High the vanes of Shrewsbury gleam
Islanded in Severn stream;
The bridges from the steepled crest,
Cross the water east and west.
Shropshire is a best-kept secret within the country of England and possibly world-wide. It’s populated with several castles within its magnificent 1,347 square mile landscape, today, but it once exceeded all the counties of England (including Northumberland) for the number of castles which have occupied its soil at one time or another. The western districts of the county were the domain of the Marcher lords but all types of castles abound everywhere inside its borders along with a number of timber-framed Tudor houses and quite a few beautiful fortified manor homes. Its lush and hilly countryside is peppered with one World Heritage site, medieval buildings and monuments along with an impressive array of ruined abbeys. The marvelous River Severn winds through the county from the northwest part all the way through to the southeast, with Shrewsbury planted strategically on a lovely bend, smack dab in the center of the county. It became a natural hub and strategic castle site in the middle ages.
Marcher lords were supporters of William who granted them estates in Shropshire on which they built castles to deal with the Welsh- who were formidable. The Normans quickly built an impressive amount of motte and bailey castles making it the most heavily fortified area of England particularly on the border. Prehistoric Offa’s Dyke, which still remains, provided a man-made but natural 120-mile barrier somewhat in the manner of Hadrian’s Wall or the Antonine Wall in Scotland. However, it was basically a high rampart with a ditch on the outer side and was built by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes – a frontier line based on the Roman model but with their indigenous military traditions which were obviously less aggressive. Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke (which was a parallel barrier built on the northern section reinforcing it for thirty-six miles) were the early establishment of frontier lines marking the western border of the Kingdom of Mercia.
The most impressive castles and castle remains are at Shrewsbury, Oswestry, Ludlow, Bishop’s Castle and Clun, also Stokesay and Whittington Castles. Roger de Montgomery took out more than a hundred homes to build the castle at Shrewsbury and he also built seventy motte and bailies himself. It is estimated that over 150 castles were built in the county- which varied from motte and bailey castles to the larger stone structures. Sadly, much is destroyed which should give you some indication of the fierce Welsh resistance!
The northern border provides wonderful walking paths and opportunities for bird-watchers and at Hawkstone Hall’s Historic Park and Follies (four miles east of Wem,) such activities will take on magical proportions. This giant English Picturesque landscaped park was constructed by Sir Roland Hill and his son Richard (referred to as the Great Hill) in the 18th century and was championed by Richard Payne Knight who lived nearby. Its well hidden pathways, concealed grotto, secret tunnels and collection of follies are the only Grade 1 listed landscape in the West Midlands area. It is a mixture of natural and artificially created parkland made even more interesting by more than a hundred years of neglect and restored in the more recent couple of decades. Most of the restorations were to recreate the follies and it’s considered a wonderful outing for any family who has rambunctious children to corral! The Red Castle, which was the home of the Audley family in the middle ages, is the one exception to the restorations and is worth the trouble to see. It is possible to see as far as the Welsh hills from certain landmarks, such as Grotto Hill (another convincing folly) within the park and the interesting sandstone rocky outcrops which surround the hills of Hawkstone.
Hawkstone Hall was the seat of the Sir Rowland Hill family from 1556 to 1906 but was listed in the Domesday book. Originally, during the time of the Conquest, the estate was attributed to Roger, Lord of Hauckestan. The family of this name had also inherited the estate from a long line of noble families, peopled with barons and knights during the era of King Arthur. The estate increased in size during the long occupation of the Hill family from the mid-16th century not only gaining land but also bringing prosperity to the community becoming the largest landowners in northern Shropshire and among the most visited estates in England during the 18th through the 19th centuries.
1 miles North of Hodnet on the A442
If you travel further northeast to the towns of Whitchurch and Market Drayton, which border Cheshire, you’ll find scant remains of Pan Castle at Whitchurch and a little more at Hodnet Castle near Market Drayton. This area is known as the birthplace of Sir Edward German who composed the song “Merrie England”. Less than a mile outside of Whitchurch, the medieval Pan Castle motte is quite large with a large bailey. When excavations were carried out in 1916 they found timbers for a bridge at the possible former entrance on the north side. No other evidence of the castle remains.
Hodnet Castle, on the other hand, has been left with some red sandstone masonry among the ruins of the circular tower keep. Hodnet Hall, is the work of Salvin in the 19th century. This red-brick Tudor mansion is in close proximity but was built entirely independent of Hodnet Castle, a motte and bailey with stone masonry. The castle remains can still be found if you look in the field by the car park. This castle was associated with Roger de Montgomery according to documents from 1223 but a Saxon manor was most likely constructed on the site before the late part of the 11th century. Its steep-sided 7 meter high oval motte, on a south slope, sat close to an earlier church and settlement. Excavations were carried out in 1892 on the keep which uncovered the remains of an arched doorway and a pebble floor and evidence suggested that the keep was destroyed by fire. More remains found are another motte, east of the keep and to the north and west, two more baileys- one with a 15 meter wide moat which divides the baileys.
Hodnet Hall is not often open to the public but the extensive gardens are available and worth the price of admission to wander around 60 acres of woodland walks profuse with trees, shrubs and flowering lakeside gardens. The Heber-Percy family associated with both the castle and the hall go all the way back to the Conquest!
A short distance away, in the northeastern corner, at the Staffordshire border, the Cheswardine Castle moat has been filled and properties have built in its place to great effect. The island on which Cheswardine Castle existed has no upstanding remains, unfortunately.
Eighteen miles northwest of Shrewsbury, Oswestry Castle’s remains are situated on the border corner, with neighbor Chirk Castle only six miles due northwest, in Wales. The town itself is colorfully historic with surprises everywhere and was the site of an iron age hillfort. It’s worth a little extra time to check out the market and many other sites. There is a lot of Welsh influence in this town which reaches back from its Conquest days- so much so that some streets bear names in Welsh. St Oswald’s Church is nearly 1,000 years old, predating the conquest and its Norman tower was built circa 1085 !
The castle remains can be found between Castle, King and Arthur Streets in the middle of town and the bailey has been completely built around. You can drive around its tree-topped motte and park to check out what remains of the walls. The 11th century motte and bailey was built by Renaud de Bailleul, a Norman Sheriff of Shropshire at the time, an ancestor to John Balliol (one time King of Scotland). By 1148, Madoc ap Meredyth founded a stone castle by adding a polygonal shell keep on the motte. Under him and his forbears the castle fell into disrepair by the late 15th century and then during the Civil War it was besieged by Thomas Mytton, Lord of Halston Hall, and captured. Both the castle and town walls were slighted during the period between 1647 and 1673 leaving the castle practically in sparse fragments. An attempt may have been made to reconstruct the bastion on the east side of the motte which once had a polygonal shell keep. Archaeologists concluded this from the shape of the motte which is similar to those castles in which multangular shell keeps are still found intact. Even what remains is quite interesting for the true castle enthusiasts and purists. It is a quiet area if it isn’t besieged by tourists.
If you head northeast of Oswestry you’ll find Whittington Castle about 3 miles drive away. Both Oswestry and Whittington are neighbors to Offa’s Dyke which became the Norman boundary between England and Wales even though its origin was during Anglo-Saxon times, dividing the Kingdoms of Wales and Mercia. Although the castle appears to have been devastated by the Civil War, Whittington’s ruins are extensive enough to get a marvelous glimpse of a classic English medieval concentric castle. The diagram below will give you a good idea of its original configuration.
This supposed prehistoric site may have been the stronghold of Cynddulan, King of Powys in 656, whose remains are buried at Eglwys Bassa ( Bassa Church ) in Wales. It would have been referred to as Llys Pengwern and was most likely destroyed around the same time by the Northumberland Saxon warriors. Aerial photos have revealed that the castle site is surrounded by triple banks and ditches with the north and west demarcations ascribed to iron age earthworks built at least 150 years prior.
The first written records reveal that Norman Chief, William Peverel, built fortifications in 1138 to defend his feudal stronghold against King Stephen. These lands were granted to him in the summer of 1114 when King Henry I invaded Powys taking back land which had been under the rule of Madoc Ap Merdyth (correctly spelled Madog ap Maredudd). Later it was handed down to Roger Powys by Henry II and remained in that family until 1221, when the current remains of the castle were granted to Llywelyn the Great. Being handed back the same year, Fulk Fitz Warine (later Fitz Warren) requested of King John to rebuild the castle in stone that year and remained in their possession until 1420. During those years they built the curtain wall and towers of the inner bailey turning it into a formidable castle against attack. By the time of Owain Glyndwr’s sieges on Clun, Oswestry and Whittington it was better equipped for defense. Whittington Castle’s restoration has just been completed with the assistance of a £ 950,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The only castle in the UK which is owned and run by a local community!
Tel: 01691 662397
Six more miles northeast of Whittington in Shropshire’s Lake district, Ellesmere Castle’s 12th century motte can be found on the east side of the town in Castlefields overlooking a large lake which is the focal point of the town. The town is a marvelous mixture of medieval streets, timber-framed homes and buildings alongside Georgian and Victorian architecture. Roger de Montgomery is thought to be the founder of the motte and bailey castle here which was at one time in the possession of the Peverel family bequeathed by Henry I and then later given to David, the son of Owain Gwynedd who was the Prince of Wales circa 1177. It passed back and forth between the English and Welsh royalty for nearly two centuries before the le Strange family from Knockin Castle gained possession. It was entirely abandoned by 1400 but you can see the royal heraldry for the castle at the church of St Mary which also overlooks the Mere (lake). The 15th century chapel is decorated with the badges of the lords of the manor and castle of Ellesmere. If Ellesmere was fortified in stone there are no remains of it left but the large motte may impress many people.
Heading back toward Shrewsbury, Knockin Castle sits seven miles southeast of Oswestry on the B4396. This motte and bailey was constructed circa 1150 to 1160 by Guy le Strange and then rebuilt in stone by the le Strange family in the early 13th century. It suffered damage during the first Baron’s War and was repaired by John le Strange. By 1540 it was considered ruinous and the stone was taken for construction of nearby buildings leaving only the tree-covered motte visible.
Another castle of the le Strange family is Myddle Castle which is not far away, headed east, and some interesting remains are true indicators that it was built circa 1307. In truth, however, there isn’t much to see except for a rectangular moat which has been built over in areas, part of a northern wall along with some interesting architectural features of the time, a` la Acton Burnell.
Scant remains of castle stonework at Shrawardine can be found eight miles west of Shrewsbury, just off the A5. The motte that remains is a reasonable size so it’s assumed that it dates from the late 11th century. The damage was done by Welsh raids circa 1211-1215 led by Llewelyn ap Iorwerth. It was repaired later in 1220 and again by John Fitz Alan after 1244 but was brought to almost total destruction during the Civil War by parliamentary military forces. Curiously enough, a smaller and lesser known motte and bailey is located on the opposite side of the Severn and was most likely built in compliment as a crossing guard for the larger castle. Known as Little Shrawardine, it may have been founded by Renaud de Ballieul- previously mentioned in connection with Oswestry Castle.
Another interesting aspect of its current use, by the people of the tiny nearby village, is a setting for their village green complete with a landscaped environmental garden and they hold community events on the grounds.
Very close to Shrawardine Castle at the Welsh border, Alberbury Castle, which is nine miles northwest of Shrewsbury, is a rather curious pile of ruins. Built early in the 13th century, next to Alberbury Church, it only had vigorous use during a short two hundred years and the Civil War was devastating to its polygonal curtain wall structure. The rectangular tower keep is also quite ruinous but still intact enough to get a very good idea of how it appeared during its useful period. This was built by Fulk Fitz Warine, who also built Whittington Castle and some similarities exist between the keeps of the two castles.
Wattlesborough Castle also in Alberbury parish, was built by Robert Corbet, a member of one of several baronial families who were expected to maintain their defensive castles along the Welsh border. Other barons were the Mortimers, de Lacys and the de Says. The rectangular tower keep gives a very good example of such in Shropshire, although this tower was built rather late (13th century), remember that, throughout most of the country, round towers and heavy curtain walls were prevalent by this time. A comparison between Acton Burnell and this castle may be made although for very different reasons. A former wing was dismantled and the materials reused, otherwise, the medieval portions are in remarkably good condition.
By the beginning of the 16th century the castle was taken on by the Leighton family and the castle became their chief residence and remained so for over two hundred years. Much dismantling and additional building work has taken place over the centuries. The interior changes included the additions of two splendid Tudor fireplaces! The only medieval portion which remains intact is the three-storied stone great tower which had been enclosed by wooden palisading, long disappeared of course. The residence has been converted from the 18th century to a much more modern state and is primarily a stone manor house presently.
Casgliad Ingleby vintage postcard rendering of Wattlesborough (Wattleburgh) Castle
Further south and directly west of Shrewsbury, near the border to Wales, Caus Castle is a motte and bailey remainder. You’ll find it two miles southwest of Westbury which is off the B4386. This site was first a hillfort and then later a motte and bailey which, given its position, would make it a guard tower en route to Shrewsbury. It sits high on the eastern foothills of Long Mountain. Roger Le Corbet (aka, Fitz Corbet) was granted several estates in Shropshire due to his being appointed the barony of Caux, which was in Normandy. He in turn named this late 11th century castle according to his title. The Corbets were certainly subordinates to Roger de Montgomery and this was a major outpost for the Earl of Shrewsbury since it was most likely the last line of defense before the Welsh could reach Shrewsbury itself.
Despite its current appearance, the importance of Caus Castle was evident in that Henry II had it garrisoned in 1165 and funded its maintenance and by 1198 Roger rebuilt the tower keep in stone with a curtain wall and a town was built in the large outer bailey. Additionally, by 1263 D-shape towers were added to the curtain wall. Possession of Caus was transferred to the Earl of Stafford after the death of Beatrice Corbet in 1347.
By the beginning of the 15th century, Welsh resistance from Owain Glyndwr was at its peak and the Seneschal Griffith ap Ieuan ap Gwenwys (ap means son of ) garrisoned Caus but after much debate among his colleagues he changed his loyalties and supported Glyndwr in the rebellion. The lands were forfeited because of this by 1404 and were not restored until 1419 by Henry V. Once more, in 1443, insurrection to England occurred when Sir Gruffydd Vychan (a son of Gwenwys ) killed Sir Christopher Talbot who was the son of the Earl of Shrewsbury (and had been knighted as a champion jouster.) 500 marks were put up for Vychan’s capture and the lands once owned by the Corbets fell to John Sutton, 1st Baron of Dudley. Unfortunately, Sutton left the castle to decay and it fell to ruin through the remaining centuries. It was utterly destroyed in 1645 most likely in the wake of the Civil War and only a few stones remain with the still large motte covered with trees.
Shrewsbury, the town
Heading into Shrewsbury, only nine miles east of the Welsh border, you’ll find Shrewsbury Castle (1074) and evidences of the town wall but with 660 historic listed buildings within its relatively small area, you’ll also get the idea that much of English medieval history is to be found in this singlemost city. (And you thought Darwin’s birth in this city was its only claim to fame? ) You’ll see lots of Tudor and timber-framed houses and buildings as well as the red sandstone castle and Shrewsbury Abbey (1083), which is a former Benedictine monastery, both of which were built by Roger de Montgomery.
Founded circa 800 AD, Shrewsbury came into its greatest commercial importance by the 14th and 15th centuries because of the wool trade industry it created. Its situation of occupation of a long section of the River Severn made it a major trading route. The historic center of the town has kept to its medieval street layout which has many narrow and winding streets and passages with the Severn creating a lovely vista at many points. Many street names are ancient or centuries old giving a visitor some idea of the original vendors and local businesses. Bellstone St. specifically refers to the Shrewsbury bellstone, a boulder with its own monument. The sparse remainder of the town walls once radiated out from the castle and surrounded the town. There is a section south of the castle now known as Town Walls with a small section remaining and there is a tower called Town Walls Tower which is in the care of the National Trust.
Shrewsbury’s location, along with being the seat of Powys, made it a point of contention between the English and Welsh for many centuries, but before that the Angles seized power of the town with the help of King Offa of Mercia in 778. When the Normans came to rule Shropshire, they strengthened Shrewsbury’s fortifications and built a stone castle. In 1138, King Stephen successfully besieged the castle which was being held by William FitzAlan for Empress Maud during the Anarchy. By 1215 it was in the possession of the Prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, but that particular castle which was founded by Roger de Montgomery no longer stands.
You’ll find the present castle (just off Castle St.) in the center of Shrewsbury in a meander of the Severn with a pronounced hill on the north side. It dates from the 12th century and was built by King Henry II. In the 13th century King Edward I (Longshanks) built the great hall and refortified it with a rectangular outer bailey. It’s now home to the Shropshire Regimental Museum and owned by the Shropshire Council. The original town occupied the summit of the hill and extended southwards. In 1218 the town received the first grant requested from the King for murage, a toll to build town walls in England and also received one of the earliest grants in 1266 for paving the new market place. Some historic half-timbered black-and-white houses are the 16th century Abbot’s House on Butcher Row and Rowley’s House (now home to the Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery) on Barker Street. You’ll find that Shrewsbury is largely intact because it was not bombed during WWII, however, the castle was attacked by the IRA in 1992 with damage occurring to the collection and the castle itself. When you visit the castle you may see restoration work going on as the sandstone is soft and erosion is constant. Laura’s Tower sits above it at the summit and can be seen above everything when viewed at a distance across the Severn. This was built by Thomas Telford along with the interior of the great hall being remodeled in the latter part of the 18th century.
The town hosts a the largest and oldest horticultural event in England, the Shrewsbury Flower Show, every year on a national scale, winning various awards since the year 2000 and hosted and won the Britain in Bloom showing in 2006.
An interesting fortified and moated manor house that is 8 miles northeast of Shrewsbury near High Ercall was once castellated. What remains of Ercall Hall is an interesting example of how medieval architecture often evolved manor homes into bona fide castles and were later rebuilt according to fashion into comfortable residences again. I have already shown you quite a few examples in Northumberland with Featherstone Castle being one of the most fascinating. Belvoir in Leicestershire is another and Warwick in Warwickshire- which I haven’t covered yet. (Soon ! Very soon ! ) They have an air of romanticism that cannot be dispelled by even the most vocal critics. The problem is that most of the castellation is gone, the moat has been filled and most of the fortifications have been removed. Red brick farm buildings from the 18th century dot the property and are still used as such. It’s difficult to believe, from its current incarnation that during the Civil War an excess of 200 Royalist soldiers were inside its walls fighting for their sovereign and for their own lives. On the third siege the strain became insurmountable and they relinquished Ercall to Parliamentary forces.
Ercall Hall was originated by the de Ercalaw family. In the 13th century, John de Ercal fortified the manor house, built a moat, enclosed all with a curtain wall flanked by square towers on the angles and his son Sir Richard even added a drawbridge and gatehouse! By the late 16th century it came into the possession of the Newport family who built the four-gabled, three-storied sandstone and brick L-shaped house you will view on the premises today. The actual work was carried out by Walter Hancock who designed the Market Hall and possibly Condover Hall in Shrewsbury. Sir Francis Newport had another mansion built in 1608 which was demolished but the Jacobean ashlar stone arches of a loggia on the southeast side remain, lending a certain amount of ruinous beauty. You will see remains of the curtain walls of John de Ercal’s castle because those on the north and northwest were protected with huge turf banks as a defensive platform against Parliament’s cannon balls during the Civil War.
This is private property.
The owners are not currently allowing any access but it may be viewed from the road.
There is something almost unreal about the Moreton Corbet remains, which is northeast of Shrewsbury ( and not far northwest from Ercall Hall and just north of the town of Shawbury). In this case, we’re talking about a royalist edifice which appears, in places, to be a folly. In reality, it was a medieval castle which had been added to with an Elizabethan manor by the time of the Civil War by the Corbets (of Wattlesborough and Caus fame). Their emblem of the Elephant and Castle is found on the gatehouse arch, along with Sir Andrew’s initials, SAC. If one examines the property in person they will see two completely different and gutted buildings but from a distance it looks very interesting and downright eclectic. Different angles impart very different impressions so it’s definitely worth a good long visit!
Medieval structures most likely existed from the time of the conquest although the names of the thegns (freemen who were given titles and land by the sovereign) were Anglo Saxon- Hunning and Wulfgeat. This was most likely an earthwork enclosure with a moat and keep to the northwest of the original enclosure. You will find evidence of the original ditches on the property, currently, especially in the area around the gatehouse. It is not known what type of structure they may have or have not built in 1086 but by the early 13th century Peter Toret, who was also an English appointed lord, was living in a castle on these lands. It was stormed, by King John’s request, in 1216 by William Marshall against the occupation of Bartholomew Toret. The land was bequeathed to Richard de Corbet in 1235 who became his son-in-law and was most likely responsible for building the property in stone. At that time the name of the castle was changed from Moreton Toret to Moreton Corbet.
Gatehouse of castle remains
The structure of the castle must never have received the type of combat like most of the medieval structures of Shropshire but the Civil War leveled quite a bit of damage, nonetheless. Most of the remaining structures show damage done by musket fire. Several sieges during the Civil War left it in bad condition but the tower was occupied clear up to the latter part of the 17th century and rebuilding took place even afterwards ! After 1700 it became a storehouse for the Elizabethan manor. What remains of the medieval castle amounts to a rectangular keep which was two stories high with a dungeon. A heavily rebuilt curtain wall had once been connected to the gatetower which was also rebuilt some time during the building of the Elizabethan mansion.
The east range of the new manor was initiated by Andrew Corbet during that time and later finished by his sons Robert( in 1579), Richard and Vincent who built the classical L-shaped south range after Robert succumbed to the plague. By the time of the Civil War Vincent was left to stand against the parliamentarians for the King with a hundred men but was tricked into surrendering. He died in 1656. At the church of St. Bartholomew, a short distance away you will find many memorials and tombs of the Corbet family, also well worth a visit for those interested in this illustrious English family.
The castle was finally abandoned altogether in the 18th century and plans were drawn up in 1796 to build a new home on the site but it has never materialized. The family seat, from that period on, has been at Acton Reynald Hall but Moreton Corbet has been retained as their official property to this day.
An English Heritage property Tele: 0121 625 6820 (regional office)
What a delight Rowton Castle Hotel is to look at, tour and if one wishes, stay for awhile in its luxurious suites ! Most people would find it hard to believe that this is an historical medieval castle which was even blown down by Llewelyn in 1463 by his Welsh army! Only six miles directly west of Shrewsbury, on the A458 it sits in 17 glorious acres midway between the Welsh border and Shrewsbury, not far north from the Caus Castle motte.
A roman settlement existed here which was originally called Rutunium by the Emperor Antonius but Rowton Castle’s name ultimately come from Baron Rowton, who was Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s private secretary in the 19th century. There have been several incarnations of castles here for over 800 years with fortifications built by Guy le Strange who was also responsible for Knockin and Myddle Castles. This castle also passed into the hands of the Corbets and the Lyster family who were reputed to be an ancient family. Under Fulk-Fitz Warine (Warren) it must have had quite a long history of struggle for possession given its proximity to the border.
The castle that sits on the site today is a faithful rendering which was rebuilt in 1669 with what was considered the extreme expense of £ 1,000 ! After that time it was used as a private residence but had several new uses in the 20th century. In 1941 it was the Royal School for the Blind but was deserted by the college in 1978 and fell into ruins for a time. Sometime after that it was completely refurbished inside and out and is now a splendid hotel with an oak-paneled restaurant and events venue extending special welcome to wedding parties with full catering and planning and a special bridal suite called the Rowton Suite. Full catering also exists for extended group stays with 19 individually designed bedrooms. For example, the Cardeston Suite can seat up to 110 guests and has private bar facilities. They also hire out the castle to groups of guests, with size limits, which they call the Exclusively Yours Package providing all accommodations according to your wishes and needs. That could be quite handy while you’re running around looking at all the castles which abound in the area. What a nice retreat after chasing after castles all day!
Next entry we’ll take a look at South Shropshire castles and there’s more to come with special places to stay, late medieval architectural wonders and a special entry on Shropshire’s world famous World Heritage site- Ironbridge Gorge. Stay tuned in for more…..
Prices vary from £74 to 139 per room per night, ensuite
Tel: 0871 716 2156
+44 (0) 1743 884 044
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Special note Sept. 3, 2010: Rest in pieces, Cromwell !