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Normal for Normans? Exploring the large round mounds of England….

Silbury Hill

“….Most of England’s monumental mounds are assumed to be Norman castle mottes built in the period immediately after the Conquest – but could some of them have much earlier origins? Jim Leary, Elaine Jamieson, and Phil Stastney report on a project that set out to investigate some of these mighty constructions….”

There is information about Fotheringhay included in the article from which the above paragraph is taken. To read more, go here.

 

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THE LOST FONT OF MARLBOROUGH CASTLE

Marlborough is a quaint little town in Wiltshire. It has a rather famous College (once attended by Kate Middleton) but no buildings dating much before Tudor times other than two heavily restored churches. However, it used to have a castle, and a rather important one too.

The first castle was built by William the Conqueror in timber, and he raised it on Marlborough’s most famous landmark–a huge mound (sometimes called Merlin’s Mound) that stands in the middle of the college grounds. This mound is not the usual motte and bailey but in fact a neolithic mound that is a smaller ‘sister’ to nearby Silbury Hill, the largest artificial mound in Europe. Later the wooden castle was replaced by stone; it held out for King Stephen during the Anarchy. King John made many changes and repairs, having been presented  the castle while his brother, Richard Lionheart, was king. His second wife the infamous Isabella of Angouleme spent some time there and some of his children may have been born within its walls. It was  a strange arrangement–Isabella was under the care of Hugh de Neville, whose wife had been one of John’s many mistresses. After John died in the early 1200’s, political prisoner Eleanor of Brittany, whose claim to the throne equalled or surpassed that of Henry III, was kept there for a while before being shunted off to another stronghold. After Henry died, however, it became a Dower House, used by the Dowager Queen, Eleanor of Provence, and then was held by a series of Queen after her.

By 1370,  Marlborough was unused, and in ruins by 1403. Edward VI passed it to his relatives, the Seymours, who built a grand house that is now part of the College. All traces of the castle vanished, save for the mighty mound with had already stood for thousands of years before the Conqueror built his castle.

However there is a rumour that one item from the castle  survived–a huge ornate stone font which had come from the freestanding chapel of St Nicholas. Local legend says  several of King John’s children were  baptised in this font.

And sure enough about a mile away, a massive stone font sits, seeming slightly out of place, in  the tiny, remote church of St George at Preshute (an old name meaning Priest’s Hut.). It is an enormous block of polished black stone imported from Tournai, and would hardly be likely to have originally belonged to such a small, out of the way church. A few similar fonts of Tournai stone  do exist in England, but they are in much grander buildings that St George’s–including Worcester Cathedral.

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Marlborough castle Font

 

 

MONUMENTAL MOUNDS AND MOTTES

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….

 

https://roundmoundsproject.wordpress.com/2016/01/05/fieldwork-2015-photos/#more-359

 

 

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/oct/03/skipsea-castle-yorkshire-built-on-iron-age-mound

 

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