Oakham Castle Community Dig: An Introduction

Welcome to the Oakham Castle Community Archaeology Dig. This is our first post of several about the upcoming excavation, so come back to discover more about what we find as the excavation progresses.

What are we doing? Well, over two weeks at the end of April 2018, University of Leicester Archaeological Services in partnership with Rutland County Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund are carrying out an archaeological excavation in the inner bailey of the castle. The excavation gives volunteers an opportunity to take part in a unique archaeological project which hopes to uncover more about the castle’s history.

The original motte-and-bailey castle was probably established in 1075 by William the Conqueror. A hall is mentioned in 1086 but this is not the building we can see today. In 1130 the castle was given to the Ferrers family and around 1180, Walkelin de Ferrers began rebuilding it in stone. He also built the Great Hall, which is considered the finest example of its kind in England.

Surviving parts of the castle include the remains of the 11th-century motte and inner bailey, the late 12th-century hall, parts of the 13th-century stone curtain wall, and the outer bailey known as Cutts Close.

An account of the castle in 1340 describes the following…

“At Oakham there is a certain castle, well walled, and in that castle are a hall, four rooms, a chapel, a kitchen, two stables, a barn for hay, a house for prisoners, a room for the gate-keeper, and a drawbridge with iron chains. The castle contains within its wall an estimated two acres of ground. The same is called the manor of Oakham. Outside the castle is a garden, and fish ponds and a moat.”

Today, the only buildings that we know about for certain are the hall and the kitchen.

Oakham Castle from the south-east as it may have looked in the 14th centry. Artwork: Phil Kenning
Oakham Castle from the south-east as it looked in 1730. Engraving: Samuel & Nathaniel Buck

By the 16th-century, residential use of the castle had ceased and by 1521 an inquisition said “there is at Oakham an old castle, all ruinous… the hall is in the best state of repair, and old fashioned.” The hall continued to be used as a court house, which protected it up to the present day.

Blocked doorways in the east wall of the hall provide clues to the location of the service range and excavations in 1956-7 finally found evidence for a buttery and pantry, and a detached kitchen block.

More recently, as part of the Restoring Oakham Castle project, vegetation has been removed from the ramparts revealing large areas of the castle’s 13th-century curtain wall.

In 2012, Channel 4’s Time Team excavated several trenches at the castle. Two revealed tantalising glimpses of buildings which we want to explore further.

Channel 4’s Time Team investigate an area west of the Great Hall, where evidence of several late medieval wal structures were found.

North-east of the hall, Time Team found a stone wall which dated to the 13th or 14th century, but they were unable to say more. Is this part of a building mentioned in an account of 1340? Is so, what type of building is it?

West of the hall, evidence of further buildings was found. These appeared to be much later, dated to the 15th or 16th century. Added work, as part of the castle’s recent restoration, suggests that these are detached ancillary buildings next to the hall. Could they be the castle’s Great Chamber or Solar block?

In both areas, by finding Time Team’s trenches again and opening larger areas for investigation, it is hoped that we can make more sense of these structures.

As little remains of the castle above the ground, archaeology plays an important role in furthering our understanding of the site. So visit us, find out about our latest discoveries, and learn about 900 years of history at Oakham Castle.

Visit the Excavations:

Archaeologists and volunteers will be working on site between 18th and 29th April, excluding 23rd and 24th April, and are happy to chat to any visitors (10am – 4pm).

There will also be an Open Day with extra activities on Sunday 22nd April, 11am – 3pm.

You can also follow the project on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ulasnews/

Or download this Information Sheet.

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