Motte and Bailey

Times Remembered.  The Motte and Bailey

Written 2005

Dominating the scene in medieval Pirton, the castle motte of Toot Hill must have been a significant component of the village.  Such castles were introduced into Britain by the Normans and consisted of a large mound of earth surmounted by a palisade and a wooden tower.  The mound was surrounded by a system of wet and dry moats called the bailey, housing the garrison, the Lord’s residence and his retainers.  In our case there was a double bailey, the larger one being to the north and east of the mound and the smaller one to the south and west.

Toot Hill in 2020

The date of construction of Toot Hill is unknown.  Some authorities date it from Saxon or earlier times and certainly the Saxon word for a lookout was ‘toot’ but most favour twelfth century Norman origin.  It is true that only twelfth century pottery has been discovered in The Bury but such a small excavation cannot be considered representative of the whole.  It does, however, perhaps confirm a mid twelfth century date for the development of that part of the bailey at least.  At the point where the bailey meets the motte on the east side of the motte the moat has been filled.  It is popularly held that the material used to fill the moat on the east side came from the top of the mound, thereby creating the existing depression.  However, some authorities state that mottes were created with a hollow crown to offer some protection to the tower which sat in it.

Another attempt was made to fill the moat by Hitchin Rural District Council in 1957 by dumping refuse in its south-western corner.  This was abandoned when Letchworth Museum pointed out that the site had been listed as an ancient monument since 1931.  No attempt was made to restore the site however.

It is most likely that the castle on Toot Hill was built by Ralph de Limesy’s sons in the first half of the 12th century, possibly during the troublesome times engendered by Stephen and Matilda.  Similar castles were built at Therfield, Anstey, Wymondley, Meppershall and Clophill.  Such castles acted as garrison forts during offensive military operations, as guardians of important routes along which enemies might travel, as aristocratic residences and as centres of local or royal administration.  One can easily see its importance adjacent to the Icknield Way.

Motte and Bailey castle An imaginary reconstruction of Norman Pirton in 1139.

Motte and Bailey castle

On the west face of the Pirton Motte is the remains of the rim which originally surrounded the mound, on which stood the soldiers defending the castle.  At that point appears to have stood the gatehouse defending the drawbridge, the inner end of which rested on the rim.  These castles had a relatively short life as King Henry II set about destroying any that had been built without royal permission.  Some however lasted into the thirteenth century.

Those of you, and there are many, who walk your dog across The Bury must have wondered about the significance of the various humps and hollows which abound.  Space does not permit a full account of the conflicting findings and conjectures but the following may give some idea of their origin.  It is difficult at this distance to determine which of the humps and hollows were part of the inner and outer moats defending the bailey and which were those created by much more recent attempts at drainage.  However, on some things the various writers are pretty clear.

  • There is no doubt that the church resided within the castle bailey. The inner moat which now only exists on the south side of the motte originally encircled the mound and continued as an outer moat round the church and down the line of Walnut Tree Road turning north to the west of Larkins Pond to encompass a second bailey along the line of Bury End, Great Green and Crabtree Lane.
  • The water inlet to the moat was where the back path to the church was laid and emanated from a natural water supply north of Crabtree Lane.
  • The wide and deep hollow which bisects the Bury in an east west direction was a road called Lad’s Orchard Lane. Although it appears as such on the 1811 Enclosures Map, it appears simply as a field boundary on the 1867 Ordnance Survey, indicating that by then it had been closed.  The western end, beyond Blindman’s Pond was partly filled in when a drain was installed to the south of it in 1960.   The pond at the east end of the Lane is Larkins Pond.
  • The cut which contains Blindman’s Pond does not feature on the Enclosures Map but does feature on the 1867 Ordnance Survey. It might have been dug to drain the bailey ditch to the north of it.  The narrow cut  parallel to and between the pond and Lad’s Orchard Lane gives the impression of having been machine cut and probably represents an attempt to drain the pond in the last century.
  • The northern part of the Bury has been altered by the presence of large pits which are probably connected with the digging for coprolite in the nineteenth century.
  • Part of the bailey is within the garden of 26A High Street.
  • Running westward from the south side of the moat is a short stretch of ditch, filled in as it enters the garden of 9, Bury End. This and the pond which existed by Great Green were probably part of the western bailey’s moat and the infilling must have taken place before the seventeenth century as the cottages in Bury End are of that date.

8) South of Lad’s Orchard Lane there are a number of low banks which appear to represent property boundaries.  A survey in the nineteen eighties identified sixteen enclosures and a number of building platforms.  One of these related to the last house on the Bury which was burned down for fire practice in the first half of the 20th century.  North of Lad’s Orchard Lane the earthworks are complicated by excavations already mentioned but at the western end there are more enclosures and platforms, generally less clear than those to the south.  At the eastern end there is a large platform facing Walnut Tree Road and a group of other smaller platforms.  Nine properties were identified with certainty and a hollow running behind the large platform, parallel with Walnut Tree Road probably represents an alleyway between properties.

It would appear that no large scale excavations have ever taken place on the Bury.  One wonders what TV’s Time Team would uncover and how many previous theories would be shattered.





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