Project

Castle Slighting in the Middle Ages

Goal: An examination of the archaeological record relating to the deliberate destruction of castles in the Middle Ages

Methods: Archaeology, Medieval Archaeology, Medieval Studies, Military Architecture, Medieval History, Middle Ages, Military History, Medieval Architecture

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Richard Nevell
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Sharing information about slighting is an ongoing task. After finishing my thesis, summarising the key findings in an article for The Archaeological Journal was the next logical step. Once that was published in May 2019, I started thinking about encyclopedias. Getting slighting covered in them seemed like an important stage. It's a topic that isn't on many people's radars, even within the field of castle studies. I wanted to take two approaches: a summary in Wikipedia and an entry in the Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology.
Updating the Wikipedia page seemed obvious to me. I've been editing Wikipedia in my free time for years, and professionally I advocate for its use by researchers so I should put that into action when I can. On top of that, Wikipedia's entry on slighting is read more than 3,000 times a month. In fact, after expanding the page in June 2019 the number of people reading the page increased by more than a third https://pageviews.toolforge.org/?project=en.wikipedia.org&platform=all-access&agent=user&redirects=0&start=2015-07&end=2020-11&pages=Slighting
Next, I started planning a piece for The Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology. The general intention was similar - making information on slighting easier to find for an interested audience - with a different format. It was a longer piece, and as well as outlining the key characteristics of slighting it discussed the historiography of slighting and some possible future directions and relevance for fields beyond castle studies. Luckily, the bulk of it was written in January before 2020 soaked up any spare mental capacity.
After writing a few summary pieces of various types, I've plan to prepare a few case studies of individual sties and see where that leads.
If you have access you can read the entry in The Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology here:
Chapter Slighting
If you don't have access, the Wikipedia is a good, briefer summary: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slighting
 
Richard Nevell
added a research item
Richard Nevell
added a research item
The use of destruction in the past, its purpose and function, is poorly understood and an under-studied area. With hundreds of excavations at castles, there is a body of archaeological evidence that can be synthesised into a study of destruction. Slighting is the damage of a high-status structure, its associated landscape and contents to degrade its value. This article aims to bring the study of destruction into the established discourse of castles and medieval archaeology. It does this by establishing a methodological framework for understanding slighting and examines its application at key sites. In doing so, a chronology and geography of slighting is produced, along with a rich understanding of how and why castles were destroyed in the medieval period. Case studies of Weston Turville (Buckinghamshire) and Degannwy (Caernarfonshire) are used to explore how the archaeological and historical records interact and can be used to corroborate each other. By examining the archaeology of destruction, a new interpretation of slighting has been advanced, understanding it as an activity rich in social meaning with implications beyond the study of castles and the medieval period.
Richard Nevell
added an update
It's absolutely vital for researchers to share their work, with the public as well as their peers. For castles there are some widely held misconceptions which will perhaps never go away but need challenging on a regular basis. To name three (the list could go on):
  • Castles could only be built with permission from the king
  • Spiral staircases were anti-clockwise to hinder right-handed swordsmen
  • Murder holes were for pouring boiling oil
While slighting has its own tropes which need to be overcome, it gets far less attention so such ideas should be easier to overcome.
As one small step I've started a series of blog posts discussing various aspects of slighting https://richardthecastellan.wordpress.com/category/slighting/
(Photo of Bothwell Castle by Robert Brown)
 
Richard Nevell
added an update
On Friday I had my viva and passed with minor corrections. The University of Exeter has some good resources available to help you prepare for the process. As someone who isn’t able to visit often because of work commitments, the webinar on preparing for your viva was especially helpful in demystifying the process and setting my expectations. In the end I had a very interesting and frankly enjoyable conversation about my work and the decisions which led me there.
While the archaeology of castle slighting has fascinated me for six years now (well, seven if my MA year is included) one of the most interesting aspects is how it resonates with other periods. Castle slighting has a very particular use in the Middle Ages, but interpreting slighting more broadly it is evident in other periods from the Romans to the present day.
After I submit my corrections, next on my agenda is getting the results published and contributing to the wider discourse around the archaeology of destruction. Hopefully by putting this in front of a wide audience rather, castle studies can reinforce its relevance to archaeology.
 
Richard Nevell
added an update
Now to wait for the viva.
 
Richard Nevell
added an update
The end is within site for the thesis. I have an 85,000-word draft and feedback from my supervisor on which bits need some fine tuning before submitting. The aim is to do so in September.
Though this study has primarily been about castles and their landscapes, there are clear implications for studies of destruction in other periods. Roman history has some particularly notable examples of destruction used to control other and assert power, not least the destruction of Carthage. The most fruitful parallel within the UK at least may be the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Certainly there seems more to be done with the archaeology of destruction.
 
Richard Nevell
added an update
During the course of my thesis, I have found archaeological evidence for slighting at 60 sites. In most cases, the evidence has been uncovered by excavation. Quite simply they provide the best diagnostic evidence. A motte may be truncated, a ditch filled in, or a hole punched through a rampart, but often at what point this happened in the castle's biography cannot be dated without excavation. Establishing the chronology is integral to understanding whether the mutilation of earthworks occurred in the medieval period or may be the result of weathering, animal activity, or agriculture.
Sometimes the earthworks alone give a good enough indication of slighting. One such case is Groby (Leicestershire) where the motte has an unusual kidney shape. In the UK, mottes typically survive as circular or sub-circular earthworks so Groby's stark deviation indicates something has taken place to modify the mound. The castle was owned by the earl of Leicester and in 1174, Henry II ordered the slighting of the castle. The coincidence of the damaged earthworks and the order indicates that this is evidence of slighting.
Photo by Ashley Dace, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0.
 
Richard Nevell
added an update
In the past few decades castle studies in the UK has undergone a revolution in interpretation. Structures were previously understood to be primarily military, but this has progressed to incorporate social and political approaches.
Castle slighting is a neglected area of castle studies, so while the discipline as a whole has progress the understanding of slighting typically still revolves around the military interpretation. My approach in my thesis is to bring together all the archaeological information available on castle slighting to establish chronological and geographical trends to question previous assumptions. What has stood out is that in most cases social reasons are as important - if not more so - than military determinism.
Usually slighting was carried out by the powerful social elite against those who had crossed them. Eynsford Castle (pictured) is a rare example of a local populace slighting a castle, incited as part of a local feud.
 
Richard Nevell
added an update
Brandon Castle (today just earthworks visible) once had a great tower. Excavations in 1947 found that the keep's interior had been burnt, possibly coinciding with a reference in the Leger Book of Stoneley Abbey which says that in 1266 the castle was destroyed.
Photo by David Stowell, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0
 
Richard Nevell
added an update
One of the key challenges in identifying slighting is that the methods used to slight a castle were the same used while attacking it. For example, mining or undermining was used in siege warfare to bring down outer walls. But you could use the same approach to demolish a castle. This can be seen at Bungay Castle (Suffolk) where excavations in the 1930s identified an unfinished mine gallery underneath the great tower. Documentary sources show that the King had ordered its destruction, but it was evidently reprieved at a late stage.
Photo of Bungay Castle by Martin Pettitt, licensed CC-BY 2.0
 
Richard Nevell
added 4 project references
Richard Nevell
added an update
One of the striking things about castle slighting is how fire was used. It wasn't restricted to timber buildings, but stone structures also carry evidence of fire damage. In some cases, the evidence consists of a thick charcoal layer within a stone tower, but in some cases the stone is still scorched. An example of that (though not a slighting context) can be seen at Rochester Castle, where a fire inside the keep turned part of the stonework pink.
 
Richard Nevell
added an update
In September I officially began the 5th year of my PhD. Most of the evidence I discuss consists of rubble spreads, or ditch fills indicating destruction. One of the highlights has been the discussion of a stone head of Llywelyn the Great discovered in the destruction contexts at Degannwy Castle. Degannwy is one of the most extreme cases of castle slighting in England, Wales, and Scotland, with almost the entire sites reduced to rubble. You can see the head for yourself on the People's Collection Wales: https://www.peoplescollection.wales/items/24623
 
Richard Nevell
added an update
Preliminary map of slighting in the Middle Ages (based on archaeological data)
 
Richard Nevell
added a project goal
An examination of the archaeological record relating to the deliberate destruction of castles in the Middle Ages