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Castles, crown and countryside.

ANDREW SAUNDERS. Excavations at Launceston Castle, Cornwall. (Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 24). xviii+490 pages, 344 b&w & colour illustrations. 2006. London: Maney; 978-1-904350-75-0 paperback 45 [pounds sterling].

DAVID AUSTIN. Acts of Perception. A Study of Barnard Castle in Teesdale, Volumes 1 & 2 (Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland Research Report 6). xxii+706 pages in 2 volumes, 243 illustrations, 116 tables. 2007. Durham: AASDN & English Heritage; 978-0-9510388-57 (Vol. 1); 978-0-9510388-50 (Vol. 2) paperback.


These two reports are very similar in their subject matter but differ considerably in their length and treatment. Both concern castles in state guardianship, subjected to clearance, excavation and structural conservation of substantial masonry. The excavations covered many seasons (Launceston 1961-83; Barnard Castle 1974-82) and equally, due to the complexity of their deposits, have taken many years to reach full publication. On both sites there was evidence of previous occupation beneath the Norman earthwork castle. The twelfth-century replacement in stone took different forms but both castles experienced a decline in use during the fourteenth century. Whilst in royal hands there was structural neglect, terminating in hasty upgrading at Barnard Castle before the revolt of the northern earls (1569) and in a far slighter modification at Launceston during the Civil War (1646). Both castles had continuing post-medieval use as courthouse and prison, and both experienced encroachment and substantial rubbish dumping from the adjacent town.

The differences are equally striking. Launceston is a straight-forward report developing logically in a familiar pattern with the most significant specialist contributions emphasised and it concludes with a succinct 9-page synthesis which also highlights some problems of interpretation. Barnard Castle has suffered from the hiatus between the report's completion in 1999 and its eventual publication. It also contains far more philosophical discussion from the main author about the nature of evidence and the appropriate weight to be given to the different aspects of the report. This provides a more stimulating and challenging debate. Whether it offers any greater reliability than the Launceston report is a matter of opinion.


Launceston (or Dunheved) was the principal castle of medieval Cornwall, close to the chief bridging point on the Tamar. The topography, geology and general tenurial history are clearly stated, and the development of the earldom (later duchy) of Cornwall is recounted. The documentary evidence is thorough and highlights the role of earl Richard (1227-72) and his son Edmund (1272-1300). The castle surveys of 1337, 1584, 1650 and 1786 are quoted in full and provide the basis for interpreting the surviving structures and those discovered through excavation. There is some unavoidable overlap between the discussion of the conserved fabric and the description of soils within and around the visible structures. For the excavation of the motte and bailey Saunders emphasises that little work was done on the motte apart from stonework repair; only the southwest quarter of the bailey was examined in detail with trenches elsewhere seeking to answer specific queries. The use of the interior for a small prison and then, more destructively, for a World War II hospital had damaged major areas. The redistribution of soils in nineteenth-century landscaping had caused further disturbance. So the report relies on a restricted excavation which was extremely valuable in the structures it revealed and in the associated material that it recovered.

The site interpretation is based on twelve periods of occupation, guided by known historical episodes but not shackled to them. The stratigraphic sequences are clearly argued and well illustrated by plan and photograph. Only the colour photographs of 1984 have reproduced poorly. After the archaeological detail has been given, the structural features of halls, chambers, lodgings, kitchens and defences are discussed with appropriate parallels. The negative features of wells and pits are also discussed. Although among the bailey buildings no lodgings are specifically identified, some structures do seem to be the houses for those knights who performed castle guard duties in person. Likewise the 'tower' foundations at the rear of the bailey rampart are not entirely convincing in this role despite the parallel cited from Restormel. Another problematic area is the alteration to the shell keep on the motte by inserting a higher tower within it. What was the purpose of this dramatic alteration by earl Richard, who was crowned king of the Romans in 12577 Saunders tentatively suggests that this might be 'an illusion [sic] to an elaborate crown'. Yet if one wanted a symbolic and architectural echo of Rome, Castel San Angelo might be a more convincing model before that monument's expansion under pope Alexander VI. The author is on firmer ground when suggesting that this tower was an impressive viewing platform overlooking the town and the deer park with the inner drum tower as a withdrawing room or 'executive box'. A valuable summary rehearses the changes undertaken in each site phase, well supported by plans and enhanced by three reconstruction drawings by Terry Ball.

The finds are introduced by Mould and Vince, discussed by period and by purpose, which cuts across the usual divisions by material type. The 'huge collection of potter/' has benefited from the considerable body of research in Exeter and the southwest; most fabrics could be identified as already well-known wares. By contrast coinage was only found in 3 significant deposits. The medieval vessel glass included two high-status imports from Germany and Venice, indications of earl Richard's political and trade contacts. The faunal remains had already received an extended study from Albarella and Davis, so only an 8 page revisit is offered here to emphasise the main trends of diet and supply for animal, bird and fish. The post-medieval dumping of clay tobacco pipes and wig curlers is the main dating evidence for post-1600 site use. An overall synthesis skilfully draws all the threads together.

Barnard Castle

Barnard Castle stands in Teesdale on a river cliff above a Roman road-crossing point. It lies on the north-south boundary between the bishop of Durham's county and Richmondshire; it is also on the east-west boundary between the lower lying arable and the bleak moorlands of the upper dale. Austin dismisses the strategic importance of a river crossing as 'sloppy thinking'; he substitutes for military purpose the mental landscape of political and cultural messages. He therefore emphasises as 'a fundamental belief that our understanding of the castle can only come from examining it in the context of its landscape with all its cultural and natural complexity.' In a strongly autobiographical opening chapter he explores 'the strange world of castellology' from which he feels excluded and describes 'the weird social performance of excavation' in the 1970s and 80s. He regards the state's presentation of guardianship castles as fulfilling an 'empiricist political science begun in the Whig' supremacy. There is also a long excursus on the meaning of documents.

The discussion of lordship and of estate holdings ranges widely over economic and agrarian history in north-east England and sometimes far more distant places among the Balliol lands in Scotland and Picardy. The 1538 survey made for Henry VIII is perceptively employed as the basis for an examination of the surviving castle masonry, with early modern descriptions, plans and illustrations used as supporting evidence (but no modern plan). The political history provides the ten broad periods of construction, occupation, decay and destruction, which are then examined in detail within the excavation process. This account is supported by excellent photographs and section drawings and generally reliable plans. However there is a major gap in the initial linkage of text to plan: the courtyards or wards within the castle are first mentioned within the opening 10 pages bur the first plan that names all four wards does not occur until p. 214. The effigy at Chester-le-Street, which it is claimed has been brought from the ruined chapel in the Outer Ward at Barnard Castle, does not really correspond in detail with the antiquarian drawings either in dress or heraldry.

The four chapters which discuss the finds are each prefaced by lengthy introductions concerning the inherent nature of the data and the methods of interrogating the material evidence, though the briefer approach to ecofacts is disarmingly excused as having 'an air of anecdote about it'. Nevertheless the faunal reports give a valuable comparison with Launceston. The chapter on domestic crafts tries to extract meaning or message from the assemblage, whilst the pottery chapter emphasises how limited was the range of pottery brought to the site, being heavily reliant upon previously unrecognised local manufacture. A detailed study of 74 vessels tracing their occurrence across the site provides a thoughtful critique of the methods used by Moorhouse at Sandal.

The final chapter on 'castle meaning' attempts to provide a long narrative of purposeful culture and social life within and beyond the walled courtyards. For Austin the castle is not just a building or an example of typology but a dynamic product of social forces continually interacting and changing through eight centuries. However after the castle's abandonment in 1630 that dynamism was considerably reduced. Furthermore the many references to persons and places throughout the volumes would have been helped by an index (as in the Launceston report). The author's 'Acts of Perception' range widely over the landscape of Teesdale and show that Bernard de Balliol's castle was not a single confined act of foundation but part of a fluid multi-layered narrative.

Lawrence Butler, Swaffham Bulbeck, Cambridge, UK
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Title Annotation:Excavations at Launceston Castle, Cornwall; Acts of Perception. A Study of Barnard Castle in Teesdale
Author:Butler, Lawrence
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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