OSWESTRY CASTLE

and OSWESTRY TOWN WALLS

Oswestry Castle was an earth and timber motte-and-bailey fortification raised in the late eleventh century by the Sheriff of Shropshire. A large stone Keep was later added and, in the late thirteenth century, town walls were constructed. Both castle and town were seized by Parliamentary forces during the Civil War.

History

 

Oswestry Castle

 

Oswestry is located in the border region where the main north/south route converges with roads to Ellesmere and Shrewsbury. Old Oswestry Hillfort was established to control this key nodal point no later than the Iron Age and, although abandoned by the mid-first century AD, a settlement may have been established on the lowlands to the south at this time. Offa's Dyke was built just over two miles to the west between AD 757 and AD 796. This was followed by Wat's Dyke, a 40-mile long linear earthwork, built through the site of Oswestry circa-AD 820. Unsurprisingly, the area was also identified as strategically important by the Normans and a castle was raised on the site by Rainald de Bailleul, Sheriff of Shropshire circa-1085. The fortification seems to be listed in the Domesday survey, a relatively rare occurrence for castles, in an entry labelled Luvre. This is probably a corruption of the French word l’oeuvre which originally translated as ‘the work’. The earliest surviving record listing Oswestry Castle by name (Castellum de Oswaldestr) dates from circa-1180.

 

The eleventh century castle was an earth and timber motte-and-bailey fortification. The oval shaped motte was converted from a natural glacial mound and would have been topped with a timber palisade whilst its base was surrounded by a dry ditch. A bailey extended to the south and was enclosed by a timber palisade. This would have hosted the Great Hall, high status chambers and the ancillary buildings associated with such a site. The town first grew up within the bailey before over spilling into the area beyond. An outer bailey, perhaps a livestock enclosure, may have been located to the north of the motte.

 

After Rainald de Bailleul's death in 1098, Oswestry Castle passed to his stepson, Hugh FitzWarine. It then passed to Alan FitzAlan and then to his son, William, who was still the owner at the outbreak of the Anarchy, the civil war between Matilda and Stephen over the English succession. This turbulence in England was exploited by the Welsh and in 1148 Oswestry Castle was seized by Madoc ap Meredith. However, the castle was recovered by William who then held it until his death in 1160. His heir, also called William, was still in his minority and was made a ward of the court. During this period the Pipe Rolls recorded expenditure of £2,000 on the castle and, although the only reference is to repairs made to the palisade, this vast sum suggests the stone Keep was built at this time. An inventory taken in 1398 provided a list of the compartments within this rectangular structure; Great Chamber, Middle Chamber, High Chamber, Constable's Hall, Wardrobe, St Nicholas Chapel, Kitchen, Larder and Buttery.

 

By the late twelfth century William FitzAlan had acquired Clun Castle significantly expanding his power and influence across the Welsh Marches. However, when he died in 1210 King John demanded that his son, also called William, had to pay a fee of 10,000 marks to inherit. William was unable to pay and accordingly the King confiscated Oswestry Castle and granted it to Robert de Vipont. It then passed in rapid succession to John Marshal and then to Thomas de Erdington. William FitzAlan died in 1216 but the family estates were recovered in the same year by his brother John. He actively opposed the King in the First Barons' War resulting in Oswestry being attacked by Royal forces in 1216 in which the town was sacked although the castle withstood the assault. The family were reconciled with the Government of Henry III the following year.

The (extensively altered) motte of Oswestry Castle survives.

The Town Walls

 

Throughout the thirteenth century Oswestry was used as a base of operations against the Welsh. In particular, due to its position on the major route through the Welsh Marches, a cavalry force was maintained at the castle. Nevertheless, in 1230 the town (but not the castle) was burnt by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth. It was rebuilt and in 1257 murage, the right to raise taxes, was granted to fund construction of a town wall. However, nothing seems to have happened and the town was sacked in 1263 by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. In 1277 Edward I renewed the grant of murage and ordered construction to start on the town walls. Work started soon after but the circuit was still incomplete in 1282 when two Welsh raids, in March and September, resulted in significant damage to property. The Town Walls, which were built from rubble and faced with sandstone ashlar, were finally completed in 1304. The circuit enclosed an L shaped area around the castle and four gates - Beatrice, Black, New, Willow - provided access. The walls do not seem to have been augmented by towers but, at least in some areas, were fronted by a water filled ditch.

 

Later History

 

Oswestry hosted a Royal visit in 1398 when Richard II held a Parliament within the castle. Two years later the town (but not the castle) was burnt by the forces of Owain Glyndŵr. This was the last attack on Oswestry and thereafter the military significance of the site declined although it was used as a marshalling point for troops heading off to the continental wars of Henry V and VI. The town suffered devastating fires in 1542, 1544 and 1567 which destroyed virtually all the medieval buildings and the town walls were demolished to provide materials to rebuild the settlement. However, the town gates were left intact at this time.

 

During the Civil War Oswestry Castle was garrisoned by the Royalists who controlled most of Wales and the Marches. However, the Royalist defeat at the Battle of Marston Moor in July 1644 resulted in large numbers of troops being withdrawn from the area to form a replacement field army. This weakness was exploited by the local Parliamentarians and on 22 June 1644, the regional commander of Parliamentary forces - William Feilding, Earl of Denbigh - launched an attack on Oswestry. He successfully captured both town and castle and a left a garrison under Colonel Thomas Mytton. The Royalists were not prepared to give up on such a strategic site and Sir Fulke Huncke, commander of the Shrewsbury garrison, marched on Oswestry to recover the town for the King. Mytton was on the brink of abandoning the site when a Parliamentary force led by Sir Thomas Myddelton routed part of the Royalist army. Oswestry remained in Parliamentary hands for the rest of the war.

 

In 1647 Oswestry Castle was slighted to prevent further military use. The extent of the destruction is unknown and it seems some of its buildings were saved to serve administrative functions. However, by the nineteenth century only fragments remained and in 1890 the site was landscaped and converted into a public park.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Allen, R (1976). English Castles. Batsford, London.

Armitage, E.S (1904). Early Norman Castles of the British Isles. English Historical Review Vol 14 (Reprinted by Amazon).

Creighton, O.H (2002). Castles and Landscapes: Power, Community and Fortification in Medieval England. Equinox, Bristol.

Douglas, D.C and Rothwell, H (ed) (1975). English Historical Documents Vol 3 (1189-1327). Routledge, London.

King, C.D.J (1983). Castellarium anglicanum: an index and bibliography of the castles in England, Wales and the Islands. Kraus International Publications.

Liddiard, R (2005). Castles in Context: Power, Symbolism and Landscape 1066-1500. Macclesfield.

Morris, M (2003). Castle: A History of the Buildings that Shaped Medieval Britain. Windmill Books, London.

Saltar, M (2002). Castles of Shropshire. Folly Publications, Malvern.

Sewell, R.C (1846). Gesta Stephani, Regis Anglorum et Ducis Normannorum.

Williams, A and Martin, G.H (2003). Domesday Book: A Complete Translation. Viking, London.

What's There?

Oswestry Castle consists of the remains of a large eleventh century motte topped with fragments of a masonry Keep. The grounds form part of a public park and are freely accessible. Oswestry Town Walls, including the gates, have all been demolished and three devastating fires in the mid-sixteenth century destroyed most of the town's medieval buildings.

Oswestry Castle and Town Walls. The castle was built around a glacial mound that was converted into a motte. The town was founded at the same time but was originally enclosed by the castle’s bailey. By the late twelfth century it had expanded to the south, east and west although town walls were not built until the late 1270s. The town’s name is derived from the events that followed the Battle of Maserfield (AD 642). In this engagement King Penda of Mercia defeated Oswald of Northumbria. The latter was hacked to pieces during the skirmish and, according to local legend, one of his arms was carried up to an ash tree by a raven. This tree later became renowned for miracles and became known as 'Oswald's Tree', later corrupted into Oswestry.

Oswestry Motte. The motte was first referred to as Oswestry in a document written circa-1180. The base of the motte was revetted by walls in the late nineteenth century.

Keep. Masonry fragments are all that remains of the late twelfth century Keep that once stood upon the motte.

Bailey. It is quite likely that the town was originally founded within the bailey. Today all traces of the bailey has been buried under the modern buildings. Its legacy has been preserved in street names.

Gate Piers. The wall around the motte incorporates two gate piers taken from the (now demolished) Beatrice Gate.

Beatrice Gate (Site of). The road north to Ellesmore and Chester ran through this gate. It was demolished in 1782.

Black Gate (Site of). Black Gate barred the road from Shrewsbury. It was demolished in 1771.

Willow Gate (Site of). Willow Gate barred the road to north-west Wales. It was demolished in 1782.

New Gate (Site of). New Gate controlled the main road south to Welshpool and Montgomery. It was demolished in 1782.

Getting There

Oswestry Castle is found just off Chapel Street. There is a dedicated car park directly adjacent.

Oswestry Castle

Castle View, SY11 1PZ

52.861045N 3.055315W