Overlooking the remains of a Victorian greenhouse recently excavated at Shrewsbury Castle. CREDIT: Nigel Baker

Archaeological investigations at Shrewsbury Castle have provided surprising insights into the make-up of some of its defences.

The castle was founded by the Normans and reworked in the 13th century, and the imposing ramparts, crowned with curtain walls, that surround its inner bailey give every impression of being medieval earthworks that had subsequently been enhanced with stone. A recent Castle Studies Trust-funded excavation, directed by Dr Nigel Baker and Dai Williams (and supported by University Centre Shrewsbury under Professor Tim Jenkins and Dr Morn Capper), has revealed a more complex picture, however.

‘Shrewsbury Castle has often been described – including by me – as one of the best preserved motte-and-bailey castles in the Welsh Marches,’ Nigel told CA when we visited the site. ‘This is still true, but it has become clear that what we can see isn’t all medieval.’

Excavation of the western rampart revealed that at least half of its visible height is post-medieval in date. It is thought that a major contribution to its construction may have been Thomas Telford’s restoration of the castle in 1786-1790, during which he also levelled the bailey’s interior (see CA 355 for more on last year’s excavation within this space).

‘It’s like a really bad cake, where someone has scooped out the interior and piled it around the edge,’ Nigel said. ‘If a rampart was here in the medieval period, we haven’t yet come down on top of it.’

The project has revealed even more recent remains, too: the footings of a 19th-century greenhouse, which was cut into the rampart slope and is shown on Ordnance Survey maps of the 1880s. The Victorian structure’s steps and the line of its side wall could be clearly seen in the trench, as could part of the front wall, including a gap to accommodate the hot-water pipe that would have heated the space. The greenhouse itself still stands today – in around 1900, it was relocated to the garden of a private home in Shrewsbury town centre.

The most significant find, however, was layers of medieval landfill at a level at which the team had expected to be hitting the natural gravel hilltop, as seen in their 2019 trench. ‘It’s now clear that the pre-13th-century castle was smaller than the present castle, and that there was a major episode of expansion outwards, over the western slope of the hill, when the present curtain walls were built,’ said Nigel.

For more information about the project, see http://castlestudiestrust.org/blog/2020/09/29/shrewsbury-castle-more-than-meets-the-eye/.


This news article appears in issue 369 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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