Category Archives: Castles of England

Into the lands of Mortimer at Wigmore


Image of Wigmore castle.

Looking up towards the shattered towers of Wigmore castle in the county of Hereford

When this land was once separate from all those in Wales,

And that dyke built by Offa to demark the fields,

Some semblance of peace came for a short while

As princes and kings came to enjoy the calm.

But peace did not reign long in these border pastures

So there were the Marches which men made their own

To keep for the king lest they came to be captured

And curtail the powers of great English lords.

So was the case of the men they called Mortimer

Who with warlike power did marshal these lands;

With great iron grip and gritty resolve

They conquered with castles which they came to build.

And here we are now at the one they called Wigmore;

A bastion of boulders brazen above

The small town below which cowers beneath it.

A short climb through brambles to crumbling walls

Rewards now the traveller with towering turrets:

A shell keep, some baileys and stretching views

Over fields and lands and with wildlife free roaming

Which in the past were not safe to walk through.

But for all of their powers that Mortimer family

Came in the end to fall far from grace:

Killers of Edward and crowning a kingdom

They were by his son deposed of their powers.

That first Earl of March grew far too big

and grand.

Roger was disliked

He overplayed his hand;

At Tyburn was he spiked;

And the king then took command.


Wigmore castle in the county of Hereford is a castle of the marcher lords. These lords, in managing difficult border lands, possessed many unique privileges which enabled them to govern almost as semi-independent lords with distinct powers to fight, hold court and to collect certain taxes. The castle dates back to the 11th Century although much of what survives today dates from the early 13th Century and later. Much of the current building reflects the work of Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March (1287–1330), although some of the masonry is later. 

Roger Mortimer became de facto ruler of all England after he and Isabella, the estranged queen of Edward II arranged for the king’s deposition and murder in 1327. Despite enjoying some influence at the beginning of the reign of Edward III, the king had him arrested in 1330 and executed for treason.  Wigmore was returned to the Mortimers in the later 14th century, although its heyday was by then over. Roger’s heir,  also called Roger  (1328–60), went on to become a founder member of the Knights of the Garter. 

The castle today is managed by English Heritage. When I first visited the place in the 1980s it was overgrown with brambles and almost inaccessible. Today, while some of this wildness has been preserved, the visitor is able to walk around by way of demarked pathways which did not exist until the 1990s.

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At the home of the joggled lintel: Conisborough Castle revisited


Conisborough Castle - Joggled lintel above the main door

What is it about travelling, reader, that makes of the mind to float like the Orford Merman, lost among the brown and briney waves? In my quest to find the quoins of the door to my escape I query at times why ceaseless disappointment never dissuades me from my search. Each castle I find, casts new barbs at my calm: each church and chancel disturbs me as I try to chart my true way home. And here, so, I am brought to Conisborough where once I dined on coney meat and now just the carping of the pigeons serves to capture past times…

Lurk long in the land of Yorkshire and soon you come to Conisborough. It’s keep is like a beacon brightly burning above the hillside and yet… When last I lingered here such sport was to be found in several parks that a lord could stay all year and never tire of the hunting. Not now though, for all around are dwellings and dowdy views I dare not describe in depth for fear of offence.

But let me tell you how it once was to me as in the household of the de Warennes I did discover the delights of that great place. Ascent to the great bailey was by a barbican tall and bold: a narrow defile among high walls, a death-trap for the dim-witted. And those high walls were bright as snowberries being built of York stone to shine for miles, lighting the way for the weary traveller…

Inside, I will take you, the inner ward wakens the soul, awash with sounds of the denizens within. In the bailey the kitchen staff cook in cauldrons round while stablemen stoutly stand to groom the lord’s horses. And here you too could wait while through the long day the wallowing shadow of the Donjon turns round the realm like a rouncey on slow parade.

Ghosts all now, of course, those gentlemen and guards have gone the way of history. But let us not leave here, alighting instead the steps to the stone sentinel, this great keep, one of the most remarkable in the kingdom. These stairs are new, I perceive, pitched differently to the practice when I last walked here but nevertheless, and notwithstanding, they nudge you upwards to the great door.

In standing there, before entering, eye if you will the excellent masonry: a joggled lintel jiggling jauntily above your head – moving but static; moving and ecstatic. These stones stir the soul, perched perilously in position as they have done these last seven centuries since. And thence inside, an empty chamber now but one which once chanced to cheer you as the Lord John de Warenne chuckled with his friends a welcome. At least that was so when I last saddled up this way in a distant summer in 1340…

This astounding stone stump is as complex as it is comforting. Buttressed all about by bold bastions six, it dazzles the dozy dreamer, being visible for miles.You are impressed at first sight, your innocent imagination imbued with visions of the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry: the castle as culture, a carapace of kings. But back inside to be becalmed by the beauty of it: that welcoming chamber again makes you ghasp with its gawping fireplace with joggled lintels more.

Then, fellow traveller, ascend to the Lord’s room above to listen as I once did to his lilting voice. His private chamber charms you with its chapel, a wash-basin to water as you will, and views over hunting hills and high banks. That chapel is indeed cheering with its fine vaulting, piscina and cupboard for the chalice. This small room is where our Mighty Lord, He that lives above us, loiters in your spirit, glowing like a spark above dark waters…

And then you climb further, by invitation, inclining inside the walls as the steps lead you to the light, like a lamp at the end of a tunnel. Athwart that tower take time to be entranced by vistas vast and velvety if, by chance, you can imagine what was once to be seen beyond what’s there now… Yet there is one more treat for the traveller of turrets bold: a pigeon coop fashioned in a buttress for the private predeliction of the Lord Warenne, now long gone

It is said that mighty kings earn wealth by grace

and keep it with a hand of stone.

But I know too that here’s the case:

Such work cannot be done alone.

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Rochester Castle upon the Medway


Rochester Keep from the North East

The great keep at Rochester - the south-east tower has been repaired since the siege of 1215 removed it.

Travelling south along Watling Street from London towards Canterbury, the seasoned pilgrim cannot avoid the mighty castle at Rochester and nor should he (or she) for this indeed is a castle worthy of the name. Dominated by its keep, tall and proud – I believe the tallest in the kingdom at 117 feet – Rochester is a place to rest and savour the passage of the years and marvel at the ingenuity of earlier times.

And what the years have done to this place! Of course, it is many centuries since last I rode this way in 1216, but looking upon the keep now it is different to how it was when I last saw it – with one of its corners blasted away following a siege by king John.

Oh how sad it looked then! In October and November of the previous year, King John had ordered a mine to be dug under the south east corner of the castle and the building propped on wooden stilts. I was told by a vassal that it took the fat of forty pigs to burn away the props and down the tower tumbled.  

Today of course, it is still a ruin but at least a complete ruin – and one of the most remarkable keeps in all England. That corner of the keep was subsequently rebuilt in the rounded style of a later day and, although it differs but slightly from the original keep erected by William de Corbeil in 1127, the tower stands tall across the land.

Let us go inside for but a few minutes. Ascending the stairway of the forebuilding – now alas without its drawbridge at the top – entry through the old great door reveals the skeleton of what was once a busy and substantial place.

How I remember the grand hall – now only hinted at by the decorated arches high above – and the gallery where lords and ladies gathered for private conversations and where musicians once played! Now bereft of Tharsian tapestry and sendal shifts, the walls are cold but not without power to conjure thoughts of days gone by.

And of course, to my mind one of the most impressive features of that fine palace: the well shaft which ascended a central pillar to bring water to every floor. In all my travels I have not seen such a marvel; I recall how when this tower had floors, the lord’s children used to shout to each other down the shaft and how, if they were unlucky, one of them would receive a bucket of water thrown down on him from above!

Yet all is quiet now. The tower is but an empty shell; its stories, sounds, smells and sentiments there only to dress the mind of an imaginative soul. In the bailey – once vibrant and alive with horses, cooking, tradespeople and castle servants – is but a public park. Even the stone bridge which carried the road across the Medway has long since ceased to echo to the rattling of carts and the shouts of the watchman – being demolished, so I am told, in 1857 and replaced by the current, yet still impressive, iron structure.

Archbishop Stephen Langton – the man who held the place in 1215 and was described by King John as that “notorious and barefaced traitor” – might well have regretted his decision when he “failed to render up our castle of Rochester to us in our so great need”. Yet history shapes all things and architecture – like the English landscape – bears the scars of happenstance in silent obedience to the events of time.

Though kings and traitors,  lords and ladies, vassals and serfs have gone away, Rochester still points to skies and stands with pride upon the river bank. The guardian of the Medway, valiant through the centuries.

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Castle Rising – my favourite keep in Olde England


Caslte Rising Norfolk

Castle Rising in the County of Norfolk - surely the finest keep in all the land? (Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

In the many years I have spent traversing this kingdom of Logres, from Camelot in the west to the depths of Staffordshire, I have always been impressed by accommodation offered to me. Whether hall house or manor, whether some lowly stable or some vast tower, I have seen them all. Yet few places stand out so much as the keeps and donjons in which it has been my pleasure to lie.

Now, of course, you will know well of my stays with lord and lady Bertilak and my meeting with the Green Knight up near the Staffordshire Roaches. And, of course, for reasons of my shame, I cannot say that my stay in their castle brings me great joy – save to say that it challenged my purity and my arrogance and is therefore worthy of remark. The best place for that castle is in my memory, befogged and dim of view – but there are others, dear reader and here I share my favourite with you, Castle Rising near King’s Lynn in the County of Norfolk, England.

To my mind, there are several great houses and all of them worthy of note: The Tower of London or Windsor, both great Royal keeps; Conisborough, surely the greatest circular keep in the land; Rochester, one of the tallest; Warkworth, one of the most striking; Peveril, one of the most dramatic; Orford, one of the most ingenious; Dover, one of the most impregnable; and Middleham, one of the most solid. Yet, for me, Rising outshines them all.

Rising is a veritable palace, a fine Norman keep of c.1140 set among rolling sandlings and built within great earthworks and – indeed – dwarfed by them. From the outside, it is difficult to gauge the sheer scale of the place; from the village, the tower is scarcely visible. But press on into the bailey and thence to the inner bailey and surely one of the finest keeps in all Albion awaits.

The keep at Rising is a statement of grandeur: a home above all others and the home in my day to William of Albini, the second of his line. The keep is approached up a flight of stairs all within a forebuilding which I would describe as probably the most magnificent in all the land: exquisite arcading, ornate craftsmanship and execution of the highest quality. To enter this building is to be impressed from the moment you walk through the door.

And now, once atop the stairs within a vaulted vestibule, turn left and enter the main building itself – sadly now without its floors but in my mind I recall well the feasts of pork, ox, venison and mutton we ate there with great joy. Oh what majesty! A lofty hall, well equipped with its own private kitchen and – unique possibly – garderobes split between lords and ladies. William respected the privacy of all his guests and built for that accordingly.

But there is more. In my day, few could enter the lord’s private rooms but today you can see within theme clearly. The private garderobe, an ante-chamber, a private staircase and also the keep’s own exquisite chapel. This is a building which clutches you and warms your spirit. It was – and is – a statement of power in the landscape, and quite rightly so.

Lord William was a powerful man, with other possessions (now sadly much depleted) at New and Old Buckenham – including, at the former, a most unusual planned town with a vast motte at one end surmounted by the stump of a round donjon in the continental style. When he built his castles he built them within earthworks so vast – especially in the huge flatness of East Anglia – that they brooded on the land, surveying his territories and visible for miles.

He was nothing if not adventurous in his experimentation in building but he was also a fine huntsman and sportsman which is why, for me, Rising is so special. What is not clear to today’s visitor but which for me kindles the magic of the place, is the great Chase, or park all around it, encompassed by banks some 15 miles long. Rising was a statement within a planned landscape of feudal lordship: proud from without, proud from within.

Oh what pleasant days I had there riding with Sir William, talking about the joys of the hunt, of chivalry and of his beloved Norfolk lands! And so it is, dear reader, that I recommend this place to you if, on your travels, you venture east into Norfolk.

Little wonder that the duke of Norfolk himself in later years, writing a letter to the duke of Suffolk in 1538 took time to say that it was “written on a molehill in Rysyng Chase, 8 August, 11 o’clock”. It’s that sort of place – you’ll like it so much that you’ll want to tell your friends.

Note: until recently, Castle Rising was in the care of the State under the auspices of English Heritage. It is now managed by Lord Howard of Rising although I shall say that I have not been hunting with this gentleman. For information, visiting times and entry charges (not levied in my day but, then again, you had to know the owner personally), click this link to Castle Rising.

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