Pirton Toot Hill

Has been described as a Certain Timber Castle (Motte Ringwork)

There are earthwork remains

NamePirton Toot Hill
Alternative Names
Historic CountryHertfordshire
Modern AuthorityHertfordshire
1974 AuthorityHertfordshire
Civil ParishPirton

Pirton is one of the most important historic sites in Hertfordshire with its well-preserved village and castle earthworks. It is made more unusual by the fact that it is an example of a 'planted' medieval village which was carefully aligned in relation to the earlier motte and bailey.

The monument consists of the earthworks of the castle motte Toot Hill, and the surrounding earthworks of the castle bailey. The site also includes the remains of the shrunken medieval village known as The Bury which lies to the south of the bailey. The castle was established on an oval motte about 90m x 60m in the early 12th century alongside the church of St Mary and is surrounded by a ditch. Adjacent to the motte lies the remains of the ditched enclosure of the bailey in which earthworks still define the sites of holloways, tracks and building platforms. The southern edge of the bailey is defined by a shallow ditch 160m long running east from the south-west corner of Toot Hill; the northern edge is believed to cross part of the area around St. Mary's Church and north of the motte. To the south of the motte and bailey castle lies the remains of the part of the medieval village of Pirton, known as The Bury, and carefully planned in respect of the Castle. The centre of the modern village now lies further north. A deep well-defined roadway runs east to west across the site of the village and from this the remains of roads and tracks run north and south. Platforms indicate the location of houses and buildings of the village and some buildings survived here until earlier this century. Ditches and banks show the position of land boundaries, and drains and small ponds can be seen. (Scheduling Report)

Motte 100m x 6.7m high. Summit mutilated by quarrying giving a false impression of 'breastwork' around the rim. Surrounded by a ditch c.2.5m deep, filled in to NE (OS record), wet in south (Cave-Penny, Helena (HCC) site report. Site report 21.1.86)

Trial excavation produced Saxo-Norman bowls (OS record). See 1487 for the manor; the castle was put up by Ralph de Limesi or his father.

'The village lies in the middle of the parish, and is of particular interest, as it was at an early date, possibly before the Conquest, fortified by a ditch. The area inclosed, about 10 acres, was utilized later for a mount and bailey castle, the mount or 'motte' standing about 25 ft. high above the bottom of the surrounding ditch in the north-west corner of the inclosure, and the remainder of the area divided into three baileys, the largest stretching along the north side and including the church and the other two on the south. The ditches are well marked, and there is still at times a good deal of water in parts of them. This castle, unfortunately, has no history. It was probably made in the 12th century, perhaps during the anarchy of Stephen's reign, by Alan or Gerard de Limesi. There is little probability that it was ever defended by masonry walls. On the mount probably stood a timber tower, approached by a steep narrow bridge of timber from the bailey below over the ditch or moat which surrounds it. Timber palisades may have defended the surrounding outer banks of the baileys. We can only conjecture that it was dismantled by Henry II as an adulterine or unlicensed castle, hundreds of which he is said to have destroyed. When the site was abandoned by the Limesis the mount was probably used as a look-out and meeting place of the villagers, and so came to be called Toot Hill' (VCH 1912).

It is interesting that even in 1912 it was acknowledged that the earthworks may have a pre-Norman origin. The late Saxon topography has been disguised by the Norman motte and bailey. (Hertfordshire HER)

Toot Hill (name verified) a motte, densely overgrown with trees and scrub, situated in the centre of Pirton adjacent to the Norman church of St Mary's. Its summit has been extensively mutilated by quarrying from the E, giving the false impression of a "breastwork" around the rim. The ditch, now dry, about 2.5m deep, survives around the SE, S and W sides, but it filled in to the NE, and occupied by a path in the N. The motte is 6.7m maximum height above the ditch and the overall measruement is about 100.0m NW-SE about 80.0m transversely. The earthworks in the churchyard and in the pasture field named "The Bury" to the S and E, cannot be identified with certainty as a bailey or series of baileys, as the field is pockmarked by minor quarrying, and modern features encroach. The surviving earthworks, generally in the form of dry depressions up to 1.5m deep, appear to tie in to the village pattern, and are almost certainly Md. At no point are they as deep as the motte ditch. (PastScape ref. Field Investigators Comments - F1 NKB 14-SEP-73)

Gatehouse Comments

The suggestion the castle dates from the Anarchy is received wisdom unsupported by evidence. It is quite as likely to have been built in the late C11 at the point when Norman lords were establishing their authority by re-strengthening (or rebuilding in a novel style) Saxon administrative centres. The relatively unusual presence of the parish church within one of the castle baileys (as opposed to the more common situation of being adjacent to, but outside the castle defences) is interesting and could be explained by the church having an origin as a castle chapel (or as a private thegnal chapel); there may have been a Saxon parish church slightly to the north (in an area outside the supposed village defences.

- 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 ReferenceTL146316
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Copyright Sheila Russell and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons license.

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  • Burleigh, G. 1988, Full Survey of Pirton Earthworks (Letchworth Museum Field Archaeological Unit)