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Oswestry Castle

Oswestry, Shropshire, England

Map link for Oswestry Castle

Text & photographs copyright © 1999 by David Timmins

Above: An unknown artist's impression of Oswestry Castle
Note: other photos are of various fragmentary remains of the castle

One walk up the remaining motte of Oswestry’s once large and significant castle, does not really inspire much confidence as to understanding its historical importance. One could be forgiven for letting what little is here, (sadly neglected in recent times) pass you by in a desolate blink. Indeed it has even been argued that the small collection of stones are not actually part of the castle, but in fact the town walls which were pulled down in the late 17th Century. Of course this has been met with some vehement opposition. And yet this is the intriguing fact about Oswestry Castle, despite its decay it still has the power to arouse debate and passion much like it did during its height in the later Middle Ages. Indeed because so much of the castle’s original surroundings have been altered through 19th and 20th Century development, it is now virtually impossible to gauge an accurate idea of what the castle resembled in all its dominant splendour. The only two known pictures of the castle are artists’ impressions from the 18th Century, other than that it is left to the imagination of the visitor. A good hour or so spent circling the vicinity of the summit, it becomes apparent as to what actually does remain, that can give us a few small clues.

However, let us first mark out the Castle’s known early history. Its origins date to around 1086, when a castle L’oeuvre was recorded in William I’s Domesday Book as being built by Rainald, Sheriff of Shropshire in the Hundred of Meresberie. Before the Norman Conquest the region surrounding the castle is thought to have been a frontier outpost that saw both Welsh and Anglo Saxon mix together. No town however, was recorded until around 1272 when references appear to the settlement of Blancminster, which derives from its white stone church. Interestingly though, the Welsh were already acknowledging a ‘Creos Oswallt’ in 1254, a name that partly invokes a link with St. Oswald, the Northumbrian King who was killed at the Battle of Maeserfelth (a location reputed to be near the town) in 641 AD. Similarly, Domesday lists the tenant of nearby Brogynton as Madoc, possibly the son of Bleyddn ap Cynfyn, the Prince of Powys. Further to this the Hundred of Maersete does record fifty three Welsh tenants. This does leave the origin’s of the town as a settlement, open to debate, it could be the case that Oswestry was once a strong Welsh settlement. What is certain is that role of the Castle was an act of domination to subdue Welsh resistance, whether this resistance was because of a threat to settlements over the border or the colonisation of ‘Creos Oswallt’ by the Normans, cannot be certain.

     

After the conquest the region was granted to Roger de Montgomerie by William I. In turn it passed to Rainald who is thought to have built the first castle (unless of course, he was settling on existing Welsh fortifications). After Rainald the castle passed to Alan Fitzlaad, descendant to the mighty Fitzalans, later to become the Lords of Arundel and Clun. The Civil War however, between Stephen and Matilda saw William Fitzalan I join forces with Matilda. Thus he was forced to give up the castle and its area. The Welsh were now given a chance to reclaim what they once may have lost, and this appears evident in the occupation of the castle by Madoc ap Maerdudd the Prince of Powys, between 1149 and 1157, along with the Lordship of the area. This was short lived however, since the accession of Henry II saw the Fitzalan’s recover their estate, but they failed to establish a peaceful reign during this time. Indeed they faced their most troubled times as rulers, mirroring the national situation for the Plantagents. There was significant conflict between the Welsh and the English, which saw the area and its castle sacked numerous times. This highlights the importance of the castle at this period as a military outpost, since in 1165, Henry himself adopted it as a base for his albeit disastrous campaign against Owain Gwynned. Similarly the year 1211 saw King John move against Llwelyn Fawr and North Wales and once more the castle came under attack. It is no surprise then that by 1270 the castle’s walls had been extended to embrace the town. Arguably it is this which further provoked Welsh resistance to English rule. In the 14th Century Owain Glyndwr emulated earlier patterns of hostility against symbols of English dominance as he attempted to establish himself as the rightful Prince of Wales. Ironically it was during such conflicts that the settlement began to to be seen as a potential trading establishment. It had its first Siarter Gwtta or Short Charter granted by William III at the end of the 12th Century. This awarded the area similar customs and liberties as the larger and already prosperous Shrewsbury. A second charter in 1263 saw this confirmed and culminated in 1399 with the granting of a Royal Charter. It has been suggested that this new found commercial status began to transform its status from an outpost to a neutral gateway. This idea can be reinforced with the offer in 1276, from Llywelyn ap Gruffyd to meet Edward I at the castle, rather than pay homage to him in London. Yet it remains that because Oswestry still required a fully fortified military base, it was some considerable time before it was able to shake off its original function.

The Castle: Features

From the ground and looking up towards the summit, it is clear to see that its construction was of the classic Norman design; a polygonal Shell Keep on top of a motte (possibly utilised from a glacial deposit) with an outer bailey. Its walling has been measured as approximately 2.44m thick. However one walk around the base and the summit, it is clear that all of its features have disappeared, which for the untrained eye, could quite easily lead one to believe there was never a castle here at all! The ditch that would have surrounded the motte has long since been filled, as has the southern bailey. Furthermore, a barbican reputed to have stood on a second mound in the now Castle Street, was sadly taken down around 1850.

Documentary evidence underlines the importance of the castle in the 12th century, as between 1160 and 1175 over £2,000 was lavished on alterations, such as pallisides and a well. Two towers are thought to have stood at the North East and North West regions of the castle. Although no real record exists to support this, other than an 18th Century painting which clearly shows one such turret. If one walks around the middle section of the motte and looks up to the summit where the tower are thought to have stood, it is possible to get a general impression of their locations. The evidence that does exist gives us an indication of its once resplendent features. A survey carried out in 1395 talks of the great, middle and high chambers, the Constables Hall, the buttery, the chapel, kitchen and larder. It is sad that none of these are visible today and as far as this author is aware, no archaeological study has been carried out to actually point out such positioning. It is largely left to the discerning visitor to establish their own opinions.

Decline of the Castle

The decline of the castle began around the late 15th century as it was noted of being in a state of disrepair. We can look to the results of the Glyndwr rising and then the town’s solid status as a market town as contributory factors, which meant less need for fortification. Although in 1530 the historian John Leyland noted that despite its state, the castle still had visible its famous Madoc’s Tower. The year 1662 saw a thorough survey of the castle being carried out for Thomas Howard, The Earl of Suffolk by John Norden. His findings attributed the castle’s worsening state to one thing; that although £20 a year was granted to maintain defences, the town’s Burgesses’ preferred to use the castle walls as a source of stone facing for buildings elsewhere in the town. Further to this, its main tower had now been dismantled of timber, iron and lead, as were the castle gates.

     

The outbreak of the Civil War in 1642 revived its fledgling status as a military stronghold, albeit temporarily. It was once more strengthened to some degree, following the town’s declaration of support for Charles I, and prepared for hostility. In June 1644 the castle was under the control of Colonel Edward Lloyd of Llanforda, but it was subsequently laid to siege by Thomas Mytton of Halston Hall (near Whittington) who was soon joined by the earl of Denbigh. Any romantic notions of a long and bitter siege can easily be dispelled. The town was surrounded by cannon and its principal gates battered into submission. This was quickly followed by an infiltration of troops who rapidly descended upon the castle, surrounding it and after one or two minor skirmishes the walls were mined just before nightfall. The following day ‘Buttars,’ a kind of early grenade, were used to storm the gates. Subsequently, the royalist troops surrendered and the castle fell. However, attempts to recapture it by the royalists do point to the castle’s military significance even at this late stage.

It was following the Civil War that strongholds such as Oswestry Castle were rendered uninhabitable, part of a campaign to quash notions of resistance. And in the case of Oswestry no sentiment was spared, it being totally eradicated of any visible evidence aside from a simple collection of stones. A poignant reminder of the tempestuous past that once enveloped it.

The castle was handed to the control of the local council this century and the motte and surrounding grounds were turned into a public park. The fragments of walling that are visible today are all the remains. Sadly though no real effort has been made to promote the importance of the area, as a monument within the town, thus a culture of ignorance has developed whereby the grounds are totally misused, and unfortunately potential tourists are driven away.

Further Reading

  1. Jackson, Michael: Castles of Shropshire, Shropshire Libraries (1988), Shrewsbury.
  2. Jones, John Pryce: Historic Oswestry, Shropshire Libraries (1988), Shrewsbury.
  3. Peters, Ellis: Strongholds and Sanctuaries, Headline Book Publishing (1993), London.
David Timmins is a teacher of history at Ercall Wood School in Wellington, Shropshire. He lives in Oswestry where he spent most of his youth, and developed a strong attraction to the site of the Castle. He is currently working on other numerous projects and investigations into the area. E-mail: JOBOB@dtimmins.freeserve.co.uk

 


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