Blanche Parry

Castles tell tales

of terror

This month our local historian Ruth E. Richardson reveals how Herefordshire's castles tell the story of forced labour under the yoke of a foreign invader.

William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, needed to terrorise Saxon England in 1066. He had 10,000 soldiers to hold down over 2 million English. Undaunted, William brought experts to build his secret weapons: motte–and–bailey castles. The English had defended enclosures and towns, but nothing like these formidable structures which could be erected quickly by unskilled labourers. Villagers were terrified when a new lord, speaking a foreign language, arrived with heavily armoured soldiers and set about building a high motte to overlook their homes in the manner of a 20th century Nazi watchtower. To make matters worse for them the villagers were forced to be the labourers.

Building a motte is shown in the Bayeux Tapestry, a length of embroidered linen made by skilled English seamstresses. A hill made a useful starting–point and on this a layered mound of earth and stones was raised. In the picture the layers are shown by different coloured sections. Stones were used as a composite mound was less easy to undermine and, anyway, the weight of the keep would, over time, have collapsed an earth mound. Immediately after the Norman Conquest all keeps were wooden but later some were rebuilt in stone, making them even heavier. In the picture one labourer is busy with a pickaxe and four labourers are wielding shovels to pile up the earth and stones. The Norman guard on the left is making sure they keep working! Many stones were quarried nearby but most earth came from around the motte, which formed a huge ditch, often filled with water, and was an added defence.

At Kilpeck, we have a rare opportunity to see a motte as it appeared when newly built. This is because stabilising the slope meant clearing the vegetation. To see this motte, go through Kilpeck churchyard, turn left across the bailey ditch and up into the new churchyard area. The stile at the far end leads to the motte. This had a c.49 metre (c.54 yards) base diameter and rose steeply to over 8 metres (27 feet) above the bottom of the ditch, which still fills with water. Later, those castles that continued to be useful were rebuilt in stone. Visible in the photograph is a section of the later, 12th century, polygonal shell–keep at Kilpeck. Other surviving fragments include a fireplace recess, an oven and three drain holes.

The bailey joining the motte was also surrounded by a ditch and bank, topped by a strong fence, called a curtain wall if later rebuilt in stone. Some motte–and–bailey castles, like Kilpeck, had extra baileys. Now open spaces, they were once crammed with service buildings, such as a chapel, living quarters, kitchen, stables, lofts, byres and storerooms. If a new building was needed an old one often had to be taken down!

Herefordshire has an enormous number of motte‐and–baileys and it is fun finding them. However, do remember those men forced to build them for William the Conqueror and his Normans....

©Ruth E. Richardson 2014

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