Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Castle of Norman warrior-bishop saved from collapse

A castle built by a warrior-bishop grandson of William the Conqueror has been saved for the nation in a landmark conservation project.

The ruins of 12th-century Merdon Castle, near Winchester, were overgrown and the remaining stonework had become loose, threatening its future. A grant of £240,700 from the heritage body Historic England and almost £50,000 of additional funding from the landowner paid for specialist repairs.

Significantly, the intervention was used as an opportunity to teach traditional building skills and students will now learn archaeological surveying at the site, shedding new light on its history.

Elspeth Faulkner, Historic England architect, said: “Merdon Castle has spent many years on the Heritage at Risk Register and it was critical that a programme of repairs was undertaken now to avoid further loss. A new partnership with Winchester University holds exciting possibilities for discovering more about this historic site while helping students develop important skills.”

An aerial view of the ruin, showing the soft capping of the walls. Photo: © Historic England Archive

Motte-and-bailey castles were introduced into Britain by the Normans. They served as garrison forts, and, in many cases, as aristocratic residences and administrative centres. The layout included a motte, or mound, and bailey, or enclosed courtyard. They normally occupied elevated positions dominating their surroundings. Merdon Castle stands on a prominent chalk spur near the village of Hursley, on the site of a late Bronze Age or early Iron Age hillfort and a probable Anglo-Saxon manor.

The castle was built by Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, papal legate and brother of King Stephen. The bishop — described by his contemporary Henry of Huntingdon as “a new kind of monster, composed part pure and part corrupt, I mean part monk and part knight” — was a prolific architectural patron who built several strongholds in the region. Historians have speculated that he may have ordered their construction around 1138, at the start of the civil war, known as The Anarchy, between Stephen and the Empress Matilda.

Henry, a soldier and statesman as well as a churchman, supported his brother before switching his allegiance to their cousin Matilda and back again, finally helping to negotiate a peace settlement. Merdon Castle was partially demolished after the subsequent accession to the throne of Henry II — Empress Matilda’s son — but sections were used as a bishop’s palace into the 14th century. Later owners of the castle ruins included Richard Cromwell, son of Oliver, the lord protector, and the Heathcote family, acquaintances of Jane Austen.

Today the largest surviving fragment of the castle is a two-storey flint and rubble tower on the edge of the motte that may have been both keep and gatehouse. Elspeth Faulkner, Historic England architect, said “We know it was a tower and our assumption is that it was the main one. We think there was probably some form of bridge [attached] and there is speculation on whether there was a second tower. But the archaeology hasn’t been done to find that out. There have been investigations, but not as many as you might expect for quite a complicated historic structure.”

Henry of Blois holds his bishop’s crosier and ring, as depicted in the Benefactor’s Book of St Albans, c. 1380. Photo: © The British Library

She said the surviving stonework was mostly the core of the tower structure, which had been plundered for building materials centuries ago. “Around Hursley, the locals know certain bits of stone that were definitely pillaged from the castle,” she added.

The castle is on private land and normally closed to members of the public. However, community walks are arranged by the landowner to allow people to see the site up close and understand its rich history. A recent village open day gave 70 people access.

Describing the impression that the ruins make on visitors, Faulkner said: “As you reach the monument, you are welcomed by archways and some very clear passageways through that give you spectacular views up, and you realise how tall those walls are. Beyond that, when you’ve walked through the hall, there is a huge drop. It’s probably 40ft of hillside — a steep, steep hill. So you really realise that they had a fortification here that was quite spectacular.”

She added: “It is a very beautiful ruin. The problem was that the trees and vegetation were getting to the point that they would make it a collapsed ruin very rapidly… It would have been mounds of earth, which are lovely, but not as good as a fantastic standing ruin. Now we’ve got another hundred years at least before we have to do anything major.”

The rescue project involved stripping the site of vegetation, repointing the outer surfaces of the walls with lime mortar, and soft capping — adding a protective layer of earth and grass to the tops of the walls. The team also stabilised and capped the castle’s 400ft well. These improvements have allowed the castle to be removed from the Heritage at Risk Register.

Vegetation on the 12th-century ruins was causing structural damage that was expected to lead to their collapse. Photo: © Historic England Archive

Faulkner said: “One particular bit we were worried about was a very fine arch that shows the double-height space and the access from one area to another. It was very close to being lost. We were amazed it didn’t fall down when we were stripping the vegetation.”

Last year, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings used the ruins as part of a practical session on the use of traditional building limes. Faulkner said this sort of specialist knowledge is vital for working with historic buildings more widely. The University of Winchester is now using the site, with its earthworks and layers of remains, to teach students survey skills including laser scanning and ground penetrating radar, as well as project management and analysis.

Detail from the Winchester Psalter, believed to have been created at Winchester under the patronage of Henry of Blois. Photo: © The British Library

Dr Monika Knul, from the university’s archaeology department, said: “We’re delighted that, together with the owners and Historic England, we have been able to introduce Merdon Castle to our students through their study of archaeological field techniques. We’re excited to expand this programme so that students, and the monument itself, benefit in the long term.”

Local people and interest groups, including WARG, the society for Winchester archaeology and local history, are now working with the landowner to help maintain the site into the future. Faulkner said: “It’s one of those sites that goes from no vegetation to six-foot tall vegetation in about three months and will continue to do so. It needed a maintenance strategy, because we didn’t want to fund works on a structure that didn’t have a plan.”

She added that the educational focus at Merdon is likely to influence future Historic England projects. “We were good at saving monuments, but not necessarily at telling people about their beauty while we were saving them or getting young people skilled up for the future. It’s very much something that we want to move towards — to recognise that spending a chunk of money on a course where 40 people attend and learn things is just as valuable as protecting a monument itself.”

The work was led by conservation-accredited professionals at The Goddard Partnership and carried out by conservation contractors Pierra.

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