Researching Medieval Landscapes of Power in Cheshire


Seeing the bigger picture: Researching medieval landscapes of power in Cheshire

Man’s power, and how it is used – and abused – has always fascinated me. From the sidelines, I watch with interest the intangible effects of such power in both the worlds of business and academia. But it is the tangible result of man’s power that has shaped and continues to shape our landscape, which draws me in from the periphery of mere observation. In attempting to interpret and understand the man-made lumps and bumps I see in the field- and townscapes of Britain, I like to get my hands dirty – in more ways than one.

My doctoral research, which is nearing completion, concerns the number, location and distribution of castles raised in Cheshire in the north-west of England during the period of the Earldom of Chester, c.1066 – c. 1237.  The extent of the area of Cheshire is taken to be that delineated in Domesday Book, and so includes what is now Flintshire in north-east Wales. I examine various sources, including documentary, archaeological and topographical sources, making this the first time that such a cross-border, inter-disciplinary study of medieval buildings of power in the Cheshire landscape has been made. The aims of my thesis are to demonstrate to what extent the martial and strategic role of each castle in medieval Cheshire affected its placing and landscape context; to what extent the castle builders’ display of personal power played a part in the choice of locations, the purposes to which the castles were put, as well as the shaping of their landscapes – and to what extent the location of any given castle in the Earldom of Chester had been influenced by the builder’s desire to appropriate pre-Norman power centres and ancient locales in the landscape. Taking an even broader context, I am also looking at to what extent the location of a castle had been influenced by the builder’s overall distribution of landed holdings within and outside the county of Cheshire, and whether or not other patterns of lordship and the distribution of high-status settlement affected the choice of castle site. This means that I contrast the castles of the Earls of Chester with those of their knightly tenants within medieval Cheshire, as well as with the county’s manorial settlements and landscapes that were not subject to castle building. Religious houses and other relevant material culture are referred to where these are considered influential to a castle’s location and its landscape.

It’s a far and wide-reaching net to cast in order to answer my own questions. I am firmly of the belief, however, that to gain a fuller understanding of such power and place in medieval borderland Britain, and of how such buildings of lordship were actually perceived by their contemporaries, we need to look beyond the monuments themselves to their landscapes. In doing so, I take what I call a micro-macro approach. From the micro – or immediate – landscape perspective, contributory factors that determined the design, build and siting of the Norman castle included the local geography, topography, existence of an administrative centre, trade, and political/societal influences. But the castle also signified the status of its builder, and was usually enhanced by ostentatious display through the use of seemingly planned, high status landscapes to improve its visual setting. These so-called designed landscapes often included the castle’s associated settlement and its walls, churches, monasteries, hospitals, as well as its ornamental gardens, fishponds, parks and masonry-reflecting moats and pools. These symbols of powerful and wealthy status were all carefully placed within the immediate castle landscape setting for the visitor’s prime viewing on his approach to the castle. This is not a new idea: the landscapes of elite medieval buildings, and especially those of castles, have generally been considered an important element of castle research in Britain since the 1980s; it is the balance between the castle’s military and/or symbolic function, which continues to be debated this century. Each castle builder had his own architectural and landscape agenda that displayed his power, whether this power was based on defence, religion, his own elitism, a combination of these, or all three. It follows, then, that greater knowledge and understanding of a castle’s micro, or immediate, landscape setting – if, indeed, it can be proved that it had been contemporaneous with the castle while it was in use – is vital in helping us to understand the castle’s power of place.

We academics can be guilty of problematizing, however, and thus of attempting to categorise architecture and archaeology in order for us to understand it better. Ironically, this straight-jacketed approach can inhibit our understanding; we need to see beyond the box that we have created with our own and inherited perceptions. Indeed, the medieval castle, fortified manor house, palace and monastic precinct often shared the same symbols of power, displayed in both their architecture and their immediate associated landscapes. This is where the macro approach to landscape – the even bigger picture – plays a vital role. This approach considers the directly influential links between one monument and a much broader context beyond its immediate landscape. It is a two-fold approach: Firstly, the research itself has to be wider: it must be multidisciplinary to be effective, and in order to project as true a picture as possible from the medieval past into our present understanding. My study is primarily one of landscape history/archaeology, which spans many disciplinary boundaries, such as historical, architectural, geological, cartographic, linguistic, and archaeological. Where at all possible, I do not rely on secondary source interpretation, but instead I return to the primary source (whether landscape or document), with the aim of achieving an as-far-as-possible, objective (re)interpretation of a monument and its power within both an immediate and wider landscape.

Secondly, we are often guilty of placing inhibitive, and sometimes prohibitive, spatial and temporal restrictions on the scope of our landscape research of one particular medieval monument.  Yes, we must draw the research line somewhere, but without looking at the wider context, we are in danger of following blinkered, overly focused approaches, which ignore the landscape as a palimpsest of generations of intermeshed use and re-use. We need to appreciate why successive powers placed significance within what became a castle’s wider landscape, in order to more fully understand the purpose and immediate landscape of the castle itself. For instance, the supposed previous site of what is called Frodsham Castle in mid-Cheshire, was nestled between and below two prominent hillforts in the county which might be considered to have been more effective defensive locations for the castle. Perhaps this low-lying location contributed to the reason why Frodsham Castle, within its immediate landscape of planned town and port, sitting on the banks of the River Mersey, is generally called a fortified manor house. Yet, fourteenth century documents referred to this wooden hall and stone tower held by the Earl of Chester as a castle (castellum). Knowledge of a wider geographical context, therefore, could suggest a lesser intended defensive purpose of Frodsham Castle from the thirteenth century onwards, or an alternative perception to ours today, of what was meant by a castle by its contemporaries.

Equally, we can be constrained by the present-day delineation of the landscape, thus underplaying the significance of the wider landscapes created by previous medieval township, parish, county and country boundaries. I have already mentioned that my research straddles the present boundary of Wales to the west of Cheshire. Time and time again, I am finding that medieval monuments within the county cannot be understood if I were to ignore this previous political landscape context. By taking this frequently fluctuating boundary into account, I have identified an at-times close political and tenurial relationship between the Earls of Chester and their neighbouring Welsh rulers, which not only defies our perception of what had to have been a war-torn Marcher zone in that area, but also underlines that these societal relationships may well have also directly affected the form, architecture and siting of Beeston and Dodleston Castles to the west of Cheshire, for instance. In addition, it is only by looking beyond Cheshire into England, and by examining the two sister castles of the Earl of Chester’s Beeston Castle (Chartley Castle in Staffordshire, and Bolingbroke Castle in Lincolnshire), that a fresh interpretation as to Beeston Castle’s location, purpose and architecture can be provided. This wider research approach recognises the entwining of inter- and co-dependent, yet separate, secular and religious powers in the medieval landscape, where the physical manifestations of these powers were displayed in the similarities and differences of their buildings and landscapes. In fact, the builder’s personal status was represented through individualised architecture and landscapes, despite our stubborn intent on categorisation, thus providing us with yet more reason to search out the broader context.

This multidisciplinary landscape research is not just about getting the boots muddy. This is vital, of course, but it provides us with only one piece of the jigsaw. To take a monument out of its micro and macro landscape context is like digging an object out of the ground before recording its stratification and location: all context, and thus its purpose and meaning, is lost instantaneously. To understand a monument such as a medieval castle, all available pieces of the jigsaw associated with it have to be gathered, interlocked and the resultant bigger picture interpreted. I see it as playing detective: leaving no stone unturned.

Rachel Swallow
Visiting Lecturer
Department of Archaeology and History
University of Chester

Image: Halton Castle, Runcorn, Cheshire. Photo by the author.

The views, perspectives, and opinions expressed here and by those providing comments are those of the author(s) and commentator(s) alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Dissertation Reviews, its members, editors, or advisory board members.

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