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Castle Dig - Could Timbers be The Tower of Shrewsbury?
23 Jul 2022

Pictured: Archaeologists taking part in the motte dig at Shrewsbury Castle have uncovered traces of mysterious timber buildings. 

Archaeologists excavating the top of the motte at Shrewsbury Castle have found possible traces of medieval buildings. 

The team had hoped to find exactly that when they lifted the cobbles and opened three trenches next to Laura’s Tower, the decorative summer house which stands on top of the foundations of the old Tower of Shrewsbury.

THe team digs beneath the cobbles

The archaeologists hard at work on the top of the motte at Shrewsbury Castle, with Laura's Tower beyond

The 30-40ft high medieval timber watchtower is known to have collapsed in 1269-71, probably as a result of landslips on the side of the motte into the river below. It would have stood on top of the earthwork Norman Castle built by William the Conqueror and Roger of Montgomery before 1069, allowing the castle garrison to spot any hostile activity in the old Saxon town centre or surrounding countryside. 

Local archaeologists and students from the University of Shrewsbury (the University of Chester) have been excavating to find out if any traces of the foundations of the tower or medieval buildings constructed atop the motte, survive below the modern cobbles.

Shrewsbury Castle was remodelled by Thomas Telford in the years 1786-1790 and it was feared he may have destroyed the buried archaeology in his extensive landscaping, to create a fine home for his client Sir William Pulteney MP. (If you look over the wall to the left of Laura's Tower, you can still see the rounded base of a much larger mural tower beneath).

The team had been hoping to find negative features marking the perimeter of the Norman watchtower (earth cut slots and post holes). 

Trench with timber deposits

Evidence of timbers has been revealed - which could be the support beams of medieval buildings

Led by lead archaeologists Dr Nigel Baker, Dr Morn Capper of University Centre Shrewsbury, part of the University of Cheste University Centre Shrewsbury and David (Dai) Williams, the team has uncovered what is believed to be the motte top - beneath the cobbles and landscaping - and that within that, they are finding traces of old timber support beams, which could date back to the 12th century. 

Medieval pottery found on the motte

Medieval pottery is now turning up in the trenches on top of the motte

Dr Baker said: "Thomas Telford did a serious amount of damage up there - he demolished ruined buildings - but he didn't scrape away the medieval timber buildings completely - we're seeing traces of them cut into the clay, which could even be William the Conqueror's original buildings on top of the motte.

"We're also finding the first bits of pottery from the medieval period." 

Nigel explained that the top of the motte would have had a stone wall around its edge with stone and timber buildings inside, with the great timber tower rising out of the middle.

To access it, there would have been a stone bridge crossing the ditch around the base of the motte, climbing up to some kind of gatehouse in the motte top wall (similar to Launceston Castle in Cornwall, but with a wooden tower.

"So we have the post-holes and beam-slots for timber buildings probably over several centuries," Nigel added.

"But with another day's digging (tomorrow, the last) I think there could be some surprises as we get to the bottom of things..." 

Postern Gate Shrewsbury Castle

The postern gate at Shrewsbury Castle - through this, and to the left, is the trench outside the curtain wall

In addition to the three trenches open on top of the motte, the team has also opened another one just outside the curtain wall of the castle, beyond the postern gate, to search for traces of a 'mysterious bastion' or bulwark structure projecting outward from the curtain wall of the fortification. It can clearly be seen on John Rocque's 1746 map of Shrewsbury and was possibly a Civil War feature.

Nigel Baker and Morn Capper

Dr Nigel Baker and Dr Morn Capper, of University Centre Shrewsbury, leading the dig at Shrewsbury Caste, funded by The Castle Studies Trust

So far, however, the trench has yielded no further remains of this structure; however, the excavation has confirmed the foundation of the curtain wall and exposed the possible edge of decorative garden beds outside the castle walls. Dr Capper also noted some interesting Victorian and later finds from the castle's life as a home - glass, iron hinges and latches and glazed pottery from the house, and the clay pipes which, she says, may have belonged to local workers, from before the Shrewsbury Horticultural Society bought the castle and gave it to the town in 1926. 

Dr Capper said: "The Castle had never been excavated before our research began in 2019, Telford's garden is an important greenspace in the town and wonderful that together the student volunteers and the community of Shrewsbury have been able to rediscover the castle's history with us!"

The mysterious bastion

The mysterious bastion can clearly be seen projecting from the curtain wall, to the right of the postern gate - but is not there today!

The dig is the third in a series of excavations funded by The Castle Studies Trust to gain a better understanding of the castle site and layout - and to engage the public in the process. The students and archaeologists are very generous with their time, explaining the history and findings to visitors. 

Shrewsbury Castle is one of the best-preserved Conquest period shire-town earthwork castles in England. But is is also one of the least well-known and prior to Dr Baker's excavations, no digs had previously taken place within the perimeter of the inner bailey.

Dr Capper added: "The castle is first described as a 'royal stronghold' by the monk Orderic Vitalis, who must have seen it himself, being a local child - he described how the Marches rebellion led by Eadric the Wild against William the Conqueror in 1069 failed to overcome its Norman garrison."

The castle is described in the Domesday Survey as having been built at the expense of demolishing 51 households. It remained in royal hands (largely) until the 16th century. In 1138, in the course of the civil war, the castle was held for Matilda against King Stephen by William Fitz Alan, the county sheriff. It was successfully stormed by Stephen's forces after a four-week siege and many of the castle garrison were hanged.

The existing Great Hall at Shrewsbury Castle

The imposing great hall at Shrewsbury Castle, built c1300 by Edward I, although an original motte and bailey castle was constructed here in the 11th century. The castle was altered and added to in the Civil War and in 1780-90, Thomas Telford carried out extensive alterations and restoration work. 

The castle was surrendered to the crown at the Restoration and in the 1660s, was granted to Sir Francis Newport to begin a new life as a private residence. Today, it houses the collections of the Shropshire Regimental Museum Trust.

Shrewsbury Castle & the Soldiers of Shropshire Museum are open Monday to Wednesday & Friday to Saturday from 10.30am – 5pm and on Sundays from 10.30am – 4pm. The Castle and its grounds are closed on Thursdays.

The archaeologists welcome members of the public to visit the excavation in progress - but are due to close their trenches early on Thursday, July 28. 

The Castle Studies Trust is a UK based charity founded in July 2012 with the aim of increasing knowledge of castles in the UK and abroad. It is entirely funded by the public and will award grants of up to £10,000.

Follow the excavation daily with student research blogs live throughout the excavations HERE

A student-led Shrewsbury Castle popup exhibition tells the story of Shrewsbury castle and the dig in Shrewsbury Museum throughout the summer holidays. 

Pictured below: Looking over the wall at Laura's Tower to see the much larger foundations beneath - believed to be the base of a great medieval watchtower. Picture 2: Archaeologists peer into the trench where remains of timbers have been found - possibly the support beams of medieval buildings.

Looking at the foundations of the Norman watchtower at Shrewsbury Castle
Pointing to medieval timber remains on top of Shrewsbury Castle motte