Beaudesert Castle - Warwickshire

The  earthworks, albeit quite clear ones, are all that remain of this former Norman Motte and Bailey castle in Henley-in-Arden, not far from Stratford in Warwickshire.


Built in the earliest days after the Norman conquest, and possibly on the site of an Ancient British fort, the original castle would, like most of the early Motte and Baileys, have been made mainly of wood, being gradually converted to stone as time went by, starting with the all-important defensive curtain wall.

Map of Henley-in-Arden
Model of Norman Castle


The model of Beaudesert Castle on the left in the Henley in Arden Heritage Centre is an artist's impression of what the castle may have looked like in its later days. However, a dig by Timeteam visit Beaudesert Castle in September 2001, revealed a great deal about the castle that may change these ideas. Timeteam's 3-D graphics reconstruction of the keep is shown below. Notably, it seems unlikely that there was a large central keep as the model would suggest. Instead, a large hall with solar seems more likely.


Reconstruction of Beaudesert Castle


The castle is in a superb, commanding position over the surrounding countryside, and was built on a natural ridge: perfect for the task that it was built for. The photographs below show superbly how the ridges, furrows, earthworks and moats still survive: but you have to look for them. There is only a single stone left there now, but there was surface evidence of the castle still in place as late as the mid 19th Century, when some wooden water pipes from the deep well's conduit system were removed and left lying around, apparently because the ground was subsiding and cattle were breaking their legs! At about this time, the moulded capital of a doorway shaft from the 13th or 14th century was dug up on the castle's site.


The earthworks of Beaudesert Castle

Beaudesert from the air. (from the Timeteam website)

Stone from Beaudesert Castle

The last remaining stone on the Beaudesert site, possibly the door shaft dug up in the 19th century.


Henry de Newburgh, Earl of Warwick, gave the land to his great-nephew, Thurstan de Montfort, who built a castle on the lands that he called Beaudesert, or beautiful wasteland, presumably in reference to what must have been the very depths of the dark and sinister Forest of Arden. A charter for a market alongside the castle was obtained from the Empress Maud in 1140. 


It was probably his grandson Peter who walled the inner bailey in stone. In April 1262, when he began to take sides with the Barons, the King gave orders to prevent the fortification of the castle. Peter was killed in 1265, and the town of Henley was burnt, probably as retribution for its Lord's stand against the King. It is said that the castle was also partly destroyed, but if so it was soon rebuilt, and Peter's son was restored to his inheritance. When that Peter's grandson Peter died in 1369, the castle reverted to Thomas, Earl of Warwick, which is probably when it began to decline: after all, with the massive and more important Warwick Castle, the Earls were unlikely to pay much attention to a small, and probably half-wooden keep. 


Lord Bergavenny held the castle from 1376 to 1410 followed by the Boteillers of Sudeley until it was sold to Edward IV in 1477. Whether or not it was retained by the Earls of Warwick and these nobles held it on reversion is not known, but it seems likely that they were only tenants. 


The last mention of work on the castle was in 1411: a minor repair to the porch of the hall, which would have been a large, high-roofed building somewhere in the inner bailey or keep. This is where the whole garrison would have lived and eaten, and where all except the Lord's family would have slept. The castle is not mentioned in a survey of 1547, so it seems likely that it had fallen into ruin by then. In any case, all the stonework had definitely gone by the time of the famous local historian Dugdale (1656), although he seems to imply that there was some still lying around: not one stone by then remained on another, and even the trenches were filled. 


The castle's design was of the simple Norman Motte and Bailey type which was so quick, simple and effective. The natural ridge that the castle is on was perfect from a defensive viewpoint, giving an excellent view over the countryside and a steep climb for attackers. Indeed, it is possible that it was the site of an Ancient British hill fort: it is close to an ancient track along the top of the ridge that would have been used to keep away from the dangerous, wooden valleys. It may also have been a Saxon earth fort: this may help to explain why the Normans chose the site. 


The surviving earthworks are unquestionably from this later period. The castle was - and is - surrounded by a deep moat, which surrounded the whole structure, and with separate ditches around the keep and inner bailey. However, as with many early castles, the moats here would have been dry: essentially just ditches. In any case, it would have been difficult to keep water in so high above the water level and with no stream to fill the moat. Around these ditches would have been wooden pallisades to protect the baileys and keep. 
Ditch of Beaudesert Castle


Plan of Beaudesert Castle

(Reproduced from Mike Salter's book)

As the plan shows, the motte, or keep, would have been at the north-east end where an oval ringwork measuring about 77 metres by 54 metres, rising up to about 10 metres above the ditch below, leaving room for a triangular barbican at the edge of the ridge. Extending in line from this point down to the south west, are two baileys, outer and inner, separated by a ditch, where there would once have been wooden palisades and some kind of drawbridge. It is unlikely that these outer baileys would have been walled in stone; it would have been far too expensive for a small outpost. As such, it seems likely that the castle would have been made partly of stone, and partly of wood, pretty much as is shown in the model.
Drawing of Beaudesert Castle

(This photograph is taken from the outer bailey, just in front of the dividing ditch which is where the bushes are in the foreground. It looks out across the inner bailey to the Keep's moat, which is where the distant bushes are.)

The entrance to the castle site now, along a footpath, is at the south end of the outer bailey, as shown in the photograph above. The original road to the castle winds further along, beside what is now a housing estate, to the side of the inner bailey and the entrance to the motte, where once a drawbridge and portcullis would have stood. This too can be seen on the plan (near the "100" figure: see also the model). 

Inside the inner bailey would have been storage buildings, almost certainly of wood, such as stables, granary and workshops, whilst the outer bailey would have been shelter for cattle. This is also where markets would have been held in the early days. 


In the north-east, there would have been another portcullis, drawbridge and barbican to protect the entrance to the keep: you can plainly see that the ground has been raised artificially and is considerably higher than in the baileys. This would have helped the viewpoint for the sentry whilst helping to fortify the keep, which would have been the strongest point of the castle: here the Lord would have lived and here the garrison would have finally retreated in time of attack. It would initially have been a tower made of wood, but was converted to stone later in its existence. The inner bailey too was rebuilt in stone at some time before 1265. 

(This photograph is taken from the very north of the site and shows the Motte: the ditch in the foreground is its moat.)

(This photo is taken from the motte and looks down into the moat, showing to good effect the artificial raising of the keep area.)

(Reproduced from William Cooper's book)

(A view of the site in the 1920s, taken from a neighbouring church tower. In the distance you can see the ridge and earthworks to good effect.)