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Wigmore Castle

HER no. 179, OS grid ref: SO 4078 6929

Wigmore is in the north-west corner of Herefordshire, 8 miles from Offa's Dyke on the English side.

To the north-west of the church, on a ridge of high ground coming down from Radnorshire between the rivers Lugg and Teme, sit the ruined remains of Wigmore Castle. From its site the castle overlooked Adforton, Letton, Brampton Bryan and Leintwardine, as well as dominating the road in the valley below.

The remains command a strong position bounded on the south by a steep, narrow valley, to the north by a moor, and to the west by a deep and apparently man-made ravine which crosses the ridge and cuts off the eastern section of the castle from higher ground to the west.

Wigmore Castle once formed the central focus of a chain of strongholds - Clun, Hopton and Brampton Bryan to the north with Lingen and Lyonshall to the south. Also nearby were the castles of Croft and Richard's Castle. This chain assured the garrison of a speedy communication with the great fortresses of Ludlow and Shrewsbury in neighbouring Shropshire.

Description of the site today

The remains of the castle form a motte and bailey in outline, quite modest in size considering the area that it commanded and the number of manors under its control. The motte lies to the north-west end of a higher ringwork.

The main bailey, to the south-east, is a little larger than the motte, and is approached by a level enclosure.

The motte and bailey are defended by a series of banks with a ditch across the low remains of the spur. The motte is large and oval shaped with a top running 50m along the ridge and 20m across. The motte stands 20m above the lower part of the bailey. There is no ditch between the motte and bailey.

The inner bailey measures 100m east-west and contains the foundations of a building over 17m long, which may have been the Great Hall. At one end of the bailey is a multi-angular tower, which may have acted as a chamber block.

From this tower the curtain wall climbs c. 25m to the dungeon, a strong walled oval shell 36.5m x 18m with walls 0.6m thick. 

Walking towards the keep from the north-east section of the curtain wall you come across the angled vertical stones of an arch, once the top of a doorway. This leads to a small semi-circular tower which would have provided flanking fire for a blind spot on the corner and dominated the approach to the castle up a ramp.

In the remains of the shell keep a window embrasure or stair access can be seen, and below this the curve of a spiral stair. This suggests that the entrance to the keep was via a spiral staircase from a possible barbican at the rear of the hall or from the courtyard.

Midway in the south-east curtain wall is a gatehouse defended by double ditches. This gatehouse still stands two storeys high, but it is submerged in its own rubble up to a height of 1.8m. It is possible to make out a gateway flanked by buttresses with sloping offsets. The walls of the external gate passage are largely buried. Access to the guardrooms was in the right tower by a newel staircase.

The curtain wall adjoining the gatehouse to the south stands some 3m above the raised internal ground level and about 6m above the ground outside.

Of the castle towers, the eastern one is the only rounded example and is thought to date from the 13th century.

In the outer bailey are two rectangular towers:

The south tower contained a series of chambers arranged on three floors over a vaulted cellar. It had two heated rooms at ground level and one larger heated room on the first floor.

The south-west tower, hidden by debris, was of the same type but contains a single deep and narrow chamber on two floors over a cellar-like basement. From here the curtain wall rises up the motte to the keep. At the foot of the motte is the top of a doorway in the curtain wall. This was probably the postern gate.

The defensive counterscarp bank between the two ditches encircling the bailey is interesting. The feature is strongest to the north-east of the castle, and entry was via an area of wide flat ground with three almost semi-circular projections into the outer ditch. It would seem very likely that these projections were open-backed towers.

In the bailey there are traces of buried foundations.

Foundation and history of the castle

1067-71: The first castle was built on wasteland by William fitz Osbern, Earl of Hereford. Wigmore Castle was one of a number of castles (including Hereford, Clifford, Richard's Castle and Ewyas Harold) built around the time of the Norman Conquest in order to strengthen the Welsh border.

1075: The castle and estate were granted to Ralph de Mortimer after William fitz Osbern's son, Roger de Breteuil, rebelled against William I and his lands were forfeited. Wigmore Castle became Ralph's seat in England and his lands eventually formed the Honour of Wigmore.

1086: Wigmore was listed in the Domesday Book as being held by Ralph de Mortimer. The castle was recorded as having been built on wasteland calledMerestun by Earl William.

1115: Ralph was succeeded by his son Hugh, who was initially a staunch supporter of Henry I. In this year Hugh rebelled against the king in favour of his son-in-law Stephen de Blois. The Mortimers were dispossessed of their lands as a result.

1135: On the accession of Stephen to the throne the Mortimers' estates were restored to them.

1155: Henry II sent out a royal army to deal with the Mortimer problem, together with others on the Welsh border. He laid waste to several castles, Wigmore being spared because of its important position on the Welsh border. An agreement was reached between the king and the Mortimers, although the king never fully trusted Hugh afterwards.

1181: Hugh de Mortimer died. Before his death he began the rebuilding of some parts of the castle in stone. Part of the gatehouse and the lower walling of the shell keep date to his lifetime.

c. 1191: Hugh's son, Roger de Mortimer, was forced into exile for a short while and his lands were left in the hands of Richard I's chancellor. He regained his lands before he died in 1215 and his lands then passed to his two sons, Hugh and Ralph, in turn. It was these two men who were responsible for completing the rebuilding of Wigmore in stone.

1215: Roger died in this year and was succeeded by his son Hugh.

1223: Hugh was granted 20 marks (£12.66) by the King towards the strengthening the castle when Llywelyn ap Iorwerth was threatening the border.

1227: Hugh died and was succeeded by his brother Roger. Roger was a loyal supporter of the king in the Baronial and Welsh wars. It was to this Roger that Prince Edward came after he escaped from imprisonment at Hereford Castle under Simon de Montfort. Roger also took part in the Battle of Evesham. It was in thanks for his service to the king in this battle that he received the earldom of Oxford and various lands. Roger de Mortimer is credited with reinforcing the castle in stone. 

1272: Upon his accession to the throne Edward granted additional powers to the Wigmore Lordship, including the power of life and death.

1282: Roger was succeeded by Edmund, who died in 1304. Edmund was followed by another Roger, who was just 17 years old when he succeeded to the estates. In 1301 Roger had married Joan de Grenville, who was heiress of the Laceys. This brought extensive estates in Ireland and Shropshire into the Mortimer family.

1316: Roger Mortimer was forced to return to Wigmore to secure the March and his Welsh possessions against Llewellyn Bren. Roger was also appointed Lieutenant of Ireland in this year. In 1318-1321 Roger was also made the royal justiciar.

1321: Roger became very influential with Edward II's wife Isabella, and in this year led an armed rebellion against the king. In the summer of this year he joined all the other Marcher Lords in the ravaging of the lands of Hugh Despencer, a favourite of King Edward II. This infighting soon turned into open war and resulted in a defeat of the rebels at the Battle of Boroughbridge. Roger de Mortimer submitted to the king rather than run the risk of facing him in battle. He spent two years as a prisoner in the Tower of London.

1322: Following Roger's rebellion a record was made of all the weapons at Wigmore Castle. They included: three spryngholds (catapults for firing large stones); crossbows of horn and wood; helmets for jousting and real war; suits of armour and chain mail; as well as six tents and pavilions. Also listed were a large chessboard and a table for playing draughts.

1327: Edward II was deposed by Roger and Isabella, and subsequently murdered at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. Roger and Isabella ruled through the young Edward III. Within a year Roger had been made Earl of March and openly continued his relationship with the queen.

1330: Once Edward III had come of age he arranged for Roger to be arrested at Nottingham, and in the same year Roger was hanged at Tyburn in London. Wigmore Castle was granted to the Earl of Salisbury. Edward III was lenient in his treatment of his mother Isabella and had her pensioned off to live in comfortable retirement. Nor did Edward lay blame on Roger's son for the sins of his father. Edmund died soon after the hanging of his father, leaving his son Roger - a young boy - as heir, to whom Edward III later reinstated the earldom of the March when he came of age.

As second Earl of March, Roger distinguished himself as a loyal follower of the king and performed service to the Crown in the French Wars. He was created a Knight of the Garter, Warden of the Cinque Ports and Constable of Dover Castle, and married an heiress of the Earl of Salisbury.

1360: Roger de Mortimer V died at Roveray in Burgundy, where he was in command of the king's forces. His body was returned to England and buried at Wigmore. Roger's only son Edmund, then just nine years old, became third Earl of March. Edmund later married Philippa, the daughter and sole heir of the Duke of Clarence, the second son of King Edward III. As a result of his marriage, Edmund became the Earl of Ulster, and he was Richard II's Lieutenant in Ireland in 1380.

1381: Edmund died, leaving the Mortimer fortune to his seven-year-old son Roger. This Roger de Mortimer VI, the fourth Earl of March and second Earl of Ulster, was under the guardianship of Richard II during his minority. When Roger came of age he found his castles and mansions to be in good condition, and lived a life of luxury and wealth.

Roger was an important figure in English history at this period as, due to his mother's position as the only child of Edward II's second son, he was declared by Parliament to be heir presumptive to the crown, should Richard II fail to produce any direct heirs. Richard himself also recognised Roger as his heir.

1398: Roger never succeed to the throne, as he was killed at the age of 24 while acting as Deputy in Ireland. This was the year before Richard II was deposed in 1399 by Henry of Bolingbroke, who later proclaimed himself  King Henry IV. Henry was the son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and third son of King Edward III, so his claim to the throne was not quite so strong as Roger Mortimer's had been. Roger's son Edmund was only seven at the time of Roger's death, and after he had seized the throne King Henry IV arranged for Edmund to be taken to Windsor to live in the care of the loyal supporters to himself.

Roger Mortimer VI's brother Sir Edmund Mortimer still lived, and now held the Mortimer lands and was acting head of the family. However, he appeared to show no signs of challenging Henry IV for the throne. He probably would have remained in that position if he had not been captured by Owain Glyn Dwr (self-proclaimed Prince of Wales) after attempting to fight off a raid by the Welsh in the Lugg Valley. Henry IV refused to allow Edmund's relatives to pay his ransom, and this resulted in the Mortimer family rising up in rebellion.

Three main players took part in this rebellion: Owain Glyn Dwr, who wished to regain Wales; Sir Edmund Mortimer, who had married Glyn Dwr's daughter; and the Percys, the family of the Earl of Northumberland, who were related to the Mortimers by marriage. The rebellion was put down at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, when Henry IV forced the Percys of Northumberland into battle before Owain Glyn Dwr or Sir Edmund Mortimer could arrive to assist them.

1413: On the death of Henry IV his son, Henry V, released Edmund, Earl of March from captivity so that he could fight in Henry's battles in France. Later, on the death of Henry V in 1422, Edmund was sent as Lieutenant to Ireland.

1424: Edmund died at Trim Castle in Ireland. He left no heir and so the Mortimer estates fell to his nephew Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, the son of Edmund's sister Anne Mortimer and her husband Richard, Earl of Cambridge (son of Edmund, Duke of York, who was another son of King Edward III).

1455 - 1459 : Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York was involved in a struggle for the throne during the Wars of the Roses. In 1454, he had acted as regent for Henry VI when the king was suffering from mental illness. On the king's recovery in 1455, Richard found himself displaced in Henry's favour by his enemy Edmund, Duke of Somerset. Richard gathered an army and, in a battle at St. Albans, killed Somerset and captured Henry VI. Richard now became regent again, and filled the offices of State with his friends. For the next few years, the Yorkists had to deal with the plots of their Lancastrian enemies, whose leading figure was Henry VI's queen, Margaret of Anjou. In 1459, the Yorkists defeated the Lancastrians at Bloreheath, but the tables were turned at Ludford a month later and the Yorkist leaders were forced to flee the country. Richard, Duke of York went to Ireland.

1460: The Yorkists returned to England and regrouped. They defeated the Lancastrians at Northampton, capturing the king. Richard travelled to London to claim the throne, but the Lancastrians raised an army in the north and Richard had to march north to meet them. He was defeated and killed at the battle of Wakefield, and was succeeded to his title by his son Edward, Earl of March. The Yorkists were now scattered and the Lancastrians appeared to have the upper hand.

1461: Edward, Earl of March gathered a small army around Wigmore and defeated Owen Tudor at the Battle of Mortimers Cross, less than two miles from Wigmore Castle. Shortly afterwards, the Lancastrians defeated the Yorkists under Richard, Earl of Warwick at the second battle of St. Albans. However, the Lancastrians delayed in pressing home the advantage they had gained, allowing Warwick to join Edward and proceed to London, where Edward claimed the throne as Edward IV. After this, Wigmore Castle became a royal demesne. Wigmore continued as a royal estate until Queen Elizabeth I, at the request of Robert, Earl of Essex, granted it to Captain Gelly Meyrick and Henry Lindley Esq., his stewards. Captain Meyrick was executed at Tyburn for his part in Essex's rebellion and his property confiscated. The other share in Wigmore then passed to Lindley.

1601: The castle, with its demesne and lands, was sold by Lindley to Thomas Harley of nearby Brampton Bryan. It was this change of ownership that sealed the fate of Wigmore Castle. Sir Thomas Harley's son Robert was a staunch supporter of the Parliamentarian cause in a county that was predominantly Royalist. In 1643 Robert Harley's wife Lady Brilliana ordered Parliamentarian troops to dismantle the walls of the castle to prevent it from being used by opposition forces.

For further information on the history of Wigmore Castle and its links with the Mortimer family, click here.

Excavation and finds

Excavation trench in the inner bailey

In 1996 Marches Archaeology excavated a trench within the inner bailey at Wigmore Castle, on behalf of English Heritage. The excavation was in the south-west part of the inner bailey, against the inner face of the curtain wall. It consisted of a single trench measuring 10m x 3m. The object of the excavation was to provide English Heritage with more information about the form and dimensions of the walls, which had partially collapsed.

The earliest evidence of human activity on the site was a pit, so far undated but thought to be prehistoric.

At some time during the Norman period a timber building was erected on the site. Its large hearth showed signs of substantial re-use and alteration, most probably over a long period.

In the 13th century the timber building was removed and a stone curtain wall erected to enclose the bailey. At the north end of the curtain wall was a building with fine internal plaster. In the space between this building and the bailey was an open area at one stage used for leadworking. There were two pits filled with lead and many trimmings from the finishing of new lead.

In the 14th century this building was removed and the entire trench covered with stone-working debris, perhaps from the re-building or re-facing of the curtain wall. Within the curtain wall was a recess, most probably a fireplace, which shows that the curtain wall was not just a defensive structure but also part of the living space.

There was little evidence of the 15th and 16th centuries, suggesting that the castle had begun to fall out of use. Amongst the debris of this period were numerous sherds of medieval window glass, perhaps indicating that this area was a dumping ground.

The latest deposits in the trench were from the decay of the curtain wall in the 17th century, confirming the gradual disuse of the castle.