Motte and bailey

Motte castles were military strongholds, built as a base for offensive operations, and are found in urban areas and in rural settings. A motte castle is a large conical or pyramidal mound of soil and/or stone, usually surrounded by either a wet or dry ditch, and surmounted by a tower constructed of timber or stone. A motte and bailey castle has one or more embanked enclosures (the bailey) next to the mound. Both may be surrounded by wet or dry ditches and could be further strengthened with palisades, revetments, and/or a tower on top of the motte. The motte and the bailey need not have been contemporary in origin.


Sometimes large barrows, windmill mounds, and garden landscape features have been confused with the remains of motte castles. It is possible that some mounds may have been used for more than one of these purposes; the siting of the mound can be significant as the mottes often dominate a road, river crossing, or settlement. Some monuments may have first comprised a motte castle and then later, through the addition of a bailey, have become a motte and bailey castle.


It is generally accepted that mottes were introduced into England by the Normans and were widely built by them after the Conquest. A very small number may have been built before the Conquest by Norman immigrants who found favour at the English Court. Two main periods of building can be identified, firstly immediately post-Conquest as the new land settlement took place and secondly during the Anarchy of the civil wars between Stephen and Matilda c.1138-1153.


The duration of use varied widely, with some motte castles, especially siegeworks, being abandoned not long after completion and others having a life of perhaps 150 years. There is little evidence of occupation of the mottes, which would have been used largely as watch towers; some baileys however contained a series of domestic and communal buildings. They ceased to be built after the 12th century, being superseded by stone castles and other fortified structures of various classes.


Bolebec motte and bailey castle, WhitchurchThere was no overall strategic plan; they were built as the need arose, and any apparent clusters tend to be chains of inter-visible sites more than 2km apart lining passes through hills, such as Cymbeline's Mount in Great Kimble and Danes Camp in Great Hampden. Mottes and bailey castles were built in towns and villages, and in open countryside, dominating as far as possible their immediate locality; they are typically in one of the following situations: at the intersection of Romano-British roads (tend to be early); overlooking a town or village such as Bolebec Castle in Whitchurch; commanding a river crossing or ford; commanding a pass; and built as a siegework in opposition to an existing motte. In all cases the motte will be sited as high as is consistent with its purpose.


There is often no obvious reason for the motte to be built without a bailey - probable reasons would include a temporary need only, or lack of completion for varying reasons; in the case of siegeworks, however, the reason is clear - the motte was built in opposition to another and about 25% of motte castles are in this situation. These will be, on average, 300m distant from the opposed motte (which may be a motte and bailey castle). Mottes without baileys have been identified at Buckingham and The Beacon, Cublington, amongst other places.


A ringwork is a roughly circular area of ground up to 0.75ha enclosed by an earthwork comprising a bank and external ditch. The bank may have been strengthened with palisades, revetments, tower, and gatehouse, of timber. Domestic buildings may have been sited within the ringwork, and the ground level within the ringwork may be raised above that outside. In some cases a bailey is attached to the ringwork.


A ringwork could be a defended habitation, or military stronghold built for offensive operations, in both cases the bank forming an unusually compact enclosure, although very large enclosures are known. Ringworks are found in urban areas and in rural settings and some were converted into mottes or later stone castles. Ringworks were widely built immediately post-Conquest, but few after the 12th century; they are contemporary with motte castles and motte and bailey castles which performed a similar function.


It has been suggested that the choice of building a ringwork or a motte and bailey castle was one of individual preference. They were built in towns and villages, and in open countryside, dominating as far as possible their immediate locality and are typically in one of the following situations: at the intersection of Romano-British roads; overlooking a town or village; commanding a river crossing or ford; or commanding a pass.


One good example of a ringwork in Buckinghamshire is at Desborough Castle in High Wycombe. The earthworks at Long Crendon may be those of a ringwork, but also could be a motte or a windmill mound.