Bramber Castle – architecture and archaeology

So, last blog I waxed lyrical and briefly about the history of the Castle. ‘Briefly’ because, although its been around a long time, it hasn’t had much excitement. This is probably a good thing if you happened to have lived there. But it doesn’t make a good story and could be classed as a bit boring.

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Plan of Castle grounds  (Barton & Holden, ‘Excavations at Bramber Castle’ Sussex 1966-7′, Archaeological Journal, 1977: 14)

Boring it may have been but what did it look like? It was a ‘motte and bailey’ structure. That’s a French thing. The motte, now the tree covered mound in the middle of the site (well sort of middle), would have been the location of the wooden dwelling of the baron (initially William de Braose if you remember last blog). The bailey is the flat grass area around it. How do we know this? Well, the great lump in the middle of the castle grounds is not the result of giant moles so it’s a bit obvious. Also the Bayeux Tapestry gives us an indication of what such a castle motte may have looked like. See pic below – the wooden structure on top of the motte mound is being defended and it has a ditch around it (see pic further below for what the Bramber motte may have looked like). There is archaeological evidence that Bramber motte once had a ditch around it.

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 Bayeux Tapestry – defending the wooden dwelling on top of the motte surrounded by a ditch

The main excavation of the Castle’s gatehouse, curtain wall, motte ditch and sections of the bailey was carried out by K.J. Barton and E.W. Holden in 1966-67.  A great many finds were uncovered, some dating back to the 11th century.  They included various types of pottery, bronze tools, iron arrowheads, horse fittings, buckles, clay pipes and 917 fragments of animal bones were identified.

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What Bramber motte may have looked like – with surrounding ditch (not with water in it)

What is, perhaps, equally interesting (so as to make it not too boring – see above) is what was not found. As mentioned in the previous blog, it was generally believed that an explosion, in a skirmish during the Civil War, destroyed the Castle.  However, Barton & Holden report that no traces of Cromwellian destruction were recovered. Admittedly, this does not mean it definitely did not happen – but why blow up something that is already a ruin? (I know, the Venetians blew up the ruins of the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis because the Ottomans used it an ammunition store …. but that’s another story).

However, the keep or gatehouse to the Castle (stonework to the right of the steps) appears to have been built in two phases.   Firstly, in the 11th century (c.1075), it was simply a gatehouse about 38 ft in height, 9ft thick and consisting of a north and south gate.  This would have been the main entrance.  Secondly, during the 12th century, possibly Philip de Braose, or his son William, said, “I want it BIGGER”. It was transformed into a tower in excess of 50 feet in height (as it – well, the west wall – is today).  The south gate was blocked up (to make it more secure from invaders) and the north gate half blocked by a blocking wall.  The internal ground floor was filled to the top of this blocking wall (the depth of the floor is about 10 feet below the present ground level).  The entrance to the keep would have been from this north side but also by an intra-mural opening to the side of the west wall (still standing – see photo below).  There was a semi-circular stone base beneath this opening, perhaps indicating the base to the stairway to the entrance.  The main entrance to the Castle moved to the curtain wall west of the keep, in line with the present entrance and moat ‘bridge’.  It is likely that the moat would have been dry except the lower east side.

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Plan of  gatehouse (keep) – areas shaded red exist today (Barton & Holden, ‘Excavations at Bramber Castle’ Sussex 1966-7′, Archaeological Journal, 1977: 37)

There is evidence of two ovens adjacent to the outside of the west wall indicating that some building structure existed albeit for only a short period of time (due to lack of evidence of repairs).  Oven 1 (to the north) had an easterly opening close to the keep wall.  Oven 2 had an ashened westerly opening but a clean northerly one – the draw hole. Pottery associated with these ovens was 12th century. Oyster shells and a pit (tank) were found immediately to the north of the keep. Exciting isn’t it …..?

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The intra-mural opening to the side of the west wall

The south wall of the keep collapsed into the moat in or about the 16th century due to erosion of its foundations (some of it is still there) whereas the north wall and the east wall suffered flint and stone robbing.

On the external side of the east stub wall of the keep is a fireplace and a curving stairway.  Late in the 17th century, early 18th, timber buildings were constructed to the east of this stub wall.  These were temporary humbled dwellings.

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East stub wall where the later wooden structures would have been

To the east of the motte are the remains of a 13th/14th century domestic building.  The entrance from a courtyard to the east (below the mound) led into a central chamber or hall (see very first plan above).  To the right there was possibly a guardroom; directly in front of the entrance steps lead to perhaps a chapel and semi-circular lookout area (photo below). To the left of the entrance is the kitchen area with two fireplaces and an oven (please don’t try cooking there today).

IMG_0583 Possibly a guardroom – get that view!

South of the motte evidence of temporary wooden structures was found along with a hearth, iron and bronze waste, nails and slag indicating a smithing area and workshop during the 14th century.  South of the workshop were two lime kilns, again 14th century but probably after the workshop ceased to function.  The lack of structure indicates temporary use and probably erected for repair work to the Castle. However, around the north end of the motte, geophysics has shown foundations of several buildings (pic below). Busy place once upon a time.

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 Visitor Board from Castle site (English Heritage)

And that’s Bramber Castle in a nutshell!  Not boring at all …….

Oh, and you know I said in the last blog that I was ‘Keeper of the Keys’ of the Castle – well, here are the keys (scale: each is 6 ins [15cm] in length):

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Next time: I’ll introduce you to Dr Artemus Smith – archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction – Britain’s very own Indiana Jones (apologies to USAS members who have already met him)

Coming soon: St Nicholas’ Church (Bramber Castle); Ghosts of Bramber Castle; St Mary’s, Bramber. (Good old Bramber!).

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Bramber Castle – history

I know in my profile I said my main interest was Aegean archaeology but more of that some other time. I also said I was interested in medieval history so let’s start the blog nearer to home – my home in Bramber. Come and visit this great little village at the foot of the South Downs in West Sussex. It is halfway between Brighton and Worthing (near to Steyning). It has a great pub (and hotel), The Castle Inn, a superb Chinese restaurant, The New Bramber Dragon, and a fabulous Indian restaurant, The Maharajah. What more could one want!  How about a medieval ruin?  How about Bramber Castle …..

ONCE UPON A TIME a greedy king came to England from Normandy. His name was William (nothing against King Williams generally of course or there goes my future knighthood). It was in the year of our Lord, 1066. And so it came to pass that William smote King Harold of England and laid claim to his lands.

William divided Sussex into five Rapes:  Hastings, Pevensey, Lewes, Bramber and Arundel (Chichester was not made a Rape until the mid-13th century), all running north to south to protect the coast and communications with Normandy.  Bramber was given to William de Braose who built the castle (and the still extant St Nicholas Church) in or around 1073 and it  was retained by his family until the early 14th century.  In 1324, William VI de Braose ‘leased’ the Castle and town of Bramber to the King (Edward II).  On William’s death, in 1326, he left no male heirs and his co-heirs were his daughter, Aline  (who had, in 1298, married John de Mowbray) and John de Bohun, son of Joan, William’s other daughter (who had married James de Bohun).  On the accession of Edward III (1327), Aline recovered her manors and the Castle was restored to her son, John de Mowbray. And rightly so.

It remained in the de Mowbray family until Thomas de Mowbray’s daughter, Margaret, married Sir Robert Howard.  Their son John Howard, was created Duke of Norfolk in 1483 (Thomas de Mowbray being the first Duke) and the Castle remained in the Howard/Norfolk family (as does Arundle Castle to this day) until it was sold privately to Dr. F. Penfold in 1926.  On Penfold’s death, in 1946, it was purchased by the National Trust (and  is now maintained by English Heritage).  During the Victorian period it became something of a ‘leisure park’ when it was leased to the brewery of the local pub, the White Lion (now the Castle Inn).

It would appear that the Castle was not used to any great extent once it had passed to the de Mowbray family.  There is a record of two pirates being held there in 1355.  Archaeological evidence suggests that the Castle was no longer in use (as a castle) after the mid 15th century, whereafter a lack of maintenance and robbing of stone for building material use elsewhere has caused its decline.  In William Camden’s survey of Britain of 1586, he reported that the Castle was a ruin. As can be seen from the Hollar drawing below (existing gatehouse wall is right foreground), it was certainly a ruin in the 17th century. All very sad of what was once such a grand complex.

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‘Ruin of Bramber Castle in Sussex’  by Wenzel Hollar (1607-1677)

When William VI de Braose handed the Castle over to the king in 1324, it underwent repairs, the work of which terminated in November 1326 – on the death of William.  There are no further reports of repair work.  During the reign of Richard II (1377-99), there was concern amongst the Sussex locals that the county would be in threat of destruction should the French invade.  The king was petitioned to garrison the Castle but there is no record that this occurred.

There has been a suggestion that it was fortified during the Civil War and blown up by the Parliamentarians.  There is no evidence for this, although there was a skirmish, in 1643, over Bramber Bridge (by St Mary’s House), which the Parliamentarians were defending.  There is reference, in personal letters of the time, of a ‘fort’ and defensive ‘workes’ at Bramber but, although they could be references to the Castle, they could just as well be references to the bridge.  Certainly the bridge would have been an important position to hold (rather than a ruined castle on top of a hill) to prevent the Royalists proceeding east.

cropped-brambercastle2.jpg  The ruin of the west wall of the gatehouse of the Castle

 Despite the Castle’s neglect, it is still a fascinating site to see, with its solitary gatehouse wall, its tree covered motte and its spectacular views over the Sussex countryside – a haunting reminder of what was, nine centuries ago, a formidable bastion of its time.

The title ‘Keeper of the Keys’ of the Castle dates back to 1291. In 1346 the recorded salary was 30 shillings a year. I mention this merely because I am now the ‘Keeper of the Keys’ which sounds very grand (well, I think so) but, although I do have some old keys (I won’t say where they actually came from as that would spoil the mystique) there is no door for them to open.


Next blog: I’ll ramble on a bit about the architecture and archaeology of the Castle.