England’s First Castle

2 mins read

While planning a book on the castles of Herefordshire, Terry Wardle came across references in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to a castle built in 1051 by a Norman named Osbern.

Following the author in his quest to find out who Osborn was and what he was doing building a castle in England 15 years before the Conquest, Wardle concludes that Osborn was part of the retinue of Ralph of Mantes, Earl of Worcestershire and Warwickshire, put in charge of defending the River Wye and its crossings from Welsh attack.
His tactic was to build not one, but a series of fortifications like those he knew from his native Calvados region, consisting of a motte and timber superstructure, so unlike the Saxon burh, or defended settlement, as to be worthy of comment by the compliers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
A series of fortifications? Yes, Wardle succeeds in identifying not one pre-Conquest motte but five, all in Herefordshire: he awards the crown of ‘the first’ to Burghill, but also adds Brinsop, Hereford, Richard’s Castle and Ewyas Harold to the list. Sadly, little survives at Burghill — the identification is based in part on antiquarian descriptions — because the original motte and most of the bailey was levelled in the 17th century. The best survival is that at Ewyas Harold, but the surviving earthworks are of many periods, and as Wardle emphasises more than once,‘archaeology cannot differentiate between a castle built 15 years before the Norman Conquest and one built 15 years after’.

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