The Search for Medieval Manchester and Birmingham…

At times I have been a little hasty when covering large metropolises of England. Last year my West Midlands entry was a bit brief on Birmingham but I have discovered a few castles and medieval structures in the area, along with Greater Manchester as well, which has quite a few more than I ever imagined. While researching nearby Worcestershire and Warwickshire I made surprise discoveries, quite by accident, so I’d like to bring you up to date today. When researching Manchester back in early Spring of 2007 I expected to find very little on castles and my investigations, at that time, indicated that there were none. Much of what I am presenting today is from digging deeper while perusing the internet… The Castle Lady

The first records of Birmingham Manor was the Domesday book listing of 1086 which named Peter de Birmingham as the holder at a value of £1! This was worth considerably less than towns such as Yardley and Handsworth. At the time of that listing there were five villagers and four smallholders with two ploughs. Aston was the most populous area recording 43 adults! These small beginnings were no indication of the industrial prosperity that Birmingham as a metropolis would enjoy by comparison in today’s markets. Eventually Peter de Birmingham bought the right to hold a weekly market at his castle which prospered quickly and he laid the early foundations of the town of Birmingham. When the cloth industry was brought in during subsequent centuries Birmingham as a city had began its true destiny as a town of manufacturing and industry. By the mid-16th century the castle lost its important place amongst the thriving economy and the family of Birmingham fell into ignominy with the royalists. A descendant of Peter, Edward de Birmingham, was sent to the Tower of London and died there in 1538. The crown took possession of the castle excusing his wife Elizabeth from the premises and passed it to Lord Lisle, the Duke of Northumberland during the reign of Edward VI.
Today no evidence of a castle exists but Birmingham has been delightfully revived as a shopping and cultural mecca very much along the lines of Manchester. The City Museum and Art Gallery should be visited along with the Botanical Gardens and the Museum of Science and Industry which highlights Birmingham’s most recent history as a former industrial giant. If you’re young you’ll love Birmingham’s lively night life!

Situated halfway between Wolverhampton and Birmingham, Oak House and the Old Manor House at West Bromwich are the most historic buildings in the town. West Bromwich was mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 and later in the 12th century a Benedictine priory existed there. Eventually a town grew up around it which prospered on coal production, spring, gun and nail making by the 19th century. Today it has been engulfed by Staffordshire although it sits on its edge with the heads of these medieval buildings hanging into Birmingham’s sphere.
Oak House on Cambridge Road is a well restored 16th century timber-framed Jacobean house museum filled with Tudor and Jacobean furniture. Indications that portions date back as far as 1488 (one on a drainpipe) are rather sparse but are not unusual considering that it was restored before the 20th century. A surviving belvedere remained along with a 17th century morning room and the service wing and solar have been restored well. In the upstairs portion you’ll find many small bedrooms with four-poster beds along with 17th century needlework hangings.
The Old Manor House on Hall Green Road is also referred to as the Old Hall and is the most complete example of a 13th century medieval timber structure in existence with a great hall, north solar wing, south wing, chapel and kitchen block in the interior- following a copy book layout to a tee. The Elizabethan gatehouse remains and the estate is completely surrounded by a moat !

When I covered Bromwich Hall back in March of 2010 on my West Midlands entry I had been looking for a castle at Castle Bromwich originally. The name of the town and the almost invisible ruins were all that remained of the castle and so I concentrated on historic Bromwich Hall with its gardens. At the beginning of this summer I uncovered more history on Bromwich Hall and added that information to the entry. Beside the M6 motorway just outside Castle Bromwich, the motte and bailey for which the town is named is apparent- albeit in a very inconvenient position.

The motte, which was once called Pimple Hill by the locals, is 40 meters in diameter which was natural at first and later added to by settlers during the Iron Age. During the Norman invasion a bailey and keep were most likely built on top and around the natural mound. In the 1970s it was most likely plowed down to make way for what was then the collector road. A drawing exists from 1726 which shows a large structure called the Old Castle Hall next to the remaining earthworks at Pimple Hill.
This hill commanded an important crossing of the River Tame and remains to this day, although reduced, and situated between the M6 and the Chelmsley Wood Collector bypass road. An archaeological dig was carried out prior to the redevelopment of the site and discoveries confirmed some old folk tales concerning the castle. It was on the highest point of an iron-aged fortification that encompassed most of Castle Bromwich of today. The land between the hill and Kyters Lane was particularly well defended by several ramparts. Other ditches have been excavated between the hill and Kyters ditch but have not revealed anything further which would substantiate the claims. Stories of the possibility that the area was also a Saxon burial ground emerged around 1935 when the proliferation of dwellings from Washwood Heath began to be built over Hodge Hill. Modern houses now occupy the site and overlook the graveyard but the ramparts have been completely obliterated.
Another medieval manor at Castle Bromwich may have existed at Whateley Hall in the 1300s as there is evidence of a moated structure on the wooded grounds. This industrial age mansion was owned by the Knight family from the 1860s until 1935 after which it was sold, then demolished, unfortunately. Check out the link below for more historical data and photos in and around the area. T-01217 494100

One mile northeast of Walshall, Rushall Hall, a two-storied brick manor house, painted to resemble black and white timber framing, was built south of an earlier moated 14th century castle which had its beginnings most likely from the Norman invasion. The first family name attached to the estate were the Boweles, then the Grobberes and later the Harpurs of whom John Harpur Esq. heavily tithed the vicarage and rebuilt the nearby church of Rushall circa 1444 along with a square tower which remained until 1867. The original manor house was heavily fortified and defended by large garrisons during the Wars of the Roses and also the Civil War. Lore surrounding the estate states that a Mr Pitt, of Wolverhampton, attempted to bribe Captain Tuthill to betray the garrison there during the Civil War but his treachery was uncovered and he was put to death for treason in 1640. Despite a takeover by Prince Rupert in 1643, Parliament prevailed and they took back possession of it by 1644 after a brief siege.
Today’s Rushall New Hall is a 17th century former manor seat of Edward Leigh which was severely altered mid-19th century by Mr Cowley. The area boasted of a superior quality limestone, which polishes to a finish equal to that of marble, mined 80 yards below the earth’s surface in the Dawend district of Walshall. It is assumed that the earliest stone remains of ancient Rushall Manor, in the curtain walls, was most certainly taken from this mine and you can find the vestiges of curtain wall ruins on the site of which some go back as far as early 14th century! The manor itself is associated with one of the fortified manors built later perhaps during the occupation of the Grubbere family. Remainders of the moat- now dry- are also still evident further afield.
One of the features most altered throughout the centuries was the gatehouse which once had an angle staircase and remains substantial. The earliest one may have been started from the inception of the original manor. By 1430 the Harpur family had added their crest above the gateway and the Grubbere family built onto it. By 1600, when it was finally in the possession of the Leigh family, windows and a second floor were added. From 1830 to 1840 it was partly demolished along with the house and altered to fit into the grounds as a gothic garden feature. The estate was finally sold off in 1945.
Walsall Local History Centre at The Civic Centre on Darwall Street

T- 01922 650000

The fate of Weoley Castle was literally fought out on Bosworth Field many years ago. At that time, Sir Thomas Berkeley was in possession of the castle and he fought on Richard III’s side. After Henry acquired the crown, well after Richard’s fatal decease, Sir Berkeley was stripped of his most prized possession just the same as many others who fought for the last Plantagenet. Before that time the castle passed through the hands of several families with Alwold, the Saxon chieftan being the first claimant of the lands and William Fitz Ansculf being the Norman baron awarded possession during the conquest. He became Lord of Dudley and his seat was at Dudley Castle which is a part of Staffordshire today. (See my March Staffordshire entries this year for more details.)
Remains of the castle are seated in a suburban area just southwest of Birmingham within the district of Selly Oak in the heart of a large deer park which surrounded 1000 acres during that period in time. Most of the stone remnants outline the former size of this moated courtyard manor. It was castellated with six watch towers, being built in stone, late in the 13th century by the Lord Dudley Roger de Somery. By the early 15th century, the complex boasted of a stone hall, kitchen, guest house, chapel, laundry, bakehouse, brewhouse, stables and gatehouse with a wooden drawbridge. During excavations of 1960 and 1961 a wooden kitchen was discovered which was linked to the stone hall with a pentice (penthouse-type) corridor at one time. These types of kitchens became popular during the time of King John who ordered the same structures to be built at Marlborough and Ludgershall. Another such kitchen was built at Oxford in 1232 for King Henry III which was blown down by the wind ! They were built this way to prevent fires from spreading to the main buildings and great halls. John Lewyn, who was a military architect in the northern region, used great ingenuity in building castle kitchens and two still survive at Raby and Durham Castles. Weoley’s wooden kitchen had a reed-thatch roof and a covered wooden corridor which linked it to the stone hall.
Roger’s heir, John Somery had no heir but two sisters, Margaret and Joan. Joan married Thomas Botetourt and took possession of Weoley Castle in 1322 which was one of a dozen that belonged to the family estate. The Botetourt’s were the Lords of Aston and Weoley became their main residence. Many improvements and additions were made under their direction, such as the stained glass in the chapel windows and patterned floor tiles along with a new kitchen and great hall rebuilt in stone. Upon Joan’s death in 1339 the castle was laid claim to by five heirs and it eventually went into a legal dispute. Her son, John, who was knighted by Edward III, eventually gained possession of the manor and the castle remained in the Berkeley family.

The complex of buildings passed on to many heirs between 1485 and 1531 when it began to fall into ruins. After William Berkeley died, the Lords of Dudley sold the castle to a wealthy cloth merchant by the name of Richard Jervoise in 1536. He never lived at the castle and stayed in another home he built in nearby Northfield. By the middle of the 17th century the original buildings that comprised the castle were already referred to as a ‘ruyned castell’ and some farmhouses were built in the area where an education room now stands. A few apple trees are all that remain of the farm. In all, six feudal families owned the castle during the medieval period. The last private owners were the Ledsams who purchased Weoley in 1809.
By the early 20th century, a Mr Ledsam sold the land to the Birmingham Corporation and a series of archaeological surveys were conducted clear up to mid-century and many historical objects were found which gave clear illustration of the kind of wealth the series of owners enjoyed through the centuries. The objects available to view are quite surprising and others rather common, such as medieval stained glass. These artifacts can be viewed at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

The ruins of the castle can be seen from a viewing platform which is open every day. Accessing the actual grounds can be done during event days which involve large groups by pre-booked guided tours. I recommend doing both to get the most out of each visit. My photo album shows the reduced remains of the walls and towers.

T- 012146 42193

Back in April 2007 when I covered the Greater Manchester area my information on Manchester Castle did not appear in my account because it was built over by Chetham’s School of Music on its former site. I have already mentioned that the history of the town dates back to Roman occupation by Agricola’s armies circa AD 79. The castle site is a confluence of the rivers Irk and Irwell and is in close proximity to the Cathedral which is, of course, part of the former medieval township.
The castle was a former fortified manor and was referred to in documents dating from 1184 as belonging to the Greley family. They were made Barons of Manchester by 1215. No further documentation is available. It is supposed that the structure, originally being a man-made ringwork with a timber structure on top and a temporary palisade, may have been abandoned. Even though it was strategically placed it was not considered a military structure and may have been part of a Saxon burh, originally.

Two very different fortified dwellings were identified late in the 20th century around Manchester. Radcliffe Tower and Bury Castle are interesting remnants of the medieval period. The former is the only remaining portion of a crenellated and battlemented manor owned by James de Radcliffe. Today it is a Grade 1 listed building restored from the remains of an addition by Sir Radcliffe in 1403 after he was given license to rebuild an existing manor house by Henry IV. It was once complete with a timber-framed great hall, built on the west part of the property and two towers built in ashlar.
Even though only this single tower remains, there is a lot of interesting architecture to be seen in this 20 feet high tower with an arched doorway remaining. It once had rounded arches on every side with a duel headed doorway on the west. Vestiges of what appears to be a fireplace remains on the interior. By 1700 the manor house was no longer occupied, became dilapidated and the tower was used as a farmhouse. The black and white period depiction of Radcliffe Tower looks idyllic in comparison to its current environs and currently the ruins are rather sparse. Despite the stature of its listing, this edifice can only be viewed from the outside and not entered in any way.

Bury Castle, a short distance of two miles away, once fit the description of a fortified manor house in the strongest sense of the word. Built in 1469 by Thomas Pilkington, a member of the landed gentry, its beginnings were anything but military in nature. By that time the Pilkingtons had been the Lords of Bury for almost a hundred years and the estate of Bury Castle was their inheritance from the de Bury family whose estate had been surrounded by a moat.
Some months after the erection of the manor house, Sir Thomas requested license to crenellate the manor from Edward IV and it was granted by May 2nd. Built on a natural slope which looked out over the River Irwell and on the west side of what was once the old market place it was a strong position for a castle. Rebuilding involved the original moat being cleaned out and the slope replaced with a more vertical face. The manor house stood on a platform, most likely for stability, and was lined with a surrounding sandstone wall strengthened with buttresses. No trace of this wall remains above the level of the medieval moat platform, so the original height is unknown.
The entire castle was razed to the ground on the orders of Henry VII after the battle of Bosworth in 1485 in which Sir Thomas Pilkington supported the House of York and specifically Richard III. In addition, Sir Thomas’ entire estate was confiscated. Even so, a new owner was named- Lord Stanley, specifically, and given the title of the Earl of Derby. John Leyland, the famous antiquarian, visited the site which was near the parish church of the town and described it as a ruin in 1540. It is assumed that Lord Stanley ignored the proprietorship of Bury Castle. By 1753 it was dismantled brick by brick, according to Thomas Percival, who drew up a sketch of the visible foundations of the walls which measured 600 by 270 feet. Much of the building material of the town, at the time, was taken from the castle.


Today, the ruins of the walls are all that remains of Bury Castle. In 1865, while digging new sewer lines, common workmen uncovered a portion of the buried foundations of the formally fortified manor and it created a local sensation. Inexplicably, beyond the accidental discovery, no real action was taken until 1973 when a group of amateurs, who are now known as the Bury Archaeological Group, excavated further. By 1977 a conclusive part of the footings of the southwest corner of the moat wall were exposed and actions were taken to protect a large portion of these low-lying wall remains as a scheduled ancient monument. In 1999 when the excavations were done the walls were found to be 2.3 meters thick. On March 8, 2000 the site of Bury Castle was officially opened as a monument open to public viewing and there is a permanent display of artifacts, which includes a cannon ball, culled from the excavations at Bury Museum and Art Gallery.

Bury Museum and Art Gallery T-01612 535878

Sitting high above the Tame Valley at Stalybridge on the outer eastern boundary of Manchester, Buckton Castle (near Carrbrook) once was a formidable castle built for William de Neville. It was constructed circa 1180 over a ringwork referred to as Buckton Hill. By the time it was mentioned in the books in 1360 it was already in ruins but was constructed in stone with a surrounding curtain wall and a wide and deep ditch dug into the sandstone. Its configuration is oval which experts suggest was an iron age ringfort which would, of course, predate any stone building. Interestingly, the bailey that exists there is not medieval and an archaeological unit believes that it is of more recent origin when it was used as part of an anti-aircraft decoy during WWII. Further investigations by the unit have revealed a gateway which collapsed and a tower without any additional internal buildings within the walls. This is not unusual considering that it was built on such a high promontory. Several castles were built without keeps or additional residential quarters of any kind! The northwest gateway was protected by a two-storied stone tower with 4 feet thick walls.
Thomas Percival, who was an 18th century antiquarian recorded a well within the castle, and walls of buildings inside the castle still standing to a height of 7 feet. George Ormerod, when writing about Buckton in 1817 found no indication of such buildings and later excavations have found no such discoveries either. However, enough stone remains are in evidence to make out the less than half acre of oval configuration but apparently it was pilfered heavily in the 18th century by looters and a nearby quarry. As a result there are no above ground remains at Buckton. Luckily for visitors, the trenches that were made by excavations and looters alike reveal a good outline of the former size and stature of the castle. This one is not for the unimaginative !

On the border between Cheshire and Manchester and on the grounds of Dunham Massey Hall, Dunham Castle’s medieval ruins consist only of the 7 foot motte very near the place where the Georgian Mansion sits today. The moat which surrounded it was turned into an ornamental lake incorporated into the landscaped deer park. Owned by Hamon de Masci (an early spelling of Massey) in 1173 along with Ullerwood Castle and possibly Watch Hill Castle, which isn’t distant to the Dunham property at Bowdon, none of these mentioned castles were ever built in stone but were all most likely motte and bailey castles which fell out of use by the 13th century. Ullerwood had the distinction of being held against Henry II but has been desecrated with a modern house built over its site. Watch Hill was by far the largest of the three as the bailey covered more than half an acre and the conical motte reached 56 feet in height.
Northeast of Manchester, Rochdale’s Castle has suffered a similar fate of obscurity as an early post-Norman conquest motte and bailey castle. Even though it was abandoned early in the 13th century it was documented much later circa 1322. The ramparts are impressive if you can find them. A good portion of the former bailey is obscured by housing. To add insult upon injury, a house has been built on top of the motte.
Southeast of Manchester, Stockport Castle was first mentioned in 1173 when Geoffrey de Constentyn, held it against Henry II during the Barons’ rebellion for a period of a year’s time. Originally built in timber with earthwork defenses, by the 13th century it was rebuilt in stone and today some fragments of the wall remain. Even though it is within the town of Stockport it sits high above the medieval town on a sandstone crag which is on the south side of a valley where the rivers of Goyt and Tame merge and become the River Mersey. It is flanked by cliffs and steep slopes nearly all sides with a large motte with a bailey to the southeast. The keep was irregular in shape and quite large measuring 100 x 200 feet according to a local antiquarian. Today, no trace of the keep remains.
Like most of the castles in and around Manchester it fell out of use rather early. By the 14th century the Warren family had possession but did not use it as their seat and resided mainly at Poynton Manor. As a military machine it was well over by John Leland’s day who declared it to be in ruins in 1535 and was used only as a jail and a market was held in the bailey. The grounds were divided and rented out. When Sir George Warren came into possession of the castle by the late 18th century he had the ruins leveled and built a cotton mill in its place. Excavations were carried out in 1974 establishing the time line of facts concerning the castle.

Search no longer… you’ve found

The Castle Lady !

You will find larger and extensive additional photos of Birmingham as a subfolder in the West Midlands album and Manchester photos on its own folder !


About Evelyn

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3 Responses to The Search for Medieval Manchester and Birmingham…

  1. Anthony Johnston says:

    I’ve been reading along for a while now. I just wanted to drop you a comment to say keep up the good work.


  2. Thanks for your comment Anthony. All encouragement is quite welcome.


  3. des bisous du dimanche pour tou Evelyn


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