Castle Hill - In Search of the Knights Hospitallers

In 2016, Leicester City Council and University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) teamed up to run a community archaeology dig at Castle Hill in Beaumont Leys. It will be the first archaeological excavation of its kind to take place at this important but enigmatic scheduled ancient monument. The work is part of the Story of Parks project, a two-year Heritage Lottery-funded scheme to help collect and celebrate the history of Leicester’s parks through the stories and memories of local people that use them.

Volunteers excavate at Castle Hill

What is Castle Hill?

Site location
Site location. Contains OS OpenData
The large rectangular earthwork at Castle Hill has long been the subject of speculation. In the 19th century, antiquaries suggested that it might have a prehistoric or Roman origin and it is described as a ‘supposed encampment’ on early maps. Today it is believed to be a medieval estate centre, most likely held by the Knights Hospitallers between c.1240 and 1482.

Beaumont lies on the edge of Leicester Forest and in the late 11th and 12th centuries it was held by the earls of Leicester before Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester (c.1208-1265) granted it to the Knights Hospitallers in the mid-13th century.

In the 14th century, the Hospitallers are described as having a house and orchards at Beaumont, as well as both arable and pasture land. These appear to have been kept by a bailiff and a wood keeper who were administered from the Hospitallers’ preceptorary at Old Dalby. In the 15th century a fishpond is also mentioned. The Hospitallers held the site until 1482 when it was exchanged with King Edward IV for the rectory of Boston in Lincolnshire. Records note a pale (fence) surrounding the site, and it was later described as a park but by the mid-16th century it had been turned over to pasture.

The earthwork comprises a sub-rectangular ditched and banked enclosure which may contain the remains of buildings. In all, it measures some c.165m by c.135m, and the bank still stands up to c.1.5m high in places. Outside the enclosure to the north is ridge-and-furrow, and a fishpond and dam measuring c.155m by c.75m.

In the 19th and 20th century the site was used as a sewage treatment site which has potentially caused extensive disturbance to the underlying monument. Today, the site is part of the Castle Hill Country Park maintained by Leicester City Council.

Modern remote sensing methods such as LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) reveal the subtle earthworks on the site in great detail. LiDAR source: Environment Agency (2016).

Modern remote sensing methods such as LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) reveal the subtle earthworks on the site in great detail. LiDAR source: Environment Agency (2016).

What are we doing?

The aim of the project is to increase our knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the setting, origins and development of Castle Hill and its environs; engage with the local community and widen participation and stimulate interest in the local heritage of the area. During the first season of fieldwork, volunteers from the local community were given the opportunity to develop a wide range of practical and analytical archaeological skills through on-site training and supervision by archaeologists from ULAS.

2016 Castle Hill excavation 1

2016 Castle Hill excavation 2

2016 Castle Hill excavation 3

2016 Castle Hill excavation 4

The 2016 excavation.

With the site’s potential an unknown, the goals of the two-week 2016 excavation was to develop a broader understanding of the nature and survival of the archaeology which will aid future seasons of fieldwork. Three trenches were excavated. Trench 1 would investigate the enclosure’s bank and ditch near a break in the bank, possibly an entrance. Trench 2 would investigate a hollow and associated earth mound in the centre of the enclosure; and Trench 3 would investigate earthworks and geophysical anomalies (interpreted as rubble) in the northern part of the enclosure.

Trenches were 30m long and 2m wide, with Trench 3 ultimately widened to 4m to better understand the archaeology in it. Turf and topsoil was removed by mechanical digger in preparation for the volunteers to excavate. In all, around 40 volunteers of mixed experience took part in the excavation under the guidance of ULAS archaeologists.

What have we found so far?

Trench 1

Trench 1

The main features in Trench 1 included a metalled surface running along the inside of the bank, the bank itself and the ditch. Outside the enclosure, the trench contained no archaeology. The bank appears to have been deliberately built-up with alternating layers of earth and stone. It is 12m wide. There is no evidence for a wall running along the top. Instead, it perhaps supported a wooden fence or a hedge; and it was most likely intended to stop livestock and casual intruders wandering into the enclosure. The ditch was c.2.5m wide but had been badly disturbed by a later trench for a ceramic pipe running down its length. This is possibly linked to the sewage farm. The ditch was filled with earth and stone rubble which might be deliberate infill, perhaps to create a causeway across it.

Trench 2

Trench 2

Trench 2 was dug across a hollow and earth mound in the centre of the site. Features identified include stone kerbing, a land drain and stone surfaces. The hollow appears to be the remains of a post-medieval pond. The land drain is of post-medieval date too and has been dug into the dark sediments in the ‘pond’, presumably to drain ground susceptible to waterlogging. The stone surface pre-dates the dark sediments but, at the moment, it is unclear whether it is related to the ‘pond’ or an earlier feature. The earth mound was built-up with thick soil layers behind a ‘kerb’ of fieldstones running around its base. This deliberate construction could be significant, perhaps evidence for a Bronze Age barrow, or a medieval windmill mound or a viewing mound in the later deer park.

Trench 3

Trench 3

In Trench 3, large spreads of stone rubble, broken roof slates and medieval pottery were uncovered as the trench was opened. On investigation, the stone rubble proved to be yard surfaces covered with demolition material, primarily broken roof slates. Within the yards were discrete features: a line of large stones, perhaps a boundary wall; and a large spread of clay, perhaps the remains of an earth floor. The earth floor formed a rectangular void in the yard surface and may show were a building once stood. Another discovery in the trench was a large stone footing. This appears to be part of a large square or rectangular structure sitting within the yard area and surrounded by broken roof slates, perhaps the corner of another building.

What does it all mean?

The presence of large quantities of broken roof slates scattered across yard surfaces, especially in Trench 3, is evidence that at least one building on site had a slate roof; and pieces of mid-13th-century Splashed ware ridge tiles decorated with double-horn and closed-loop crests suggest that at least one building’s was of some status. Over 400 sherds of pottery, predominately jug fragments in Chilvers Coton and Nottingham ware, were recovered. Only one sherd of 12th century Stamford ware pottery has been identified and could well be residual here; and there is a notable absence within the pottery assemblage, of any ‘developed’ late medieval Midland Purple or Cistercian ware dating from the mid or later 15th century.  Overall, the finds tie in well with the suggested date of the occupation of the site by the Knights Hospitallers. Three sherds of residual Roman pottery were also found.

From l to r: A piece of 13th-century Splashed ware ridge tiles decorated with a looped crest; medieval pottery; iron hearth slag.

From l to r: A piece of 13th-century Splashed ware ridge tile decorated with a double-horn crest; mid 13th - mid 15th century pottery sherds; iron smithing waste.

Evidence of iron working was also noted. Over 20kg of iron silicate (fayalite) hearth slag was recovered, mostly from Trench 3. Flake and spheroid hammerscale was also present in soil samples, providing further evidence that iron was being forged on site.

Overall, the first season of work has discovered that damage from the sewage farm appears to be minimal, with the medieval earthwork very well preserved. Evidence shows that the enclosure comprises a large ditch and stone-built bank. Structures, possible buildings, are starting to emerge inside, and at least one building had a slate roof and glazed ridge-tiles, suggesting it was more than a simple farm building. Pottery is consistent with occupation on the site between 1240 and 1484 and there is no evidence of earlier or later occupation, with the site probably being abandoned and demolished in the 15th century. The earth mounds in the enclosure appear to be deliberately built and may be barrows, windmill mounds or park features but further work is needed to clarify this. A second season of fieldwork is planned for 2017.

Mathew Morris

Follow all the latest news from the project here.

Poster about the project can be downloaded from here.

3D models of the 2016 trenches can be viewed here.

Find out more about the Story of Parks project here.

Castle Hill Project partners

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