Defence, Warfare and Military Activity

A number of projects have examined castles and fortified houses in the region, although these are still comparatively few in number. Some sites have benefitted from recent technological developments in 3D survey techniques and the availability of LiDAR data. The few excavations that have taken place have thrown up unexpected results in places and are also helping to refine chronologies and, alongside University-based research, offer new interpretations for the longevity and use of some of these structures.

There are around 83 castles known in the region and those with surviving structures and below ground remains are usually Scheduled Monuments and/or Listed Buildings. This means that they are not often subject to excavation unless undertaken to help with preservation, restoration, conservation and management. Occasionally, these works are targeted to address specific research questions. In urban areas, where adjacent plots may come up for development, mitigation can be designed to answer questions about the relationships with the surrounding communities and settlements. The “Beyond the Castle” project in Lancaster is one such investigation, incorporating community involvement, although the excavations have not yet encountered medieval archaeology (2017).

Lancaster Castle’s long use as a prison has come to an end and it has been subject to a series of surveys to determine a management plan. This included tree-ring sampling of timbers in the keep and gatehouse  the results showed that structural oak timbers in the undercroft of the former were felled around AD 1380s, with two cell doors felled after AD 1371. Those in the first floor great hall were slightly later (late 14th/early 15th centuries) and timbers from the gatehouse were felled around 1404 (Arnold et al 2016) (Fig. 39).

Recording and interpretation of the castle fabric – both the surviving medieval buildings, and those added during expansion of the prison between c. 1783 and c. 1877 – has been funded by The Duchy of Lancaster during ‘envelope repairs’ (Neil 2016; 2017; forthcoming), while The Castle Studies Group have looked at national and international parallels for the Keep and Gatehouse (Guy 2014; 2016). Though some writers (e.g. Wood 2017) continue to surmise about a motte and bailey castle from the ownership of Roger of Poitou c. 1100 underlying the stone Keep, there is neither documentary nor fieldwork evidence for structures before c. 1150, the Keep possibly being built during tenure of the region by King David I of Scotland, as was Carlisle (Summerson 2014, 17). The Keep was heightened in c. 1400-30, and the battlements rebuilt in 1585. The so-called John of Gaunt Gatehouse was actually built by his son when King Henry IV, but incorporating the entrance passage and a staircase tower from the time of King John, c. 1200-12, and also fabric from the time of the Barons’ War of the 1240s-60s. An intra-mural passage, recorded in part of the curtain wall at second floor level, possibly lead from Adrian’s Tower and may be part of post-Civil War repairs (Neil 2017).

Buckton Castle (GM) was subject to a community excavation initiated in response to damage from metal detecting and treasure hunting. The excavations were able to answer questions about the form and construction of the building and offer suggestions as to its original function and use. It seems most likely that its construction was a response by the Earl of Chester to threats from the north during the Anarchy of the mid-12th century however once the threat was over, despite the structure being incomplete, the castle was dismantled. The results of this excavation and others undertaken since 1996, were compiled and published along with a gazetteer of NW castles (Grimsditch et al 2012) (Fig.40).

At Halton Castle (Ch), a volunteer excavation set out to answer similar questions and made unexpected discoveries of burials from the 15th and 16th centuries which suggested the presence and location of a hitherto unknown chapel (see burial). These excavations took place in 2015 and will be followed up with further excavation in 2017.

Other castle-based studies include a compilation of survey results of gatehouse structures in the NW. The study set out to establish the form, function and development of gatehouse types in the region. It concluded that the castle gatehouse is partly an expression of the social status and power of the lord who constructed it (Nevell 2012). New interpretations of castles are taking a more holistic approach, looking at them from aspects other than defence. They may be more about aristocratic displays of wealth, power and influence with their landscape settings with aesthetics a part of this (Liddard 2005).

Some sites have benefitted from reanalysis of previous excavation work and assemblages e.g. Aldingham Motte (C) (Ellsworth and Mace 2015). Probably constructed as a ring work in the early 12th century, it was modified with the construction of a motte in the late 12th/early 13th century and abandoned in the late 13th century. Analysis of the animal skeletal assemblage showed a significant amount of red deer, including antler fragments and bone from cattle, sheep, horse and pig. (OAN 2013)

Rachael Swallow of Chester University has a research specialism in the castles of Cheshire and has produced several publications on the subject. This includes examining the relationships of the castles along the Dee Valley. Swallow argues that the Anglo-French defences put up in the early years after the conquest reuse known defensive sites. Therefore there is continuity in the control of routes in the southern part of the region (Swallow 2015; in prep) (Fig. 41).

Some research is part of wider holistic landscape partnership schemes (e.g. SWLP). Geophysical survey, documentary research and excavation at Wolsty Castle (C) revealed that it was used by the Abbots of Cultrum as a secure stronghold against raids by the Scots. By the time of the dissolution, it was in a state of bad repair and its final destruction was ordered in 1652. Excavations revealed the curtain wall and established the limits of the castle interior, as well as the possible locations of the gatehouse and hall. An outer ditch on a different alignment to the currently visible earthworks was also revealed as well as the remains of a wooden bridge in the rampart and moat, which was sampled for dendrochronology (results forthcoming). Pottery spanning the 13th-17th centuries was also retrieved (Stamper et al 2013) (Fig. 42).

Recent developments with photogrammetry and the use of remote camera drones are enabling surveys of structures that were not previously possible. Gleaston Castle (C) has recently been surveyed as part of the Morecambe Bay Landscape Partnership (MBLP) project. One product of this is a 3D navigable model of the standing structures and earthworks. Elements of this have been up loaded by Aerial Cam to Sketchfab where they can be publically viewed. (see

The fortified houses of the region have had little new research although there are exceptions such as Radcliffe Tower, Bury (GM). Here there was a series of community based documentary research and excavations aiming to establish the extent of the associated manorial complex. The results have been recently published synthesising the findings of excavations undertaken here since the 1970s with the tower discussed in its wider context where it is considered to be a Pele tower, constructed as a deliberately defensive feature. The excavations have produced an assemblage of over 100 pottery sherds, significant for the area (Nevell et al 2016) (Fig. 43).

Radcliffe Tower excavations, Bury, Greater Manchester (courtesy of GMAAS)

Clifton Hall Tower, Penrith (C) was subject to tree-ring analysis. A main beam associated with the second floor frame was sampled to give an estimated felling range of AD 1539-64. This, along with other sampling results, indicates at least two phases of 16th century felling (Arnold et al 2015). This supports structural evidence for several phases of adaptation and reuse well into the post medieval period.

Hapton Tower (L) is sometimes referred to as a Pele tower, although it is more likely to be a hunting lodge. It is currently under investigation as part of the Hapton Big Dig HLF project (Philpott pers. comm.) (see landuse).

An online resource has been recently created for medieval castles, fortifications and palaces in England, Wales the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man (the Gatehouse). This is an on-going project and aims to cover the period 1000 to 1600 and includes a list of licences to crenelate (

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