Montacute Castle

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

There are earthwork remains

NameMontacute Castle
Alternative NamesSt Michaels Hill; Biscopeston; Bishopstone; Montegue; Montem-Acutum; Mons Acutus
Historic CountrySomerset
Modern AuthoritySomerset
1974 AuthoritySomerset
Civil ParishMontacute

The castle at Montacute survives as a good example of its class, and partial excavation has shown that archaeological remains are present relating to the use of the summit. It is one of two castles in Somerset mentioned in the Domesday Book. There are indications both in documents and on the ground of an earlier Saxon work here, though this has not been investigated by excavation.

The monument includes a motte and bailey castle formed from a natural conical hill, overlooking low-lying areas to the north and east. The hill has been scarped to form a motte, with an outer terrace around three sides, and a bailey on the south east slope. An 18th century folly tower stands on the summit, but is excluded from the scheduling. The motte is a conical mound created from steepening the top of the hill, and has an oval summit 50m by 30m. Around the south eastern sides of the motte, 7m below the top, is an upper terrace 20m wide, with an outer face up to 7m high. Below this is the bailey proper, extending to the foot of the hill. The bailey is lobe-shaped and encloses 0.4 ha. The ditches of the bailey cut into the edge of the upper terrace towards either end of it, and diverge down the hill to the east and south east, then become a scarp around the lower end of the bailey. The ditches average 4m deep and are c.10m wide. The scarp is up to 9m high, with a shallow ditch at its foot. The bailey is enclosed by a broad bank c.1m high on the south west, south and north sides, though this is absent on the east. The interior of the bailey, which would otherwise be steeply sloping, is terraced, with two broad steps 25m wide at top and bottom, and two narrow steps 9m wide half-way down, one of which runs only part-way. The outer terrace around the other sides of the hill runs at approximately the same level as the top terrace within the bailey. It is 15m below the summit of the motte and 35m wide

Below it is a 15m high scarp to the base of the hill, around which runs a shallow ditch. Separating the outer terrace from the base of the motte on the north west side is a bank 2m high, the ground inside which has been excavated to steepen the motte, forming an inner ditch. This ditch runs round to the ends of the upper terrace, and the line of the bank approximately continues that of the upper terrace. The approach from the foot of the hill onto the outer terrace is a hollowed trackway on the north west. The ascent from the upper terrace to the summit of the motte is a path from the south west side just inside the bailey. The approach from the outer terrace to the upper terrace (ie: into the castle proper) is more complex. Here, the upper terrace extends beyond the top of the bailey ditches (which constrict it but do not cut it) for a short way on either side of the bailey, forming a platform below the motte on the north east and south west. Terraced tracks lead up to these from the outer terrace below on the north west, running up outside the bank and ditch and replacing the bank towards the top. The ditch turns outwards to cut across these tracks where they meet the platforms. It would appear that these were the original (and unusual) entrances to the castle, and the otherwise undefended platforms may have supported entranceworks or barbicans. The fact that the bailey ditches constrict the upper terrace but do not cut it, and the apparent continuation of the upper terrace by the bank and ditch around the other side of the motte, and of the outer terrace by the top terrace within the bailey, all hint at the possibility of more than one phase of construction for the earthworks. At the bottom of the bailey on the south east is what is probably a later quarry, a broad stepped hollow cut back into the slope. The hill or the village was known as Lodegaresbergh, or variations of this, in Saxon times, and the antiquary Leland travelling through the region between 1535 and 1543 records a tradition of a Saxon stronghold. A manuscript of Waltham Abbey recounts the discovery of the Saxon holy cross on the hill. The construction of the Norman motte and bailey castle here has been seen as a deliberate commandeering of the Saxon holy site. The castle was built during the Conquest under Robert of Mortain, and was besieged in a revolt in 1068. It is one of two castles recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 in Somerset, the other being Dunster. By 1102 the castle had passed out of use, as the hill, now known by the Norman name of Mons Acutus, was given by William of Mortain to his newly founded priory in the village. Leland says that the castle partly fell into ruin and was partly taken down to enlarge the priory, and records that no building of it remained, only a chapel set over the dungeon. This chapel to Saint Michael, from which the hill takes its present name, is first recorded in 1102, and according to Camden in the later 16th century it was built after the castle had been demolished. References such as these suggest that the castle was built of stone. In 1246 the king granted the priory an annual three-day fair 'at their chapel of St Michael of Montacute'. The precise location is unclear but the broad terrace and gently-sloping field on the north west of the hill would have made a suitable site. The priory was dissolved in 1539, and the fair seems to have lapsed at about the same time. In 1518-19 the churchwardens of Tintinhull paid for two loads of stone from the castle, though this may have come from the quarry at the foot of the bailey rather than any ruin. The chapel was last recorded in 1630, and the present folly tower on the summit was erected in 1760 as a landscape feature. It is cylindrical with a truncated conical top, and is 3m in diameter and 12m tall, with an internal staircase leading up through to an external stair at the top. Earlier foundations are visible inside and around the base. A small excavation on the summit in 1989 found evidence for a building, thought to be the medieval chapel, and a layer of rubble with early medieval pottery, which may have been from the demolition of the castle. (Scheduling Report)

St Michael's Hill is an isolated natural knoll that has been artificially sculpted to create impressive defensive earthworks. The occupation of this prominent landform dates from at least the 11th century and the principal earthwork is a substantial motte created from the upper part of the knoll. This conical mound is flanked on the west side by a strong bank and ditch and it is almost completely enclosed by a broad terrace. The origin of the terrace is unclear but it may have been created to support an annular bailey. A substantial horseshoe-shaped bailey, situated on the south-eastern side of the knoll, has a deep ditch and partial inner bank which cuts across the line of the broad terrace. This bailey exhibits the typical form and layout of an 11th century earthwork yet because it is constructed on a very steep slope only a very small percentage of interior is level - an area confined to four narrow linear terraces. Documentary evidence indicates that an 11th century castle once stood on the summit; it was apparently constructed of stone although this may have been preceded by a timber structure. The castle had lost its military significance by 1102. A chapel (which may once have been part of the castle) was still in use in the 14th century. In 1630 a structure described as 'a fine piece of work with arched work and roof, all overlaid with stone' stood on the summit; today a tall circular 18th century folly tower occupies the top. Parts of the defensive earthworks were almost certainly altered or enhanced to create an ornamental prospect associated with the nearby Montacute House - a 16th century mansion extensively refashioned in 1787. (PastScape)

Montacute castle was built on an isolated conical hill, now known as St Michaels Hill, but in Saxon times named something like Lodegaresbergh (there are a number of variants) and after the Norman Conquest Mons Actus. The hill was scarped to form an oval motte with an upper bailey on the SE and a lower bailey on a plateau encircling its lower part. The castle was the work of Robert, Count of Mortain, and was completed by 1086, in which year it was besieged during a revolt against the Conqueror. It presumably ceased to have any military importance after William, Count of Mortain gave it to his newly founded priory in the village (PRN 54294) about 1102. Leland records the castle in ruins. In 1518-19 the churchwardens of Tintinhull paid for two loads of stones from it, suggesting that the remains were still being used as a quarry (VCH 1974). The early history of the site is possibly more complicated. Firstly, although a stone castle seems to be presumed, no doubt because of Leland's account (though this is mostly hearsay), there is very little firm evidence beyond the minor stone taking of 1518-19 and the castle may never have been more than a motte and bailey. Secondly, the earthworks are more complicated: St Michaels Hill from the OS plan has recognisably been carved into a motte or castle mound with a bailey on its ESE side and a wide terrace on the remaining sides but whether this terrace constituted a lower bailey is not certain - it could have merely been connected with viticulture (see PRN 54298). Again, from the OS plan, a bank around the base of the motte on the W side appears to be continued as a perimeter feature by terrace works within the bailey. These are incompatible with the bailey and might be more viticulture. On the other hand, these and the W bank could suggest an original ring-work, possibly pre-Norman (Leland mentions that tradition of a Saxon stronghold). The Saxon place-name could also have some relevance - its first element is thought to be a personal name and its second the OE "beorg" confused with "byrig" and "burh" and so causes some suggestion of pre-Norman defences. This suggestion is perhaps reinforced by the fact that the hill was important enough to be given an individual name There are no longer any extant masonry remains of Montacute Castle. The base of the motte is accompanied by a bank on the N and W sides. On the S and E a wide berm separates the motte from the natural slopes. (OS record card, 1975) The legend of the Invention of the Holy Cross, preserved in the C12 ms of Waltham Abbey, recounts that it was first found on St Michaels Hill after being revealed in a vision, and later conveyed to a church which became Waltham Abbey. The erection of the Norman Castle at this spot has been seen as a deliberate insult to the Saxons, whose battle-cry at Hastings had been "Holy Cross" (VCH 1974)

Gatehouse Comments

This site was of enormous symbolic significance to the local Saxon people. It was the site where a piece of the 'true cross' had been found (This relic was taken to Waltham Abbey). It seems very likely there was a Saxon religious site on the hill and possibly some other buildings of high status. The Norman occupation of this site was a direct repression of Saxon lordship and highly provocative. The actual usable area within the castle defences is small, the site is not tactically of great military value (the hill is closely overlooked by higher land, although the castle is orientated on the other side of the hill from this higher land) and the water supply is poor. The obvious military position in this location for fortification would be the Iron Age hill fort of Ham Hill, where a smaller amount of labour would have produced a larger, more useful, encampment for Mortain's forces. It seems quite clear this site was occupied and turned into a Norman castle purely because of it's Saxon political and religious significance. The site is recorded as besieged in 1068. What the Norman's had actually constructed by this date might be open to question and it may be the considerable earthworks post-date the Saxon attack and represent a further statement of Norman occupation of this highly symbolic site.

- 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 ReferenceST493169
Latitude50.9499588012695
Longitude-2.72239995002747
Eastings349350
Northings116990
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

Most of the sites or buildings recorded in this web site are NOT open to the public and permission to visit a site must always be sought from the landowner or tenant.

Calculate Print

Books

  • Prior, S.J., 2007, 'Strategy, symbolism and the downright unusual: the archaeology of three Somerset castles' in M. Costen (ed), People and places: essays in honour of Mick Aston (Oxford: Oxbow Books) p. 76-89
  • 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. 78
  • Pettifer, A., 1995, English Castles, A guide by counties (Woodbridge: Boydell Press) p. 225 (slight)
  • Dunning, Robert, 1995, Somerset Castles (Somerset Books) p. 40-42 (plan)
  • Pounds, N.J.C., 1990, The Medieval Castle in England and Wales A social and political history (Cambridge University Press) p. 64, 68, 69
  • King, D.J.C., 1983, Castellarium Anglicanum (London: Kraus) Vol. 2 p. 443
  • Fry, P.S., 1980, Castles of the British Isles (David and Charles) p. 262
  • Dunning, R.W. (ed), 1974, VCH Somerset Vol. 3 p. 210, 215 online transcription
  • Renn, D.F., 1973 (2 edn.), Norman Castles of Britain (London: John Baker) p. 248
  • Burrow, Edward J., 1924, Ancient Earthworks and Camps of Somerset (Cheltenham and London) p. 120
  • Armitage, Ella, 1912, The Early Norman Castles of the British Isles (London: John Murray) p. 169-71 online copy
  • Bothamley, 1911, in Page, Wm (ed), VCH Somerset Vol. 2 p. 515-6
  • Harvey, Alfred, 1911, Castles and Walled Towns of England (London: Methuen and Co)
  • Mackenzie, J.D., 1896, Castles of England; their story and structure (New York: Macmillan) Vol. 2 p. 62-3 online copy

Antiquarian

  • Camden, Wm, 1607, Britannia hypertext critical edition by Dana F. Sutton (2004)
  • Chandler, John, 1993, John Leland's Itinerary: travels in Tudor England  (Sutton Publishing) p. 419-20
  • Toulmin-Smith, Lucy (ed), 1907, The itinerary of John Leland in or about the years 1535-1543 (Bell and Sons; London) Vol. 1 p. 157-8 online copy

Journals

  • Purton, Peter, 2012, 'The first private castles at war' Château Gaillard Vol. 25 p. 307-14
  • Guy, N. et al., 2010-11, 'Castle Studies Group Conference 'Castles of West Wessex'' Castle Studies Group Journal Vol. 24 p. 4-146 esp 104-107
  • Harfield, C.G., 1991, 'A Hand-list of Castles Recorded in the Domesday Book' English Historical Review Vol. 106 p. 371-392 view online copy (subscription required)
  • Adkins, L. and Adkins, R.A., 1989, 'Excavation on St. Michael's hill' Somerset Archaeology and Natural History Vol. 133 p. 125-9
  • Thompson, M.W., 1986, 'Associated monasteries and castles in the Middle Ages: a tentative list' The Archaeological Journal Vol. 143 p. 309
  • King, D.J.Cathcart, 1972, 'The Field Archaeology of mottes; Eine kurze übersicht' Château Gaillard Vol. 5 p. 101-112
  • Renn, D.F., 1964, 'The first Norman Castles in England 1051-1071' Château Gaillard Vol. 1 p. 125-132
  • Brown, R. Allen, 1959, 'A List of Castles, 1154–1216' English Historical Review Vol. 74 p. 249-280 (Reprinted in Brown, R. Allen, 1989, Castles, conquest and charters: collected papers (Woodbridge: Boydell Press) p. 90-121) view online copy (subscription required)
  • Turner, A.G.C., 1950, 'Notes on some Somerset place-names' Somerset Archaeology and Natural History Vol. 95 p. 120-1
  • Armitage, E., 1904 April, 'The Early Norman Castles of England' English Historical Review Vol. 19 p. 209-245, 417-455 esp. 238-9 online copy
  • Clark, G.T., 1889, 'Contribution towards a complete list of moated mounds or burhs' The Archaeological Journal Vol. 46 p. 197-217 esp. 211 online copy

Primary Sources

  • 1086, Domesday Book online copy
  • le Prevost, A. (ed), 1840, Orderici Vitalis, Historiae Ecclesiaticae (Paris) Vol. 2 p. 193 online copy
  • 1894, Cartularies of Bruton and Montacute Priories (Somerset Record Society 8) p. lx, 119-121 online copy

Other

  • Papworth, M., 2008, St Micheal's Hill, Montacute: Geophysical survey of hill summit and the Bower (National Trust)
  • 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. 1 p. 87-90; Vol. 2 p. 127 Download via EThOS
  • Richardson, M., 2003, An Archaeological Assessment of Montacute (English Heritage Extensive Urban Survey) p. 8 online copy
  • Fletcher, M., 2000, St Micheal's Hill, Montacute, Somerset: An Archaeological Survey (English Heritage)
  • Prior, S., 1999, A Desktop Study and Photographic Survey of a Motte and Bailey Castle and its environs at St Micheal's Hill, Montacute, Somerset_ (MA course work. University of Bristol)