When the Normans came to England they built their stern castles upon huge mounds that gave them clear views across the countryside from the height of the donjon or keep. For many years, it was thought these mottes were mostly of Norman date, contemporary with the castle structures, or else were natural, glacial features utilised by the incomers.
Recently, however, archaeologist Jim Leary, well known in the Wiltshire area for his work at Marden Henge and Avebury, has been studying these numerous round mounds in some detail and finding that many of them tell another story. Sometimes on that stretched far into the depths of time.
Marlborough mound is one example. For years, various guidebooks debated whether the enormous hill in the grounds of Marlborough college, complete with later grotto inserted in its flank, was a Norman construction, a prehistoric earthwork, a natural hill, or even a much more recent garden folly.
The castle, of which no stone remains above ground today, was quite prominent in the 12th century: an oath of allegiance was sworn to King John in its now-vanished hall, and Eleanor of Brittany, kept prisoner for most of her life by John and then his son, Henry III, due to her closeness to the throne, was briefly incarcerated within its walls. Later, it became a dower property of Eleanor of Provence and a host of subsequent queens, until it finally fell into ruin, becoming completely uninhabitable by 1403. The Seymour family, who owned many local lands, ended up with it.
About five years ago, Jim Leary had some charcoal found inside the mound carbon dated. It turns out Marlborough mound, reputed in legend to be the burial place of Merlin, is a Neolithic artificial hill dating from 2400 B.C., a smaller sister to the famous, pyramid-sized Silbury Hill, which liesa few miles down the road near the stone circles of Avebury.
Now Dr Leary is working on analysing further monumental mounds, with exciting and unexpected results from the motte at Skipsea castle, which was built in 1086 by Drogo de la Beauvriere as protection against an incursion of Danes via the North Sea. The castle was destroyed by the forces of Henry III in 1221, when William de Forz rebelled and was never subsequently rebuilt, with only the mound remaining today.
In the recent analysis of Skipsea, the archaeologists have found that the motte is neither Norman nor natural glacial hill (as was generally thought) but, unusually, that it is an artificial mound dating from the Iron Age. It is quite possibly a burial mound, which would make it a one of a kind in this country, since by the British Iron Age huge funerary barrows had long dropped out of fashion. It bears a marked similarity to the large German Celtic barrows, which often hold rich remains, such as those of the Hochdorf chief (also known as the Prince with the Golden Shoes, due to his blingy footwear!)
Leary and his team have also recently surveyed Fotheringhay and Berkhamsted mottes. The study goes on….