Searching for the Knights Hospitaller

Excavations at Castle Hill Country Park, Beaumont Ley (2016-21)

Article by Mathew Morris

In 2016, the University of Leicester and Leicester City Council teamed up to run a series of archaeological excavations at Castle Hill Country Park in Beaumont Leys. The digs were initially 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. From 2021, excavation will continue as an archaeological field school for students from the University of Leicester. The project is the first time that Castle Hill, the important but enigmatic monument which gives the park its name, has been investigated.

Beaumont Leys is a suburb on the north-west side of Leicester, probably best known as the home of the Walkers Crisps factory. Castle Hill, the focus of our investigation, lies within Castle Hill Country Park, a 250-acre area of grassland and woodland on the edge of Leicester which straddles the A46 between Beaumont Leys, and the villages of Anstey, Cropston and Thurcaston. Map contains OS OpenData.

During the project, volunteers from the local community and university students were given a fantastic opportunity to develop a wide range of practical and analytical archaeological skills through on-site training and supervision by our archaeologists from the University of Leicester.

This helped increase our knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the setting, origins and development of Castle Hill and its environs and stimulated interest in the local heritage of the area.

To do this, we excavated a series of trenches inside the earthwork in the hope that we could discover the date and function of the monument. We also investigated the bank and ditch itself, looking for evidence of how and when it was made, as well as looking for evidence of what was going on inside and outside the enclosure, and examining two earth mounds in the centre of the site, which could have a prehistoric origin.

What is Castle Hill?

The large rectangular earthwork at Castle Hill has long been the subject of speculation. In the 19th century, antiquaries suggested that it was of prehistoric or Roman origin and it was described as a ‘supposed encampment’ on early maps. Today it is believed to be a medieval estate centre, most likely held by the Knights Hospitaller between 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 (1208-1265) granted it to the Knights Hospitaller in the mid-13th century.

In the 14th century, the Hospitallers were 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’ preceptory at Old Dalby. In the 14th century a fishpond was also mentioned. The Hospitallers held the site until 1482 when they exchanged it with King Edward IV for the more profitable rectory of Boston in Lincolnshire. Edward IV converted it into a deer park and records note a pale (fence) surrounding the site, but by the mid-16th century it had been turned over to pasture.

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 (2017)

The scheduled monument comprises a sub-rectangular ditched and banked enclosure which may contain the remains of buildings. It measures some 165m by 135m, and the bank still stands up to 1.5m high in places. Outside the enclosure to the north is ridge and furrow and a fishpond and dam, measuring 155m by 75m, whilst to the east is a long ditch and bank, possibly the remains of the pale surrounding the deer park.

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

Castle Hill was acquired by the Leicester Corporation in 1890 and absorbed into the Beaumont Leys Sewage Farm, which operated until 1964. Drainage channels cut through the monument are clearly visible in this aerial photograph.

The 2016-2017 community excavations

Not knowing anything about the site, the goals of the 2016 and 2017 excavations were to start developing a broader understanding of the nature and survival of the archaeology which would aid future study, management and conservation of the site.

Excavations investigated the enclosure’s eastern bank and ditch near a break in the bank, though to be an entrance. Other trenches examined a hollow and one of the earth mounds in the centre of the enclosure as well as earthworks and geophysical anomalies (interpreted as building rubble) in the northern and western parts of the enclosure.

The location of the 2016-17 excavations. LiDAR source: Environment Agency (2017)

Turf and topsoil were removed by mechanical digger in preparation for volunteers to excavate. In all, around 90 volunteers of mixed experience took part in the excavations under the guidance of University of Leicester archaeologists.

The outer earthwork

Our first key research question was when was the enclosure constructed? Was it built by the Knights Hospitaller or was it much older? Of prehistoric or Roman origin as 19th-century antiquaries suggested?

Investigation of the eastern side of the enclosure (Trenches 1 and 4) revealed a pebble surface running along the inside of the bank, the bank itself and the ditch. The bank was 11m wide and was deliberately built-up with earth and stone, presumably dug out from the ditch. There was no evidence for a wall running along the top. Instead, it probably supported a wooden fence or hedge to stop livestock and casual intruders wandering into the enclosure.

A view west across the earth and stone outer bank in Trench 1. It was probably constructed from fieldstones and soil dug out of the ditch.

The ditch was 5m wide and over 1.5m deep with a 6m wide break in the ditch line creating an entrance into the site. Stone in the entrance may be the remains of a paved causeway. The ditch started silting-up in the medieval period before filling with clay and stone which had eroded from the adjacent bank. There was no evidence to suggest that the outer bank and ditch predated the 13th century.

Volunteers record a section through part of the enclosure ditch in Trench 4.

The central mound and hollow

In the centre of the site was an earth mound and an adjacent hollow. Geophysical survey suggested that there was a rectangular ‘structure’ in the hollow.

The central hollow (left) was filled with dark alluvial sediment and lined with stone to protect the pond edge from erosion.

Excavation (Trenches 2 and 5) revealed these to be a pond and the mound of earth resulting from its digging out. The ‘structure’ was a stone lining to the pond, probably to stop the edge becoming churned up by animals.

An exact date for the pond could not be established but it was truncated by field drains which suggested that it had probably silted up but remained boggy sometime before the 17th or 18th century. The hollow had later been adapted as a soakaway for the sewage farm and a 19th-century ceramic sewage pipe exited into it.

The pond was most likely a watering hole for livestock or deer in the medieval or early post-medieval period, sometime between the 13th and 16th century.

The western earthworks

Excavations along the western side of the enclosure (Trenches 7-9) found two large pits in the north-west corner. These were probably quarry pits dug to extract the local clay in the post-medieval period. No other archaeology was found.

The ‘manor house’

Medieval occupation appeared to focus in the north-western quarter of the site. Excavations (Trenches 3 and 6) found a large building, possibly the ’house’ mentioned in the 14th century. Stone footings suggested that it was 8m wide and over 11m in length. The building was probably timber-framed, built with low stone plinths supporting the timber structure. It had a slate roof topped with decorative glazed ridge tiles.

Left: Volunteers excavate the ‘manor house’ 6 with the projecting square structure in the foreground. Right: Excavation of the stone hearth in the centre of the building. Iron working waste was recovered from the final fire waste.

A small square structure projecting off its east side may have been the footing for an external staircase, tower or porch, whilst a central hearth suggests that part of the building was a hall which was open to the roof. Later remodelling inside the building saw it divided into two rooms and the earth floor was replaced with stone paving.

The building was surrounded by paved and cobbled yards and a stone-lined well was located to the east. The well remained waterlogged and a several preserved building timbers were recovered from its upper infilling.

Occupation of the building appeared to date to between the 13th and the 15th century. So far, no significant evidence for earlier of later occupation has been found and the site appears to have been abandoned in the early 15th century, possibly decades before the Knights Hospitaller exchanged it in 1482.

Artefacts from the site

A large quantity of 13th to mid-15th century pottery was recovered from the site, mostly from around the ‘manor house’. Earlier and later medieval wares were noticeably absent and the assemblage is consistent with occupation on the site between 1240 and 1482. The majority of the pottery came from high quality glazed tableware, including large jugs and dishes. Other finds representing daily life at the site included parts of an iron knife and a lead plum bob.
Large quantities of building material were recovered from the site. Clockwise from top left: Broken roof slates were scattered across yard surfaces, evidence that at least one building had a slate roof. The excavation also found a group of waterlogged timbers in a well next to the ‘manor house’. The timbers most likely come from the adjacent building and were thrown down the well when the building was demolished. They appear to be from the roof and wall frame of the building. Pieces of 13th-century Splashed ware ridge tiles decorated with double-horn and looped crests suggest at least one building had an elaborately decorated roof. Fired clay with fingerprint and fingernail impressions.
Top: Faylite slag and hearth bottom. Bottom: Iron encased in faylite slag, probably an object accidentally dropped by the smith into the fire.

A large quantity of iron slag and hammerscale (the sparks from hammering molten metal) was recovered from the yard surfaces surrounding the ‘manor house’. Iron working waste was also found in the final burnt deposits covering the central hearth inside the building. This shows that smithing was taking place inside. If this was once the manor house this would suggest that its role had changed towards the end of its life, moving away from a high status residence to a lower status industrial role.

What we know so far…

Following two seasons of excavation at Castle Hill we have considerably expanded our knowledge of the site. We now know that the damage from the 19th/20th century sewage farm is minimal and the underlying archaeology is well preserved. At least one earth mound is a result of earth movement during the digging of a later medieval or early post-medieval pond (the second mound is still unknown, with potential older origins which will need to be investigated in later seasons).

The enclosure comprises a large ditch and earth and stone-built bank with occupation inside focused in the north-west quarter. The outer ditch was in use in the medieval period but when it was dug and the bank built is still unproven. At least one entrance has been confirmed on east side of site and LiDAR has possibly identified a second entrance on the western side.

There is at least one sizeable building in the north-west quarter of enclosure. It is 8m wide and over 11m long. It was probably timber-framed hall with a slate roof capped with ceramic ridge tiles. It is surrounded by paved and cobbled yards, with a stone-lined well situated nearby. A central hearth suggests an open hall with smoke probably exiting via a louvre in roof. Iron working waste in burnt deposits of a second phase hearth shows that smithing was taking place inside building.

The 14th-century guildhall at Leicester gives us an idea of how the interior of the Castle Hill building may have looked.

The pottery assemblage so far is consistent with occupation on the site between 1240 and 1450. There is no significant evidence of earlier or later occupation, and the site appears to have been abandoned in the 15th century, possibly several decades before exchange in 1482.