Mysterious Medieval Castle Found Near Historic Shropshire Manor Home
Archaeologists from the British firm Dig Ventures have been excavating a mysterious mound located near Soulton Hall, an ancient manor house turned tourist attraction near the village of Wem in Shropshire, West England. What they’ve just discovered during these explorations may dramatically alter everything historians thought they knew about the Soulton Hall site. Believe it or not, they found the outlines of a long-lost medieval castle from Anglo-Saxon times.
Working with students from Cardiff University, the archaeologists unearthed the remains of a thick sandstone wall and multiple pieces of a solid but heavily waterlogged timber structure. These telltales signs indicate the presence of buried ruins from a forgotten medieval castle, which was apparently constructed sometime between the 13th and 15th centuries.
This means that the newly discovered medieval castle is older than the Soulton Hall brick manor house that currently occupies the site, as the latter was only finished in the 16th century by owner Sir Rowland Hall, who was once the Lord Mayor of London.
“We think it was a small castle, which dominated the road to Wem,” excavation leader Nat Jackson told the Shropshire Star. "There would have been a moat around it and we believe we have found evidence of the bridge that went over the moat. But that will be for further exploration."
The stately manor house, and a previous manor house on the site that burned to the ground in 1420, functioned as a home for many aristocratic families (including the de Soultons) over the course of many centuries. The original house was likely constructed in the 10th or 11th centuries, by Anglo-Saxon nobility connected to the ancient Kingdom of Mercia. This was one of several small kingdoms organized by Anglo-Saxon groups on British soil in pre-Norman Conquest times.
Like the newly discovered castle, Soulton Hall occupants have included many wealthy, influential, and important families. But at this stage, the Dig Venture archaeologists have no understanding of the relationship between the medieval castle builders and the later manor house occupants.
The Dig Ventures team along one long wall of the recently discovered medieval castle next to Soulton Hall in Shropshire, England. (Dig Ventures)
Artifacts Indicate Little About the Medieval Castle Builders
Dig Ventures’ initial Shropshire exploratory excavation took place in 2019. But they weren’t able to follow up that survey until this year, because of COVID-19-related restrictions.
Soulton Hall’s current owner, Tim Ashton, farms the land around the manor house with his wife and children. The Ashton family, which has occupied the Soulton site for a few generations, have converted the manor house into a hotel and the surrounding grounds into an entertainment space.
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Like others in his family, Tim Ashton has long been curious about what the mound in his backyard might have been hiding.
"We've always had questions,” he told the BBC News. “My grandfather was born in the 1920s and always wondered what it was.”
Ashton is delighted to finally have his questions answered.
A Dig Ventures team member holding up a medieval pilgrim’s badge she found in the moat of the medieval castle site in Shropshire. It is believed to date to the 1300s and depicts Jesus on the cross. (Dig Ventures)
"The team is fairly comfortable in the time [of the castle’s construction] because of the objects we've been finding,” he explained.
The artifacts found so far at the site include ceramic pottery fragments, plus items that suggest the medieval castle was either used by aspiring Christian pilgrims or hosted such pilgrims passing through on their way to various holy sites.
The latter class of artifacts include a medieval pilgrim’s badge, which is a small cross bearing the figure of a crucified Jesus Christ, and a small vessel called an ampulla that would have been used to transport holy water or oil.
“We think [the ampulla] dates to the 1300s, and when you look closely you can just about see a crossed shield on it,” Dig Ventures wrote in a post on Facebook. “We wonder who it belonged to ...?”
A squashed medieval ampulla found on the medieval castle site by the Dig Ventures team. An ampulla is a little vessel that would have been used by pilgrims for carrying holy water. (Dig Ventures)
English Pilgrimage Practices after the Conquest
Following the Norman Conquest of 1066, and continuing for the next few hundred years, pilgrimages to holy sites and sacred shrines were undertaken quite often by English Christians.
From the 13th century on, some English pilgrims chose to follow the path of the Crusaders, traveling all the way to Jerusalem. Others chose to stay closer to home, frequenting sites located on English soil.
One of the most popular destinations for these individuals was the shrine of St. Thomas Becket, which was built in the Canterbury Cathedral (230 miles or 370 kilometers south of the Soulton Hall site) around the year 1200. This shrine was dedicated to the memory of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered by King Henry II in the 12th century while trying to defend the freedom and authority of the Catholic Church.
English pilgrims who headed to this site were mentioned by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales, which was written in the late 14th century. They were portrayed as dust-covered, exhausted, and sincere spiritual seekers who were driven onward by their determination to reach their final destination.
Did pilgrims stop off at the medieval castle on their way to or back from Jerusalem, Canterbury, or some other location, leaving some of their holy items behind by mistake? Or were the aristocratic residents of the medieval castle the actual pilgrims, meaning the sacred goods found by the archaeologists would have belonged to them?
As of now these questions are unanswerable. But that may change once archaeologists have had more time to explore the Soulton Hall mound site.
A Dig Venture team member squatting before the waterlogged timber structure of the ancient castle. (Dig Ventures)
The Most Exciting Field Project Imaginable
Commenting on the participation of the Cardiff University students in this project, Tim Ashton notes their good fortune, which brought a frustrating delay to a happy ending.
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“They have had very little access to the field, some of them couldn't graduate until they came to the dig, we've been planning it for eight months,” he explained.
"It's one of the first teaching digs [since the pandemic], and they essentially found a perfectly preserved timber structure [the moat bridge remains]."
The Dig Ventures archaeologists were complimentary of the students’ work, stating that they hope to work with them again on future excavations. There will be plenty of work for everyone on the Soulton Hall mound in the months and years to come, as researchers dig deeper in search of evidence that might reveal who built the medieval castle and for what ultimate purpose.
Top image: The emerging ruins of the lost and forgotten medieval castle found in Shropshire, England near the popular tourist attraction of Soulton Hall. Source: Dig Ventures
By Nathan Falde