Built in the wake of devastating Scottish raids into Cumbria, Piel Castle protected the lucrative trade associated with the valuable estates of Furness Abbey both in England and abroad. In the Tudor era the pretender Lambert Simnel proclaimed himself King at the castle.
Piel Castle stands upon the eastern portion of a small islet known as Piel Island. This was situated at the mouth of the deep water harbour leading to Barrow-in-Furness which, for much of the medieval period, was regarded as one of the best ports in north-west England. The entire hinterland was owned by Furness Abbey and that organisation also had extensive land holdings on the Isle of Man and Ireland. It was to safeguard this valuable estate that prompted the Abbey to build Piel Castle.
The monastic community at Furness Abbey was established in 1127. It was the first overseas foundation of the Savigniac Order, a religious community that had become established in Mortain in Normandy. Their patron was Stephen of Blois, Count of Boulonge (and from 1135 King of England) who encouraged Savignians to settle at Tulketh near Preston. However, this site proved to be unsuitable and accordingly they moved onto the Furness peninsula where they founded Furness Abbey. The community thrived and in 1150 was incorporated into the Cistercian Order. By the mid-twelfth century numerous 'daughter houses' had been established in north-west England, the Isle of Man and Ireland. Their power was enhanced by a large grant of land by King Stephen and, during the thirteenth century, acquisition of Borrowdale, Eskdale and huge swathes of the Pennines. Such extensive estates, coupled with the geographic remoteness, gave the Abbot significant autonomy with judicial powers almost akin to a Marcher Lord. Dalton Castle was built around this time to provide a venue for the associated court.
Wars of Scottish Independence
The wealth and remoteness of Furness Abbey made the site an attractive target during the Wars of Scottish Independence. This conflict had started as a result of the death of Alexander III in 1286 and the subsequent passing of his only immediate heir. Edward I of England had been invited to arbitrate on the Scottish succession and duly ruled in favour of John Balliol. However, when the English King attempted to exploit his vassal, John rebelled. Although he was quickly crushed, in 1306 Robert the Bruce commenced a new rebellion. Edward I raised a large army but died on the march north and under his son, Edward II, English fortunes deteriorated culminating in the catastrophic English defeat at the Battle of Bannockburn (1314). With English forces destroyed, Bruce commenced a series of punitive invasions of northern England attempting to force Edward II to recognise Scotland as an independent country. Furness itself was attacked in 1316 and 1322. In the latter instance, Bruce had invaded via Carlisle, plundered Holm Cultram Abbey and arrived in Furness where the Abbot paid 'ransom money' to avoid his valuable estates being laid waste. Throughout, Edward II proved inadequate to the task of defending his northern territories but refused to make peace. It was against this backdrop that John Cockerham, Abbot of Furness sought a licence to build a castle on Piel Island.
By the time the Abbey requested permission to build a castle on the island, Edward II had been deposed and replaced by his son, Edward III, who granted a license to crenellate (fortify) in 1327. The castle's function was to protect the harbour which had become increasingly important to the Abbey as their estates in Ireland and the Isle of Man increased. It probably served administrative, tax and warehousing functions plus undoubtedly made a clear statement of the church's power and influence.
Piel Castle was built upon a mound of clay at the highest point of the island. It was dominated by a large three storey Keep. Unusually this structure was divided by two spine walls which created three long, but relatively narrow, compartments. The reason for this is unknown and has prompted debate as to the true purpose of the Keep. Was it a defensive structure, a stylish Palace for the Abbot or simply a (very) elaborate warehouse? The Keep was located within a small Inner Bailey surrounded by a curtain wall and fronted by a ditch which was crossed by a drawbridge leading to a gatehouse in the western wall. The Inner Bailey was set within the Outer Bailey which was also enclosed by a curtain wall augmented by towers on each of the corners.
The castle had a relatively uneventful history. In 1403, at a time of border conflict with Scotland, it was briefly taken into Crown ownership when John de Bolton, Abbot of Furness was accused of neglecting to maintain the structure. It was returned to the church in 1411 and thereafter the only significant event of note occurred on 4 June 1487 when Lambert Simnel, a pretender to the English throne seeking to overthrow the newly crowned Tudor King Henry VII, landed on Piel Island from Ireland with an army of mercenaries. He commenced a march on London but was defeated at the Battle of Stoke Field (1487). Simnel was captured and pardoned by Henry VII who assigned him to the royal kitchen as a spit-turner.
In 1534 Henry VIII separated the Church of England from the Roman Catholic church. He declared himself 'Supreme Head' of the church and took the opportunity to plunder the vast wealth accumulated by the church. As one of the richest Cistercian monasteries in the country, the King's commissioners specifically targeted Furness and it became the first of the large monasteries to be dissolved. All of its property and estates, including Piel Castle, were forfeited to the Crown. Nevertheless, despite the threats of invasion during his reign, Henry VIII and his successors neglected the castle and allowed it to fall into ruin. It served no further military function and in the twentieth century passed into State care. Nearby Barrow itself however remains at the forefront of military activity as the UK's sole facility designing and building nuclear submarines for the Royal Navy.
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Piel Castle survives as a ruin. A portion of the Keep and Inner Bailey Wall has collapsed onto the beach.
Island Castle. Piel Castle was built upon an island guarding the entrance to the large natural harbour that served Furness Abbey.
Keep or Palace. The true purpose of the Keep is unknown. Although defence was clearly a key motivation for building Piel Castle, this would have been undermined by the large elaborate windows which also point to a high status resident. Complicating the matter further the structure is divided by two spine walls which create three long, narrow compartments. It was possible this was a later addition when the castle was primarily performing a customs role.
Coastal Erosion. Parts of the Keep have fallen onto the beach.
Piel Castle. The castle consisted of a Keep surrounded by a rectangular curtain wall complete with square corner towers.
Furness Abbey. The monastic community at Furness Abbey were originally a community of Savigniac monks established in 1127. The community thrived and in 1150 they accepted Cistercian rule. By the early sixteenth century they were one of the richest religious sites in the country and were specifically targeted by Henry VIII's commissioners. Furness became the first of the large monasteries to be dissolved as part of the King's break with Rome with the Deed of surrender being signed on 9 April 1537.