Two sites with one name
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.
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.
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?
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.”
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).
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
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).
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- The pair has similarities to another pair of mottes in East Chelborough, Dorset, where a second motte replaces the first.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Williams, R. 1983. Church Shocklach, Castletown: the “moated” site. Cheshire Archaeological Bulletin 9, p.59–60
Williams, R. 1983. Castletown. A Deserted Hamlet? Cheshire Archaeological Bulletin 9, p.61
Ancient and Scheduled Monuments
Shocklach motte and bailey castle, list entry 1012620
Medieval settlement and part of field system at Castletown Farm
Church of St Edith
Archaeology and Metal Detecting Magazine
Shocklach: Its History and Archaeology. By Dave Sadler 5th September 2021