The ruins of Halton Castle in Cheshire (SJ 537 820) stand on a prominent hill of red sandstone overlooking the estuary of the River Mersey to the north and west. July 2015 sees the first excavations at this medieval site since 1987. During the 1980s my old colleague and friend Robina McNeil led small-scale excavations in the inner bailey as part of a wider conservation programme across the castle ruins.(1) This work stabilised the castle fabric and highlighted the role of the site as a baronial castle linked with the nearby Norton Priory.
The opportunity to excavate castles in North West England is rare, as was noted in 2007 by the authors of the North West Archaeological Regional Research Framework (2). Since 1987 there have been very few significant castle excavations, the work at Buckton, Carlisle, Lancaster and Shotwick castles being the most significant. The chance to return to Halton to undertake a community project through the Norton Priory Museum Trust is thus a welcome addition to this list. This work is looking for remains in the outer bailey, which was not touched in the 1980s and where there might be evidence spanning the whole history of the site, from its foundation in the late 11th century, through the 15th century rebuild and Civil War siege to 18th century landscaping.
The first timber castle at Halton is believed to have been built by Hugh Lupus, Earl of Chester, around 1070, making the site as old as Chester Castle, where that primary motte can still be seen. This first castle at Halton was formed by cutting off the highest part of the promontory on the north western side by digging a ditch eight metres wide and utilising the natural platform on the rest of the hilltop as a bailey. The size of the primary motte remains unclear. By 1250 this timber castle had been replaced by a western shell keep of at least two stories and an eastern bailey with a stone curtain wall (including a sqaure tower on the northern side over the filled-in earlier ditch) and stone buildings in the eastern bailey. The ownership of the castle passed in the later 13th century to the Lacy family, the Lords of Pontefract, who became Dukes of Lancaster in 1311. Through them it came into the possession of the monarchy, under Henry IV in 1399, and thus became a royal castle. This may explain the extensive rebuilding programme under Henry VI in the mid-15th century when a large gatehouse incorporating octagonal towers, like the 1399 example that is still visible at Lancaster, was constructed. Asurvey of 1476 mentions a number of buildings including a great chamber, a withdrawing room, a chapel, a hall and lesser domestic buildings on the site.
The post-medieval period was not kind to the site. The castle was used as a prison for Roman Catholic recusants in 1579. It was besieged and captured by Sir William Brereton in 1643 during the first English Civil War and partly demolished on Parliament’s orders in 1644. The castle was depicted as a ruin in a view by the Buck brothers published in 1727. In 1738 the grand gatehouse was replaced by a new courthouse and prison, and a series of small lock-ups built in the castle bailey. Soon afterwards much of the interior of the site was landscaped for a folly built from castle rubble, levels raised in some areas and dropped in others, and by the 19th century the remains were being treated as a romantic ruin.
Plenty of questions remain unanswered due to the post-medieval slighting and landscaping, such as the precise date and size of the first motte structure, the form of the later shell keep, and evidence for the Civil War siege.
We have only been on site a few days but already we have our first late medieval pottery and glazed floor tile fragments. Whilst booking for the community dig is full there will be a chance to view what we uncover during the next two weeks in an open day on Saturday 25th July, 10am to 4pm – and of course through more updates on this blog.
(1) McNeil R, 1987, Halton Castle: A Visual Treasure.
(2) Brennand M, with Chitty G & Nevell M, 2006, The Archaeology of North West England. An Archaeological Research Framework for North West England: Volume 1. Resource Assessment. Archaeology North West Volume 8, 140-143.