Category Archives: Heritage

Valle Crucis Abbey #1 – An introduction to the Cistercians and Valle Crucis

Valle Crucis is a superb example of a ruined Cistercian abbey, located less than an hour’s drive from the Chester-Wrexham area, in a lovely valley on the edge of a quiet stream that flows into the Dee.  It has been extensively surveyed, the few documents relating to the site and its antecedents have been studied and the site has been excavated both in the 19th Century and in the 1970s.  Importantly, most of the main features of the core buildings are identifiable, and can be discussed in terms of how the monastery was planned and used.  All of  these resources form a good basis for understanding how Valle Crucis was established and used, and what happened to it after it was “suppressed” or decommissioned following Henry VIII’s dissolution of most of Britain’s monasteries.

This is the first of a series of posts looking at monasticism in this part of the northwest, on both sides of the Welsh border, and heading some way down the Marches as far south as Shrewsbury on the English side, and Strata Marcella near Welshpool on the Welsh side.  These posts are quite long, and each can be downloaded and saved as a PDF if preferred.  The PDF of this post, Valle Crucis #1, can be downloaded by clicking here.  Valle Crucis, is used in these first four posts to introduce not only this particular abbey, but also the ideas that lead to monasticism, different monastic orders and the  distinctive architecture that defines most of the monastic orders in Britain.

An “order” is a shared monastic tradition, a set of spiritual ideals often spelled out in considerable detail in rules that covered everything from how many times a day a monk should pray, communally or individually, to where and when they could speak, eat and sleep, and what work they should engage in.  All orders involve a degree of renunciation and isolation by communities of monks.  Monastic architecture reflects both the need to gather a community in one establishment, adhering to a single set of rules, and the need to divorce that establishment from the rest of the world.  Unlike monks, friars could leave the monastic community (friary) to preach and tend to the poor, and were often located in urban contexts, but other orders chose to confine themselves to an abbey to focus their attentions on worship and scholarly activities that celebrated God.  Some chose to locate themselves far from other human habitation.  All were what is now termed Catholic, and all owed allegiance to the Pope, as well as to the heads of their own order, and to the founders who endowed their properties with land and resources.  The religious orders of the 12th and 13th Centuries in Britain were differentiated from one another based not on their religious beliefs, but on their ideas about how best to worship and celebrate God.  They dedicated themselves to spirituality and worship in different ways, based on traditions established in the history of monasticism.

St Pachomius in St Shenouda Monastery, Egypt. Source: St Shenouda Monastery website

Monasticism grew out of an early tradition in 3rd-4th Century A.D. Egypt where the devout might abandon their communities to live as hermits in the desert hills and mountains, divorced from anyone else.  They had as their models St John the Baptist and Jesus, both of whom had engaged in devout isolation in the desert.  Hermits began to organize themselves into communities that focused on offering guidance and communal prayer whilst still offering isolation from the distractions of secular life.   In the 4th Century, former soldier Pachomius, having followed the eremitic path in the Egyptian desert to live the life of a hermit, heard a voice telling him to establish a community for hermits like himself, a coenobitic (“common living”) way of combining isolation from the outside world with communal support and guidance.  This acknowledged that whilst individuals might seek out a life divorced from the material, they could well need help to achieve the sort of enlightenment that they were seeking.  These communities were therefore sources of knowledge, wisdom and education as well as worship.   He established his monastery in Tabennisi in Egypt, and simultaneously began to develop the first set of formal rules for guiding life in a monastery, which grew over time.  The rules combined prayer, solitude and work in a communal and very isolated environment, a difficult balance to strike.  This  was successful and soon spread.  Monasteries began to appear throughout the Mediterranean from where they spread into Europe.

A 12th Century interpretation of St Benedict delivering his monastic rule in the 6th Century AD. Source: Wikipedia, via Monastery of St. Gilles, Nimes France (1129)

In 6th Century Italy, St Benedict developed another set of rules for monastic living that required not only individual prayer and communal worship, but outlined a strict regime of living that included eating merely for fuel rather than enjoyment, a largely vegetarian and very narrow diet, and the requirement for manual work, including contributing to building projects and labouring in the fields.  The concept of an abbey emerged, a religious establishment consisting of both a monastery and a church in a single complex, housing a community of monks who do not leave the premises.  St Benedict’s form of monasticism was popular and spread throughout Europe.

As Benedictine monasticism spread and developed its own personality over the centuries, the strictness of St Benedict’s rules was often abandoned to enable a much more comfortable lifestyle, with an emphasis on liturgy rather than work, a varied and rich diet that included meat, and an emphasis on glorifying God through rich works of art and generous patronage.  Some abbots became involved in religious and state politics beyond the abbey walls, and became influential in their own right, far from the unworldly vision of  monks that St Benedict had promoted.  In the 12th Century this more opulent version of Benedictine monasticism was epitomized by the Cluniac order of monks (named after their abbey at Cluny in France).  The Cluniac order was the apogee of this desire to express devotion through liturgy and art, the elaborate and rich monasteries home to opulent treasures, art works, tapestries and fabulous stained glass that were intended to both reflect and celebrate the glory of God, and the monks entertained lavishly, rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful.  This trend sat ill with those who sought a simpler, modest, withdrawn and hard-working way of serving God, true to St Benedict.

Johann Petr Molitor, Cistercian monks, murals in the Capitular Hall, Cistercian Abbey Osek, North Bohemia, before 1756. Source: Wikipedia, from the Cistercian Abbey of Osek, North Bohemia

During the early Middle Ages, the Cistercians, named after their first abbey at Citeaux in France (Cistercium in Latin), set about returning to the values of St Benedict, which led to the reformation of some branches of Benedictine-based monasticism.  They combined worship with hard work in remote places that encouraged contemplation, eliminated distractions and enabled focus on a communal but pared down livelihood that was far more in keeping with St Benedict’s more spartan ideals.  Starting at Citeaux in 1098, new Cistercian abbeys were established as a network of child abbeys, each secondary to its own mother, and all owing allegiance to the founding house at its core.  Each new abbey could spawn one or more other abbeys.  The monks wore undyed habits, unlike the other Benedictine orders whose habits were dark brown or black.  Accordingly, they became commonly known as the White Monks.  

Citeaux Abbey. Source: Wikipedia

Perhaps the most important Cistercian monastery other than Citeaux, in terms of evangelizing on behalf of the Cistercians, was Clairvaux (founded 1115), which was the home base of abbot St Bernard.  St Bernard was a restless and vocal monastic propogandist of the 12th Century who, in contradiction to the rules of the order, travelled far and wide to bring the Cistercian message to the western world, and whose sayings are still widely quoted: “Arouse yourself, gird your loins, put aside idleness, grasp the nettle and do some hard work.”  He was an advocate of crusades, connected with monarchs, politicians and other religious hierarchy, promoted the cult of the Virgin Mary, and became an unexpected and influential celebrity and icon, the poster-child of the Cistercian message.  Gascoigne calls him “the most influential monk of the Middle Ages.”

St Bernard in his white robes holding a delightfully improbable demon at his feet.  Marcello Baschenis, c.1885. Source: Wikipedia

Very quickly, new Cistercian abbeys proliferated in Europe and across Britain, always in isolated locations, each connected as a daughter to its mother abbey, to which it owed homage and loyalty.  Clairvaux was the mother abbey for Whitland in south Wales, which was established by monks from Clairvaux itself.  Whitland in turn established other abbeys including Strata Marcella near Welshpool, and this abbey in turn established Valle Crucis.  It took 86 years from the foundation of Clairvaux until the foundation of Valle Crucis, but it was only four monastic steps from St Bernard, and that sense of proximity must have resonated at Valle Crucis, as with all the abbeys in Wales.

Every Cistercian abbot had to return from his abbey to Citeaux every year for what was known as the General Chapter, a great conference of abbots.  This was the case even for abbeys that were located overseas, and the British abbeys were subject to this costly and time-consuming annual trek.  Also on an annual basis, the abbot or his prior if he had one (the abbot’s second in command) would visit a given abbey’s daughter abbeys to ensure that everything was running according to the original Benedictine plan.  This led to a degree of standardization and adherence to the order’s rules that was not necessarily seen in the other orders.

The remains at Valle Crucis offer a great opportunity for discussing the main points of Cistercian architecture, life and economic strategy.  It is a site that reinforces many of the observations that have been made about Cistercian monastic traditions throughout Britain, but which is also interesting in its own right.  The Welsh abbeys provide a particular opportunity for considering how their circumstances may have differed from their English counterparts, due to a series of factors including the patronage of Welsh abbeys by the Welsh princes, the wars fought on monastic land by Edward I and Owain Glyndŵr, and the character of the landscape in which the abbeys were built.  Other orders will be discussed in the future.

Introducing Valle Crucis

The East Range

Valle Crucis was built in a scenic valley beneath the Horseshoe Pass near Llangollen, on the banks of Nant Eglwyseg, a fast-moving stream that ran into the Dee and now feeds the Llangollen canal. 

Both choir (or quire) monks and lay brothers were housed at Valle Crucis.  The choir monks and lay brothers lived different lives.  Their refectories, dormitories and latrines were all quite separate, and their roles within the abbey were clearly delineated.  Although the lay brothers would worship in the church, they were confined to the nave and a screen separated them from the choir brothers.  The lay brothers ate more advantageously, as they needed a better diet to support them in their daily work.  Cistercian orders worshiped seven times a day and once at night, and engaged in scholarly pursuits, but were also expected to engage in manual labour, contributing to the work carried out by lay monks.  Lay monks (conversi) were illiterate and worked the land, but were resident at the monastery.  They had their own separate quarters for sleeping and eating, and were confined to a section of the church that was divided from the parts of the church used by the quire monks.  Their church worship was much less frequent than that undertaken by quire monks, as most of their day was taken up by agriculture, crafts and building works.

The name of Valle Crucis is Latin, meaning Valley of the Cross, a reference to the 9th Century inscribed Pillar of Eliseg that was erected to commemorate the ancestors of Concenn of Powys, a  Welsh chieftain who died on pilgrimage to Rome in 858.  Eliseg was Concenn’s great-grandfather.  The inscription is now illegible but was recorded in 1696 and lists great deeds of ancestors, presumably with a view to establishing an incontrovertible connection to the lands on which the cross was constructed.

Survey, excavation, restoration and modern research

Carved head found in the refectory during excavations, and now rather a long way from home in the National Museum in Cardiff.  Source: Evans 2008, p.47

Documentary resources are few and far between for Valle Crucis, so other ways of exploring the history of the site have been employed.  The documentary archives of other monasteries and of related properties have helped to provide some additional information, but the documentary picture remains very threadbare.

Because of the architectural and functional standardization of monastic establishments, it has been possible to extrapolate the roles of much of the site’s key buildings by comparison to other Cistercian abbeys, but this only takes one so far.

Observing the above-ground architecture has taken matters a lot further, telling a story of a major fire forty years after the foundation of the abbey, and the changes in architectural direction that had to be taken as a result.  As the decades and centuries passed, changes in Cistercian values and ideas are captured in the architectural features and new decorative motifs.  This rich source of information has been supplemented by data that has come from the ground.

One of the illustrations from Butler’s 1970 excavations, published in 1976

One of the fads of the 19th Century was antiquarianism, the investigation of ancient sites of all ages.  Excavations became popular activities, although often hair-raising in the level of destruction achieved in the process of the pursuit of dazzling objects.  Valle Crucis did not escape this attention, and a series of archaeological excavations were carried out in both the middle of the 19th century, and in its latter half.   An anonymous letter to Archaeologia Cambrensis dating to 1863 by a visitor to Valle Crucis condemned the mid 19th Century excavations by W.W.E. Wynne, but the subsequent excavations by Harold Hughes appear to have been carried out with rather more integrity.

In 1970 the site was excavated by Lawrence Butler.  He reported on the findings, including the chronological sequences from the site, and full details of the pottery in 1976.  The pottery was limited in type and form but covered the full range of the site from construction to dissolution.  The faunal remains were analyzed by the ever excellent Graeme Barker as part of that project’s post-excavation work, to provide information about diet and economic activities, and his report was published in the same year.  The results of this particular project are of great interest as Butler found evidence of the earliest clearance of the site and was able to clarify details of fire, flood and alterations to the architecture in line both with these events and in response to the relaxation of Cistercian rules.

Because work has been concentrated on the core abbey buildings, it is less clear how the larger monastic precinct was organized.  This is the area surrounding and beyond the abbey’s heart, that were essential to the abbey’s economic survival, in which agricultural and activities took place, and in which vital supplies were stored for consumption or trade.  

Illustration from the 1895 excavation report by Harold Hughes.

Restoration work began with clearance of the site for excavation, but more ambitious work followed.  Sir Gilbert Scott, the renowned Victorian architect, was employed to repair the west front of the church in 1872, and Sir Theodore Martin restored part of the east end in 1896.  The difference in the stonework at the  and the site has been made safe for visitors.

After passing into the hands of the Ministry of Works in 1950, Valle Crucis was eventually transferred into the care of Cadw in 2008, which retains responsibility for the site.  Between them the site was made safe for visitors and Cadw has expended some effort on information signage to help visitors understand some of the site’s history.


How Valle Crucis and other Welsh abbeys were founded

12th Century links between Cistercian monasteries. Source: Evans, D.H. Valle Crucis Abbey (Cadw). Although Citeaux, the node for all Cistercian abbeys, established early new bases in France, it was Clairvaux under the lead of St Bernard that was responsible for the earliest new abbeys in Wales. Of these Whitland was the most important for the northward spread of monasticism. The green lines emanating from Savigny reflect the Savignac order, which merged with the Cistercians after only 20 years, in 1147. So although Basingwerk in the north and Neath in the south were founded as Savignac orders, after 1147 they were brought under the rule of the Cistercians at Citeaux.

Valley Crucis was at the northeastern end of a branch of a monastic chain that spread from south Wales to the north over a period of some 60 years during the 12th Century, building on a much older European monastic tradition.  The Cistercian order of monks spread through Wales during the 12th Century AD from the of Wales where it was established by monks from the French monastery Clairvaux, forming an eastern and a western chain of monasteries.

The first new Cistercian abbeys were established in Wales in the wake of the Norman conquest, the earliest at Tintern in 1131, and had a distinctly Anglo-Norman flavour.  However, a second strand of Cistercian monasticism spread in Wales.  It began at Whitland (Abaty Hendy-gwyn ar Daf), founded in 1140 by monks from St Bernard’s abbey at Clairvaux, second only to the Cistercians’ founding abbey at Citeaux.  Whitland spawned a series of abbeys that were funded by the native Welsh princes and were populated mainly by Welsh monks, a pura Wallia (Welsh Wales) version of Cistercian monasticism that nurtured Welsh literature and learning.  This spread into the poorer and more remote areas of Wales.

Valle Crucis was founded in 1201, the daughter house of Strata Marcella Abbey (Abaty Ystrad Marchell) near Welshpool, founded by Owain Cyfeiliog, prince of southern Powys, itself a daughter house of Whitland.   Establishing an abbey was an expensive undertaking, both in terms of its construction and providing it with the resources to ensure ongoing economic security. Accordingly, every new abbey required an endowment by a donor, someone with enough land and wealth to give some of it away in return for divine good will and the prayers offered by the monks for the souls of the donor and his family.  The donor usually required a guarantee that they would be buried within the abbey church, and that their family would be buried either within the church itself or within the monastery precinct.  Monks were considered to have a hotline to God.  Having dedicated their lives to Him, and living sin-free lives, they built up a surplus of virtue and influence that could be employed on behalf of the living in order to provide for them in the afterlife, an intercession to minimize the impact of sins committed in life.  Valle Crucis Abbey was founded by Prince Madog ap Gruffydd. 

Original sacristy entrance, 13th Century.

Prince Madog ap Gruffydd controlled the territory of Powys Fadog from the Tanat valley in the south to the edge of Chester from 1191 until his death in 1236, and was an ally of his cousin Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn the Great), prince of Gwynedd, d.1240.  In accordance both with tradition, and to fulfil the terms of his original financing and support of the abbey, he was buried in the abbey church at Valle Crucis, although the exact site of the grave has been lost.  The map above left shows the territorial divisions in Wales in 1267, with Powys Fadog bordering Chester, Gwynedd, southern Powys (Powys Wenwynwyn) and England. 

Valle Crucis was supplied with at least twelve monks (considered by St Benedict to be the minimum number for founding a monastery, following the twelve apostles), possibly thirteen, who were installed in temporary accommodation with a wooden church.  Work would have begun immediately on the stone church, the sacristy and the accommodation, and the 1970 excavation found unmistakeable signs of this work.

Choice of location

The map to the left (Ordnance Survey SJ24/34) shows the relative locations of Valle Crucis Abbey, the Pillar of Eliseg and Castell Dinas Brân, all a short drive from Llangollen, which was probably a large village that would have benefitted from the proximity of the monastery and its associated farms (known as granges).

Ordnance Survey map SJ24/34, showing the relative locations of Valle Crucis Abbey, the Pillar of Eliseg and Castell Dinas Brân (the latter not built until 1270, 69 years after the foundation of Valle Crucis)

The Cistercian ideal of a contemplative existence away from distractions meant that new abbeys were sited where monks could practise their devotions in relative seclusion, although not in complete isolation.  They were often near to well-established routes, and they always located themselves near to water that would be used for drinking, cooking, cleaning, ritual purification, as well as fishing and sometimes for powering water mills.  Abbeys were supposed to be economically self-sufficient, so abbeys still needed to be near enough to manors and villages to enable them to trade their produce, mainly agricultural, in exchange for the basics required for sustaining the abbey, both the choir monks (the dedicated monks within the monastery) and the conversi or lay brotherhood.

Although little is known about Llangollen in the late 12th Century, there was some type of settlement recorded there based around a church, and in 1284, Edward I granted the manor of Llangollen to Roger Mortimer, together with the rights for a weekly market and two annual fairs.  Llangollen was far enough away for monks to feel that they were isolated from civilization, but near enough to a village to enable contacts to be established if required for sourcing produce, raw materials and other goods.  The site of the abbey was clearly idyllic.  The following is an evocative excerpt from a paper by John Williams, who reported on the abbey in 1846 in the journal Archaeologia Cambrensis:  

Luxuriantly watered by a clear stream and sheltered by high hills, the sides of which are gracefully ornamented by trees, the place altogether appears as if especially intended to be the home of peace and happiness – a paradise for restored man, where he might securely worship his Creator and cultivate the graces of heaven implanted in his soul.

The sad remains of Strata Marcella Abbey, which supplied the founding monks of Valle Crucis.  Source: Coflein website – RCAHMW, taken by C.R. Musson, 2/1/1995.

The founding monks of Valle Crucis from Strata Marcella near Welshpool certainly thought so.  They moved the residents of the existing hamlet of Llanegwest to a new location in order to establish themselves in this particular paradise in the form of a fine abbey.  Llanegwest was probably a fairly tiny settlement, and it was relocated to Maelor Gymraeg (on the far northeastern border).  This was by no means unusual, and there are enough records of hamlets and villages being moved to make way for a monastic establishment for this to be seen as a fairly standard (if somewhat ruthless) act in the establishment of a new Cistercian abbey.

The fish pond at Valle Crucis

The Cistercians were renowned for their use of water, which in some abbeys included sophisticated networks of sunken drains that fed into and out of monastic buildings.  The siting of Valle Crucis next to the Eglwyseg was essential for sourcing water that was used for cooking, cleaning, washing, for use in rituals and for creating a fish pond and a drainage system to flush both the choir monks’ and lay brothers’ latrines.

The pond is an expanded version of the original one, and is the only one surviving in Wales.  As early Cistercians could not eat meat under St Benedict’s rules, except on certain nominated days, fish was often an important component of the diet.  As the rules relaxed, meat found its way into the diet on more than just special days, but in the early abbeys fish was often responsible for providing much-needed protein.

The latrines, located on the first floor at the end of the dormitories, were flushed by drains below, which diverted fast-moving stream water to clear waste back into the stream,  presumably downriver of the monastery.  Cleanliness was an important component of monastic life, with monks washing their hands before each meal, and latrines associated with the devil.

Pillar of Eliseg by David Parkes 1809. Source: National Library of Wales

Finally, the Pillar of Eliseg may or may not have influenced the location of the abbey, even though it provided the abbey with its name.  It is, however, entirely possible that the presence of the ancient cross as a clear and ancient statement of Christian affiliation would have been particularly attractive to the new abbot and his monks.  Perhaps more significantly, it was probably particularly resonant for the founder-patron of the abbey, Prince Madog ap Gruffydd, embedded as the monument was with memories of the past inhabitants of the region who sought to defend it against all-comers.  With the Marcher Lords at the borders and the English beyond, Madog probably felt a close affinity with Concenn and his predecessors.   The cross still stands to the north of the abbey, but is considerably shorter, with bits missing, including the top, base and arms of the cross.  In the view to the right by David Parkes, dated 1809, the remains of Valle Crucis are visible at the lower left of the image.

I had initially assumed that the siting of Valle Crucis took into account the proximity of Dinas Brân, a Medieval castle that was also located in the Vale of Llangollen and can be seen from the abbey.  The castle was not, however, built until 1270.

View from the interior of Valle Crucis. I find it hard to get my head around the idea that this and other very narrow views were all that the monks would have seen. They could not explore the environment in which their abbey was located, because they were confined to the monastic precinct.  They could merely see it, never truly experience it.


The remains of Valle Crucis

Valley Crucis provides a very useful template for understanding other monasteries in the Benedictine tradition, all incorporating a church and the main monastic buildings arranged around a square cloister, consisting of a walkway connecting the buildings around a garden or “garth.”

Cadw site plan, with photographs of mine added to show the relative location of some of the key features (click to expand).

Above is a site plan of Valle Crucis, which adopted the typical layout of a Benedictine abbey that the Cistercians had adopted, basing themselves on the Benedictine rule.  The earliest known abbey in Britain that adopted this basic layout was Glastonbury Abbey.  Part 2 will show this image again, and look at these and other features in detail, discussing how they reflect historical developments from the foundation of the abbey at the beginning of the 13th Century, via fire, flood, fluctuating fortunes and changing ideas to its dissolution in the mid 16th century.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, Valle Crucis is not merely of interest as a component of the Vale of Llangollen landscape, but is a useful representative of both Welsh and English Cistercian traditions.  It both exemplifies many of the historical details that have been assembled about Cistercian monasticism in Britain, and provides an impressive volume of data that both reinforces existing knowledge and adds to it.  Some of this will be explored further in the next three posts.

This post, Part 1, has introduced the Cistercian order and explained why Valle Crucis was located where it is.  The next post, part 2 will look at the history of the abbey, and then take key features one by one, looking at how these features can be seen in terms of historical developments between the foundation of the abbey at the beginning of the 13th Century to its dissolution in the mid 16th century.  Part 3 will look at how life was lived in the monastery in terms of everyday activities, the roles allocated to monks, the subsistence strategies employed,  and how illness and death were handled.  Part 4 will go on to look at the dissolution of the monasteries and what happened to Valle Crucis after it ceased to be a religious establishment.

Sources for parts 1-4:

Resources that were of particular use are picked out in bold.

Books and papers

Anonymous (A. Traveller) 1863.  Valle Crucis Abbey – Correspondence To the Editor of Archaeologia Cambrensis.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, 3rd series, No.33, January 1863, p.68-72
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2995788/67#?xywh=-1466%2C103%2C5111%2C3522

Aston, M. 2000. Monasteries in the Landscape.  Tempus

Barker, G. 1976.  Diet and Economy at Valle Crucis:  The Report on the Animal Bones.  Archaeologia Cambrensis 125 (1976), p.117-126

Butler, L.A.S. 1976.  Valle Crucis Abbey:  An Excavation in 1970.  Archaeologia Cambrensis 125 (1976), p.80-116
https://journals.library.wales/view/4718179/4747123/95#?xywh=-1521%2C-15%2C5975%2C3940

Burton, J. and Kerr, J. 2011.  The Cistercians in the Middle Ages.  Boydell Press

Clwyd and Powys Archaeological Trust.  Historic Settlement Survey – Denbighshire – 2014.  Llangollen SJ 2150 4190, 105978.
https://cpat.org.uk/ycom/denbigh/llangollen.pdf

Coppack, G. 1990.  Abbeys and Priories. Batsford.

Evans D.H. 2008, Valle Crucis Abbey, Cadw

Edwards, N. 2008.  The Pillar of Eliseg.  In: Evans D.H., Valle Crucis Abbey, Cadw

Gascoigne, B. 2004 (revised edition).  A Brief History of Christianity. Constable and Robinson

Greene, J.P. 1992.  Medieval Monasteries.  Leicester University Press

Hughes, H. 1894, Valle Crucis Abbey. Archaeologia Cambrensis, 5th series, 11:43 (1894), p.69-85, 257-75
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/3009987/#?xywh=-853%2C-196%2C3885%2C3913

Hughes, H. 1895. Valle Crucis Abbey. Archaeologia Cambrensis, 5th series, 12:45 (1895), pp. 5-17
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/3010260/#?xywh=-853%2C-196%2C3885%2C3913

Jones, O.W. 2013. Historical writing in Medieval Wales.  PhD thesis, Bangor University
https://research.bangor.ac.uk/portal/files/20577287/null

Platt, C. 1984.  The Abbeys and Priories of Medieval England. Chancellor Press

Robinson, D. 2006.  The Cistercians in Wales. Architecture and Archaeology 1130-1540.  Society of Antiquaries London

Silvester, R.J., and Hankinson, R., 2015. The Monastic Granges of East Wales. The Scheduling Enhancement Programme: Welshpool. Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust (CPAT)

Williams, D. 1984.  The Welsh Cistercians.  Cyhoeddiadau Sistersiaidd

Williams, J.  1846.  Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1 , 1846 p.17-32, 151-153, 279-280
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2989093/17#?xywh=-893%2C45%2C3900%2C3929

Wynne, W. W. E. 1848. Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, 3:11 (1848), p.228-229
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2991333/41#?xywh=-913%2C-241%2C3920%2C3949

Wynne, W. W. E. 1849. Excavations at Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, 4:13 (1849), p.22-27
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2991554/21#?xywh=-849%2C-1035%2C3920%2C3949

Wynne, W. W. E.  1851. Excavations at Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, new series, 8 (1851), p.282-284
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2990655/21#?xywh=-893%2C-221%2C3920%2C3949

Wynne, W. W. E. 1852. Excavations at Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, new series, 10 (1852), pp. 93-96
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2990849/12#?xywh=-893%2C-199%2C3900%2C3929

Yorke, T. 2004.  The English Abbey Explained.  Monasteries – Priories.  Countryside Books

Websites

Ancient and Medieval Architecture
Llantysilio – Valle Crucis Abbey
https://tinyurl.com/8fuybma9

Coflein
Valle Crucis
https://coflein.gov.uk/en/site/95205/

English Heritage
Valle Crucis Abbey
https://cadw.gov.wales/visit/places-to-visit/valle-crucis-abbey

Monastic Wales
Valle Crucis (Abbey)
https://www.monasticwales.org/browsedb.php?func=showsite&siteID=35

The Cistercians in Yorkshire
https://www.dhi.ac.uk/cistercians/

 

 

Two more 1898 mileposts on the Chester-Worthenbury turnpike route located

Regular readers of the blog will know that I am on a minor quest to check up on all the 1898 milestones that were recorded in the 2018 Milestone Society survey and see what sort of condition they are in.  A full set should run from Chester to Worthenbury and I am slowly assembling a photographic record of the survivors, hoping that all are eventually located.  Last week I located two of the ones that were missing from Chester to Churton, respectively at Huntington and Crook of Dee.  I have updated the main post in which I talk about the 1898 milestones, including the What3Words address for each, but here are last week’s photos for those who have already read that post.

The first, at Huntington, was standing on a neatly mowed street-side road on the northern side of a pedestrian crossing, very easy to spot if a car is not parked in front of it.  It is in beautiful condition, and it was nice to be able to get a good look at the maker’s mark and the back of the milepost, which is usually very difficult to see clearly.

Huntington milepost

The second, opposite Cheavely Cottages at Crook of Dee to the north of Aldford, was completely hidden from view when I went looking for it in the summer, and it is only thanks to a recent trimming of the shrubby hedge and the autumn leaf-fall that I was able to see it.  Even then, it was covered in tendrils of ivy that I pulled gently away to take photographs, and the lettering at the base is fully embedded in fallen leaves and general build-up of earth and twigs.  I would have liked to do more for it, but it is an incredibly dangerous section of the road, on a blind bend with no pavement or verge, just a foot or so of raised ground on which to perch.

Cheaveley Hall Cottages milepost

 

 

A visit to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct near Llangollen – Thomas Telford’s iron trough 126ft over the Dee

It is without question a marvel of modern engineering and a remarkable sight, but what strikes most people when they first see the 1000ft (c.305m) Pontcysyllte  canal aqueduct is that the handrail along the pedestrian walkway 127ft (38.5m) over the river Dee is only a few steps away from the other side of the narrow canal trough, which has no handrail at all to separate a boat user from a straight drop into the valley bottom.  Until you lean over the towpath’s handrail and look straight down, 127ft is a rather abstract number.  The photograph on the right shows me crossing it on a 40ft narrowboat in the 1990s on a two week canal holiday.  What you cannot see are the white knuckles with which I am gripping the tiller for dear life, in spite of having absolutely no fear of heights, because there was absolutely nothing between me and that drop.  The aqueduct, Grade I listed, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2009, is the longest and highest in Britain.  It’s a long way down.

The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct passing over the Dee valley at Trevor. Source: Dronepics Wales

Seen from below or from a distance, the Pontcysyllte aqueduct is a fabulous sight, not pretty but truly awe-inspiring, and it shows exactly what Pontcysyllte is:  an iron trough built on 18 vast tapering brick piers, with 19 arches.  It was all about function, nothing to do with aesthetics, and has no ornamentation to soften it, but the sheer ambition of it grips the imagination and makes one look beyond the factual details of the thing.  It really is superb.  There is a path leading down along the side of the approach to the aqueduct into the valley below, a long but well maintained track to the valley bottom, where you can walk along the Dee and get a long at the aqueduct from a distance.  That’s one for another day.

It was a beautiful day, absolutely flawless, with cerulean blue skies, a golden sun warming one’s face, and a brightness of autumnal colours that takes some beating.  After attending the Remembrance Day commemoration at the Churton war memorial, with a memorable and moving address, and a two-minute silence filled with birdsong, I collected the car first, the parent next, and we proceeded towards Trevor, on the A539 to Llangollen.  There’s a brown signpost pointing to the aqueduct’s pay-and-display car park at the Trevor Basin, which is the home of a number of canal boat companies today, but when it was built was used for the transhipment of coal, building stone, iron products, timber and bricks, much of which was brought to the canal wharf by horse-drawn waggons.

Map of the key canal features in the Vale of Llangollen. I have added a red arrow to show the best car park for Pontcysyllte. Click to enlarge. Source: Pontcysyllte Aqueduct & Canal World Heritage Site

Thomas Telford and his chosen team

Portrait of Thomas Telford, who chose to be painted with the Pontcysyllte aqueduct in the background. Engraved by W. Raddon from a painting by S. Lane.

The aqueduct (built (1794-1805) was part of the Ellesmere Canal project.  It is one of the many British civil engineering projects that has the names of Thomas Telford (1757-1834), ironmaster William “Merlin” Hazeldine (1763-1840) and master stonemason John Simpson (1755-1815) attached to it, three men who had brought their particular skills to many different joint projects and in doing so had developed an invaluable relationship of trust and mutual respect.

Thomas Telford started his career as a stone mason, working in London on buildings such as Somerset House, and had ambitions to develop his career as an architect.  When he became the County Surveyor for Shropshire, he worked on a great variety of building projects including, by his own estimation, 40 road bridges between 1790 and 1796, two of which employed iron in their construction.   Hazledine had initially trained as a millwright, but  his family owned a small foundry  and Hazeldine went on to grow his iron casting business with the large Coleham Foundry at Shrewsbury.  Hazledine and Telford, both Freemasons, had met at Salopian Lodge  in Shrewsbury in 1789 and become friends and professional collaborators.  On one of his earliest projects in Shrewsbury Telford hired a childhood friend Matthew Davidson to oversee works, and Davidson employed master stonemason John Simpson who worked on many of Telford’s projects. Telford described Simpson as “a treasure of talents and integrity.”

Although Telford is by far the best known of the three, he, Hazledine and Simpson worked together frequently on many different projects to produce some of the great civil engineering constructions of their era, mainly bridges.  All three were involved with the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, where  Matthew Davidson also joined them, but the story of the canal starts before any of them were recruited to work for the Ellesmere Canal project.

Background to the aqueduct

The Trevor Basin today.

The big name in canal construction was James Brindley (1716-1772), who was responsible for building over 365 miles of canals by the time he died.  Brindely realized that any inland waterway network would need to connect to all the great navigable rivers that connected to the sea, including the Thames, the Mersey, the Severn and the Trent, incorporating other important navigable rivers like the the Avon and the Dee.  Most of his canals were contour canals, wherever possible built on the level and avoiding slopes so that locks and lifts could be avoided.  The network was therefore a sprawling affair, but it revolutionized transport, avoiding roads that would become mired and impassable in winter, as well as unnavigable sections of rivers, and the riverine problems of drought and flood.  Water into and out of the canal system was regulated and therefore predictable, and allowed year-round transport.  The advantages became very clear very quickly, and manufacturing and trading businesses began to locate themselves at critical points on the canal network.  Eagerness to invest in infrastructure resulted in a canal boom in the late 1780s and 1790s.  Each new section of canal required an Act of Parliament, subject to Royal Assent, and Act after Act was passed as the network expanded.

The complex arrangement of the Ellesmere Canal and its branches is shown as a think blue winding line. The thick blue line is the Dee. The yellow lines are roads. Click to see a bigger version. Source: Wikipedia

In 1791 a proposal for a canal to link the Mersey at Netherpool (later renamed Ellesmere Canal) to the river Dee at Chester and the Severn at Shrewsbury was discussed by three Shropshire entrepreneurs, carrying mainly coal, iron and lime, supported by other goods as well.  It was decided that a branch would be needed to Wrexham and Ruabon and onwards, via Chirk, bypassing Oswestry at its west, to Shrewsbury in the south with a branch to Whitchurch in the east and another to Llanymynech.  Originally it was planned to run a branch from Ruabon to reach the Irenant slate quarries near Llantysilio, via Llangollen, but this was at first dropped and later revived for different reasons (discussed below).  That branch would in turn connect to the Montgomery Canal from Frankton Junction via Welshpool to Newtown in mid Wales (for carrying limestone, coal, timber, stone and slates).

This seriously ambitious plan found sufficient support for a surveyor to be hired and possible routes to be explored.   William Jessop, an experienced canal engineer, was hired to head up the project and oversee all of its different components.  After disagreements over the final route were resolved (albeit not to everyone’s satisfaction), the Ellesmere Canal proposal went through parliament and received its Royal Assent in April 1793.  There were still a lot of technical and logistical details to resolve, including how the canal was to cross the Dee and Ceiriog valleys.

It was clear that Jessop needed help, and although the internal promotion of William Turner was Jessop’s first choice, Telford was brought in without his input. It is not certain how Telford, increasingly bored with life as a county surveyor, managed to insert himself into this ambitious engineering project, but the canal was already generating considerable excitement in the area and it looks as though he heard of the position and sought the support of one of Britain’s most prominent industrialists, John Wilkinson, to help him secure it.  Jessop made it clear in his letters what he thought of having Telford, who he had never met, brought in against his wishes as his right hand man, and refused to attend the meeting that appointed Telford to the Ellesmere Canal Company.  In spite of this rocky start, Jessop and Telford seem to have hammered out a decent working relationship, with Jessop teaching Telford what he needed to know about canal construction, and Telford injecting some ideas into the project.  Like Jessop, Telford managed to broker a deal to enable him to carry out other projects when his personal presence was not necessary, and this enabled him to work on other civil engineering works whilst the Ellesmere Canal was being built.

Building the aqueduct

Work began at Netherpool on the Mersey, renamed Ellesmere Port, in 1793.  The 9-mile canal ran down the Wirral to meet the Dee at Chester, and went so well that it opened for traffic in 1795 and was an immediate success.  While this section was underway, discussions were underway about how the canal might cross the Dee.  The original idea presented to the directors by Jessop and Turner, and apparently not opposed by Telford, was a relatively low level stone channel crossing three stone arches, with step locks either side to manage the ascent to and descent from the level of the canal to the aqueduct.   This would have been an expensive option, requiring not only the locks but the management of the water that would feed the locks.  Even after this had been agreed in principle, concerns resulted in a new plan for an iron channel on stone columns.  It is likely that it was proposed by Telford and supported by Jessop partly because it would have reduced the cost as iron was lighter, easier to work and move, and cost less.  A sketch by Telford from March 1794 survives showing an early version of this aqueduct design.

Telford’s Grade 1 listed Longdon-on-Tern aqueduct in Shropshire, 1796. Source: Chris Allen, Wikimedia

In early 1795 Telford had the opportunity to try out a smaller, less ambitious version of the design at Longdon-on-Tern on the new Shrewsbury Canal, on which Telford was also working, as replacement for the incumbent engineer who had died mid-project.  Later in the same year he had built a fully navigable iron aqueduct on a canal that had none of the problems of leakage or shattering that had worried other engineers.  Whether or not this was taken into account by the directors of the Ellesmere Canal Company, they decided in the same year to go for the iron trough on immense stone piers that was eventually built.

Telford’s friend and frequent collaborator, master mason John Simpson soon joined him on the project.  Telford also brought in Matthew Davidson, his childhood friend of Telford, a stone mason, civil engineer and excellent organizer, to oversee the bridge works.  Telford and Davidson had worked successfully together on Telford’s Montford Bridge project of 1790 – 1792.  Shortly afterwards, William Hazledine arrived to establish an ironworks and take charge of the construction work for the iron ribs and the trough.  By assembling three men that he had worked with before and trusted absolutely, Telford was not only ensuring that the project was in good hands, but that he had a team who could operate in his absence. The foundation stone for the aqueduct was laid on 25th July 1795.

Jessop and Telford made wooden models to test the design for the trough, finding that 1000s of iron parts would be needed.  The cast iron for the aqueduct was made of cast iron that was produced in William Hazledine’s new iron foundry nearby at Plas Kynaston, Cefn Mawr.  Hazledine established the Plas Kynaston foundry to service the construction of the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, thereafter taking advantage of the canal network to carry his cast iron in segments to be transhipped by river or sea to where it was needed.  When he built the Eaton Hall Iron Bridge at Aldford on the river Dee (described on an earlier post) it was from Plas Kynaston that the iron was shipped by canal.

After 1801 Jessop was much less involved and Telford also had interests elsewhere, and Telford was also involved in other projects, leaving Davidson, Hazledine and Simpson to run with the project.  The piers rose steadily, each built in turn from south to north by, at the peak of the project, over 500 men.  Jessop had been desperately worried from the beginning by the dangers to workmen’s lives of such tall piers, and safety precautions were taken very seriously, with the loss of only one life.  The iron parts were manufactured as needed at Plas Kynaston, and were numbered according to the order in which they would be needed so that only pieces needed at any one time would be delivered to the site.  First, ribs of iron were fitted to the piers, and then the trough was bolted on top, after which a wooden towpath was fitted to the side.  The entire project was finished in 1805, and opened on a sunny afternoon on November 26th 1805 at a grandiose ceremony followed by a lavish feast.  The entire cost for the aqueduct project was £47,018, which in today’s money translates as around £617,855 (National Archives Currency Convertor).

Metalwork over and under the arch at the left-hand Rhos y Coed bridge.

Although not as visible in the finished design, iron was also used in the Chirk aqueduct on the Llangollen canal where ten semi-circular masonry arches were crossed by a water channel with an iron bed plate and brick sides sealed using hydraulic mortar.  As well as in the aqueducts, iron was used in various ancillary structures too.  for example, Bridge 29, Rhos y Coed, at the Trevor Basin has visible iron metalwork supplementing the stone arch, and iron was used to cap the weir at the Horseshoe Falls.

The role of the aqueduct

Map from Nicholson’s Guide to the Central canal system, showing the stump end (framed in orange) of the planned Ruabon to Chester section of the canal, which was never built and now houses the attractive Trevor boatyard where the visitor centre is located. Source: Nicholson 1989

The Pontcysyllte aqueduct was almost immediately  in danger of becoming something of a white elephant, because its original role as a direct route to Wrexham and Chester was never fulfilled.  The section that led past Trevor Basin over the aqueduct was supposed to run straight on to the west of Ruabon, via Wrexham and on to Chester where it would link with the Wirral stretch leading to the Mersey and to the  Dee and the Shropshire Union Canal.  All that is left of the Trevor-Ruabon-Wrexham-Chester branch is a stump end occupied by the Trevor Basin, where the car park is located.  This is clearly visible on Nicholson’s map left, where the main line of the canal comes to a sudden, abrupt end.

The abandonment of this important part of the original plan was due to both engineering problems and financial issues.  There were only  two obvious engineering options – an enormous tunnel or a series of locks climbing towards Wrexham and another descending into the Cheshire plain where the canal could run along the flat plain to Chester.  The tunnel would have been appallingly costly, and it was difficult to know how the locks, by no means a low-cost option themselves, could have been supplied with the sufficient water.  Although other technologies were considered, they were rejected for reasons of practicality and cost.  This left the problem of where the water was to come from to feed the rest of the Ellesmere Canal and its branches.

Horseshoe Falls

At the far end of the Llangollen canal is Telford’s great arc of a weir, today known as the “Horseshoe Falls,” marking the point at which the Dee begins to feed the Llangollen canal.  An original survey had considered using the water of the Dee as it fell from Snowndonia via Lake  Tegid at Bala and through the Vale of Llangollen as a water source for the canal.  The idea had been to link the canal to a slate works, feeding the canal at the same time.  This proposal was now revisited.  The owner of Lake Tegid gave his permission and the plan was actioned.  At the Horseshoe Falls the canal is fed with water from the Dee via a sluice and meter, and today carries over 11 million gallons of Dee water a day, emptying it into Hurleston reservoir, just north of Nantwich, where the Llangollen Canal meets the Shropshire Union Canal.  I will be posting more about the Horseshoe Falls weir on another day.  There is no turning point for vessels over 10ft long beyond Llangollen, so the final stretch is only used by minimal traffic today.

This means that the vast aqueduct, such a remarkable feat of civil engineering, would only ever lead to the relatively unimportant narrow section of canal and feeder to a complete dead end at Llantisilio after passing high through Llangollen.  This navigable channel is approached from the aqueduct by negotiating a sharp left-hand corner just beyond the exit of the trough.  Although this seems like a sad role for an aqueduct that should have carried many times the traffic that it eventually did, without the aqueduct there would have been no water to feed the rest of the system.

Even without the Ruabon – Chester link, those wishing to carry all their goods by canal were still able to connect to the main canal system, although to reach Chester they had to take a very long way round, and Wrexham was excluded completely.  The Llangollen canal still linked to the Shrophsire Union at its eastern end, from which the rest of the vast canal network could be reached.

  • Chester could still be reached by travelling the full length of the Llangollen canal to Hurleston Junction, just north of Nantwich, on the Shropshire Union Canal.  From here Chester was nearly 16 miles away.
  • Just to the north of Hurleston Junction was the Middlewich Branch, which headed east and linked to the Trent and Mersey Canal, from where Manchester, Stoke on Trent, the eastern Midlands and Yorkshire could all be reached.
  • In the opposite direction, from Hurleston Junction the Shropshire Union ran directly to Birmingham, which was a vast junction for canals in all directions, including London on the Thames and Gloucester on the Severn.

The Cefn Mawr railway viaduct, which opened in 1848.

Along the line that the original canal would have taken, a cast iron tramway was built to connect local collieries and ironworks with the canal, the iron supplied by Hazledine.  This made the Trevor Basin a particularly important hub of activity, taken delivery of bricks, tiles, coal, iron limestone, slate and sandstone for transhipping along the canal.  It was also a boatyard, with  working narrowboats being built and repaired by Hills Boatyard in the dry dock next to the Visitor Centre (now occupied by a floating take-away café).  Later, there was an interchange with the steam railway.

Visiting Pontcysyllte

A small pay-and-display car park is available for visitors at the Trevor Basin, now the home of some canal trip and holiday companies.  There is also a pub with outdoor seating, and a take-away small café on a little boat next to the visitor centre.  There is a lot of disabled parking provided for in the small car park, which is reached from the A539 in Trevor, clearly signposted with brown heritage signposting.   The aqueduct is a very short walk from the car park, and the towpath heads for miles in both directions.

If, before or after crossing the aqueduct, you are interested in finding out more about the general context of the aqueduct and its location in relation to other parts of the canal, at the Trevor Basin there is a visitor centre, a small but nicely put together display space.  As well as a map of the area that takes up a wall and shows all the main features of the landscape and the canal system itself, there is a display of some of the tools that were used in the construction of the aqueduct, which are startlingly basic, and photographs and artists’ impressions of some of the supporting works, including the foundry at Plas Kynaston.  There are ring folders full of additional information, including facts and figures, that you can look through.

Walking the aqueduct itself is not for everyone.  The towpath is rock solid, with a tall handrail on the valley side, but only wide enough for two people, so there is a lot of stopping still to allow others to pass and there is nothing to stop you falling into the canal.  The canal is only just over 6ft (1.8m) wide, and beyond that is an unrestricted (no handrail, no nothing) drop 127ft to the valley floor.  A couple who I passed told me that they were determined to walk the full length and back, but were conquering their fears to do so, and they were gripping firmly to the handrail.

An alternative to walking is to cross by boat.  There are a number of short cruises that leave the Trevor Basin and run for about 20 minutes before turning and coming back (depending on which one you take and the time of year).

For those with uncooperative legs, everything is on the flat, so it is a very good walk for those who find uphill sections of walks difficult.  After rainfall, towpaths always become a bit muddy, and can be slippery, but even though we’ve had some rainfall recently, it was fine.  The towpath between Trevor and Llangollen is beautiful, and a good choice if you can face the aqueduct.

I noticed that one of the passenger boats said that it was suitable for disabled passengers, but I would recommend getting in touch with them first to find out about timings, prices and suitability for different types of disability.

Sources

Books and papers

Glover, J.  2017.  Man Of Iron.  Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain. Bloomsbury

Lynn, P. A. 2019.  World Heritage Canal.  Thomas Telford and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.  Whittles Publishing.

Nicholson, R. 1989 (4th edition). Nicholson/Ordnance Survey Guide to the Waterways 2: Central. Robert Nicholson Publications and Ordnance Survey

Rolt, L.T.C. 1958, 2007.  Thomas Telford. The History Press.

Pattison, A.  n.d. William Hazledine (1763-1840): A Pioneering Shropshire Ironmaster.  West Midlands History https://historywm.com/articles/william-hazeldine-1763-1840  (Pattison’s full 278-page M.Phil, on which the article is based, is available here: https://etheses.bham.ac.uk/id/eprint/3358/1/Pattison12MPhil.pdf )

Websites

Canal and River Trust
Montgomery Canal
https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/canal-and-river-network/montgomery-canal?gclid=CjwKCAiAp8iMBhAqEiwAJb94z7aIVzLoaYuqtwbDdRQsaUL73ssnmF_u1LpoURZmI9YxVUlrKi15whoCtxoQAvD_BwE

DronePics Wales
Pontcysyllte
https://dronepics.wales/pontcysyllte/

Engineering Timelines
Longdon-on-Tern aqueduct
http://www.engineering-timelines.com/scripts/engineeringItem.asp?id=308

Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History
James Brindley
https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/James_Brindley
William Hazledine
https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/William_Crosley_(1802-1838)
William Jessop
https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/William_Jessop

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal World Heritage Site
https://www.pontcysyllte-aqueduct.co.uk/

 

 

Object histories in my garden #7: Little fragments of willow pattern china – what are the stories?

Willow Pattern sherds found in a Churton garden

I defy any gardener, even in a modern home, to do any digging without finding a few pieces of willow pattern china.  It is so common that one barely notices it, whether it is found as garden fragments, encountered in antique shops or viewed as eBay listings.  It comes in all forms – plates, jugs, bowls, cups, saucers, tureens in all sorts of shapes and sizes, varying in quality from fine early examples to increasingly poor imitations as well as a few modern reinventions on fine china.  Early examples were hand-painted on porcelain, but as it became popular, transfers (described below) were used to cheaply replicate their finer predecessors.

Pieces of willow pattern found in a garden in Darland

The examples shown in the photo at above left were all found in my garden, and could date to any time between the 19th Century to relatively recent times.  None of them are fine porcelain, all stoneware, which means that they were built to be durable.  This does not mean that they were any less valued by their owners than finer bone china pieces, which are almost translucent, but either that their purchasers were unable to afford finer pieces, or that these were intended for everyday use.  In either case the sheer volume of china that we have dug out of the garden argues that if finer pieces were purchased, they were kept safely on display or only used for special occasions, because so far we have only found two finer pieces of translucent china.  It is a similar story with china dug out of a Darland garden by my parents (shown right).  In that early Georgian garden, belonging to a large house built by a prosperous land-owner, the pottery was all fairly coarse, although there is no reason to suppose that the owners did not purchase finer wares that were better cared for.

1930s willow pattern in red on white

In America, willow pattern is known as “blue willow,” but although the vast majority produced was in cobalt blue on white, there are also examples of red or brown, and even green on white, and there are some much later examples that were painted with multiple colours (and look both exceedingly odd and rather unpleasant).  Today willow pattern has fallen out of fashion, presumably because it is so formulaic and so commonplace, in spite of  attempts by some modern producers to reinvent it, but the history of willow pattern is an interesting one, even if the design itself has become rather tedious to the modern eye.

There are two strands to the invention of willow pattern, three stories to tell.  The first is how and when willow pattern developed, what influenced it, and why it became so ubiquitous.  The second story concerns the tale told by the pattern itself, which narrates a forbidden romance, a dictatorial father and an unwanted, ultimately vengeful suitor.

At the end I have a look at why the tale embedded into the willow pattern is fundamentally in opposition to Chinese morality, using two examples from Chinese literature.

A random sample of the smaller objects found in the garden

I have already used the terms “china” and “porcelain,” and will go on to mention stoneware, so here are some quick and dirty definitions:

  • Ceramics:  all items made by clay and hardened by heat.  A generic term used interchangeably with pottery.
  • China:  another generic term, referring to ceramics that have a pure white fabric, of the sort first seen in Europe on items imported from China
  • Porcelain:  from the Italian “porcellana.”  Porcelain is made of fine-grained clay which is then fired at very high temperatures that causes a transformation of the material called vitrification.  It is very thin, and semi-translucent.
  • Pottery:  objects made of fired clay
  • Stoneware:  fired at much lower temperatures than porcelain using inferior clays, and made into much thicker fabrics without any translucence.  Similar to earthenware, which is also made with coarse clays but fired at a higher temperature than earthenware and is superior in quality.
  • Transfers (discussed in more detail below):  Replacing hand-painting to speed up the process of pottery manufacture, transfers produce a cheaper, less refined method of decorating ceramics.  A copperplate engraved with the required design is inked and pressed on to paper that, while still wet, is in turn pressed on to a ceramic surface.  The design left on the piece of pottery is the transfer.

The development and spread of the willow pattern design

This or a similar type of Nanking ware scene could have been the prototype for English willow pattern. Source: The Culture Concept Circle

I had always assumed that the willow pattern design was invented in China for the European export market in the late 18th Century, but this is not true.  It is certainly true that decorated china had been finding its way into Europe and America for two centuries before willow pattern was invented.  The East India Company began to purchase Chinese blue and white ceramics for the British market in the 16th Century when it was a luxury item.  It swiftly became very popular and continued to be in high demand even after the East India Company was deprived of its right to trade in 1833.  Private ships that began to import Chinese tea, still a high value import during the 19th Century, also brought back ceramics that were increasingly standardized and mass-produced for the European market.  Chinese producers had swiftly developed a sense of what themes, colours and designs Europeans and Americans liked, and they began to make them in great quantities.  Willow pattern was inspired by a type of blue and white porcelain called Nanking or Nankin Pattern.  It was made at Ching-te-chen / Jingdezhen and then sailed down the river Yangtze to the coastal port of Nanking from where it was shipped to Canton.  Canton was the main port at which foreign ships were allowed to trade, (the sole trading port until 1842) and here it was loaded on to European and American ships for the export market.  

An early design similar to the willow pattern on a creamware teapot.  Attributed to John Warburton, Staffordshire, England, c. 1800. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.  Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica

Although influenced by Nanking,  willow pattern was not imported from China; it was an English invention based on Chinese patterns.  The first version appears to have been produced in 1779 for Thomas Turner and his Caughley works in Shropshire, originally for a teapot, and then in the late 1780s on other objects, probably by apprentice Thomas Minton. 

Robert Copeland, in Spode’s Willow Pattern, acknowledges Caughley but points out that this was not the standard willow pattern, which he argues persuasively was developed by Josiah Spode, and initially called the Mandarin pattern.  It is not known if Turner, Minton or Spode had a particular story in mind when they began to produce their versions of the formulaic pattern, but a story soon emerged, and probably helped sales, raising the decoration from the level of a  mere pattern to the encapsulation of an exotic legend (albeit one thought up in an English porcelain factory).  It would otherwise be difficult to account for how popular the design became.  Other manufacturers also went on to make willow pattern.


The main features of the willow pattern design

The plates shown above exemplify the most common arrangement of the motifs that make up the willow pattern design, although there are sometimes minor variations.

A 19th century anonymous poem, of which there are numerous versions, summarizes the main themes as follows:

Two birds flying high,
A Chinese vessel, sailing by.
A bridge with three men, sometimes four,
A willow tree, hanging o’er.
A Chinese temple, there it stands,
Built upon the river sands.
An apple tree, with apples on,
A crooked fence to end my song.

The story behind the features on the plate can be fairly short or tediously long, but the essentials of the story can be summarized quite briefly.  Let’s have a closer look first at the main motifs that provide the cues for narrating the story.

The main anchoring feature of the composition is a two- or occasionally three-storey pagoda, usually just right-of-centre, approached by a path and a short flight of steps.  To the left of it is a smaller pagoda on the edge of the river.  A fence zig-zags across the front of the scene, blocking access to the approach path to the pagoda in its garden.

Behind the pagodas is a tree with big round discs that look like enormous pizzas.  Susan Ferguson has researched these and concludes that although they are usually referred to as apples (heaven help you if an apple of that size landed on you), and sometimes oranges, they are probably abstractions of circular spans of a Chinese conifer (needle clusters), a design that over the centuries has become so simplified that on the willow pattern the species of tree is completely unidentifiable.  In the absence of any other explanation that makes sense, I’m convinced.  A lush arboretum surrounds the pagoda.

A huge willow tree leans over the bridge, to the left of the pagoda, which gives the design its name, and usually has some sort of rosette- or round-shaped growths on the trunk.  Its long branches appear to blow lightly in the breeze.

The bridge crosses a narrow strait of water, met by a small building on the other side.  The bridge is being crossed by a woman at the front, a man in the middle holding a long thin box, and another man raising a stick at the rear.

Above left of the willow is a large expanse of water crossed by a man navigating a boat, heading towards the pagoda.  One or more cabins on the boat suggests that another person is inside.

In the distance at top left is an island with another pagoda, again surrounded by lush vegetation.

Overhead in the sky are a pair of birds facing each other, their wings spread to catch the breeze.

If the composition graces a plate, a tureen or a lid, the whole thing is usually circled with a loosely Chinese-themed geometric pattern, sometimes elaborated with leaves and flowers.  On teapots, cups and jugs only favoured portions of the entire composition may be shown.


The story of a forbidden romance and how to read a plate

The story is an invention, and English interpretation of scenes on Chinese export ceramics that had no such narrative.  It is probable that the story gained momentum as the willow pattern became more popular, becoming more elaborate over time.  The basics are these, although there are multiple alternatives:

  1. The pagoda, right-of-centre, the garden, and the weeping willow:  Once upon a time, there was a beautiful girl named Koong-see who lived in a palace in China, a delightful sprawling pagoda in lovely ornamental gardens, with cherry blossom, apple trees, willows, streams, wildlife and birdsong.  Hidden within the pagoda, she is in love with a lowly office clerk named Changwho serves her father, a mandarin (senior official), and is far beneath her social standing. They meet every night beneath the willow.  Forbidden to marry by the Mandarin, she and Chang are in despair.  Both console themselves by caring for the birds in the garden, to which they are devoted and which are, in turn, devoted to them
  2. The mandarin’s daughter is promised to a warrior duke against her wishes:  The Mandarin has arranged for Koong-see to be married to the warrior Duke (a Ta-jin), who is even now approaching.  Much older than Koong-see, he brings a treasure chest as a gift for his future bride, also hidden from view.  Deaf to Koong-see’s pleas, her father insists on the marriage, erects a huge fence around the house and garden and imprisons her in a small pagoda overlooking the lake.  When the cherry blossom eventually blooms on the tree in the garden, the marriage will take place. 
  3. Three individuals are seen crossing the bridge.  When the Duke arrives, he, the Mandarin and guests celebrate with an excess of food and alcohol.  Chang enters the compound and seeing that the inebriated gathering has fallen asleep, he goes to Koong-see and they flee, taking with them the duke’s treasure, crossing the bridge over the river.  Koong-see is at the front, carrying a staff, the emblem of virtue.  Chang follows her, carrying the stolen treasure in a rectangular box.  They are pursued by the mandarin, brandishing a whip.  Sometimes a a fourth figure is shown, and this is the duke seeking to retrieve both his bride and, probably more importantly, his treasure.
  4. The pagoda in a distant land, top left.  Chang steals a small boat, and they couple sail to the north.  Having made good their escape, the couple sell the duke’s treasure and buy a pagoda in a distant place.  Having failed to find his daughter in spite of employing spies to track her down, the mandarin has the brilliant idea of releasing the birds that were so loved by Koong-see and Chang. The birds fly straight to the couple, with the mandarin’s warriors following close behind.  When the warriors discover the hideaway they set it alight. 
  5. The turtle doves in the sky.  Koong-see and Chang die in the flames, but unspecified gods looking down on the scene take pity on the devoted couple and transform them into birds so that they can remain together for eternity. 

An extended version, tears-and-all version of the tale, was published in The Family Friend, volume I, in 1849, and is extremely long-winded and tedious (as well as slightly sickly), but obviously pushed some of the right buttons in the 19th Century.  As well as the anonymous poem quoted above, there were a number of others as well, some of which are posted on the Potteries website here and the Willow Collectors website here.

Chinese morality versus English romanticism

The willow pattern design that grew out of these imports was not merely an English invention, but the romantic tale of runaway lovers that was developed to sell the design would almost certainly have offended Chinese morality.  The story was born of an unmistakeably western tradition, recognizable in the narrative concerns of star-crossed lovers, persecution by unwanted suitors and unreasonable parents, all of which are solidly  familiar from the Classical Greek tale of Hero and Leander, the 16th Century Os Lusíadas by Luís de Camões, Shakespeare’s 1597 Romeo and Juliet, and many, many more.

The Butterfly Lovers. Source: ShenYunShop

There are some tales from Chinese literature that are superficially somewhat similar, but a closer look at them reveals culturally significant differences.  Two good examples are “The Butterfly Lovers” and “Han Ping and His Wife.”  

The story of the butterfly lovers concerns a rather complicated story about a woman disguised as a man, Zhu Yingtai, and her unsuspecting friend Liang Shanbo who eventually fall in love with one another.   Although women were usually prevented from becoming scholars, Zhu was allowed to study in the guise of a young man.  She meets a fellow scholar, and they become close friends, studying together for the following three years.  Liang remains none the wiser, but Zhu begins to fall in love with him.   Although tolerant enough to allow his daughter to study as a man, Zhu’s father expects her to return when he writes to tell her that he is ill.  She departs, and Liang accompanies his dear friend for part of the route.  Although she drops hints about her true sex, Zhu is unable to reveal her secret to Liang directly and intend invents a sister to whom she proposes that Liang should become betrothed.  She offers to set up a meeting.  Liang eventually visits Zhu, and finds that there is no sister and that Zhu is a woman.  Liang realizes he loves Zhu and they are both overjoyed for a brief period, but Zhu now reveals that her father’s illness was a ruse and he has betrothed her to a wealthy merchant.  Liang leaves, heartbroken, and although he tries to lead a normal life, soon dies.  Zhu, meanwhile, is prepared for her wedding.  The wedding procession forms, its route due to pass Liang’s grave.  As they reach the grave, a great wind blows up, stopping the marriage party in its tracks.  Taking the opportunity to pay her final respects to Liang at his grave, she begs for the grave to swallow her too, and in response to her pleas, it opens up and takes her in.  Zhu and Liang rise as butterflies, and fly away together for eternity.  

A second tragic romance, from a collection of early legends (The Man Who Sold A Ghost), is the tale of Han Ping and his wife also concerns lovers who were transformed into birds following the successful completion of their suicide pact.  Han Ping and his wife were deeply in love.  Han Ping worked for Prince Xang as steward.  His wife was very beautiful and the king, inevitably attracted, took her for himself.   Han Ping’s anguished protests were answered with imprisonment and hard labour.  Eventually his wife managed to send Han Ping a letter, a cryptic message written using allusions to lay out her plan for suicide, which each carried out.  In a separate letter to the king, she requested burial alongside her husband, but this was denied her.  They were buried in the same cemetery but far apart.  All was not lost. Two trees sprung up overnight and within only days were tall and strong, leaning towards each other, their branches intertwining.  Two inseparable lovebirds nested in the branches of the entwined trees, the spirits of the wronged Han Ping and his  wife.

A silk bed covering from Canton, showing the type of artistic device used to represent clusters of fir spines.  This might be the source of the enormous disks in the trees behind the pagoda in the willow pattern design  Source: Ferguson 2017

Although Chinese literature has stories of star-crossed lovers, acting on a forbidden love was counter to Chinese ideas of obedience and arranged marriage and would never be celebrated.  In the first case, even though Zhu is in love with someone else, she obediently, albeit unhappily, accepts marriage.  The gods intervene to allow the couple to live together as butterflies, but only after Zhu has behaved with honour according to her father’s wishes.  Although the couple were not married, they came to represent fidelity in marriage.  In the story of Han Ping and his wife, the two are already married and it is only when the wife is dishonoured by the prince that they are reunited as birds, again demonstrating the power of marital fidelity.

All of this is far more subtle than the rather simplistic willow pattern narrative, which celebrates love conquering all, but ignores the Chinese morality that would have seen the willow pattern story and its outcome as abhorrent.  Daughterly disobedience and unmarried, prohibited love would have been a serious breach of decency and integrity.  Fleeing paternal control would have been unthinkable, particularly as it left behind and honourable and broken-hearted father.  The theft of the Duke’s treasure would have appalled most Chinese people; the Duke, after all, was not the bad guy in the scenario, because arranged marriages were perfectly normal and his gift to his prospective bride was a gesture of great generosity.  A happy-ever-after outcome for the disobedient and ungrateful runaways, even in the form of turtle doves, would not have been sanctioned by Chinese moralists or the authors of Chinese literature.

Stoneware and transfers

Mid 19th Century transferware willow pattern trivet. Source: Inessa-Stewart’s

All of the willow pattern from my garden is robust transferware.  We have found porcelain pieces in other designs, some of them very fine, but the vast majority of it, including all of the willow pattern, is transfers applied to stoneware and earthenware.  Porcelain, almost translucent, was time-consuming to produce, often shattered during production, was usually hand-decorated and was therefore expensive to buy.  Stoneware an earthenware were much easier to manufacture, fired at lower temperatures and not hand-painted.  These solid wares were far more robust and suitable for everyday domestic use.  

It is often possible to find the edge of the transfer on bigger pieces of transferware, as on this corner of a large 1930s red-on-white Royal Venton plate.

Replacing hand-painting to speed up the process of pottery manufacture in the second half of the 18th Century, transfers produce a cheaper, less refined method of decorating ceramics that could be produced by relatively unskilled workers rather than craft specialists.  Chinese-influenced ceramics, like many product that were once luxury products due to their exotic source and/or their expensive manufacturing process, began to be produced in inferior fabrics, became more affordable, and were therefore in more demand, both in Britain and America.  Once an appropriate fabric was developed, a quicker way of decorating the ceramics was required, and transfers were developed to meet this need.  A copperplate engraved with the required design is inked and pressed on to paper that, while still wet, is in turn pressed on to a ceramic surface.  The design left on the piece of pottery is the transfer.  The meeting of the demand for transfer wares was helped by the roll-out of the canal network and the improvement of trade networks that accompanied the Industrial Revolution.  

Final Comments

A more recent interpretation of willow pattern (microwave safe, dishwasher proof).  Although it is a nice, clean design, there is a gap in the fence in front of the path to the pagoda, which rather defeats the object (and is more evocative of an English country cottage than a defensive barrier to prevent a daughter escaping).

The story behind the willow pattern design is far more interesting than the design itself.  Some of the earliest patterns, evoking original Chines designs, had considerable charm, but very soon a fairly rigid formula was developed that was repeated over and over again, with only a little occasional variation from one piece to the next.  As such it is more than a little tiresome.

It is entirely different when it emerges piece by piece from one’s garden, all of them minute fragments contributing to the house’s own story.  Over time, the people who lived here broke an awful lot of pottery!  The house was probably occupied by farming families for many years, with a sign of increased prosperity when the two original cottages were linked up to become a single building.   The earliest finds from the garden belong to the later 19th Century, well into the period when most willow pattern was stoneware.   Not the sort of thing that a labourer’s family would be able to indulge in, but probably affordable as Sunday Best for a slightly more affluent rural family.  I need to find out a lot more about who lived in the house before speculating further. 

Pealrich clock in the form of a willow pattern plate. Source: Amazon UK

It is interesting that willow pattern continues to be made and purchased.  The above picture shows a simplified version of the design, much less elaborate than earlier versions, much cleaner but also more sterilized.  I would not have thought that it is  the sort of story that would carry much appeal today, but the design itself obviously continues to be attractive to a modern audience.  A quick search on Amazon produced willow pattern oven gloves, a willow pattern mug that could be personalized, an embroidery kit, a large tea set, a “collectible” thimble, a cushion cover and even a clock in the form of a willow pattern plate (shown left).  A company called PRSC specializes in “deconstructed” willow pattern products, which take the motifs and arrange them in aesthetically pleasing combinations that abandon the narrative completely.

Deconstructed willow pattern. Source: PRSC

In the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, willow pattern obviously spoke to something in people’s imaginations.  Perhaps the very standardization and mass-production of the design enabled the exotic to be both familiar and comprehensible, even offering some level of reassurance.  By developing new and improved ways of manufacturing pottery and decorating it, and taking advantage of new modes of transport and communication, potteries making ceramics in the English Midlands were able to spread willow pattern throughout the UK and into America.  A decorative phenomenon, it is difficult to account for its success, but a success it certainly was.  It has left a legacy that continues to attract collectors and re-interpreters alike.

For other posts in my History in Garden Objects series click here or see the
link of the same name in the Categories list on the right.


Sources:

Books and papers

Copeland, R. 1999 (3rd edition). Spode’s Willow Pattern And Other Designs After the Chinese.  Studio Vista

Ferguson, S. 2017.  “Blue Willow”: Apples or Oranges?  Transferware Collectors Club Bulletin, 2017 Vol. XVIII No. 1.
https://www.transferwarecollectorsclub.org/bulletin_previews/articles/17_TCC_XVIII_No1_Blue_Willow_Apples_or_Oranges.pdf

Hsien-Yi, Y. and Yang, G. 1958.  The Man Who Sold A Ghost.  Foreign Language Press
Available online at:  https://www.bannedthought.net/China/MaoEra/Arts/Literature/TheManWhoSoldAGhost-ChineseTalesOfThe3rd-6thCenturies-1958.pdf

O’Hara.  P.  “The Willow Pattern That We Knew”: The Victorian Literature of Blue Willow.  Victorian Studies. Vol. 36, No. 4 (Summer, 1993), pp. 421-442
Available online with the academic site JSTOR digital library if you register (free): https://www.jstor.org/stable/3828644?seq=1

Websites

East India company at home 1757-1857, University College London
The Willow Pattern Case Study:  The Willow Pattern Explained
https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/eicah/the-willow-pattern-dunham-massey/the-willow-pattern-case-study-the-willow-pattern-explained/comment-page-1/

Encyclopaedia Britannica
Willow pattern pottery
https://www.britannica.com/art/Willow-pattern#ref235738

Popular Culture in Modern China
The Butterfly Lovers – Response.  By Dr Liang Luo
http://chi430.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-butterfly-lovers-response.html

The Potteries – An A-Z of Stoke on Trent Potteries
The Willow Pattern Story
http://www.thepotteries.org/patterns/willow.html

Spode History
Spode and Willow Pattern. By Pam Woolliscroft
https://spodehistory.blogspot.com/2013/06/spode-and-willow.html

Transferware Collectors Club
What is transferware?
https://www.transferwarecollectorsclub.org/news-information/faqs

Victoria Gallery and Museum, University of Liverpool
Story of the Willow Pattern, 15 January 2021 by Amanda Draper
https://vgm.liverpool.ac.uk/blog/2021/willow-pattern/

 

The Roman villa at Rossett #3 – The Archaeology Open Day

Chris Matthews from Archaeological Survey West, explaining the puzzle of Trench 2. Note the dark areas of the trench, which contain remains of charcoal and are evidence of burning.

The Archaeology Open Day on Saturday 18th September was a super idea.  There has been so much interest locally about the recent Roman discoveries that it was always going to be a great success.   We were there at 1300 for the 1330 talk on a nice dry day, and the atmosphere was terrific.  The event, which was free but had to be booked in advance, was sold out.  It’s not often that a very local archaeological site becomes an A-list celebrity, but this has the badge, mainly because of the excellent work done to keep the public informed via Archaeology Chester and the #RomanRossett posts (or “tweets” if you really must) on Twitter.

I had already done a lot of reading to find out more about the rural hinterland of the legionary fort at Chester.  My first posts about the villa, part 1 (a summary of research about the nature of villas in general) and part 2 (about the background to the discovery of the Rossett villa, derived from the project team’s posts and tweets) provide some background about the excavation.   All that reading and typing was a nice prelude to the day, but seeing it in the ground, being exposed by trowel and brush as we watched, brought it all superbly to life.

There’s not a lot of point to this photograph, except that I really, really fancy that vehicle on the left, which I could really see myself driving.

Everything was so beautifully arranged on the day.  I picked up my Dad from his house in Rossett and we drove through Burton towards the site, which had been given a What Three Words location (the best way of providing a location for absolutely anything).  Initially the location of the site was very wisely kept secret, to protect it against night-hawking (illegal treasure hunting).  It is lovely that the decision was made to make the location public, so that visitors could see the excavation on an Open Day and learn more about the site.

As soon as we approached the site there were little signposts helping to direct visitors to the site, and there was a one-way system set up to let people into and out of the field next to the site, efficiently managed by some great volunteers who managed to be efficient, relaxed and humorous, which must take some doing when directing the chaotic general public into a field that was to serve as a carpark 🙂  Given clear direction by the volunteers, cars lined up beautifully without blocking anyone else in, and the mood as we all headed towards the excavation was one of gentle excitement.

Our names were checked at the gate between the parking field into the excavation field (perhaps a liminal zone 🙂 ), and we were handed an information sheet, English on one side and Welsh on the other.  Tables were set up in front of the excavation, one with some of the finds that had been excavated in the previous two weeks, another set up to explain the super Portable Antiquities Scheme, another with a set of things-to-do for children (questionnaires, word games and trails).  There were lots of leaflets to collect, and there was even a coffee trailer, which was doing very good business.  In short, lots to keep early arrivals for the talk happily busy.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme, it should be mentioned, is one of British archaeology’s greatest inventions, and there is a Welsh branch, PAS Cymru.  The idea was to set up a service for registering anything that the general public found that might be of archaeological interest, and is helping gardeners, walkers and metal detectorists to not only have objects identified, but to contribute those finds to a national database of objects that has become a massive resource for researchers from prehistory to the 17th Century.  That’s quite an achievement.

The first thing that attracted the eyes (and ears) as we moved towards the trenches was a big tarpaulin covered in children with archaeological sieves, who were all having a fabulous time.  What a brilliant idea!  “Artefacts” had been hidden in heaps of earth and the children had to sieve through the heaps to find them.  Looking at the sheer joy with which children, helped by  grinning parents, were sifting through the soil to find the objects, I suspected that an awful lot of tiny would-be vets, football stars and celebrity chefs decided there and then to become archaeologists instead.

Trench 3, the villa

We were free to wander around the site until the talk began.  The site had been opened at 1000 for wanderers, and then site tours arranged for 1100, 1230, 1330, and 1500 with Roman re-enactments at 1145 and 1415.  That’s a lot of public interaction for one day!  I believe that Stephen Grenter, Heritage Services Manager, at Wrexham Museum and our tour guide for the hour, said that there were going to be over 200 people turning up over the course of the day.

The first striking thing about the site, apart from the uncovered foundations, was how near the surface those foundations are, just a few inches down, probably less than a foot.  There were four trenches open, three at the villa itself and the fourth some distance away that is being excavated by local school children, a superb incentive.  There are plans to involve more school children from surrounding areas as the dig progresses in the future.

Trench 3, the villa

The excavation was just heading into its final week of a 21-day run, an intensive three-week opportunity to find out what’s down there.  That was a fascinating experience – all the interest of seeing what had already emerged, and a sense of the next chapter of the book missing because there was still a week to go.  Thank goodness for the project’s updates on Twitter to keep the momentum going.

The field in which the villa is located has ploughed for at least five years, which has the potential downside of disturbing upper levels, but has the upside of turning up all sorts of interesting finds that suggest the presence of something more substantial below.  It is often disturbance of this sort that suggests to archaeologists that survey, potentially followed by excavation, may be worth organizing.

I’ve talked about the background to the excavation in my previous post about the site, but Saturday was the first opportunity I had to see the site in all its glory.  It is years since I’ve done any Roman excavation but it made me want to whip out my trowel and leap in.  Super to see it all happening.

Trench 3, the villa

Trench 3 has been opened to explore the footprint of the former villa, approximately half of which has now been exposed.  It was great to see how the magnetometry survey image was being translated into real life stone foundations and floors.  Samien pottery, black-burnished ware (imported from France and Dorset respectively) had been found, as well as mortaria, a Roman coin from the date of Constantine (327-341AD), a bronze pin, animal bone and various other finds.

Trench 2, just a few feet away from the villa, and shown at the top of the post with Chris Matthews giving an impromptu talk on the subject, was an enigma at the end of week two, but two pieces of medieval pottery had been discovered.  By the end of the week, Chris Matthews reported on Twitter that it had been established that these were the remains of a medieval building with some fairly heft walls that had been robbed in the past, leaving just the foundations.  The walls retain some pieces of facing stone, which means that something of its external appearance survives.  Traces of carbonization were already visible, often a sign that a fire has contributed to at least one phase of a building’s history, and 14th Century pottery was beginning to emerge.

Trench 1, the possible bathhouse, showing a massive external wall

Trench 1 is a little farther away and lies close to a brook that circles part of the field within which the villa lies.  The proximity of the building both to a water source and to the villa would be ideal for a bathhouse, and excavations were well underway, but this has yet to be confirmed.  Some of the exterior walls were vast, the one above nearest to the camera about 1.2m thick.  A little piece of painted plaster had been found in the morning of the Open Day, so it is possible that the possible bathhouse’s internal walls were once decorated.

The project is  a good example of different interest groups, including academic, museum and commercial interests working together with amateurs, metal detectorists, and volunteer diggers to reveal the area’s past.  The dig was funded by a number of benefactors, which tells its own story of how many parties it takes to get something like this off the ground.  Hats off to all of them.

A seriously great time was had by all.  I suspect (or more precisely hope) that not only will the project receive more funding for the planned six week project next year, but that this dig will be just the beginning of a much bigger project to understand the Romano-British and prehistoric past in the Rossett-Burton area, and the poorly understood areas beyond.

For those wanting to read the previous news about the Rossett villa excavation, its aftermath and future plans, use the hashtag #RomanRossett on Twitter to keep yourself updated

Sources of information for this post were Stephen Grenter’s 1330 talk at the site, the #RomanRossett Twitter feed, and the University of Chester’s excellent video on the subject by Howard Williams and Caroline Pudney at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SVXrb45pCiw

 

 

Rossett Roman Villa #1 – What are Roman villas and who lived in them?

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/

 

Object histories in my garden #6: 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

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