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Buried in time – a castle, and many a diagnosis

Just over the county boundary into Wiltshire is the small town of Ludgershall, important in recent history, along with the Tidworths, as an army base.  It also had a significant military aspect in the medieval period, when an extensive castle existed there – most of which is now lost to view.  Excavations led by Peter Addyman in the later 1960s revealed many features of this important site.

Ludgershall Castle was a medieval royal castle, but fell into ruin in the mid-16th century; the only building which survives above ground is a tower, dating from the late 12th or early 13th century.  Built of flint and mortar, it was probably originally of three storeys, a type of structure called a ‘keep’ or ‘great tower’ comprising a secure lower chamber for storage and a fine chamber on each of the upper floors.  It is situated within the more northerly of two conjoined enclosures composed of double banks and ditches.

The site of the castle, which is looked after by English Heritage, is just to the north of Ludgershall.  Roughly equidistant from Salisbury, Newbury and Winchester, it lies on an old Marlborough-Winchester road near the eastern edge of Salisbury Plain.  No prehistoric material was found during the excavations, but a Celtic field system occupied land to the north and west of the town.  An earthwork survey carried out in 1998 suggested that the southern enclosure had possibly been a prehistoric enclosure or hillfort before forming the bailey or outer court of the medieval castle, but the absence of finds of this period argues against this.


16 July, 2000; the launch of the Ludgershall Castle excavation report.

The castle was excavated by Peter Addyman and the University of Southampton over a nine-year period, starting in 1964.  The ruined tower was found to form part of an extensive series of buildings maintained and enlarged over 300 years, starting in the early 12th century when, as documentary records show, the castle was in the hands of Henry I (1100-1135).  To give some impression of the complexity of the 12th century buildings, which preceded the ‘great-tower’ in the northern enclosure, some of the earlier foundations were left exposed after completion of the excavation.

A long series of building projects took place under Henry III (1216-1272) during whose reign the castle served as a country retreat, hunting lodge, estate headquarters and even a prison for offenders against the ‘forest laws’.  In 1244 a major change was ordered following one of over twenty documented visits by the king: a new great hall replaced an older one ‘with four full height windows and at the end a pantry and buttery; and also 2 kitchens, 1 for the king and 1 for his household; the door of the king’s wardrobe is to be removed; the king’s and queen’s chambers to be wainscoted’.  Twenty-nine fragments of masonry found during the excavation allowed the reconstruction of the unusual windows with their high-quality carved detail.  Much window glass, both plain and painted, was found in association with the great hall.  It is evidence of a high level of domestic comfort and artistic quality.


The excavation report, showing one of the excellent reconstruction drawings

Medieval domestic glazing of the period, such as was found at Ludgershall, is rarely recovered in England.  Potash glass is unstable because of its wood ash content; it normally disintegrates soon after removal from soil, but the excavators managed to keep many of the Ludgershall fragments intact, at least until they could be examined and recorded in the excellent report published in 2000.



Uroscopy flask from excavations in Winchester – 250mm tall.

The garderobe pits and other medieval contexts of the site produced 13th and 14th century glass vessels, including one of the finest and most complete 14th century goblets with a flanged bowl found in Britain. In addition, a large number of uroscopy vessels were found, including one which was almost complete.  Such bag-shaped flasks with thick convex bases were used for the examination of urine and diagnosis of illnesses.  In the medieval period and beyond, it was thought that the four humours (blood, choler, melancholy and phlegm) were balanced in a healthy person; an imbalance brought with it illness, and comparison of the patient’s urine to a well-established colour chart, as well as testing its smell and taste (!) would determine which of the humours was out of step.
Further Reading:
Ludgershall Castle: Excavations by Peter Addyman 1964-1972 (2000), Peter Ellis (ed.), Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, Monograph Series 2.
History of Ludgershall Castle and Cross. Online: <http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/ludgershall-castle-and-cross/history/&gt;.
Ludgershall. A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 15, Amesbury Hundred, Branch and Dole Hundred. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1995. Online: <http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/wilts/vol15/pp119-135#s&gt;.

Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone


1 Comment

  1. Marie Keates says:

    I may have to pay it a visit one of these days. Glad I wasn’t a doctor back then though!

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