but you are about to add sour cream and pickled veg to it, which will loosen in up a lot will and provide you with something a lot less viscous.  It is really important to have a good firm  base with which to work.

Sliced gherkins or cornichons and chopped capers are a great combination for tartare sauce.  If you add them straight from the jar, they will add the vinegar from the jar to the emulsion, and will loosen it up, causing it to become runny.  So I drain mine on multi-folded kitchen paper,  wrapping them and turning them now and again for a few minutes.  This removes the excess liquid and leaves you with all of the flavour.  The photo on the right looks a little ungenerous, but I was making a tartare for one.  Once dry, it can be added to the mayonnaise in the food processor and given a very quick whizz.  Remove from the processor and add to a bowl.

Add the sour cream a teaspoon at a time and gently fold it in.  The sour cream is glorious in the mayonnaise base, working with the dill, chives and parsley to provide a deliciously creamy setting for the the lemon, vinegar capers and gherkins, the combination providing real balance.  But do go slowly with the sour cream or you will end up with a soup rather than a sauce.  It will thicken up a bit in the fridge, but not sufficiently to rescue something completely liquid.  Here’s what it looks like, and do remember that although it firms up in the fridge it will relax and become more liquid as soon as it reaches room temperature.

My frito misto was based on seafood, using razor clams, prawns and whitebait, all delivered via Amazon from Morrisons.  Sadly, Amazon doesn’t deliver Morrisons products to Churton, but they do deliver to Rossett, and having a superior parent handily located there, I was able to place an order.  The razor clams are very difficult to source from anywhere else, and both their flavour and texture are unique.   All shellfish need to be extracted from their shells and dried in kitchen roll.  The patting dry will considerably reduce the spitting of the oil.

If you are cooking more than one batch you will also need to have the oven on, so that when you take out one batch and add another, you can keep the original batch warm.

The technique is very simple.  I have a deep-fryer but I rarely use it for fish, because it takes an awful lot of oil to fill it, and once used to cook fish, the oil cannot be used for anything else.  So I do mine in a saucepan large enough to handle whatever it is that I am planning to cook.  The key with floured fish is to get the oil really hot, or the flour falls off and you end up with naked fish and oil swimming in flour.  If you are using a thermometer the oil should be 350F or 180C, but if not just put in a piece of seafood and when it starts to sizzle instantly, you should be good to go.  I do have a kitchen thermometer but its batteries are dead since I moved in, back in February, so I have been using the latter system recently with great success.  Make sure that whatever you throw in is sizzling enthusiastically, because the moment you add another batch of seafood, the temperature will drop.  When you remove the first batch, put it in the oven to stay warm, and allow the oil to heat up again before putting in the next batch.

The fat from each batch needs to drain from the seafood, so have a plate covered in kitchen roll prepared in advance and keep tossing the seafood in the kitchen roll to reduce the oil remaining on the seafood.  It is never going to be a healthy meal, but removing the worst of the oil will improve both the flavour and alleviate a sense of guilt 🙂

Tip it all onto a pre-heated plate, tons of tabasco sprinkled over the top, your salad either on the plate or in a separate bowl (probably best if you have pre-heated your plates) and your tartare sauce on the side, with a chunk of lemon to sprinkle over the top and ENJOY! 

If you want to re-use your oil for another seafood dish, you can filter it through kitchen paper placed in a funnel into a jug or bottle.  The kitchen paper, acting as a filter, picks up all the bits of burnt flour and fish, leaving you with a clear oil.  It will still smell of fish, so seal it well.  I re-use an oil bottle with a screw top for mine.  Make sure that you label it clearly so that you don’t use it by accident for something else.  The fishiness could devastate another dish.  I only re-use it once before throwing it away, which means that this is a special occasion meal.

A lovely summer meal for al fresco dining.

More adventures with Churton Honesty Eggs

Ranulf III’s Beeston Castle #2 – The castle, the walk, the visit

The gateway to the inner ward seen from the outer ward

In Part 1, I introduced Ranulf III, the powerful descendant of King Henry I, who started building Beeston Castle in 1220, and during his lifetime was close to four kings of the Middle Ages:  Henry II, Richard I (“the Lionheart”), John (“lackland”) and Henry III.

Here, part 2 looks at the castle itself, the walk up to the castle, 18th and 19th Century artistic interpretations of the castle, and practical visit details, including notes on accessibility for those with less than cooperative legs. The two parts are designed to be read together, as many of the photographs of the castle are in Part 1.

Topographical plan showing the site elevation and key features, colour-coded to show different construction phases. Source: English Heritage. https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/siteassets/home/visit/places-to-visit/beeston-castle/history/serpentine/beeston-castle-phased-plan-1.pdf

With so much of its stonework intact, Beeston is entirely comprehensible as a functioning castle and, together with the stunning views, is worth a visit in its own right, but arming oneself with knowledge about the its builder makes for an even more rewarding experience.

Twelve years before he died after a rich and varied life, the magnate, military leader and crusader Ranulf, Earl of Chester, set about building three new castles to add to his existing tally, of which Beeston was the most impressive.

Beeston has been the subject of investigations since the 19th Century, encompassing both documentary research and fieldwork, and is one of the most comprehensively studied sites in the mid-Cheshire area.  This  research encompasses the impressive prehistoric remains at the site, the castle’s 13th Century origins, repairs in the 14th Century and, after a period of partial abandonment, a major renovation during the Civil War (17th Century).   After the final military abandonment of the castle in the 17th Century, it entered a new phase in the 18th Century as a growing tourist attraction, which expanded during the 19th Century when rail arrived.

These are all aspects of its past that are well worth exploring, and all are handled by Beeston’s small but informative visitor centre and the really excellent illustrated guidebook.  Supplementing these resources with other material, I have written up more details about the castle’s builder, Ranulf III, and described a few of the highlights of the castle’s history below.  I am saving an account of the multi-period record of prehistory for another post.  If you have even a little curiosity about prehistory, I hope that it will be worth waiting for 🙂

Today’s approach to the monumental gateway into the outer ward. The tall tower was a later addition to Ranulf’s original gatehouse

Before launching into the history of the castle, you might want to have a look at the castle’s site plan shown above left, which can be downloaded from the English Heritage website, showing the site’s elevations and colour-coded chronological phases.  It is also reproduced in the Beeston Castle guide book.

This page is divided up as follows:

  • Beeston Castle in the 13th Century
  • Beeston after Ranulf III
  • Beeston during the Civil War in the 17th Century
  • Beeston in the 18th and 19th Centuries
  • Visiting Beeston (with accessibility notes for those with unwilling legs)

If you would prefer to download parts 1 and 2 as single a PDF, please click here.

Ranulf’s 13th Century Castle

Probably springing from multiple motivations whirling around Ranulf’s busy head, the resulting castle at Beeston is awe-inspiring.  Strategically, Beeston is in an exceptional position, with views that would have provided sight of an approaching army miles (and hours) away, control of the valley below.  These views make for an excellent visit.

A reconstruction of the early 14th Century castle, showing both inner and outer wards. Source: English Heritage’s excellent Beeston Castle guidebook.  Click to see a bigger picture.

The English Heritage guidebook has an invaluable blow-by-blow description of all the features of the castle, which should not be missed by anyone who really wants to understand it.  Soden adds additional details about what features Beeston shared with the two other castles that he was building at the same time. Here, I’ve picked out the bits that I found most interesting.

The immediate impression one has of the castle on approach is that it consists of two main colours:  white-grey and red.  The red sandstone seems to have been used in the original construction but also seems to have been the main building material used during subsequent restoration works.  The original works were dominated by the grey-white stone.  I haven’t yet pinned down exactly what sort of sandstone this is, but unlike the usual local red sandstone it is very hard and dense, and very difficult to damage.

There are two main elements of the castle, the big outer ward (or bailey) and the smaller inner ward, each defined by a stone wall interrupted with D-shaped defensive towers (known as mural towers) arranged at intervals along tall curtain walls.  Each of these defensive curtain walls was provided with a single access point, almost identical heavily defended double-towered gateways.  To ensure that no-one unwanted gained access, every tower along the walls was furnished on the ground floor with arrow-slits, tall thin “windows” in the walls and the topmost level would have been manned by archers.  The outer ward followed the line of the defences of the Iron Age hillfort incorporating its accompanying defensive ditch.

Although archaeologists were let loose in the outer ward, they found no evidence of buildings contemporary with the castle, and there is little indication in the documentary sources either.   It is possible that work was clearly concentrating on the inner ward, with just the defensive elements of the outer ward being completed, but it is also a possibility that the area of archaeological investigation did not coincide with any buildings that had been erected.

The inner ward’s gatehouse from the inside

The inner ward, the heart of the castle complex, was separated from the outer ward by a deep ditch cut into the rock.  The ditch had a double function, being both the quarry for stone for the castle, and a line of defence in its own right.  This ditch was crossed by a wooden bridge, probably with a drawbridge and portcullis, the mechanisms for which would have been housed in one of the gatehouses as suggested in the above reconstruction.  There was no keep (a big central tower, a third level of defence that usually contained accommodation and prison cells) and it appears that a keep had never been part of Ranulf’s plan.

One of the gatehouse towers in the inner ward

The ground floor of the inner ward’s gatehouse was provided with chambers, each of which had a slit through which arrows could be fire.  The first floor of the inner ward’s gatehouse would have housed the guardian of the castle, known as the constable, and the top floor would have housed the gate and bridge mechanisms, the former lowered and the latter raised at times of threat, as well as archers who would have protected access through the gate.  Even though the main accommodation for the constable was probably in the main gatehouse, the only fireplace found was in the southwest tower, perhaps a daytime office for the constable.  Other rooms could have been heated by braziers when needed.

As with the gatehouses, the D-shaped towers of were provided with slits through which arrows could be fired, and also had upper floors that acted as platforms from which other soldiers could defend the castle.  Any stairways between these floors must have been made of wood because no staircases survive.  It is thought that the upper floor of the towers, including the gatehouses, were surrounded by wooden rather than stone defences in Ranulf’s day, because a much later record talks about the replacement of wood with the crenellated stone wall that is shown in the above reconstruction.

Well within the inner ward

Both upper and lower wards were provided with water wells, which would have helped the castle to hold out during a siege.  The well in the inner ward has a circular wall and has been provided with a lid to prevent children falling into it.  A legend that King Richard II left his treasure at the castle lead to several investigations of the well.  The investigations in the 1930s found that it went down to 110yds / 100m with the medieval masonry down to 61m.  The well in the outer ward, under a big tree, looks a bit like a quarry and it is suggested that this bizarre appearance was the result of attempts during the Civil War to enlarge it.  It has now been filled in, but its depth was recorded in 1623 as 240ft / 73m.

Remains of the well in the outer ward

Views from the inner ward across the Cheshire plain showing its strategic position

Detail of the inner ward at the southeastern end

Beeston Castle was unfinished at the time of Ranulf’s death.  The north curtain wall of the inner ward was not completed until the 1280s, by which time it was in the Crown’s ownership.  The centre of the upper ward feature big outcrops of bedrock, suggesting that it had never been levelled for the construction of an imposing entrance or the addition of inner buildings. Additionally, some key castle features were missing, like a kitchen and a great hall.  This was confirmed by archaeological work that found no sign of inner structures.

Ranulf employed many of the same features at his other new castles.  Although the plans were all distinct, they shared twin-towered gates, deep ditches, D-shaped towers, individual chambers within the towers (mural rooms) and “fish tailed” arrow loops.  Ranulf had a model of the perfect castle and he was working towards achieving three different versions using the same toolkit of modern defensive options.

After Ranulf

The top courses of stonework is clearly different from the lower, showing the 15th Century rennovation of the towers.

When Ranulf died in 1232, 12 years after he began the castle, his estates were inherited by his nephew John le Scot.  However, le Scot died five years later in 1237 and Henry III confiscated all of his land, redistributing some of it and retaining the better part for his son Edward, perhaps justifying Ranulf’s belief that the Crown was a greater threat to his territories than the Welsh.  The Chester estates, together with Beeston and Chester castles, were initially put into the custodianship of John de Lacy, earl of Lincoln (c.1192-1240).

Under the Crown, Beeston languished in second position to Chester Castle, but in the 1240s hostilities against the Welsh led to it being repaired, building on Ranulf’s work, presumably to prevent the Welsh attempting to take it and reinforce it themselves.  In c.1253 Henry III granted the earldom of Chester, together with Beeston, to his son Edward I and Edward’s subsequent heirs as Princes of Wales.

Early 14th Century records of investment in the castle indicate that crenellations were added to the towers, which were themselves raised to a higher level and were roofed with lead, and the gateway of the inner ward required repair.  The gateway was provided with a new wooden bridge, anchored on a massive stone plinth that is still visible between the 1970s bridge today.  The timber was carried 8 miles from Delamere forest on ox cart to Beeston.

The southwest end of the inner ward

The castle appears to have been allowed to fall into ruin during the 15th Century.  It was sold in 1602 to Sir Hugh Beeston, a local landowner, although his reasons for his wanting a ruined castle are unknown.

The Civil War 

Silver bowl and spoon dating the the Civil War period found at Beeston and now on display in the Beeston Visitor Centre

Forty years later the Civil War broke out.  Those Royalist forces took up position at Chester in 1642,  using as a base to provision themselves from the Dee, which was still a working port with river access via the Dee to the Irish Sea and Liverpool Bay.  Shortly afterwards, parliamentarians established themselves at Nantwich.  Beeston sat bang-splat in the middle, and the parliamentarians under Puritan Sir William Brereton installed a garrison there in February 1643 under Captain Thomas Steele.  Essential repair work took place to secure the ruined castle.  Brereton’s efforts were in vain.  Royalist men entered the castle in mid December and Steele surrendered.  He was later shot for his failure to defend the castle.  John Byron, leading the Royalist forces, installed his own garrison at Beeston and went on to defeat the parliamentarians at Middlewich.  Brereton, however, was not finished and in November 1644 besieged Chester and set about cutting off the royalists entrenched in Beeston with a blockade to prevent them re-provisioning.  The Royalists managed to breach the blockade twice, but the blockade was reinforced.

The king was defeated at Rowton Heath, south of Chester, on September 24th 1645 and Beeston Castle was given up to the parliamentarians on 15th November.  Royalist soldiers, half-starved, were allowed to depart.  Beeston was now systematically dismantled (an action known as “slighting”) so that defending it would be impossible without major rebuilding.   For the next two centuries it attracted only local attention.

Beeston in the 18th and 19th Centuries

Beeston Castle’s inner ward gatehouse, a romanticized view painted by George Barret in the mid 1770s.  Source:  Wikipedia

Now a ruin, in the 18th Century the castle, visible for miles around acquired a romantic air and become something of a visitor attraction, and a number of artists represented it, three of which are shown here, offering very contrasting views of the castle.

To the right is a highly romanticized version by relatively minor painter George Barret in the mid 1770s, highly coloured and dramatic.

The  famous J.M.W Turner (1775-1851) painted a scene in 1809, based on sketches he made in 1801, showing a woodland scene with Beeston as a faint silhouette in the distance.  Turner had initially wanted to train as an architect rather than a painter, but was pushed in the direction of painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds when Turner joined the Royal Academy at the age of 14.  His love of buildings remained with him throughout his life, and painted a great many architectural themes.  He particularly liked English castles.  Typical of his work, Beeston is a mere suggestion, a ghost of a place on the edge of the real world.  By employing the traditional narrative approach of painting that he would have learned at the Royal Academy, which draws the eye from left to right, the castle’s apparently subordinate position still results in its domination of the rural woodland scene.  Past and present are juxtaposed, but while the present takes up most of the canvas, it is the past that dominates the landscape.

Joseph Mallory William Turner’s view of Beeston Castle (far right) in 1809, based on sketches he made in 1801. Source: Sandstone Ridge Trust

Another painting worth seeing is by David Cox (1783-1859) a leader of the Birmingham School and renowned watercolour and landscape painter, showing yet another view, this time in 1849.  As with Turner’s painting the castle is shown against the sky with no discernible details, apart from the towers, but unlike Turner, it is placed centre stage, surrounded by Cox’s typical use of bright, vibrant colours with extremes of light and dark.

David Cox’s view of Beeston in 1849. Source: WikiArt

 

The Beeston Festival of 1851, from the Illustrated London News, showing tents and stalls in the inner ward, and people queuing at the 1846 entrance built in the style of the castle. Source: English Heritage guidebook, p.35

In 1840 the castle was sold to landowner John Tollemache as part of the Peckforton Estate, purchased with wealth derived from sugar plantations in Antigua, first purchased by his father.  It was Tollemache who built Peckforton Castle on the neighbouring hill and carried out restoration work on Beeston Castle, re-using original stonework.  When we were at Beeston I was puzzled by the fir trees in the outer word, and it turns out that these were exotic imports designed to reflect the new gardens and grounds at Peckforton Castle.  Deer were imported and contained within the outer ward, along with goats.  Somewhat more bizarrely, so were kangaroos.  What the three species made of each other is not recorded.  The railway between Chester and Crewe opened in 1846 and a station at Beeston greatly facilitated tourism and in 1844 a two-day annual festival was held in the outer ward.  In 1846 the current entrance to the ticket office, an imitation Medieval gateway, was built to handle the thousands of visitors and provide limited accommodation.

The castle passed into the hands of the Ministry of Works in 1959 and then, in 1984, was taken over by English Heritage, who have done a really splendid job of maintaining the site and introducing visitors to all aspects of its past.

Visiting Beeston Castle

Pieces of decorated ceramic on display in the Visitor Centre

There is a car park at the foot of the castle, opposite the entrance (pay-and-display or free for members), a café and a really nice picnic area.

English Heritage has done an excellent job of ensuring that the castle is as accessible and enjoyable as possible.  The site is beautifully maintained and feels cared for.  The staff are friendly and helpful, and the Visitor Centre, on the other side of the nice little shop, is excellent.  It mixes a few cabinets of objects with big information boards with lots of helpful illustrations, and feels modern, spacious and welcoming.   If you don’t anticipate wanting to buy the guide book (which I bought, thoroughly enjoyed and have used as the basis of this post together with Iain Soden’s biography of Ranulf) I do recommend reading up on the castle on the English Heritage website, and printing off the site plan PDF shown at the top of the post (links below).

In case the opening times and entry fees change, here is the link to the Beeston Castle page on the English Heritage website that should help you find all you need to know.
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/beeston-castle-and-woodland-park/prices-and-opening-times/

View from the inner gateway across the modern bridge across the plain

Accessibility for those with mobility challenges
This is an uphill walk, entirely suitable for anyone only averagely fit, taking perhaps 15-30 minutes depending on level of fitness, but you will anyway want to make many pauses to take in the views.  Although the walk consists of fairly easy slopes, this is not suitable for anyone who really can’t walk uphill, and there is understandably no access for wheelchair users.  Having said that, a lot of older people were doing the walk with the aid of walking sticks, pausing at benches along the way, and were doing it slowly but with enthusiasm.  Don’t forget that at the time of writing, English Heritage allows registered disabled people to bring a helper along free of charge, an “essential companion” in English Heritage terms.

There are a number of benches along the route, but all were well-used, so bringing along some form of portable stool might be an option for those with leg issues.  My Dad has a brilliant rucksack-cum-coldbag that has a hinged metal frame and folds out into a stool.  Suffering rucksack-stool envy, I’ve just ordered one for myself.

The walk up to the top of the castle can be described as a two-part enterprise.  There’s a slope up to the outer ramparts that can either be approached via a path with steps or a path without steps.   Once the outer ramparts are reached, there’s a short flight of stairs and then the approach to the upper ramparts that define the main castle are quite level for a while, followed by a fairly gentle slope up to the bridge across the ditch (what on a lowland site would be a moat).  The bridge itself is arched and quite steep for about 5-6 ft, but some good, solid railings were helpful for those with walking sticks.

For more about accessibility at Beeston, see the Beeston Castle Access page.

There’s a café at the site, but we chose to finish our visit with a very happy beer at the nearby Pheasant, a famous pub  with more great views.  The menu looks excellent.

The Pheasant, from the garden

Beeston Castle viewed from Churton, seen over the top of a field of corn.

Sources

Books and papers

Alexander, J. 1982. RANULF III OF CHESTER: An Outlaw of Legend?  Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 83(2), p.152-157.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/43343443 (available free with registration)

Gillingham, J. and Griffiths, R.A. 1984. Medieval Britain.  A Very short Introduction.  Oxford University Press

Liddiard, R. and Swallow, R.E. 2007. Beeston Castle. English Heritage Guidebooks

Rubin, M. 2014.  The Middle Ages.  A Very Short Introduction.  Oxford University Press

Soden, I. 2021 (second edition). The First English Hero: The Life of Ranulf de Blondeville. Amberley

Ward, S. 2013 (second edition). Chester. A History.  The History Press

Websites

English Heritage
Description of Beeston Castle
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/beeston-castle-and-woodland-park/history/description/
Research
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/beeston-castle-and-woodland-park/history/research/
History
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/beeston-castle-and-woodland-park/history/
Sources for Beeston Castle
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/beeston-castle-and-woodland-park/history/sources/

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (locked)
Ranulf (III) [Ranulf de Blundeville], sixth earl of Chester and first earl of Lincoln (1170–1232) by Richard Eales
https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-2716;jsessionid=A550860211C96B6006DE6E8E327F88A1

Ranulf III’s Beeston Castle #1 – Who was Ranulf?

The approach to the inner ward (or bailey) seen from the bridge, with the vast ditch below, part quarry and part defensive device, and a slice of the superb panoramic view in the background.

The English Heritage Guidebook to Beeston Castle opens with the following statement:  “Standing on a rocky crag high above the Cheshire plain, Beeston is one of the most dramatically sited medieval castles in England.”  Organizations keen to puff off the virtues of their sites are often guilty of hyperbole, but in this case, the guide book speaks nothing but the truth.  On a bright mid-August day, with the sky a silvery pale blue, it was absolutely spectacular, both on the approach to the solidly impressive fortifications from below, and standing in the inner ward above the plain, gazing east to the Welsh foothills and northwest to the Pennines, with the floor of the world reaching out in all directions, lovely and fabulously impressive.  All this and history too.

This post has been split into two parts, with Part 1 looking at Ranulf III himself, and Part II tackling the castle itself, looking at how it was built, used and perceived, covering 600 years from the 13th to 19th Centuries.

If you would prefer to download parts 1 and 2 as single a PDF, please click here.

Ranulf III

Although Beeston Castle was altered several times since its original construction, it was the brainchild of Ranulf III (Ranulf de Blondeville), the 6th Earl of Chester and first Earl of Lincoln (1170-1232).  Ranulf’s castle building phase came fairly late in his very busy and dangerous life as the most powerful magnate in England.   The first work on Beeston Castle took place c.1220, only 12 years before his death, so this needs to be understood in the context of the rest of his life. 

Hugh de Kevelioc’s coat of arms, featuring five wheatsheaves.  Source:  Wikipedia

Ranulf was a descendent of the powerful Norman Marcher Lords installed by William the Conqueror to provide a buffer against the perceived chaos across the border in Wales.  Wales was at that time a set of territories controlled of powerful families headed by chieftains who were often in armed dispute with one another as well as with England  The Marcher lords, acting as guardians of the border, were incentivized with land, title and, perhaps most importantly, a great deal of autonomy.  Originally intending to shift the border further into Wales, the Marcher lords found the mountainous territory of the Welsh chieftains a serious impediment to progress and instead consolidated their positions in the lowlands.  However, the give and take of land and lives continued throughout Ranulf’s life, in spite of both reprisals and peace treaties.  It was not until after his death, during the reign of Edward I, that attacks by the Welsh chieftains were eventually squashed.  The loss of Crown lands in France by previous kings meant that Edward had had plenty of time to devote to the problem.

Ranulf’s official seal, reading “Seal of Ranulf Count of Chester and Lincoln.” The wheatsheaf emblems were later adopted by the Grosvenor family and can be seen on the outside of Churton-by-Aldford’s former school.  Source:  Wikipedia’s Ranulf III page

Ranulf, being of Norman stock, probably thought of himself primarily as Norman rather than English.  His mother was Bertrada de Montford, a cousin of Henry II from Evreux in eastern Normandy.  His father was the 5th Earl of Chester, Hugh de Kevelioc.  Hugh de Kevelioc was born in 1147, the son of Ranulf II, 4th Earl of Chester and Maud, the daughter of Robert the 1st Earl of Gloucester, who was an illegitimate son of King Henry I.  When his father died in 1181, Ranulf became a royal ward of Henry II and was sent to Henry’s court in Normandy, accompanied by his mother and four sisters.  When he came of age, knighted as Earl of Chester, he had inherited Chester Castle and the important trading port of Chester, together with valuable territories in Normandy until these were lost in 1204-5 by King John.  Sadly, there are no images of him.

Chester had been established as a palatine by William the Conqueror, granted special powers, removing it from of the direct control of the Crown, but Ranulf’s other estates could be redistributed at the whim of the king, to reward or punish, or merely reorganize.  Although Ranulf’s holdings expanded and contracted throughout his adult life he remained one of the most powerful men in England.  

Henry II

Henry II and his children.  From left to right – left to right: William, Henry, Richard, Matilda, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joan and John.  Source:  Wikipedia

Ranulf, brought up in the court of Henry II, was loyal to the kings Henry II, Henry’s sons Richard I and (eventually) John, followed by John’s son Henry III.   These rulers were collectively known as the Angevin kings.  The period leading up to Henry II’s death was one of conflict, with his sons, Richard, Geoffrey and John turning on him due to the uncertainties of succession. 

At Henry II’s request Ranulf  married Constance of Brittany in 1189 at the age of 19, giving him the right to call himself Duke of Brittany.  Constance was widow of Geoffrey of Brittany, and mother of Arthur of Brittany who was next in line to the Duchy of Brittany.  Henry wanted to diffuse a situation in which Brittany was supporting his son Richard against him.  1189 was also the year in which Ranulf was knighted Earl of Chester by Henry.  Ranulf was now in control of his estates in England and Normandy.   Unfortunately, Ranulf and Constance soon developed a mutual loathing that lead to their separation within five years.  1189 was also the year in which Henry died and Richard I “the Lionheart” came to the throne, without further hostilities being required to assure the succession. 

Richard I

Richard I painted c.1250–55 by Matthew Paris in his Historia Anglorum. Source: Dorling Kindersley findout

Under Richard the Lionheart, the newly knighted Ranulf, connected to Richard via their relationship to Henry I, was given a role of key importance role in the coronation procession, carrying the jewel-encrusted crown.  Richard departed on crusade just a year later, having appointed a number of officers to oversee  his interests in England during his absence.   He also named his heir in case he perished during the crusade.  Instead of his younger brother John, he named Ranulf’s stepson, heir to Brittany, Constance’s son Arthur.  Unsurprisingly, Prince John’s nose was now firmly out of joint and he attempted to take the crown, supported by the king of France, Philip Augustus.  He was opposed by a number of powerful barons, including Ranulf.  Learning, weeks after the fact, of trouble at home, Richard decided to return, but he was humiliatingly delayed when he was recognized on the return leg of the journey, captured and held hostage in Germany.  Following an eye-watering payment Richard was freed, and his return settled the matter of John’s ambitions.  Richard underwent a second coronation just to push home the point.  Ranulf remained loyal to the king and followed Richard into war in Normandy and Brittany, where his estranged wife Constance was now stirring up rebellion.  In a rather botched attempt to split Arthur from Ranulf’s estranged wife Constance, both were ambushed in a trap set up by Richard with Ranulf’s help.  Constance was taken prisoner by Ranulf, who was now able to refer to himself one again as Duke of Brittany, but Arthur fled to the comparative safety of the King of France, Philip Augustus.

Whilst Ranulf was fixed in Normandy, Llewelyn the Great attacked and took Mold (then known as Montalt).  Mold was retaken but Ranulf’s trusted supporter, Ralph de Montalt, died in the conflict.  Ranulf was powerless to do anything about this, but it was just one more indication that something needed to be done about Wales.

Richard died in 1199 in a minor dispute (allegedly over rights to a Roman treasure), and with Arthur now allied with France, John succeeded to the throne. 

John

King John painted c.1250–55 by Matthew Paris in his Historia Anglorum. Source: TLS

Ranulf, having opposed John’s attempted coup, needed to prove his loyalty in the face of John’s notorious paranoia.  Ranulf was now about 29 years old.  He spent a lot of time early in the reign shifting between his territories in Normandy and England, while John reconciled himself with Arthur by naming him Duke of Brittany (ending Ranulf’s tenure) and Earl of Richmond.  The reconciliation was short-lived.  Arthur attacked Angers, taking a key Angevin castle, a terrible shock to John, who took instant revenge by taking the castle at neighbouring Le Mans, where Arthur’s mother Constance was staying.  He razed both castle and village to the ground. 

Arthur fled back to Philip Augustus.  Ranulf, joining John, swore loyalty to him at a big gathering in eastern Normandy in 1199, but John remained suspicious of him and it took time to win his trust.  This was not helped when, in 1200, Ranulf married Clemence de Fougeres, whose family had connections to both Brittany (via her father) and Normandy (via her mother).  John had a personal interest in Clemence himself, and was also concerned that Ranulf’s loyalties might be divided.  Ranulf doggedly pursuing his policy of demonstrating loyalty to John, stayed at court and accompanied the king on his travels throughout his territories. 

Arthur paying homage to Philip Augustus of France. Chroniques de St Denis, British Library.  Source:  Wikipedia

Constance, mother of Arthur, died in 1201 from leprosy.  Arthur, attacking another Brittany castle, was captured and imprisoned.  In 1202 he disappeared, probably having been murdered.  In response, Brittany rose up in revolt backed by Philip Augustus, king of France, who began to move against Normandy.  After an initial serious hiccough, when John charged Ranulf with treason, Ranulf was reinstated and his briefly confiscated estates returned to him.  He set about proving his loyalty during the campaigns in Brittany and French-occupied Normandy.

Staggered by the speed at which Philip Augustus was moving, and anticipating defeat, John left for England in December 1203, leaving his followers to defend his territories as best they might.  Ranulf followed shortly afterwards, similarly leaving his castles to defend themselves.   Although the war in France had continued in both John’s and Ranulf’s absences, Normandy was lost by 1205.  Ranulf, at court in England with John since late 2003, managed to weather the storms of John’s suspicions and continued to travel with the court, accompanied John in military expeditions to Poitou and Gascony and supported John in the face of the First Baron’s War.  Ranulf had, however, lost his five great castles in Normandy, together with the small private army that supported them. 

After another hiccough, when Ranulf’s loyalty was once again questioned in early 1205 by John, Ranulf again successfully challenged the accusations levelled at him.  Given John’s suspicions, it seems bizarre that only a year later John was so impressed by Ranulf’s loyalty that he rewarded him with so many titles and “honours” (estates) that he became the most powerful and wealthy man in England.  By 1208 Ranulf was not only Earl of Chester but also Earl of Lincoln, Earl of Richmond and had rights over Lancaster and Leicester.  The land and income associated with these honours were vast. 

Henry III

The coronation of Henry III. Source: Wikipedia

Following John’s death in 1216, the 46 year old Ranulf paid homage to the new king, the 9 year-old Henry III, and went to war in his name against Louis of France.  The king’s first Justiciar (effectively an acting regent) was Earl Marshall, a friend of Ranulf’s, and the transition seemed to go smoothly for Ranulf.  Fulfilling a promise to King John, Ranulf took an important part in the siege of Damietta in Egypt in 1218 during the 5th Crusade, returning after two years of battle.  He left Egypt in July 1220, arriving in England a month later.

Ranulf returned, having lost many friends to the crusade, to find that his friend Earl Marshall had been replaced as Justiciar by Hugh de Burgh, a long-standing enemy.  With two years of accumulated business to take care of, including repairs to some of his properties, he was kept busy with his own estates, but Henry also awarded him with new estates.  Disruptions over the rights to a number of castles involved Ranulf in military activity on behalf of the Crown in Northamptonshire, and then again on both his own and the Crown’s account at the Welsh borders, the latter at least partly resolved in the case of the Chester border with the marriage of Ranulf’s nephew John le Scot to Llewellyn’s daughter Helen in October 1223. 

Section of the outer ward’s curtain wall with remains of one of the D-shaped towers

Ranulf soon embarked on a major programme of castle-building, rebuilding castles at Bolinbroke Castle in Lincoln, Chartley in Staffordshire and  establishing a new castle Beeston in Cheshire.  Of the three, Beeston was by far the largest.  Ranulf’s reasons for wanting these castles, particularly Beeston Castle, which competed in scale and ambition with those of the kings themselves, have been much debated.  It has often been assumed that Beeston Castle, which was started in around 1220, was erected as a deterrent to the Welsh princes, but this was apparently not the case.  Not only is Beeston too far east of the Welsh border for this to be practical, but before building his castle, Ranulf had made his peace with Llewellyn the Great, whose territories met Ranulf’s along the Welsh border.  He felt sufficiently safe after the signing of this treaty to leave on the 5th Crusade in 1218 without any risk to his territory from Wales.  Although there had been a brief disruption after Ranulf’s return, this was at least partially resolved by the marriage of his nephew John le Scot to Llewellyn’s daughter, sealing peace if not actual friendship between Llewellyn and Ranulf.   Nor does Wales explain his other two castle-building enterprises.

The approach to the gateway to the inner ward with remains of the curtain walls and D-shaped towers

Perhaps surprisingly, the English crown represented a far greater risk to Ranulf’s security than Wales.  Henry III did not assume control of his government and territories until 1227, seven years after Ranulf started the building works at Beeston.  During this period control remained with Henry III’s Justiciar, Hubert de Burgh,  Ranulf’s enemy.  Disapproving of the way in which so much Crown territory had been given away as favours under previous reigns, Hubert de Burgh had started to claw back land and assets wherever he saw weakness.  It was now that Ranulf started to make improvements to his existing properties and to build his three new castles: Beeston Castle in Cheshire,  Bolinbroke Castle in Lincoln and Chartley in Staffordshire.  The new castles were probably intended to be Ranulf’s insurance against a royal land-grab happening to him, mainly acting as a statement of political authority and independence.

The great ditch around the inner ward, used for quarrying building fabric for the castle, as well as defence.

By raising taxes, Ranulf could easily afford these great projects.  Iain Soden describes Ranulf’s properties at this time:

Ranulf continued to hold the largest number of lands of any magnate in England; with them came the bulk of the armed forces.  Besides his ancestral earldom of Chester, the Honour of Chester stretched right across the Midlands, out into Gloucestershire and across Staffordshire and Warwickshire into Northamptonshire.  Outlying lands attached to the honour lay as far south as Devon and as far north as Derbyshire.  His earldom of Lincoln was intact, stretching from Yorkshire to Leicestershire, white the honour of Leicester linked his norther n lands with those in Northamptonshire.  To these, of course, could be added the family lands.  His brother-in-law Ferrers held the earldom of Derby and now the honour of Lancaster while his nephew was Earl of Huntingdon.

As his castles were being built, Ranulf continued to be in attendance at court and again returned to battle in France in 1230, this time against Louis IX, remaining until 1231, with a successful outcome.  He returned to England later that year.

Ranulf died on 26th October 1232 at the royal castle in Wallingford, 12 years after he began work on Beeston Castle.  Consistent with the traditions of the time, when he died his body was eviscerated (internal organs removed) so that it could buried in three locations.  His entrails were buried at Holy Trinity Priory at Wallingford.  His heart was buried at Dieulacrès Abbey, the Cisterian monastery that he had relocated, in 1214, from Poulton on northeast Wirral to Leek in the Midlands.  His  embalmed body was then returned to Chester and buried in the chapter house of the Benedictine Abbey, St Werburgh’s, next to his father and grandfather. He had no children.

Ranulf was a really fascinating historical figure, a powerful magnate, and a key figure in the lives of the Angevine kings.  Although he was swept up in the royal imperative to hang on to existing territories, retrieve lost ones, and acquire new ones, as well as meet the crusading demands of the Pope, he stands out as someone who was immensely powerful in his own right, loyal to the Angevine kings but perfectly confident to engage in strategic planning on his own behalf.  Sadly, in spite of the skilled work of his biographers, who have delved into difficult contemporary documents, Ranulf as a personality remains elusive, lost in the accounts of military and courtly engagements, actions and deeds.  He respected, cared for and supported his friends, detested his first wife, apparently rubbed along well with his second one, and engaged in bitter conflict with one of Henry III’s key advisors.  He had a passion for hunting.  He had a quick temper, was an excellent project manager, a compelling leader of men and was unafraid of exposing himself to the genuine horrors of war, often engaging in fearsome hand-to-hand combat.  There is the suspicion that his final phase of castle building had as much to do with vanity as a fear of having his estates confiscated, but that remains pure speculation. There is not even a surviving image of him to give one an impression of what he looked like.  What Ranulf was is fairly clear.  Who he was remains veiled.

For anyone wanting to read more about Ranulf III, whose extraordinary and complicated life cannot be more than touched upon in a post of this length, I recommend Iain Soden’s “The First English Hero,” details of which are in Sources, at the end of this post.

Part 2 looks at the castle itself, both how it was used and how it was perceived, from the 13th to 19th Centuries.

Sources

Books and papers

Alexander, J. 1982. RANULF III OF CHESTER: An Outlaw of Legend?  Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 83(2), p.152-157.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/43343443 (available free with registration)

Gillingham, J. and Griffiths, R.A. 1984. Medieval Britain.  A Very short Introduction.  Oxford University Press

Liddiard, R. and Swallow, R.E. 2007. Beeston Castle. English Heritage Guidebooks

Rubin, M. 2014.  The Middle Ages.  A Very Short Introduction.  Oxford University Press

Soden, I. 2021 (second edition). The First English Hero: The Life of Ranulf de Blondeville. Amberley

Ward, S. 2013 (second edition). Chester. A History.  The History Press

Websites

English Heritage
Description of Beeston Castle
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/beeston-castle-and-woodland-park/history/description/
Research
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/beeston-castle-and-woodland-park/history/research/
History
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/beeston-castle-and-woodland-park/history/
Sources for Beeston Castle
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/beeston-castle-and-woodland-park/history/sources/

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (locked)
Ranulf (III) [Ranulf de Blundeville], sixth earl of Chester and first earl of Lincoln (1170–1232) by Richard Eales
https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-2716;jsessionid=A550860211C96B6006DE6E8E327F88A1