Hampshire Archaeology

Home » News » #Hart Heritage 13 – King John’s Castle and the Mystery of the Gully Horses by Linda Munday

#Hart Heritage 13 – King John’s Castle and the Mystery of the Gully Horses by Linda Munday

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Hidden away next to the Basingstoke canal tow path in North Warnborough lies the nationally important Odiham Castle. Now in ruins, it was from here that, in 1215, King John, travelled to Runnymeade, to put his seal on the Magna Carta. (Macgregor 1983, 37)

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Fig 1 – Odiham Castle ruins, North Warnborough, December 2016 courtesy of David Evans

It’s hard to imagine that this castle was just a royal hunting lodge, as it is often described. To the contrary, this castle had walls ten feet thick and was a “formidable fortress” (Macgregor 1983, 22) Built over a seven- year period between 1207 and 1214, it was one of ninety-three other castles that King John owned. (Macgregor 1983, 28) Strategically positioned half way between Windsor and Winchester, its location on swampy terrain near the banks of the River Whitewater was ideal for defence. The nearby Royal deer park and forest, were ideal for both food and timber. (Macgregor 1983, 22) See figs 2 and 3 below:


Fig 2 – Site of Odiham Castle in North Warnborough, Hampshire.


Fig 3 – Site drawing showing the site of Odiham Castle next to canal tow path and close to the River Whitewater.

Odiham Castle has an octagonal tower and castles with polygonal towers like Odiham are rare. Probably built to impress more than an improved defensive capability, they were first constructed in the early 13th century. (Hull 2006 , 72)


Fig 4 – Drawing of how Odiham Castle might have looked when first completed in 1214

odiham castle 004 crop

Fig 5 – Photograph looking into the keep from the north-west showing beam slots for floors.

The castle was built by King John at a time of much unrest. He as a king was under threat of attack not only from discontented barons but from the French king too. (Allen and Stoodley, 27) In 1216, King Louis of France along with the disgruntled barons, besieged Odiham Castle after King John had failed to stand by the Magna Carta. The siege lasted two weeks and ended due to new agreements being made with the king. At the end of the siege, it was amazing that only thirteen men were left defending the castle, three knights and ten sergeants. This despite facing an army of 140 knights and 7000 soldiers, with a constant onslaught of arrows and stone catapults from the enemy’s engines. (Allen and Stoodley 2010, 27-28)

odiham castle 001

Fig 6 Illustration of medieval castle siege warfare showing engine’s firing stone catapults

A further castle siege took place in 1322, when the former keeper of the castle, Richard Le Ewer, rebelled against the King during the Despenser’s Rebellion. In 1320, the castle had been taken from Le Ewer and given to Hugh le Despenser by the King. The Despenser family were unpopular favourites of the King with many barons unhappy with their preferential treatment. Despite rebelling and being outlawed, Le Ewer was subsequently pardoned and the castle was returned to his care. However, in 1322 the King Edward II removed him and put it under the guard of John St John of Basing and Ralph de Camoys. Le Ewer rebelled again and this time tried to take the castle by force. It was a very serious attack although it ultimately failed. Quite a lot of damage was done to the castle during this siege which warranted substantial repairs afterwards. (Allen and Stoodley 2010, 29)

After numerous years of occupation, by the sixteenth century the once mega fortified castle appears to be in ruins and remains so. (Allen and Stoodley 2010, 28- 29)

From 1981-85, excavations took place at the castle led by Ken Burton with assistance from David Allen, now curator of Hampshire Archaeology at Hampshire Cultural Trust.  The focus in 1981 was initially the keep and the moat with the idea of possibly reintroducing water into the moat (Allen and Stoodley 2010, 32) The following four seasons were focused on an area to the west of the keep. (Allen and Stoodley 2010, 23) It is these excavations that are the main focus of this article with particularly reference to the finds of two horse skeletons in a palisade gully.


Fig 7 – Excavations underway at Odiham Castle

The investigation discovered four main phases of occupation from 1207 to 1500 with the distinctive octagonal keep (B1) not being the first building on the site. A moat had been created, within which remains of two buildings (B11 and B111 – see fig 8) were found. They were most likely to have been erected first in 1207 with the tower being added later to both “annoy and impress the French” (Allen and Stoodley 2010, 98) Building V, a rectangular building platform, was created between 1208-1265 and in use in the period 1265-1350. It was 3 metres wide and 6 metres long. Its function is not known (Allen and Stoodley 2010, 34)

Building IV is a building from the final phase of occupation 1350-1500 A.D. It’s most likely to be an ancillary building when the castle was no longer in use as a fortification but as a hunting lodge. Please see fig. 8 for location of buildings on the site.

site plan showing horse skeletons

Fig 8 – Plan of excavation site at Odiham castle

Two horse skeletons were found in gully (37). See fig 8. “The main one, lying on its left side, consisted of a skull and vertebral column, almost complete, and the associated ribs. The other was of a partial skull and cervical vertebrae only.” A complete right metatarsus and the majority of a pelvis were also found but during the excavation an intruder removed some of the bones. Even though they were returned it was not easy to identify whether they were connected with the main horse burial or a third horse burial. (Allen and Stoodley 2010, 80)

The skull of the main horse skeleton was very fragile and was removed in fragments. It had a large “chop mark” on the back of it. It’s not sure if this was done before or after death or even if it was damage done by a spade. The horse appears to be 10-12 years old. Examination of the skeleton seems to show that problems in the lumbar region of the spine, causing stiffness, would have made it difficult to jump or gallop if ridden. This type of condition is consistent with being a beast of burden. The horse was discovered weighted down with old catapult ammunition and had evidence of dog gnawing which may show that it was left outside for some time. (Allen and Stoodley 2010, 81)

horse and balls

Fig 9 – Remains of two horse skeletons in the gully

The second horse skeleton showed evidence of being skinned, with knife cuts visible on the skull around the nose and the eye socket. This is evidence that the hide would have been made use of by the knacker. This horse was thought to be about seven years old. Disposal of horses in ditches is common in the archaeological record. However, it’s rare in medieval times for the bodies of horses to be buried intact. The fact that the main horse skeleton was almost intact is unusual. This may be due to extreme conditions during the siege. (Steane 1993, 125) The fact that the main skeleton was also weighed down by shot is puzzling.


Fig 10 – Main horse skeleton weighed down by ammunition.

In medieval times, the most common form of missile hurled by engines at castles were large stones. However, other items were also used providing they were both heavy and unpleasant. This included lumps of metal, human heads and corpses, dead animals and dung. (Bradbury 1992, 257) So, the horses found in the gully could have been catapulted over the castle wall during the siege. Only one other comparable example of horse burials in gullies is at Jennings Yard, Windsor, also located near a river. A group of horses had been buried after being skinned and left for dogs to gnaw. However, on this occasion there were only partial skeletons and no catapult ammunition was present. (Hamilton-Dyer UD, 7)

dave and ball

Fig 11 – David Allen, archaeologist, holding one of the small stone catapults.

At least 50 pieces of mostly roughly tooled stone shot were recovered from the excavation. There were three sizes of shot, the largest being 300mm and up to 35Kg (77lbs) the second being 225mm up to 10 Kg (22lb) and the smallest up to 160mm and down to 5kg (11lb) (Allen and Stoodley 2010, 74-75)


Fig 12 – The three sizes of stone catapult.

Fifty five percent of all animal bones found in the gully were of horse with 76 in total being uncovered. (Allen and Stoodley 2010, 76) Pottery finds in this gully date to 1265-1350 but that is not necessarily the date of the palisade gully’s construction which could be much earlier. There is a documentary reference to repairs being made to the palisade dating back to 1226. The horse skeletons could date back to even earlier. So, carbon dating would be able to show us if they relate to the siege of 1216 or of 1322 or even another timeframe. (Allen and Stoodley 2010, 94)


Allen D and Stoodley N. 2010. Odiham Castle, Hampshire: Excavation 1981-85 in Proceedings of the Hampshire Field Club and Archaeology Society No 62: 23-101

Bradbury, J. 1992 The Medieval Siege, Woodbridge: Boydell Press available at Hampshire Cultural Trust Archaeology Collections Library Accession no. A2009.33.1281 C3

Hamilton-Dyer , S. UD, Animal Bones, Wessex Archaeology paper available online at http://www.wessexarch.co.uk/files/projects/charter_quay/Environmental/animal_bone.pdf

Hull, L. 2006 Britain’s Medieval Castles Westport: Greenwood

Macgregor P 1983. Odiham Castle 1200-1550 Castle and Community, Gloucester: Sutton Publishing Ltd

Steane, J. 1993.The Archaeology of the Medieval English Monarchy, London: Routledge



Fig 1 – Odiham Castle courtesy of David Evans

Fig 2 -12   All photographs and plans courtesy of the Odiham Castle archive held at Hampshire Cultural Trust, Chilcomb House, Winchester. Accession

1 Comment

  1. stephen cooper says:

    a very young dave alen

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