Castle Neroche

Has been described as a Certain Timber Castle (Motte), and also as a Certain Masonry Castle

There are earthwork remains

NameCastle Neroche
Alternative NamesCastle Rache; The Beacon; Staple Fitzpaine; Orchard; Castellum de Rach
Historic CountrySomerset
Modern AuthoritySomerset
1974 AuthoritySomerset
Civil ParishCurland

Castle Neroche survives as a fine example of its class and is of interest as excavations have shown its development from an earlier Norman ringwork and perhaps originally from an Iron Age or Saxon fortification.

The monument includes a motte and bailey castle associated with multi-phase defensive enclosures on a spur of land protruding from the Blackdown escarpment. The site commands extensive views northwards over the Vale of Taunton Deane. Partial excavation has identified four phases of construction. The outer defence consisting of a rampart 1.6m high and a ditch c.0.5m deep is undated but considered to be earliest, part of either an Iron Age hillfort or perhaps an Anglo-Saxon work. The second phase was the construction of a ringwork, probably early Norman, within this enclosure. The ramparts of this have been heightened by later works. An unfinished outer work associated with it, consisting of a rampart 1m high and a ditch 0.7m deep, was seen by the excavator as an attempt to reduce the area of the old enclosure. The next phase saw the construction of a motte and ditch over the north edge of the ringwork, the remainder of which was heightened to form a bank 3m-4m high and became a sub-rectangular bailey. At some stage a second line of ramparts 1.3m high with ditches 1.7m deep was added around this, creating three lines of ramparts. One corner of the bailey was subdivided to form a barbican. Down the north tip of the spur in an area not investigated by excavation, below the motte, are two lines of scarps, with a lobed or sub-rectangular bailey at the foot. This bailey encloses 0.18 ha., with an internal bank dividing it into two, and is defended by a steeply scarped face up to 2m high with a bank 0.5m high on top, a ditch 0.5m deep at the bottom, and a counterscarp bank 0.5m high outside the ditch. In the final phase a stone shell keep and curtain wall were added to the top of the motte, and the ruins of these were noted in 1854

There is a pillow mound - a low linear mound for keeping rabbits - within the outer defences. The construction of the ringwork took place soon after the Norman Conquest and it may have been used in the suppression of local disturbances in 1067-9. The later building of the motte and bailey castle is likely to have taken place under Robert de Mortain, a major landowner in the west country from the Conquest to 1103. The castle seems to have passed out of use by the early C12 but was refurbished for a time, probably during the Anarchy of King Stephen's reign, by the construction of the curtain wall and keep on the motte. Excavations within the castle have produced evidence of cobbled building footings, post-holes and local pottery of northern French style. In the 19th century, a farm was constructed within the inner bailey, and this continues in use today. Sand diggings have left deep hollows in the outer areas of the site, which on the surface can be confused with the castle ditches. The extent of the area of the scheduling is indicated on the mapped depiction, and includes a 10m wide strip in the field on the south-west. (Scheduling Report)

Castle Neroche, known locally as Castle Rache (and the summit is known as The Beacon), has been described as a prehistoric earthwork later formed into a medieval castle. It occupies a promontory and there are four concentric lines of earthwork defences with a small motte (possibly with a stone shell keep) and bailey set into a corner of an earlier enclosure. A C19 farmhouse and garden occupy part of the area (VCH).

Iron arrowheads, an iron sword blade and inhumation burials (one said to have been in a wooden coffin) were found before 1854. Warre's plan shows the burials at ST27131580 under the northern farmbuildings (which are not on Warre's plan). The sword findspot is shown at the crest of the hill to the E close to some pits which are described as having an inverted cone shape 8-10 feet in diameter and 7-8 feet deep and filled with lighter coloured soil. Warre also states that "round the summit of the beacon traces remain of a massive wall of strongly cemented masonry" (Warre)

In 1903 excavations by H St G Gray produced Norman and medieval potsherds and finds, now in Taunton museum, but nothing Iron age or Roman. He excavated a medieval pit which may be one of the features described by Warre as conical pits, 8-10ft in diameter and 7-8ft deep, discounted as hut circles but possibly storage pits (Gray).

The motte, at ST27111586, is a natural hill steepened by scarping and with vestiges of two defences on the N, now shallow ditches and berms. The small bailey is at ST27121581. To the N of the motte there is a low lying complex of banks and ditches in a dense forestry plantation. These were first noticed by Warre in 1854, but were ignored by Gray in his report of 1903 and have not been investigated since. They appear to be merely a combination of natural scarps, terraced tracks, old field banks and sand diggings. The main ramparts to the SE of the motte and bailey are of uncertain origin although of Iron age appearance. The utilisation of the innermost rampart in the C12 indicates a second bailey, centred at ST27161577 There is also an apparently original entrance in the second rampart at ST27241569 No certain evidence has been found for the existence of the beacon, but a low mound on the SE edge of the motte's level summit may be significant. The site does command a very extensive view. There is a pillow mound in the area between the outer ramparts (OS record card).

Excavation in 1961-4 distinguished four main phases of construction. In Period I (undated) a rampart was thrown up, enclosing an area c7.5 acres Period II, soon after the Norman Conquest, is defined by the construction of a smaller enclosure within the earlier defences forming a ringwork. This may have served as a base for troops engaged in suppressing the 1067-69 disturbances, and is marked by the local production of pottery of distinctively Northern French type. Later, in Period III, the site was converted into a motte and bailey castle by building a motte astride the Period II enclosure, one corner of which was subdivided to serve as a barbican, and by adding an outer line of defence. The motte was 20-25ft high and was for residential use. The likely builder was Robert of Mortain The new castle appears to have passed out of permanent use by the early C12, but was refurbished for a brief period during the Anarchy (Davidson).

Topography was certainly crucial in the choice of location, though the reasons behind this choice may have changed from one of security and defence of a community to one of a visible symbol of control over the community. A strong argument can now be put forward for several elements of the site having prehistoric origins, though a refined sequence for these earthworks is not yet possible. The banks and ditches of the three lines of defence would be freely accepted as of a type known in the 1st millennium BC, had excavated evidence produced some finds of that date, rather than the overwhelming quantity of medieval pottery. In this case however, the dearth of excavated items does not provide sufficient grounds to be dismissive of the idea. Firstly because no modern excavation has explored the bottom of the heavily silted ditches where much diagnostic material is likely to be found. Secondly, there has been no serious attempt to explore the interiors of the inner or outer enclosures. It is also the case that some earthwork elements previously assumed to be medieval, were only thought so because of the presence of medieval finds excavated elsewhere on the site; no direct association between the finds and the earthworks was identified.

Complicated and massive ramparts of the type witnessed here seem excessive for an 11th/12th century castle which was apparently occupied only for short periods of time and was not important enough to have any surviving documentation. It may be that the medieval castle took the form that it did because the defences already existed and could be adapted; the end result being dictated by an existing layout. Had it been built from scratch then a more modest castle may have resulted.

The positions of the entrances for all periods remain the biggest enigma. It has and is suggested that the location of the Castle Neroche may be linked to its location on the natural route between Chard and Taunton. Although other routes have since been adopted, the gentle gradient of the easy ascent up the north escarpment makes an obvious route for a primary route for foot traffic with origins probably in prehistory. The eastern escarpment of the Blackdowns is approached by hare lane, another probable early track which takes advantage of a similar graded spur in the escarpment. Hare Lane and the Castle Neroche track converge only 160m from the outer ramparts , so the site is ideally positioned to give access to these routes. Its significance for travellers approaching from at least three points of the compass cannot be underestimated, with all the implications of trade, politics, social and economic factors coming into play.

150m east of the outer earthworks is a steep deeply cut holloway also giving access up the escarpment, though not with such ease as with the Castle track. The origins of this track are obscure but the existence of a more arduous alternative route so close to the other suggest that the earlier route was not available or access was restricted for a period of time. It is suggested that a likely episode is was when the medieval castle was under construction after the conquest and access was halted by the motte being built across the route (Newman). (Somerset HER)

Gatehouse Comments

It seems fairly clear this pre-existing earthwork (probably of Iron Age date) was occupied in 1067 by Robert Mortain and his forces as part of the Norman Conquest of Wessex. A Norman potter used local clay to produce large numbers of, what Davidson called, 'mess tins' for these forces and some minor alterations and repairs were made to the earthworks to make it a secure place for several hundred horses and soldiers. Having gained some status from being such a camp the site was then developed as an administrative and residential castle with some major work done to make a large motte although this seems not have been a successful development, and the motte top seems to have been further redeveloped to make a smaller, possibly masonry, house. Again this does not seem to have been successful. No settlement was present to serve the castle and none grew up around it.

- 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 ReferenceST272158
Latitude50.9370384216309
Longitude-3.03742003440857
Eastings327200
Northings115800
HyperLink HyperLink HyperLink
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Copyright Martin Bodman and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons license.

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Books

  • Prior, Stuart, 2006, A Few Well-Positioned Castles: The Norman Art of War (Tempus) p. 68-109
  • Salter, Mike, 2002, The Castles of Wessex (Malvern: Folly Publications) p. 70
  • Dunning, Robert, 1995, Somerset Castles (Somerset Books) p. 9(plan), 33-35
  • Pettifer, A., 1995, English Castles, A guide by counties (Woodbridge: Boydell Press) p. 220
  • Higham, R. and Barker, P., 1992, Timber Castles (Batsford) p. 49, 60, 198, 200, 353
  • Helen Clarke, 1984, The archaeology of medieval England p. 108, 122
  • King, D.J.C., 1983, Castellarium Anglicanum (London: Kraus) Vol. 2 p. 442
  • Pearce, Susan M., 1981, The archaeology of south west Britain p. 207, 208
  • Fry, P.S., 1980, Castles of the British Isles (David and Charles) p. 263
  • Renn, D.F., 1973 (2 edn.), Norman Castles of Britain (London: John Baker) p. 252
  • Pevsner, N., 1958, Buildings of England: South and west Somerset p. 252
  • Sixsmith, 1958, Staple Fitz Paine and the Forest of Neroche p. 3-5
  • Burrow, Edward J., 1924, Ancient Earthworks and Camps of Somerset (Cheltenham and London) p. 126
  • Bothamley, 1911, in Page, Wm (ed), VCH Somerset Vol. 2 p. 519-20
  • Allcroft, A. Hadrian, 1908, Earthwork of England (London) p. 86-9 online copy

Journals

  • Guy, N. et al., 2010-11, 'Castle Studies Group Conference 'Castles of West Wessex'' Castle Studies Group Journal Vol. 24 p. 4-146 esp 108-113
  • 2004-5, 'English Heritage's Landscape Investigation: Castle Neroche' Castle Studies Group Bulletin Vol. 18 p. 92 (news report)
  • Davidson, B.K., 2002, 'Castle Neroche reconsidered' CBA South West Journal Vol. 8 p. 12-15
  • < >Davidson, B.K., 1972, 'Castle Neroche: an abandoned Norman Fortress in south Somerset' Somerset Archaeology and Natural History Vol. 116 p. 16-58, plates i-iii < >
  • Davison, B.K., 1967, 'Three eleventh-century earthworks in England: Their Excavation and Implications' Ch√Ęteau Gaillard Vol. 2 p. 39-48 esp. 43-5
  • (Davison), 1965, Medieval Archaeology Vol. 9 p. 191 download copy
  • (Davison), 1964, Medieval Archaeology Vol. 8 p. 258-9 download copy
  • (Davison), 1962-3, Medieval Archaeology Vol. 6-7 p. 323 download copy
  • Gray, H.St.G., 1903, 'Excavations at Castle Neroche June-July 1903' Somerset Archaeology and Natural History Vol. 49 p. 23-53
  • Warre, F., 1854, 'Castle Neroche' Somerset Archaeology and Natural History Vol. 5 p. 29-48 (where supposed to be prehistoric) online copy

Guide Books

  • 2011, Castle Neroche - An introduction online copy or [download copy > http://www.nerochescheme.org/media/uploadedFiles/file/Castle%20Neroche%20leaflet%20-%20with%20artist%20impressions.doc]

Other

  • Prior, Stuart, 2004, "Winning Strategies" An Archaeological Study of Norman Castles in the Landscapes of Somerset, Monmouthshire and County Meath, 1066-1186 (PhD thesis; University of Bristol) Vol. 2 p. 134 Download via EThOS
  • Newman, P., 2003, Castle Neroche, Staple Fitzpaine, Somerset; An Earthwork Survey (Unpublished English Heritage Archaeological Investigation Report Series AI/12/2003)