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Hampshire Earthwork Castles

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When thinking of castles, the images that immediately spring to mind are those of thick stone castle walls, looming and imposing stone towers. However, the simplest forms of castle did not have stone walls or towers at all, and instead relied on defences of earth and wood. These castles, known as earthworks, were the simplest, quickest and cheapest defences to construct. There are numerous examples of these in the county of Hampshire, England, although very few are actually open to the public.

Why Build an Earthwork?

Earthwork castles were built for a variety of reasons. First of all, they could be constructed cheaply by those who could not afford the expense of purchasing vast quantities of stone and paying for the skilled labour needed to construct stone defences, but wealthy enough to afford some protection for their property. They could be constructed quickly, which was vital in uncertain times. They were often constructed as siegeworks. An army besieging a castle nearby would often construct their own defensive earthwork castle in case of counter-attack by the forces of the besieged or their allies.

As earthwork castles were often built quickly, used for only a brief period and then abandoned, it is unusual for any written records to remain. It is therefore difficult to determine precisely when they were constructed, by whom and why. Earthworks were occupied for such a brief period of time that few artefacts remain, especially in the case of siegeworks. Sometimes, there are traces of wooden walls and service buildings, but usually only the ditches and banks survive.

When Earthworks Were Constructed

Medieval earthworks were especially constructed during three particular periods: immediately after the Norman Conquest, during the Anarchy, and during the First Barons' War1.

Later earthworks were made after the domination of cannon in warfare. Earth banks were built to either defend vulnerable stone walls or often to protect a battery of guns. These earthworks were constructed during the Civil War, during the Napoleonic Wars and during times of threat of invasion.

The Anarchy

The Anarchy was the period of Civil War between 1135 and 1154 when King Stephen and his cousin Empress Matilda fought for the throne of England. King Henry I's sole legitimate male heir had drowned in the White Ship tragedy in 1120. King Henry declared his daughter Matilda, also known as Maud, to be the heir to the throne. No queen had ever ruled England, however, and Matilda's husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, was considered a hereditary enemy of the powerful English Norman barons. Despite having sworn loyalty to Matilda, Stephen, who was Henry I's nephew and a grandson of William the Bastard2, decided to take the throne himself. He rushed to England on Henry's death in 1135. With the support of his younger brother, Henry de Blois, Bishop of Winchester and holder of Winchester's treasury, he was proclaimed king. Fighting between forces loyal to Stephen and those supporting Matilda continued until the signing of the Treaty of Winchester in November 1153, where it was agreed that King Stephen would reign during his lifetime, but on his death Empress Matilda's son Henry would inherit the throne as King Henry II.

Winchester was the political capital of England at this time; consequently, much of the fighting took place near Winchester and the surrounding Hampshire countryside.

Henry de Blois

Henry de Blois was King Stephen's brother. He became Bishop of Winchester in 1129 and Papal Legate3 in 1139, which meant that he outranked even the Archbishop of Canterbury. Winchester was the wealthiest diocese in England at the time, and so he became one of the most powerful men in England, second only to the king. He constructed several castles, including Bishop Waltham's Palace, Merdon Castle and Wolvesey Castle in Hampshire and Farnham Castle, Surrey before his death in 1171.

Types of Earthwork

The most famous form of earthwork castle is the motte and bailey castle. These consisted of an artificial hill, known as a motte, often with a wooden tower on top, and an enclosed, defended area known as a bailey at the base of the motte. The bailey was often defended by a moat, essentially a ditch, with a bank on the inside of the moat often with a palisade, a wooden fence, on top. However, the easiest type of earthwork to construct is a ringwork. This is an earthwork castle defended not by a motte but by one or more ditches and raised banks that surround the castle. These are known as ringworks as these defences are often vaguely circular in shape.

Sometimes earthwork castles, especially those built soon after the Norman Conquest, were later converted into stone castles. Castles originally constructed as a motte and bailey often had a stone shell keep constructed on the top of the motte.

Earthworks were also often constructed to help supplement a stone castle's already established defences.

Many earthwork castles were siegework castles. A siegework, also known as a counter castle, is a structure built by the attackers to protect themselves near a castle being besieged. An army besieging a castle would often construct their own defensive earthwork castle nearby, in case of counter-attack by the forces of the besieged castle or their allies.

Alverstoke Motte

The remains of a motte and bailey castle can be seen in the woods on the east bank of the River Alver near Gosport, near map reference4 SU584001. Also known as Windmill Mound, the motte is 4½ metres above the bailey, which is surrounded by a well preserved bank.

Ashley Castle

Ashley Castle began as an Iron Age hillfort. In 1138, Henry de Blois used the site as a castle, but this was destroyed in 1155. Ashley Castle was rebuilt by William Briwere5, who was granted a licence to crenelate6 by King John in 1200. The king is later recorded as having stayed in the castle. It was used until the middle of the 15th Century before being abandoned. Its stone was removed to be used for other buildings. Ashley Castle is not just an earthwork; as well as the 50-metres-across pentagonal ringwork bailey, stone foundations of a rectangular building with a round tower 12 metres in diameter are visible. The castle's moat, which is two metres deep, is overgrown with trees. The castle is located west of Winchester, map reference SU385308.

Barley Pound Castle

Also known as Crondall Castle today, this castle's original name was Lidelea Castle and is mentioned in the Gesta Stephani7. This was a large castle built by Henry de Blois in around 1135, that had a central ringwork 60 metres by 50 metres, with two baileys to the south and one bailey to the north west. Barley Pond Castle was besieged in 1147, with Bentley Motte and Powderham Castle being siegework castles built to capture it. Archaeologists uncovered an 8-foot-thick flint wall and the base of an ashlar8 keep. Barley Pound Castle is located southeast of Basingstoke at map reference SU797468 but is not open to the public.

Bentley Motte

A mound that was formerly a siegework built to capture Barley Pound Castle. This no longer exists.

Bitterne Palace

The Bishops of Winchester also had a manor house with limited defensive features at Bitterne, across the river Itchen from Southampton, map reference SU433133. A strong tower survived into the 19th Century, before being remodelled. This was bombed during the Second World War and since then has been converted into flats.

Blendworth Castle

Near Rowland's Castle, Blendworth Castle is a ringwork and bailey castle located at map reference SU725122.

Bradley Ringwork

An unfinished and abandoned ringwork castle.

Godshill Castle

A round motte located on the east bank of the River Avon near the border with Wiltshire. This is believed to have been built either by Henry de Blois in 1148 after his castles at Barley Pound and Downton, Wiltshire were captured, or as a siegework by Empress Matilda in her efforts to capture Downton Castle which is only a few miles to the north. Godshill Castle, known as Castle Hill, is free to visit and located at map reference SU166162.

Long Sutton Castle

A minor ringwork located near Bradley at map reference SU757461.

Portsdown Castle

Although the site has since been quarried for chalk, a motte and bailey castle used to exist on Portsdown Hill, overlooking Portsmouth. The site is at map reference SU639073.

Powderham Castle

A siegework castle consisting of a low, small motte with flint foundations. This was constructed in 1147 to assist in capturing Barley Pound Castle. This is located at map reference SU803469.

Rowland's Castle

A ten-metre-tall motte with two baileys located at map reference SU733105.


Inside the Roman fortified town of Calleva Atrebatum, now known as Silchester, that dates from 45 AD there was disputed evidence of a medieval earthwork. However, Victorian archaeologists, in their desire to find rare Roman treasures beneath the ringwork, excavated through the earthwork, locating the Roman amphitheatre, and no trace now remains. The ringwork was believed to have possibly been built in the early 12th Century by the Bluet family. Roman Silchester is looked after by English Heritage and is open to the public.

Southwick Castle

A small and unimpressive ringwork located in Place Wood, reference SU634092.

Wherwell Abbey

Although never a castle, during the Anarchy in 1140 the forces of the Empress Matilda fortified Wherwell9 Abbey in order to defend the crossing of the river Test on which the abbey stood. In 1141, Stephen's troops successfully defeated Matilda's men, forcing her troops to flee into the abbey, which Stephen's soldiers set ablaze, killing Matilda's men and leading to nuns on the run. Some of the defensive earthworks Matilda's troops constructed still exist, although the Abbey no longer does and is now the site of Wherwell Parish Church.

Woodgarston Castle

Also known today as Wootton St Lawrence Castle, it was known as Woodcastle in the 14th Century and 'The Castle of The Wood' in a document describing its capture by King Stephen in 1147. This was a ringwork and bailey castle built by Hugh de Pont between 1070 and 1080.

1The period of Civil War between 1215 and 1217 between King John and English barons led by Prince Louis of France, after King John repudiated the Magna Carta.2William the Bastard has also been known since Victorian times as William the Conqueror. Bastard was not originally the insult that it is considered today.3A Papal Legate is the Pope's personal representative to a specific country or government.4All map references are Ordnance Survey National Grid map references.5Also known as William Brewer, spelling not always being consistent in the Middle Ages.6Crenelating is the term used to describe fortifying an existing building or constructing a castle. This comes from the word 'crenel' which is the space between merlons in a fortified embattled wall.7The Gesta Stephani is a history of the war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda written in the middle of the 12th Century.8Ashlar is worked stone, normally rectangular, with a flat surface. Ashlar also can refer to any structure built with ashlar stone.9Wherwell is pronounced 'Hurrell'.

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