Pleshey Castle Excavations 1959-1963
Archive document ref.: S/SEC/7/8
Transcription of papers
ESSEX ARCHAEOLOGICAL SOCIETY
Hon. Secretary: John S. Appleby, F.R.Met.S.,
Tel:- Wivenhoe 472.
Dear Member of the Council,
2nd January, 1960
The reports on the 1959 Pleshey excavation are attached.
Please bring these to the Meeting of the Council on Tuesday next, 5th January, 1960, at 2.30 p.m. at Holly Trees, Colchester, when they will be discussed in the course of the business.
May I take this opportunity of wishing you a Happy New Year.
John S. Appleby.
Hon. Secretary, E.A.S.
P.S. Subscriptions are due from 1st January, 1960.
Have you set a good example by paying yours?
Forms of Covenant may be obtained from The Hon. Treasurer, M.L.Bennett, B.Sc.
His address is "Sharon", 15 The Commons, Colchester.
PLESHEY CASTLE, 1959. Interim Report on Excavation.
The excavation took place during five weeks of September and October, 1959 of which most of the last week was directed towards filling-in. Work proceeded every day, with paid labour and volunteers, in excellent weather, only an hour or two being lost through rain in the whole period. Three men were employed and an average of twelve volunteers attended daily, a total of ninety eight taking part at one time or another.
The dig, which it is hoped will be the first of several seasons' work, was organised by Major J. Brinson and on behalf of the Essex Archaeological Society (the first to be undertaken by that body for half a century) and was directed as a training excavation for the Society by P. A. Rahtz. The work was financed by donations from several individuals and organisations, and was carried out with the help and encouragement of the owner, Mr. J. J. Tufnell.
The site had not until previously been excavated scientifically: some buildings were cleared in 1907 by the then owner: the work was undertaken principally to relieve unemployment: several buildings were cleared, and "several hundred" glazed decorated floor tiles were removed to Langleys, and later buried *Footnote. No record of this digging was published, but one of the buildings, on the motte, was cleared, and a plan of its foundations published, by the Morant Club in 1921-2. Recently Mr. Tufnell has cleared the trees from the sites which has made it possible to study the earthworks with clarity: in the course of this work, some structures were uncovered by tree roots: restoration work was also done on the magnificent 15th century brick bridge which connects the motte to the Upper Bailey. The site consists of a large and elliptical mooted motte of 80ft. maximum, height with a kidney-shaped bailey on the south side, defended by an 18-ft. high bank and outer moat. On the north side is the town enclosure delineated by a bank and ditch which encompasses the whole of the modern village. Within this, adjacent to the motte on its north side, Major Brinson has found traces of what is apparently another cresentic bailey, which has however been largely destroyed in antiquity: it may be the original bailey, and have been disused when the town enclosure was made, at the same time as the kidney-shaped bailey was made. The destroyed bailey is at a lower level than the extant one, and it is proposed to call them the Lower and Upper Bailey respectively.
Access to the Upper Bailey is now by a gap in its outer rampart, but it is believed that the Norman entrance was at the east end of the bailey, whore there is an "island" in the moat, which may be an emplacement for the centre of a double draw-bridge. Nearby is a cut-away area in the inner moat edge, which may have been connected with the abutment of the bridge connecting motto to bailey, and later replaced by the brick bridge. The documentary evidence extends from the mid-12th to the later 16th century A.D. The Norman castle may have been built c. 1145 and was "fortified" c.1180. The castle passed into the Bohun family and thence to Thomas Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, who lived there in regal state until his execution in 1397. The castle then became Crown Property, and was the home of Queen Margaret in the 15th century, when some brick-building was done, including probably the bridge. The site lapsed alter this, and was in decay and being robbed by 1589.
The excavation was an exploratory one, designed to find out the sequence of occupation on the site and to relate it to the stratification at the western end of the Upper Bailey and to that of the western rampart. Such an excavation in depth is a necessary preliminary to area excavation, but it is inevitably dangerous and destructive of any structures encountered, particularly those associated with medieval timber buildings, which cannot be understood except by horizontal excavation. We compromised in this respect by making a cutting wide enough (10 ft.) to have at least some appreciation of the horizontal aspect of the stratification, and by meticulous recording of all layers and features encountered: future area 'excavation would thus not suffer in information, but only in area photography. The excavation in depth was limited to a trench 118 x 10 ft., divided up into 10-ft. square grids, both to obtain cross sections, and also for convenience in training. The deepest of these had to be dug to a depth of 13 feet to reach undisturbed ground, and gave some indications of the problems to be faced in area excavation.
The stratification was complex, variable, and not well-defined in details, as is to be expected on medieval sites. There are some traces of Roman and earlier occupation, in the lower part of the "old ground surface" but the first intensive settlement was in Norman times. It is represented by burnt buildings, debris (including bricks 13" x 9" x 1¼“), and domestic remains: those include much pottery which cannot be closely dated, but on general grounds is unlikely to be earlier than the mid-late 12th century, extending into the 13 th century. The occupation represented is associated with the rampart and is more likely to be that following the "fortification" of c.1180 A.D., than that of c.1145 A.D. A few similar shards and brick fragments were found on the original ground surface under the rampart tail. The Norman building were located, represented by post-holes and a timber-slot, associated with a drainage ditch.
The Norman level is sealed by a make-up of clay, in places 4-5 ft. thick, which was laid down sometime in the later 13th century to raise the level of the ground and to grade it so that storm water would run off easily, and thus avoid the somewhat dirty conditions evidenced in the Norman layer.
On the surface of this make-up several buildings have been found. On the tail of the rampart are three successive phase of minor buildings, mostly of timber, with numerous post-holes, timber-slots, metalled areas, and cesspits. These cover the period from the later 13th century to the 16th century, but in the absence of sealed levels only the latest phase may be satisfactorily dated except in general terms. On the level part of the bailey a major building has been found, with three main periods of constructions, which cannot however be definitely related to the three periods in the minor buildings. In the first phase of this major building the foundations were extremely substantial consisting of deeply-founded "rafts" of rammed gravel and clay on which were built substantial foundations of flint and later of brick and tile. The indentification of this building must remain at present uncertain: it might be the chapel. On its west side is a heavily metalled roadway with ruts leading towards an area by the side of the brick bridge: the lower levels of this road are partly sealed by the latest period of building. A 9 ft. deep cesspit, of the latest period of occupation, was excavated in this area.
Finds have been numerous, and include a sequence of pottery of 12th-16th century date, (of which the earliest group is completely sealed), many finds of bronze, iron, glass, lead, and stone; and a few coins and jettons, none of which is in a very helpful context.
The 1959 season has given a good idea of what stratification and materials may be expected in any area excavation. It is proposed, if funds are available to have a second season in September-October, 1960, also to be run as a training school for Essex Archaeological students. An area excavation of the major building found in 1959 is contemplated, together with exploratory cuttings in the area of the destroyed bank of the Lower Bailey or of the Norman bridge abutments, if sufficient resources are available.