Penwortham Castle

One of the Earliest Castles in Lancashire

The remains of a castle at Penwortham now survive only as a large conical mound, 25 feet (7.6m) across the summit, to the north of the parish church, which may once have stood in its bailey. It stands at the end of a promontory of land, in a commanding position on the south bank of the River Ribble. The castle is very unusual as it is mentioned in Domesday Book in 1086, being then owned by Roger de Poitou. Little is known about it, though, although the castle appears still to have been in use in 1232, but no records of it appear after that date.

In 1856 a trench, 50 x 12 feet (15.2 x 3.6m), and 11 feet (3.3m) deep, was dug on the north-east side of the mound as far as the centre. A ‘boulder pavement’, the remains of an earlier surface, was discovered at the bottom of the trench, covered with a 2 feet 6 inch-thick (0.75m) layer of decayed rushes and grasses, mixed with animal bones and other finds, presumed by the excavators to have been occupation debris. Upon this pavement was said to be broken timbers and wattling, including oak posts, one 5 feet-long (1.5m) example having been bored for the insertion of 'pegs', and this was still upstanding. These remains were interpreted as a circular 'habitation' divided into several chambers.

Above the floor, alternate layers of sand and clay had been built up to a level 7 feet (2.1m) below the present ground surface, where another 'rough pavement' had been constructed, though this had little occupation debris upon it. Piled upon this floor was a mass of mixed sand and clay, creating the top of the mott

Whether the earliest material excavated was the remains of the castle mentioned in 1086, or perhaps even that of an earlier structure, is difficult to determine. In amongst the occupation debris were several finds, most notably a prick spur, which suggests that these remains do date from the tenth to twelfth centuries, though just how old the castle is, and what the exact sequence of building was, remains tantalisingly elusive.

The castle at Penwortham is of a type known as a motte and bailey. These fortifications were common in Britain immediately after the Norman Conquest of 1066, when many were built throughout the country, the earliest examples, like Penwortham, mostly being built of earth and timber. A motte and bailey castle had two principal elements; the bailey was a defended yard with a wall around it, which formed the living and working space on a day-to-day basis, and could include a hall, kitchens, stables, workshops, a chapel, and sleeping accommodation. On occasion, there could be more than one bailey, as may have been the case at Penwortham. Adjacent to the bailey, and often connected by a causeway or bridge, was the motte, a large defensible mound, almost always man-made, but often exploiting the natural terrain, with a tower built on top. The motte was the part used as a refuge during an attack upon the site, and often commanded a good view of the surrounding countryside. From the mid-twelfth century onward, these sites were either rebuilt, mostly in stone, or abandoned.

Schematic plan of a motte and bailey castle, showing a typical layout of the main features of this kind of settlement.

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A view of Penwortham motte from the north-west, showing its commanding aspect across the flatlands close to the river.

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