Little Houghton Motte

Has been described as a Certain Timber Castle (Motte)

There are earthwork remains

NameLittle Houghton Motte
Alternative NamesCliffords Hill
Historic CountryNorthamptonshire and the Soke of Peterborough
Modern AuthorityNorthamptonshire
1974 AuthorityNorthamptonshire
Civil ParishLittle Houghton

Clifford Hill is a massive motte situated strategically beside a crossing place of the River Nene. The motte ditch on all but the south side is largely undisturbed and together with the mound of the motte has considerable potential for the preservation of archaeological and environmental evidence.

The motte castle of Clifford Hill lies to the north of the present village beside the River Nene. The site owes its name to its situation on a cliff, close to the old ford crossing of the River Nene from Little Houghton to Little Billing. The mound is round and stands to a height of about 14m and has a basal diameter of approximately 125m. The top of the mound is flat and about 30m across, and is surrounded by a wide, deep ditch up to 5m deep in places. On the north side of the motte beyond the ditch and alongside the river, lies a bank about 4m high which formed part of the original castle defences. The south side of the motte suffered from a series of landslips soon after it was constructed, causing the south ditch to be recut. The recutting of this ditch formed a low bank which has since been ploughed. The detailed history of the site is not known, but the present name of the site is recorded in the 13th century. The summit of the motte saw later use as a bowling green in the 17th century. (Scheduling Report)

Motte (SP 80606063; Fig. 82; Plate 5), known as Clifford Hill, lies N. of the village, on the edge of the R. Nene, on Boulder Clay and Lias Clay at 54 m. above OD. The motte is of exceptional size, standing some 14 m. high above the surrounding land. Though once circular in plan and regular in form, it is now considerably altered and damaged on its S

side, where the steep side has been reduced to a series of rounded and ill-defined terraces and mounds, as a result of landslips. The summit of the motte is flat and featureless, but its former circular shape has been changed, following the collapse of the S. side. The mound is surrounded by a large ditch up to 5 m. deep, but again on the S. side there are indications that this ditch has been recut, following the slipping of the side of the motte above it, which perhaps partly filled it. On the N. there is a steep drop, which forms a narrow rampart-like feature, 4 m. high above the R. Nene. On the S. is a wide and much spread outer bank which has been interpreted as additional defences. This may have originated as the spoil removed from the blocked S. ditch after the landslip, though its present form is the result of subsequent ploughing. A low bank, formed partly by the old river cliff, extends W. from the motte ditch and is truncated by the later mill pond. This may be part of a bailey but the evidence is inadequate. Part of the site was dug into in 1900 'but nothing was found that is worth recording' ( Ann. Rep. Northants. Exploration Soc., (1900), 7; copy in Northampton Central Library).

The motte, presumably of 11th or 12th-century date, was clearly built to control a ford across the R. Nene, leading from Little Houghton to Little Billing. However nothing is known of its early history beyond the fact that it bore its present name in the 13th century. The name has no significance except as a description of the motte's situation on the cliff near a ford (PN Northants., 149). The lack of any documented history concerning one of the largest mottes in England may be due to its early collapse. It is constructed from Lias Clay which is notoriously unstable when wet and the landslips on its S. side, as well as the attempted restoration of the ditch, may have taken place soon after it was built. The present flat summit is apparently due to the construction of a bowling green there in the 17th century. Before this the motte was alleged to have been higher (VCH Northants., I (1902), 218; IV (1937), 266–7; J. Bridges, Hist. of Northants., I (1971), 373).

Little Houghton is an unfinished castle, consisting of one of the largest mottes in England and a few vague grubbings which may have been the beginnings of its bailey: here then the motte was built before the bailey, and completed from the first to be a very great height. (Unfortunately it cannot be dated.) (King 1972)

Gatehouse Comments

Very large mound beside old ford of the River Nene. One of the largest and tallest mottes in Britain. Constructed from Lias Clay which must be relatively easy to work, for such a large work to be produced, but is not structurally stable. This does not seem to be the manorial centre of Little Houghton (this was beside the church and may have been a ringwork) the tenurial history of which is not really consistent with a castle of this size. It was, therefore, presumably constructed by someone outside of the manorial system most likely on the order of William I as a supplementary defence to Northampton (However, Lowerre (2005) suggest possibly built by William de Houghton in the early C12). It may be it built at this location less because of the small and relatively insignificant ford at this site but because the Nene was navigable to here. King may well be correct in stating it was unfinished and, indeed, it was possibly never occupied. The Round Mound Project coring of the motte in 2015 dated it to mid/late C11 to late C12.

- Philip Davis

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law

Not Listed

Historic England (PastScape) Defra or Monument number(s)
County Historic Environment Record
OS Map Grid ReferenceSP806606
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  • Lowerre, A.G., 2005, Placing Castles in the Conquest. Landscape, Lordship and Local Politics in the South-Eastern Midlands, 1066-1100 (Oxford: John and Erica Hedges Ltd: BAR British Series 385) p. 248
  • Salter, Mike, 2002, The Castles of the East Midlands (Malvern: Folly Publications) p. 77
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  • King, D.J.C., 1983, Castellarium Anglicanum (London: Kraus) Vol. 2
  • RCHME, 1979, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the County of Northampton Vol. 2: Central Northamptonshire (HMSO) p. 87-8 online transcription
  • Pevsner, Nikolaus, 1961, Buildings of England: Northamptonshire (Penguin) p. 282
  • Salzman, L.F. (ed), 1937, VCH Northamptonshire Vol. 4 p. 266-7 online transcription
  • Allcroft, A. Hadrian, 1908, Earthwork of England (London) p. 403-4 online copy
  • Downman, E.A., 1906, 'Ancient Earthworks' in Serjeantson, R.M., Ryland, W. and Adkins, D. (eds), VCH Northamptonshire Vol. 2 p. 405-6 online copy
  • Serjeantson, R.M., Ryland, W. and Adkins, D. (eds), 1902, VCH Northamptonshire Vol. 1 p. 218 online copy
  • Bridges, John, 1791, The History and Antiquities of Northamptonshire (Oxford) Vol. 1 p. 373


  • Chandler, John, 1993, John Leland's Itinerary: travels in Tudor England (Sutton Publishing) p. 333
  • Toulmin-Smith, Lucy (ed), 1909, The itinerary of John Leland in or about the years 1535-1543 (London: Bell and Sons) Vol. 4 p. 122 online copy


  • Brown, A.E. (ed), 1980, 'Archaeology in Northamptonshire 1979' Northamptonshire Archaeology Vol. 15 p. 173 download from ArchLib
  • King, D.J.Cathcart, 1972, 'The Field Archaeology of mottes; Eine kurze übersicht' Château Gaillard Vol. 5 p. 101-112
  • 1901, 'Annual Report of the Northamptonshire Exploration Society' Northamptonshire Natural History Society and Field Club Journal Vol. 11 p. 7


  • Lowerre, A.G., 2004, Placing Castles in the Conquest. Landscape, Lordship and Local Politics in the South-Eastern Midlands, 1066-1100 (PhD thesis: Boston College) p. 544-47