Two Castles at Aston, Herefordshire

The two castles at Aston stand roughly half way between the centres of two baronies, four miles to the west of Wigmore and three miles to the east of Ludlow. It is unusual to have two castles so closely sited and when this does happen one is often more powerful than the other. This is certainly true of the two castles at Aston and it would appear here, as at similar sites, that the weaker fortress was the siege castle of the stronger. To suggest when these castles were built it is first necessary to look at the tenurial history of the vill of Aston.

It is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 that Aston (Hesintune) was held in demesne by Ralph Mortimer of Wigmore. Previously the vill had been held by five men as three separate manors. In 1086 it consisted of three hides which paid tax. In these lands were two ploughs, five villagers and two smallholders with three additional ploughs between them. Domesday also records that before the coming of William the Conqueror in 1066 the land was waste, but it had recovered by 1086 to the value of 30 shillings. It would seem likely that at some point before 17 August 1252 one of the Mortimers granted Aston to one of the Bramptons of Brampton Bryan. On 17 August 1252 the king granted Brian Brampton free warren in Brampton Bryan, Bucton, Stanage, Weston and Pittes in Shropshire, as well as Aston in Herefordshire and Waunton in Somerset. Also, sometime in the reign of King Henry III (1216-72) Brian Brampton (1221-77) made an exchange for lands in Aston by a charter which has survived in the British Library as Sloane xxxii, 18. We can adjudge from this that the vill of Aston, or at least parts of it, were sub-enfeoffed by the Mortimers to the Bramptons sometime between 1087 and 1252. It is unfortunate that the Mortimer barony of Wigmore was never subject to royal inquisition during the early Middle Ages mainly due to the treaty agreed between Hugh Mortimer and King Henry II on 7 July 1155 at Bridgnorth. This treaty ended the civil war of King Stephen’s reign and, as we will see below, may throw some light on the foundation and history of Aston during the time known as the Anarchy (1136-1154).

The male line of Brampton of Brampton Bryan died out in 1294 and Aston appears to have passed to the hands of the Birley family. Certainly Aston is next mentioned in 1305 when it was found by inquisition that John Birley held one knight's fee in Aston, Ashford Jones and Kinton and a further fee in Birley. All of these were held from the lord of Wigmore. Earlier, in 1243 and 1256, John’s ancestor Simon Birley was only recorded as lord of Birley and Ashford Jones. This of course fits well with the Bramptons holding the vill until 1294. By 1361 another John Birley seems to have further extended his estates by adding the Mortimer land of Kinton to his fees. In the 1361 inquisition he was recorded as holding 1a fees in Aston, Ashford and Kinton and a further fee at Birley. This would suggest that Ashford and Kinton were acquired from the Mortimers in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, while Aston probably came to them either through exchange with the Bramptons or by marriage. We therefore have a reasonable if hazy idea of the honorial holders of Aston vill during the ages when motte and bailey castles were built.

If the tenurial history outlined above is correct it is possible that any castle at Aston was the work of the Mortimer lords themselves. During the Anarchy of King Stephen's reign Hugh Mortimer of Wigmore was recorded as being at war with Joyce Dinan of Ludlow some time between 1139 and 1148. Dinan, though originally a protégée of the king, had become an enemy of the royalists who supported King Stephen (1135-54). These royalists included Hugh Mortimer, William Braose of Radnor and Osbern Fitz Hugh of Richard's Castle. After 1144 Gilbert Lacy and his allies who included Hugh Mortimer, attacked Joyce in Ludlow castle after Dynan gate towards the river had been opened. During the attack a tower over the gate was burnt and the keep (high tower) largely overthrown. After reaching this low point in his career, Joyce began to fight his way back. Soon after 1148 Sir Hugh Lacy of Longtown (d.1186), a great friend of Hugh Mortimer, advised him that the new abbey he was building for the Shobdon monks at Lye near Aymestrey could be made use of by an enemy if captured. Mortimer at this time was surrounded by enemies and there was a great hostility towards him. Consequently he accepted his friend's advice and demolished the unfinished church, moving the monks to Wigmore. Mortimer then so pertinaciously pursued his war against the Angevins that Joyce Dinan was not able to move about his lands freely. At this point Joyce contrived to capture Hugh when he was virtually unattended and the lord of Wigmore was later ransomed for 3,000 marks of silver, all his silver plate, his horses and hunting birds.

It was probably during this unsettled period that the first and major Aston castle, known as Aston No.1, was built. The Mortimers, with their main castles at Wigmore, Dinieithon and Cleobury, would seem unlikely to have built a castle in the secure Aston manor at an early period. This minor holding lay a long way from any military threat before 1136 and was not an early castle site which supported their main fortress at Wigmore. In 1138 a general war began in Herefordshire and spread eastwards as lawlessness gripped England. In 1139 Miles Gloucester joined Gilbert Lacy in rebellion in Herefordshire and Shropshire bringing much instability to the region. Hugh Mortimer took the part of King Stephen against the rebels who fought for the legitimate cause of the Empress Matilda of Germany. The war had come to an end by 1150 when Hugh Mortimer had made his peace with the rebels. It would also seem unlikely that the siege castle, Aston No.2, dates to after October 1154 when Henry II (1154-89) came to the throne and peace returned to England. In the spring of 1155 Hugh Mortimer and Earl Roger of Hereford joined forces and rebelled against the new king. Henry II was forced to march against them with the feudal host of England. Earl Roger quickly capitulated, but Hugh was made of sterner stuff. The three Mortimer castles of Wigmore, Cleobury Mortimer and Bridgnorth were recorded as being besieged. These sieges continued for three long months and during that time Cleobury castle was destroyed. It would seem likely that to achieve his victory the king resorted to building siege castles at all three sites. Two castles were built to blockade Wigmore, one to the north and one to the south of Wigmore castle itself, commanding both entrances to the fortresses. Castle Toot was possibly built above Cleobury castle and Panpudding Hill, originally founded by Henry I in 1102, was put back into action at Bridgnorth. After a ferocious resistance Hugh Mortimer made his peace with King Henry II on 7 July 1155 at a great council at Bridgnorth.

The forces brought to bear by Henry against Hugh Mortimer show several things. The strength of Wigmore and Bridgnorth, which the king failed to take after three months of arduous siege, and the strength of Mortimer, whom Henry II held in a lifetime's distaste, but of whom he could not rid himself. An attack in such force against Aston No.1 would probably have been using a sledgehammer to crack a little nut and it is doubtful if this castle was victualled against the Crown. Bishop’s Castle, which was also held by Mortimer at this time, was not besieged and there is no evidence that the other minor Mortimer castles - Downton on the Rock, Upper and Lower Lingen, Lower Lye, Walford, Buckton, Bucknell, Brampton Bryan and Upper and Lower Pedwardine - were besieged. Aston No.1 is not a castle 'to laugh a siege to scorn'. Further the apparent siege castle at Aston No.2 does not seem to be on the same scale as those found around Wigmore, Cleobury and Bridgnorth. Of course its lesser size could be interpreted as proportional to the lesser threat of Aston castle. From what evidence there is it would seem best to interpret Aston No.2 as a baronial siege castle of the mid 1140's to early 1150's, possibly built by Joyce Dinan to besiege Hugh Mortimer’s relatively recent castle of Aston No.1.

Aston No.1 motte (A) consists of a typical castle mound some 30' high. It is still surrounded by a mostly damp and periodically flooded moat (C). The octagonal motte (A) top is about 50' across and to the south are the foundations of what would appear to have been one side of an octagonal tower keep, probably similar to the one found at nearby Richards Castle. The motte slopes have much loose stone tumbled down the sides and into the moat. The implication from the above is that Aston No.1 consisted of a stone tower on a motte, which probably dates to the Anarchy or slightly earlier. To the west of the motte (A) and its encircling moat (C), is a roughly rectangular field bounded by a short, but steep drop to the road (R) to east and north, and by a stream which feeds off the motte moat (C) to the south. This was undoubtedly the castle bailey (B), though it is now much denuded. The stream to the south of the bailey (B) has been diverted in recent times and this has cut into the old bailey rampart showing that it is made up primarily of a stream washed gravel. A farm track also bisects the bailey (B) north to south close by the motte (A). This has resulted in the lowering of the bailey bank to the east, while the road which circumnavigates the bailey to north and west has apparently completely destroyed any bailey bank and ditch on this front. Entrance to the bailey (B) was probably to the north as the suggested siege castle covers this side of the fortress. There its fire could impede soldiers entering or leaving Aston No.1. This would surely have been a primary responsibility of the besiegers in Aston No.2.

Some 700' to the north of Aston No.1 is a much denuded 'ringwork' (R) and bailey (W), now known as Aston No.2. Dr Allan Peacey, who is excavating near Aston No.2, reported that immediately west of the castle, twelve pottery shards had been found in a spoil site. They dated from the period between the eleventh and sixteenth century. This may only mark occupation debris from the village and may not be concerned at all with either castle, but the find is useful in indicating activity in the district from an early date.

Aston castle No.2 consists of a low, ditched 'ringwork' (R) about 75' across, much destroyed to the south and east. The ditch (M) which is best preserved to the north is only a few feet deep and the scarp of the mound behind it is only about five feet above the ditch bottom. To the south the mound has been mostly ploughed out, but a good green crop mark of the ditch's original position is often apparent. A stream running between the mound and the metalled road (R) to the north provides a steep sided gully which protected this front from attack. The weak and irregular bailey (W) seems to have lain towards Aston motte (A) some 700' to the SE. This too has been heavily denuded to the south. There is also a possible bailey (E) to the east. The flimsiness and lack of masonry at Aston No.2 would seem to leave little room for doubt that this was the siege castle of Aston No.1 and not the other way around. Aston No.2 is therefore quite likely to be one of the 1,115 castles recorded as destroyed by Henry II in the aftermath of the Anarchy. Aston No.1 may also date to this period and may also have suffered the same fate, after all a castle here would have been of little strategic interest to the Mortimers when their friends and allies were once again installed in Richards Castle and Ludlow.

A final point about the provenance of Aston castles might be deduced from the church. Aston church (D) is rightly known for its fine tympanum and decorated chevron arch. However it should also be noted that the top of the door is chamfered. A similar, but more complex arrangement can be seen at nearby Yatton chapel. This similarity of design might suggest a common patron. Initially such a patron might be sought from the ranks of the Mortimer family. However between 1119/27 and 1137 Wigmore barony and its appurtenant lands were apparently in the hands of Pain Fitz John, Henry I's able lieutenant. Rowlestone church in Ewias also has a fine tympanum set in a decorated archway. Pain Fitz John also held Ewais Lacy barony. Pain also held Shobdon as an appurtenance of Wigmore. The fine carvings of Shobdon priory are still to be seen built into a folly overlooking Shobdon castle and church. Therefore the possibility that Pain, a very rich royal official, was influential in the so-called Shobdon school of architecture, and may also have been responsible for Aston castle No.1, should not be overlooked.

The Mortimers of Wigmore, 1066 to 1181. Part 1: Wigmore Castle (ISBN 1-899376-14-3) [1995] looks in detail at the first three English Mortimers, Roger, Ralph and Hugh (d.1181) and their Norman predecessors.  The foundation and design of Wigmore castle by William Fitz Osbern around 1070 is examined and also the setting up of the associated castellany which later became the Mortimer honour of Wigmore. The castle is then explored and explained with many photographs taken before the recent English Heritage repair work at the site. Two possible 'siege castles' are also described with reference to the present stately pile and its probable construction dates.

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Copyright©1994-2007 Paul Martin Remfry