Cheshire Castles

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A modern flood-warning map from "riverlevels.uk". The area covered broadly equates to the area where the fisk of flooding in any year is greater than 1% (the "hundred year" flood risk). Note how the Norman castles occur at defendable crossing points. The flooding defines a natural border, as shown by the dashed red line, which is very close to the current England/Wales border.

The Normans built a line of defence from the Dee Estuary southwards to defend Cheshire from the Welsh. It ran roughly NW to SE and comprised at least nine castles starting with (1) Shotwick on the North side of the Dee, then (2) Chester Castle, (3) Dodleston, (4) Pulford, (5) Aldford, (6) Holt, (7) Shocklach, (8) Malpas and (9) Oldcastle. The River Dee is nowadays one of the most regulated rivers in Europe, it supplies more water for public supply than the whole of the English Lake District and two-thirds of the river's water is abstracted before the River Dee reaches the weir at Chester. The natural flow of the River Dee during most summers is insufficient to sustain this rate of abstraction, so a series of reservoirs have been constructed to store excess water available in wintertime and release it back into the River Dee during drier months. This system of low-flow regulation was first used by Thomas Telford at the beginning of the 19th Century in order to guarantee a supply of water to the Ellesmere Canal. Telford constructed sluices at the outlet of Bala Lake to control the flow of the Dee downstream so that there was always sufficient water to supply the Canal where it started at Horseshoe Falls. However regulation is not simple - flood peaks from Corwen take five and a half hours to reach the Cheshire plain at Erbistock, and it can take up to two days for low-flow regulation releases (or previously, floods) from Bala Lake to reach Chester weir. This delay in water reaching the Chester weir from relases at Bala can have consequences, as unpredictable peak tides can overflow the weir bringing saltwater into the freshwater Chester-Farndon reach, leading to freshwater fish kills in that part of the river.

Prior to regulation the Dee south of Chester flooded frequently. Floods also extended into tributaries such as Pulford Brook. These floods and persistent waterlogging would have been a major impediment to travel and the river therefore became the logical choice for the line of a border. The Norman castles were built on dry ground which generally lay on the English side of the border. Obviously, building a castle on land which could be cut-off from support and relief by flood-waters was not a very wise idea, and so the castles were mostly, but not exclusively, built near crossing points but on the "English" side. Some of the castles may even have been built on or near pre-Roman sites, where cross-river trade occurred or "taxes" could be collected.

The border county of Cheshire had a much lower density of castles than the neighbouring border counties of Shropshire and Herefordshire, which was possibly a deliberate policy on the part of the Earls of Chester to restrict castle-building among their own barons. The castle settlements of Hawarden, Mold, Marford/Hoseley, Wrexham (Erddig) and Overton, all situated to the west of the River Dee, were also within the bounds of Cheshire at the time of Domesday Book, but are not covered in this article.


Shotwick

In the poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is described: "..in þe wyldrenesse of wyrale wonde þer bot lyte þat auþer god oþer gome wyth goud hert louied" (in the wilderness of Wirral, dwelt there but few, who either God or others with good heart loved). This is a wilderness of salt-washed marsh, unpeopled, yet thousands of geese can smudge the mid-distance sky.

Shotwick Castle from an illustration by J Strutt.

Shotwick Castle originally stood on the east bank of the River Dee and was accessible to shipping as well as being in vicinity of a ford across the river. It is not known when people first began to settle at this spot, although it is likely that even in prehistoric times, the ford was part of a route followed by men going into North Wales in search of the flints they were unable to find in Cheshire, or traders coming the other way with the same, or later with bronze. Listed in Domesday as "Sotowiche" this is believed to be derived from three Old English elements: "sceot" (steep slope), "hoh" (promontory, spur of land) and "wic". Some historians believe that the ‘wick’ refers to the creek which afforded anchorage for small craft, and proves Viking penetration, whilst others argue that "the name derives from the small salt workings which were still there when Leland wrote his itinerary, in 1539, but have completely disappeared". The "saltworks" theory is extremely doubtful: Leyland writes:

  • "A myle lower [than Crabwall village] is Shottewik Castelle on the very shore longging to the King: and thereby ys a park .. Shottewike townelet is 3 quarters of a myle lower .. and 2 myle lower is a rode in Dee callid Salthouse, where again it shore is a salt house cotage."

This may only have been a place where salt was stored pending transport, not produced. Lack of industrial activity in the vicinity may be evidenced by the lack of darkening of local stone by smoke as compared with the sooty walls of the Cheshire salt-wiches. Another theory is that Shotwick was at the end of a "Saltersway" which connected the salt-producing areas of east Cheshire with the lowest ford over the Dee (see: Road Transport). In an enquiry of 1339 (cited in Hanshall 1817) into the boundaries of Hoole Heath, the old saltersway of Kingswood Lane Saughall is described in 1339-40 as:

  • "the king’s highway near Chester to lede the hooste of our Sovereign Lord the King in tyme of warre unto Shotwyk Ford".

The exact route of this "royal road" has not yet been determined. However it is possible to conjecture a route: a Salters Lane comes off The Street in Hoole due west of Mickle Trafford. This leads to Picton Gorse and if continues that line would lead to Acre's Lane, passing through Upton. At the end of Acres Lane is found the modern zoo, but older maps show the lane continuing to the head of "The Dale" near the Dale Camp. Even taking the alternative route through Upton one arrives (via Upton Hall) at a track leading down to the modern day canal. Once again the land has been much altered (by land-rasing and a golf course) but the track appears to have led to Mollington and from there down Fiddler's Lane and Lodge lane into Shotwick Park.

A castle was established at Shotwick around 1093 by Hugh of Avranches, the Norman Earl of Chester. This early fortification was a simple earth and timber motte-and-bailey structure, sited on top of a steep escarpment overlooking the river. Its defensive position is enhanced by two steep sided watercourses flanking it on the north and south sides, these would have been filled at high tide. The motte was also surrounded by a flooded ditch and, judging by the shape of the mound, may possibly have had a jetty on its western side.

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Due to its location on a communications artery into North Wales, Shotwick became a frontier fortress. On his Welsh campaigns of 1156 and 1165, Henry II used the adjacent Shotwick to Flint ford as his access into Wales. Accordingly, at some point during the twelfth or early thirteenth centuries, the castle was rebuilt in stone. A rectangular stone keep, sited on top of the motte, was probably the first structure rebuilt but this was followed by a substantial pentagon-shaped curtain wall that originally stood over 15 metres tall and was augmented by numerous towers. Shotwick is associated with the legend of the Lady Cave at Hilbre Island. Shotwick Park, being part of the estates of the earl of Chester, passed to the crown with the earldom in 1237, and in 1301 Edward I created his son, later to become Edward II, Earl of Chester. We find the Black Prince, son of Edward III, writing to the Chamberlain of Cheshire on June 26th, 1353:

  • "Make clean and prepare my houses of Shotwick where I intend to stay and have sport in the park".

By the fourteenth century its defensive requirements were superfluous and its grounds were enclosed into an extension of the deer park. The last recorded repairs were made to the castle in 1371 but the castle certainly remained in use for sometime after this as around the fifteenth century the surrounding grounds were remodelled as part of a formal garden scheme. The north western part of the site was formed into a series of water garden features and the bailey was sculpted into a formal garden with terraces and parterres. The moat may have been widened at the same time to make a further water feature for this garden scheme. It was this western side of the moat which used to be regarded as a quay and harbour for access to the castle from the estuary of the River Dee. Further survey work by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England has confirmed that the surroundings of the castle are indeed a garden. The stream valley on the north west of the site was considerably altered in the medieval period to form a water feature, including three pools with walkways created over a series of dams and on a spinal bank separating the water features from the moat along the north western edge of the site.

Shotwick was acquired by the Wilbraham family in 1627 but by this time the castle was ruinous and stonework was being robbed-out to support local building projects. Celia Fiennes crossed the Dee hereabouts at the ebb of the tide. The diversion of the River Dee in 1737 led to the site becoming land-locked and hastened its decline - within a few decades all masonry had been removed. One local development was Shotwick Park, one time home of Charles Trelawny Brereton. His son perhaps refers to the park and garden when he writes:

  • "He had experienced greater enjoyment in the accumulation of wealth than in the pleasures of social life ... The only symptom he ever showed of imagination was in castle building ... Ingots, money, lands, houses and tenements constituted his dream."

Ridge and furrow cultivation can be traced over all of the monument, including the bottom of the moat. This has obscured much of the detail of the earthworks. The castle site was purchased by Cheshire County Council in 1930. Some earthworks remain but now no stonework is visible above ground. Throughout the 18th Century the ford was in continual use, the last recorded crossing being in 1796.

Shotwick, like other Wirral villages, was noted for the archers, the longbow playing a vital role in medieval warfare. As late as 1541, in Henry VII's reign, an act was passed enforcing the construction and maintenance of butts for archery practice and an old tithe map of 1843 the fields just below the church are marked with The Butts. A further reminder of unsettled times can be seen in the porch of Shotwick's St Michael's Church. Here, in one of the sandstone walls, are grooves, probably dating from the 16th Century, where arrows were sharpened.

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Chester

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The second castle in the chain down the Dee is Chester Castle and the site could not be more different than Shotwick. The castle retains some few, much restored, medieval features, but is dominated by the structures of authority: the Courts and a range of Georgian military buildings by Thomas Harrison. What defensive structure remains is dominated by the 1786 battery wall and its gun platform with a broad field of fire towards the river, for again the castle defends a crossing point.

In 1651, Daniel King descibed the castle as follows:

  • "The castle is a place having priviledge of itself, and hath a Constable... At the first coming in is the Gate-house, which is a prison for the whole County, having divers rooms and lodgings. And hard within the Gate is a house, which was sometime the Exchequer but now the Custom House. Not far from thence in the Base Court is a deep well, and thereby stables, and other Houses of Office. On the left-hand is a chappell; and hard by adjoyning thereunto, the goodly fair and large Shire-Hall newly repaired; where all matters of Law touching the County Palatine are heard, and judicially determined. And at the end thereof the brave New Exchequer, for the said County Palatine. All these are in the Base Court. Then there is a Draw-Bridge into the Inner Ward, wherein are divers goodly Lodgings for the Justices, when they come: And herein the Constable himself dwelleth. The Thieves and Fellons are arraigned in the said Shire-Hall; and, being condemned, are by the Constable of the Castle, or his Deputy, delivered to the Sheriffs of the City, a certain distance without the Castle-Gate, at a stone called The Glovers Stone from which place, the said Sheriffs convey them to the place of execution, called Boughton"

Chester Castle is one of the few castles in England or Wales that has been in constant use since first erected. For almost 2,000 years - even before the castle was built, armies have used and fought over this location. At times it has housed a mint, a prison, courts and local government offices. The Roman fortress, Æthelflæd's (Alfred the Great's daughter) burh, the small earthwork and timber castle of the Normans, and the larger stone castle created by Ranulf de Blondeville and Henry III were successively built near to, if not directly upon one another.

The history of the city and that of the castle are entangled. Indeed, the name of the city of Chester means simply "castle" and was used almost interchangeably in mediaeval descriptions such as the following of Hadrian's Wall:

  • It had many towres or fortresses about a mile distant from another, which they call Castle steeds, and more with in little fensed townes tearmed in these daies Chesters, the plots or ground workes whereof are to be seene in some places foure square; also turrets standing betweene these, wherein souldiers being placed might discover the enimies and be ready to set upon them, wherein also the Areani might have their Stations, whom the foresaid Theodosius, after they were convicted of falshood, displaced and removed from their Stations.

Any castle, an particularly this castle is more than its stones, and the different layers of history can take some time to disentangle. If you visit, don't expect a grand ruin of a castle like Conwy. The surviving parts of Chester Castle are impressive, but Chester Castle is more to do with social history than being a frozen ruin of a bygone age.

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Dodleston

With the third castle the pattern changes again, but the defensive intent of the fortification is still dominated by rivers. Here the floodwaters of Pulford Brook might fill a shallow valley that could once have been the Dee's route to the sea. On a low plateaux sit the concentric earthworks of Dodleston, protecting a gap between the heads of brook and stream. A different form of administration to that of Chester dominates this rural landscape, for here are the vast estates of the Grosvenors and the villages are the very model of gentry-funded architecture. At first it seems that the remnants of the castle are almost lost in the landscape, but here a road follows an old ditch, and there the pattern of plots housing detatched villas fills in a space marked on old tithe maps as "the ring". As is often the case a church nestles within the worn defences and parts of the castle grounds have become the local graveyard, protecting the villagers even after they have long since turned to dust.

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Using LIDAR, Dodleston castle is seen as a significant landscape feature, with an outer ring visible (partly occupied by a modern road).

While there is no evidence to date for Roman settlement in the immediate area of the site, the line of the Roman road from Chester to North Wales probably divided into two branches at about the centre of the present Eaton Park to the east of Dodleston, as indicated by field names called the "Strettons" (incorporating "Street"). One of these branches would appear to underlie the present road which enters Dodleston from Eaton via Aldford in the north east. This branch of the Roman road appears to have continued from Dodleston towards (Higher) Kinnerton, looping north around the presumably once impassable lowlying marshlands of Dodleston Moor. This road then probably ran westwards via Caergwrle through the Berwyns. The other road (as indicated by the field name "Pavement Hey") lay immediately north of, and running lengthways along, what is now called Main Road between Gorstella and Balderton. A causeway of oak trunks on which a cobble and clay surface had been placed was identified to the immediate south east of Balderton Bridge, with dendrochronological dating providing a thirteenthcentury date. At Balderton, it crossed the low-lying stream or valley which joins the River Dee. The causeway would appear to have continued towards Dodleston, and onwards to what was the site of Poulton Abbey. This causeway and bridge could well have been the bridge of ‘Baldert’ referred to in the 1170 entry in the Annales Cestrienses, where it is stated that Hugh de Kevelioc killed enough Welshmen to build a mound out of their heads at Boughton. It is not clear whether the original entry refers to Boughton or Broughton, but while local legends mention Boughton, Broughton does make more sense.

Tithe maps show plots named "The Ring" at Dodleston.

In 1066, the manor of Dodleston was held directly by the Mercian earl Edwin rather than by a sub-tenant, and thus presumably carried some considerable importance in west Cheshire during the first half of the eleventh century. Dodleston Castle is a Norman earthwork motte and bailey fortress, apparently founded by Osberne fitzTezzo. The base of the flat-topped motte is encased by a ditch with a counterscarp bank, while a bank and a wide wet ditch gives defence to the large square bailey. The dense cover of trees, make the site best viewed in winter. Around the outside of the castle site there may have been a third ring-ditch which can be seen quite plainly on LIDAR. The tithe maps give two of the fields between the outermost and inner ditch the name "The Ring". Parts pf both of these are now built upon, with the plots filling the space between the inner and outer ring-ditches.

It is situated on the Welsh side of the River Dee from where control could be kept of the marsh lands between the river and the Welsh foothills. At some time during the mid-twelfth century, Dodleston was held by the Boydel family, first by Helte, Helto or Hugh, de Boydel (1123), whom Ormerod claims to have been a direct descendant of Osbern fitzTezzo It later passed to the Redishes (Radyche). In 1401, King Henry IV (reigned 1399-1413) called upon the castles in the March, including Dodleston, to prepare for action against Owain Glyndwr (c.1350-c.1415). Indeed, there is a record of devastation west of the Dee following Welsh risings in August 1403, when Dodleston was reportedly destroyed. Within the site was erected a later mansion which was the property of the Manleys of Lache. This was probably one of the several HQ's of Sir William Brereton during the siege of Chester and is now taken down. Rachel Swallow suggests this may be the site of the original Saxon moot (meeting point) for the "Hundred of Duddeston" although by 1086 it was recorded as in "Ati's Cross Hundred".

St Mary's church lies within what was probably and outer ring ditch, which is quite clearly visible on the LIDAR mapping and in part follows the line of the modern road to the west and south. A church has been on this site, adjacent to a former motte and bailey castle, since at least medieval times but only the base of its tower, which dates from the early 16th century, remains. The remainder of the church was rebuilt in 1870 in Perpendicular style by the Chester architect John Douglas. ‘The Ring’ at the focus of a number of road ways is suggestive of a prehistoric enclosure, possibly for assembly and religious purposes.

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Pulford

Again located on the bounds of the river's flood, Pulford castle reuses an ancient site where a strategic river crossing may have marked a place where bronze and salt were brought and traded for thousands of years. By now it is clear that the spacing between the line of castles is almost regular - enough to command control of the entire borderland and its river crossings, while making use of the topography to the best advantage, yet close enough for mutual support. The flood-plain lies before the castles, such that when the water is high the castles are not cut-off from aid.

OS and LIDAR comparison of the site of "Poulton Castle". There are no remains of the mound to be seen today
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Pulford Castle is a small motte and bailey guarding the crossing of Pulford Brook, which forms the border between England and Wales (see: Poulton and Aldford), and adjacent to the Wrexham–Chester road. The manor belonged to the Canons of St Werburgh and to Hugh Fitz Osbern in 1086. Later the Ormesbees and the Pulfords held it between them. C.1245 the Ormesbees granted their share of the manor and castle to the Pulfords. In 1313, a jury of the Chester County Courts found that the lord of Little Caldy (Wirral) held that manor by the service of "palisading" (i.e. repairing the wooden defences) of Robert de Pulford's castle at Pulford. In 1403 King Henry IV ordered Sir Thomas le Grosvenor to hold Pulford castle and guard his estates against the revolt of Owain Glyndwr. Only the earthworks remain, comprising a mound with a strong encircling earthwork, except on the south where the defence is the Pulford brook. Ormerod provides a map which shows how the church was placed in close proximity to the castle, possibly in what was once the outer bailey.

Interestingly, there was possibly also a castle at Poulton. The first unambiguous cartographic record of the Poulton mound occurs on the 1875 OS map of Cheshire; a circular mound surrounded by a broadly triangular curved ditch is clearly delineated within a small wooded copse. Measurements taken from this map indicate that the mound measured c.16.7 m east-to-west. The historian of Wimpey, Valerie White, dates the issuing of a £474,000 contract to George Wimpey & Co for the construction of RAF Poulton to June 1942, with Ferguson stating that the runways were supporting flights from 31 March 1943. Given the proximity of the mound site to the landing strip, it is probable that the rapid construction of RAF Poulton was the most likely cause of the destruction of the mound; the mound was therefore probably extant until c.June 1942 to March 1943.

"Blobb Hill", otherwise known as Aldford Castle.

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Aldford

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Aldford is the third castle located in a picturesque estate village relatively untouched by industry and modernisation. Once again the church and the castle are almost co-located, although the church seen today was built in the fashionable gothic style in the 1860s, and built over the ditch of the outer bailey: a supposition strengthened by the fact that the north chapel of the church shows a tendency to break away from the main structure.

Aldford is not directly mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086. It was part of the scattered holding of Bigot de Loges. Aldford Castle (known locally as "Blobb Hill") is a late 11th or early 12th century earthwork motte and bailey fortress, founded by Richard de Aldford. The earthworks of the fortification are strategically situated between the confluence of the River Dee and Alford Brook. The location is strategic in terms of the river, and defended by water courses on all sides but the south. In addition, it marks the line of the Roman road – Watling Street – which heads south from Chester and crosses the Dee at the confluence of the Dee and Aldford Brook north of the castle (the ‘Old Ford’ = Aldford).

The earliest occupants after Domesday were the families of Bigot de Loges and the de Alfords. Sir John de Arderne (c.1190-1236) was the first of his family to move from the Midlands to Cheshire when he was granted the fee of Aldford in c.1220 by Ranulf de Blondeville, Earl of Chester. He took his name ‘de Arderne’ with him. Ormerod attempts a detailed geneology but notes many uncertainties. Some have argued that the Cheshire Arderne family produced Mary Arden, John Shakespeare’s wife, and mother of William. The manor of Aldford remained in the Arderne family until 1464, when it passed to the Stanleys by marriage. The manor was seized by King Henry VII in 1495 following Sir William Stanley's execution for supposed complicity in the rebellion of Perkin Warbeck, and was then purchased some time after 1526 by Sir William Brereton, seventh son of Sir Randle Brereton of Shocklach. Sir William Brereton was chamberlain of Chester, and groom of the chamber to Henry VIII. He was beheaded 17 May 1536 for suspected dalliance with Anne Boleyn. The manor was forfeited to the crown and later Queen Mary sold it to Sir Edward Fitton and Robert Tatton.

For the next two centuries it was rented and leased. The castle fell into decay and much of stone was robbed. By end of C18 it had passed to the Grosvenors in whose estate it remains. Both the Motte and bailey were planted with trees and, with the water-filled bailey ditch, they formed a parkland. The large motte is encased by a wide wet ditch and stands within the remaining wide ramparts and wet ditches of a rectangular bailey. Excavations on the flat-top motte found the stone foundations of what was possibly a shell keep, flanked by a D-shaped tower. In 1959 a small excavation carried out by two local schoolboys on the motte, was visited by F.H.Thompson, who discovered a wall which may have been part of a shell keep and a stone piscina (a water receptacle, possibly from a chapel) of Norman date which is now in the possession of the Grosvenor Museum. Ormerod states that a manor house of the Ardernes was built in the bailey, based on its field name, Hall Croft or Hall Yard. No traces of a substantial building are visible and it is much more likely to have been built on the top of the motte where earlier structures could have been incorporated.

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Nearby, at Eccleston is a mound of uncertain purpose and date; claimed variously as a round barrow, a Roman 'botontinus' or roadside exploratory mound, a medieval motte, or a civil war mount. The mound lies at about 20m above OD on a natural knoll above the west side of the Dee valley. It is 2.5m high and 15m-20m in diameter, although much mutilated by disturbances which can all be identified as modern. It is close to church and had marshland to east. Eccleston was the site of a ferry crossing of the Dee and the other crossings of the Dee are overlooked by castles (e.g. Aldford, Holt, Shocklach, Chester). It was rescheduled as motte in 1993.

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Holt

Holt is a castle full of historical puzzles. Once again it guards a river ford, later provided with a bridge. There are many accounts of the history of Holt Castle but a problem common to many of them is that they are inconsistent and/or contradictory: with different version giving different dates for when it was built, whether or not one or other Roger Mortimer did or did not murder princes nearby by throwing them off a bridge only built after his death and whether or not Richard II had his treasure here. This summary touches on both sides of some of these versions.

Holt Castle c.1620 from Norden's survey.
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Holt Castle (according to some versions constructed between 1277 and 1311) is a late 13th century stone enclosure and bailey fortress. It was improved (or started) by by John de Warenne (1231 – c. 29 September 1304), earl of Surrey. Built as the administrative centre of the district of Iâl, it replaced the abandoned hill-top site of Castell Dinas Bran. Rather than rebuild Dinas Brân, De Warenne choose instead to build a new castle at Holt on the Flintshire, Cheshire border and Dinas Brân continued till the present day a picturesque and romantic ruin. Holt castle was possibly started by Edward I on a sandstone base next to the River Dee soon after the invasion of North Wales in 1277. Master James of St George, Edward I’s castle builder, was probably involved in its initial design.

Thomas Pennant, in his book Tours in Wales (1874), (citing a MS communicated by the Reverend Mr Price, Keeper of the Bodleian Library), states that the nephews of Dafydd ap Gruffydd were "drowned in the River Dee" at Holt Bridge by their guardians, John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, and Roger Mortimer the younger (c.1256 – 3 August 1326), on a journey from Chester to Dinas Brân: Madog ap Gruffudd of Dinas Brân, Llangollen, having died four years earlier, in 1277, leaving the two young sons with no trustees. Mortimer was appointed by King Edward I to be their guardian. This, and perhaps a double drowning recorded on graves at Farndon (St Chad's) churchyard, possibly led to various legends about the 'Bridge of Screams'. Pennant’s memory of a now vanished date-stone of 1345 is also quite puzzling, give that Mortimer died in 1326.

The real history is possibly quite different. The castle visible today at Dinas Brân was probably built by Gruffydd II ap Madog son of Madog ap Gruffydd Maelor sometime in the 1260s. At the time Gruffydd II ap Madog was an ally of Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Wales, with Powys acting as a buffer state between Llywelyn's heartland of Gwynedd and England. Dinas Brân was one of several castles being built following the signing of the Treaty of Montgomery which had secured Wales for Llywelyn, free from English interference. Gruffudd II died in 1269 or 1270 and the castle passed down to his four sons. Madog II ap Gruffydd the eldest son was the senior, but each of the other sons may have also had apartments at the castle of Dinas Brân. The peace between Prince Llywelyn and King Edward did not last long and in 1276 war started between England and Wales. Edward's larger armies soon invaded Wales and the support for Llywelyn crumbled. Madog II was killed in the fighting in 1277, and succeeded by his younger brother Gruffudd Fychan I who was the second of the four sons of Gruffudd ap Madog. According to one version, the two youngest sons were Llywelyn and Owain, and were still children. Mortimer was appointed by King Edward I to be the guardian of Owain and Llywelyn, but four years later (1281) their bodies washed up in the River Dee; Mortimer was accused of their murder. Mortimer, guilty or not, was granted their lands - the Cantref of Swydd y Waun (Chirk) in 1282. According to another version of the same story all three surviving brothers (Gruffudd Fychan, Owain and Llywelyn) fought for Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. Apart from there being two completely different versions of the history, there is also an issue that the Holt-Farndon Bridge only appears to have been built some time after 1338 by Monks from St Werburgh's Abbey Chester a half-century after the two brothers were supposed to have been thrown off it. It certainly cannot have been in place before 1315, since documents of the lordship of Bromfield wfrom that year that record a ferry at Holt and do not mention a toll-yielding bridge, which would certainly have done had it been in existence at that time.

Gruffudd Fychan fought alongside Llywelyn during the war of 1282–1283, and lost his lands with his defeat. It was only in October 1282 that Dinas Brân became available to John de Warenne.

Jean Creton (kneeling) medieval French historian and poet, visitor to Chester, with the French knight who requests him to go to England.

In 1296 de Warenne, as leader of the English army in Scotland, defeated the Scottish forces at the Battle of Dunbar. Edward I deposed the Scottish King John Balliol and made de Warenne Regent of Scotland. It was a job that only brought him trouble. William Wallace led a revolt and defeated de Warenne and the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge on September 11th 1296. De Warenne was forced to flee the field of battle and make his excuses to Edward I

Edward, the Black Prince, temporarily took possession of the castle in the 14th century following the death of John de Warenne (30th June 1286 - June 1347). Richard II seized the castle in 1397 and made it his own private treasure house. It has been estimated that more than £40,000 in coins, jewellery, gold and silver plate was transferred from the royal treasury in London to Holt for safekeeping. When Henry Bolingbroke – later Henry IV – returned to England in 1399, he shadowed Richard II up the Welsh Marches and was quick to recapture Holt Castle. Despite being defended by 100 men-at-arms and being well provisioned, Henry’s men, including perhaps the French chronicler Jean Creton, were able to enter through the new water-gate and ascend "on foot, step by step", to take the castle unopposed and so apparently recover this vast proportion of the king’s disposable wealth.

The castle held out for the Crown during the uprising of Owain Glyndŵr against Henry IV. Sir William Stanley made the castle his home in 1484 after backing Richard III as king and then changed sides a year later at the Battle of Bosworth helping Henry VII defeat Richard III. Henry VII visited the castle in 1495 following the arrest of Sir William Stanley for treason: he had supported the pretender Perkin Warbeck who claimed to be Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, who was the second son of Edward IV and one of the so-called "Princes in the Tower". William Brereton, the steward of Bromfield and Yale who lived at Holt Castle during the reign of Henry VIII, was falsely accused of having an affair with the king’s second wife, Ann Boleyn. Brereton was tried and beheaded.

By the 16th century Holt Castle had fallen into disuse and ruin. The English Elizabethan map maker John Norden surveyed the castle and noted that it was "nowe in great decay". The castle was a royalist stronghold during the Civil War. It was captured by the Parliamentarians in 1643 but retaken by the Royalists in spring of 1644. After they had surrendered, thirteen of the Parliamentarian garrison were put to the sword and their bodies were thrown into the moat. The castle withstood an eleven month siege in 1646-7 until the garrison (under the Royalist governor, Sir Richard Lloyd) surrendered (to Thomas Mytton, the commander of the besieging Parliamentarians) when they realized supporting Charles I was a lost cause. Holt was the last castle to be captured by Parliamentarian forces in north-east Wales. After the surrender, Colonel Roger Pope was appointed Parliamentary governor of Holt. By order of Parliament, Holt was slighted later that year.

The Edwardian castle has been almost completely dismantled and only thin internal walls remain, built into a pentagon shaped boss of sandstone. The most prominent feature, is a doorway in a substantial fragment of wall, it leads to a flight of steps that gave access to the inner court. After the Civil War slighting, all the remaining stonework in the surrounding curtain wall, the flanking angle towers, a detached barbican tower and the outer bailey, were rafted down the River Dee and used in the construction of the original Eaton Hall, founded by Thomas Grosvenor.

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Shocklach

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Using LIDAR, Shocklach castle is seen as a pair of castles on either side of a bridge.

Shocklach (Shotlack) was a Welsh frontier fortress forming an important link in the chain of Cheshire castles between Alford and Malpas. Lord Dudley claimed the right in 15 Hen VII to maintain this castle fortified, ditched and crenellated. The earthworks were very strong, occupying an important pass where the present road to Chester crosses a deep ravine. On the west side of the road is a very early circular mound 20' high, on the top of which the Normans placed their keep. The motte, which lies in the loop of the stream offering defence to the north and west, is protected by a partly waterlogged/silted ditch on its south-west, south and east sides, beyond which is an outer bank. The landscape of Oldcastle’s motte siting is remarkably similar to that of the motte to the west at Shocklach: each motte occupies a long spur running within a loop of a brook, which provided a natural defence on three sides. There is no evidence of a bailey immediately attached to this motte.

On the east side of the road 30 meters to the east is another raised kite-shaped platform also of ancient formation. It comprises a D-shaped moated enclosure measuring 54m west-east and surrounded on all sides except the south by a dry ditch. A causeway crosses the ditch and gives access to the platform at the northeast. No vestiges of masonry now remain and it is unclear whether any was actually built. It is not clear whether Shocklach is one castle with two different stages of development, a "double castle" built around a border "customs barrier", or two separate castles each built by a different land-holder in an attempt to ensure they each gain a share of customs duties and tolls.

The Castle stands on private land but is visible from the road. The site lies within an area containing an important concentration of medieval monuments. These monuments include two shrunken medieval hamlets, a defended green lane, a Norman chapel, well preserved ridge and furrow, a ford across the River Dee, and a complex of communally owned watermeadows. It is presumed that both Oldcastle and Shocklach were intended to block the route along the Wych valley, acting as outposts of the motte-and-bailey at Malpas; Oldcastle is about three kilometres to the south-west of Malpas, and Shocklach, approximately five kilometres to the north-west of Malpas.

St Edith's Church, Shocklach, stands at the end of an isolated lane running toward the River Dee about 1 mile (2 km) to the north of the village of Shocklach. It is closer to the castle than the village. It is a small Norman church, and is one of the oldest ecclesiastical buildings in Cheshire, and considered the best example of the same. The church was built probably about 1150 by Thomas de Shocklach. As the church is dedicated to Saint Edith of Wilton, an Anglo-Saxon saint, it is thought that an earlier church may have stood on the site. Edith was an English nun, according to some a daughter of Edgar the Peaceful, of Edgar's Field fame (r. 943–975). She was born between 961 and 964 and died on 16 September in a year between 984 and 987. Other views have her as the daughter of Edward the Elder, who died at nearby Farndon. There is a local legend that there was a flood and most of the village of Shocklach was flooded underwater. People headed inside the church because they thought they would be safe. But the water still came in, and, according to a legend which must be considered dubious (as the church has a tower) drowned them all.

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Malpas

At Malpas chocolate-box cottages and stately Georgian town houses cluster round the castle mound, but the "best-kept" streets still give way to open fields in a short distance. Once again, the church has invaded the castle grounds and a ring of gravestones now guards it.

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Malpas was the medieval seat of the Barons of Malpas, one of Cheshire’s major land owning families. It was a small market town and its historic centre retains much of its character, including its street plan, as there has been little intensive development. One reason for this may have been its proximity to Whitchurch, one of Shropshire’s major medieval market towns, which lay only 7km to the south-east. At Domesday the town was called Depenbech which means "at the deep valley with a stream in it". However, the Old English form was gradually replaced by the French name Malpas which means "difficult passage". After the Conquest, Malpas was granted to Robert Fitzhugh, who as Baron of Malpas was one of the eight barons who served on the Council of the Earl of Chester. He was a leading landowner in Cheshire and Malpas continued to be the head of a large estate. Robert Fitzhugh died without male heirs and his possessions were divided between his two daughters. Initially the Sutton and Egerton families held the major shares of the barony, although there were further sub-divisions.From the mid-14th century the Brereton family acquired extensive interests in the town, as did the Cholmondeleys from the 17th century onwards.

The Castle of Malpas has long been destroyed, but the earthworks of Malpas Castle are still to be found to the north of St. Oswald's Church. The monument at Malpas comprises the remnants of a medieval castle surviving as a truncated earthwork cone, situated at a strategic position on a spur of the Broxton Hills overlooking the town and much of the surrounding countryside. The site was originally home to the Barons of Malpas. The motte lies N of St Oswald's Church, the graveyard of which extends to the S and W sides of the motte. A bailey was probably originally attached to the S side of the motte, but is now indistinct and its site has been considerably disturbed by construction of the church and burials in the churchyard. When the castle fell out of use is uncertain. Its value as a defensive centre may have diminished after Edward’s conquest of Wales towards the end of the 13th century but it no doubt continued to be an important administrative centre of the barony.

In 1832 the ratepays of malpas expressed their dismay that:

  • "..the greatest part of the inhabitants of malpas are subject to much trouble, inconvenience and expense on account of the great distance of their houses from the public well by which the value of such houses is much reduced."

The land-owners took heed, in 1835, the Marquis of Cholmondeley and Thomas Tyrwhitt-Drake, the two principal land-owners in the area, constructed a waterworks to the south-east of the town. From here, water was later forced by a steam engine into a reservoir, which was constructed inside the Castle motte. At first, steam had not been employed, the water was moved by power from a water-wheel driven by the outflow of a sewage plant. Unfortunately, he water from the sewage outfall contaminated the drinking water supply to the castle mound and the inhabitants once again found cause to grumble. An inspect was called-in and reported in the British Medical Journal that despite the contrivance of the tank and the water-wheel:

  • "it may be stated shortly that in every conceivable wariety of sanitary defect, Malpas vilage emulates the most neglected inhabited spot that has ever been reported upon"

The landowners threw up their hands, and the waterworks was leased to the town and supplied with the steam pump. Later, when Liverpool corporation built its aqueduct from Lake Vyrnwy in Wales, a connection was made (1892) to the town as it passed Malpas. The steam pump gradually fell into disuse.

The church of Saint Oswald was built in the second half of the 14th century on the site of an earlier church, although there are no structural remains of that building. A stone from the previous church was incorporated above the chancel door of Trinity Church in Princeton, New Jersey, to which the influential Stockton family had emigrated from Malpas. The church was largely rebuilt above the cill level with the addition of a clerestory in the late 15th century. In about 1886 the Chester architect John Douglas carried out a restoration, which included removal of the box pews and plaster from its interior

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Worthenbury

The name of the village hints at the existence of an Anglo-Saxon Burh. It's location sits in the gap between the courses of rivers prone to flooding.

Worthenbury is certainly of Anglo-Saxon origin. The place is recorded in Domesday Book in 1086 as "Hurdingberie" at which time there were "five hides which pay geld" and land for ten ploughs. Later in 1300 it was termed "Worthinbury" and other variations such as "Wrdynbur" appeared at other times during the 14th century. The first record of the present form name came in 1527. The final element, burh, has a number of related meanings, the most common of which is a "defended enclosure": earthwork embankments edging fields to the north and east of the settlement may be evidence of this, but there ia no hint that any later fortification, other than moated farms, existed hereabouts. It has been speculated that Worthenbury might be the missing Weardbyrig, an Anglo-Saxon burh or defended settlement thrown up by Aethelflaed, in 915. Weardbyrig lay between two other burhs, at Runcorn on the Mersey and Chirbury near the Severn. This remains no more than a speculation: there are no unequivocally early remains to support the contention, but equally it has not been disproved. However, recent authoritative publications prefers as an alternative, the derivation from a manor-house or estate protected by a fence which signalled the "worðign" or enclosure.

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Oldcastle

The name of nearby Threapwood could mean "disputed wood" although another explanation is that it derives from the Saxon word "Threp" meaning a ford, referring to a ford on the road crossing the Wych Brook at the Sarn. Sarn means a road or a causeway, which probably crossed the brook a little higher upstream than the present bridges. The road itself may well be of Roman origin although the way hereabout passes between river barriers to commerce and is probably much older. Thomas Pennant derived Threapwood from the Anglo-Saxon Threapian ie., one who persisted in an argument right or wrong; and this derivation may be thought appropriate as the inhabitants resisted all government and even the excise laws. In 1874 Archdeacon Thomas wrote of Threapwood: "Being extra-parochial, it had formerly an unenviable notoriety as a refuge of immorality and lawlessness but of this character it has for some time been clearing itself."

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The castle remains, such that they are, are situated on a spur overlooking the deep valley of the Wych Brook. In 1882, Ormerod noted a number of small hills & on the summit of one were indications of the works of an ancient fortress. In July 1957, the felling of trees revealed an impressive earthwork, consisting of a small platform on the crest of the spur c.100ft x 36ft, with well-defined ditch systems along each end. At the SE end, overlooking the river are 3 short transverse ditches, each c.60ft long x 40ft wide & 16ft deep. At the NW end, the neck of the spur is cut by 2 ditches, the inner one being 60-70ft wide. This inner ditch was sectioned by a trench 14ft long x 3ft wide. The fill was clean, undifferentiated clay, 4.5ft deep to the bottom of the ditch. No finds. Trenching on the platform produced no finds, but there were indications of a layer of stone on the natural clay & a possible hearth. Possibly an outpost to the castle at Malpas.

The Wych Brook was formerly known as the River Elfe or Elf. The origin of the name "Elfe" is in this case unknown, though the name "Wych" is thought to derive from saline springs in the area. There were formerly a number of natural salt springs or 'brine pits' near the river bank at Higher Wych and Lower Wych, which from medieval times were used as a water source for commercial salt production. It has been speculated that the river name Elfe is based on the Welsh language root "hal-", halen, "salt" (similar to "halide"). The river is a habitat for a variety of fish including brown trout, common dace, the gudgeon Gobio gobio, stone loach and common minnow. There is an unusual isolated population of dormice in the Wych Valley.

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Beeston Castle

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The steep walk to the castle's highest point, 359 feet (107 meters) above the Cheshire plain) is rewarded with what must be one of the finest and most dramatic views in the country - from the Welsh mountains in the west to the Pennines in the east. In very clear conditions it is just possible to make out Pendle Hill (fifty miles to the north). The dramatic location, on the cliff top of an isolated hill, is usually described as defensive, although such a position actually makes the castle very vulnerable to being besieged by a small force.

Beeston Castle is one of the most dramatic ruins in the English landscape. Built by Ranulf de Blondeville, Earl of Chester, in the 1220s, the castle incorporates the banks and ditches of an Iron Age hillfort. Henry III seized the castle in 1237 and it remained in royal ownership until the 16th century. In the Civil War it withstood a long siege in 1644–5, before being surrendered by the Royalists and partially demolished. Archaeological excavation demonstrated that beneath the medieval outer gatehouse and curtain wall were a series of earthwork defences dating to the later Bronze Age and the Iron Age (c 900 BC–AD 40). The first later Bronze Age fortification comprised a simple bank at the base of the crag, probably with a wooden palisade. Excavated objects such as moulds and crucibles for smelting indicate that Beeston was a major metalworking centre. Among the most significant finds are two copper-alloy socketed axes that had seemingly been deliberately buried beneath the earthwork bank. They almost certainly represent a votive offering, or were used for ritual purposes.

Beeston has one significant difference from the other castles described above, it was built much later and has been described as: "all too obviously defending the county from England rather than Wales".

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