The Vanishing of Shipbrook Castle
The castle at Shipbrook near Davenham is long lost to us today, its last traces being cleared from the land in the 1790s. However, in balancing the brutal events of early Norman England together with the history of a key local family, not only can we better appreciate this often overlooked corner of medieval Cheshire, but perhaps for the first time, look to understand the story of Shipbrook Castle and its ties to a bloody revolt against King Henry IV.
A New Technology
For many of us, few things better represent the distinct charm and lure of English history than the image of the Norman castle. Imposing in construction and romantic in ruin, the castle offers a tangible connection to both the history and accompanying fantasy of the medieval world. In reality, though, our castles are far more than mere agents of the period in which they were built. They are often places with a defensive legacy stretching back into pre-history, and their ruinous state is commonly found to be the result of their connections to the English Civil Wars of the seventeenth century.
Throughout Cheshire, we are blessed with a startling array of strongholds to visit and study. This is primarily due to the county being one of the original administrative centres of England established by the Norman regime following their victory at Hastings in 1066. In the years following the conquest, Cheshire would be cast as a frontier region buffering Norman England from the warring, neighbouring kingdoms of Wales. It's no fluke that of the twenty castle sites located throughout the county, nine are found within just a few miles of the Welsh border; their construction forming a deliberate chain of military resource stretching for some thirty miles along the River Dee. The vast majority of castles in England owe their design and function to a continental idea introduced by the incoming Norman nobility of the eleventh century.
Built in large numbers across the Anglo-Scandinavian landscape to provide immediate protection from, or perhaps, more importantly, the subjugation of, rebellious local populations, the castle was key to enabling the establishment of Norman governance in each surrounding region. Far from the classic image of the castle we have today, these early constructions were primarily formed of an earthen mound (Motte) and protected courtyard (Bailey), all of which was then surrounded by a protective ditch and palisade stake wall. They were cheap to construct and quick to build. The perfect "pop-up" defensive site. For the existing population of the settlement around them, the Norman castle was a new and frightening concept; especially once they began to be reinforced with the addition of a solid stone Keep atop their central mounds.
From their beginnings as Motte & Bailey fortifications, some would go on to find themselves decommissioned whilst others would grow exponentially into magnificent feats of stone-built engineering. Naturally, as the concept became popular - and their benefits increasingly evident - more and more castles were built in stone from the off; which together with their slightly earlier Norman counterparts give rise to the suite of fortifications that we now have available throughout the country as a whole.
The earliest strongholds in Cheshire were those at Chester, Frodsham, and Halton. All originally constructed shortly after the Norman conquest circa 1070, their differing fortunes across the years illustrate well the diverse manner of destiny for the castle at large. Chester is still very much a feature of the city centre today thanks to its conversion to stone during the twelfth century and the fact that it came to play a prominent part in national history over the years that followed. Frodsham however was never converted to stone, and had fallen into disrepair come the 1300's with modern interpretations of the castle coming from the fortified manor house that replaced it. Halton sits somewhere between the two.
With roots as a pre-historic defendable site, Halton enjoyed a busy history from its inception right up to the Civil War period, and although now ruinous, its refurbishment in sandstone during the thirteenth century means that a good portion of physical evidence remains on-site today; a later courthouse built in the 1700s surviving completely intact and now serving as the Castle Hotel. I share these examples to illustrate how the popular, atypical, image of the castle with its great walls and grand stone towers is, for the most part, an historical trick of the light. It is a snapshot, frozen in time. Surviving into the modern age by way of private conservation and national schedule, they have come to represent an ideal of time and place. As such, they are vital bastions of legacy, providing a clear and defined portal through which we can view the past - but we should always try to remember that no matter how awe-inspiring these stone castles may be, they serve to show only one part of a far greater tale.
For every great castle still with us today, there are a dozen that have vanished. Castles that have left little in the way of a physical legacy, but whose ghosts inhabit the earth around their former foundations. I've personally lost count of the number of times I've seen a Castle Street, Castle Hill, or Castle View with no sight of such a structure for miles around. Yet in most instances, on looking a little closer, such places tend to share certain details. They may be found on a modern street that follows the line of a Roman Road. They may present to the world as a children's play area perched atop a conspicuous looking hill. More simple still, they may consist of little more than a bumpy quarter of earth in an overgrown woodland; that only after careful consideration will reveal a startling and commanding view of the land around it.
It is one such place that we will explore in this piece; and one with a history so rich it should perhaps be considered as much a part of this county's heritage as any of its more famous counterparts. The lost castle of Shipbrook.
From the nature of its purpose to its actual location, the history of Shipbrook Castle is shrouded in mystery. A significant part of this confusion is centred on an often quoted academic view that Shipbrook was first constructed in response to the Norman-Welsh wars of the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, even though Shipbrook lies more than twenty miles away from the Welsh border and much too far behind the Norman defensive network along to Dee to find itself of practical use. My research into the castle suggests something different. Something much more personal to its founder. There are significant clues as to the purpose of the castle when we consider its likely location; which I will share now before further exploration of its history. Leaving the village of Davenham along Church Street, within a mile we reach Shipbrook Bridge, an ancient crossing over the River Dane where today the river is in broad flow.
As the land rises gently beyond the bridge towards Shipbrook Hill Farm - once known in the local record as Castle Hill - there are clear markings on the land escapement as it meets with the farm itself. These earthworks present a strong suggestion of a deliberately and defensively landscaped approach from the river. Visiting in person, the view from the farm too, back across the river towards the village of Davenham is completely befitting the strategic positioning that one would expect to find at such a site. Corroboration of these observations comes from George Omerods 1882 work The History of the County Palatine and City of Chester who references the last remains of the castle having being cleared around 1790 to make way for the farm; itself containing antiquated sandstone in its construction suggesting the typical re-use of masonry we see at vanished sites throughout the period.
This is important, as the fact that there was masonry present alludes to the castle having been viewed as important enough to have been rebuilt in stone during its early history. But what of that history? When comparatively speaking, the surrounding Cheshire landscape was chock-full of sites with clear and obvious military function, was a castle needed at Shipbrook? To answer this, we must consider the brutal events that took place across the county during the winter of 1069.
After the Harrying
Twenty years after the Norman conquest of 1066, King William I - better known to history as William the Conquerer - was in need of understanding. To properly assess the wealth of his new kingdom, to tax it, he commissioned a great survey, sending riders out to every corner of England, collecting information on everything from livestock and plough-hands to bridges and slaves; the results of which were bound together for eternity in that now world-famous tome, the Domesday Book. Although the hamlet of Shipbrook is today considered part of Davenham, at the time of the great survey it was valued independently and was found to be worth double the income of its neighbour with an "annual value to the lord" of 10 shillings.
The manor of Shipbrook was at this point in the possession of Richard de Vernon, who had been awarded a suite of lands at the expense of the local Saxon lord Osmer following the division of holdings across Cheshire that took place in the wake of the conquest. What is most telling from the entry relating to Shipbrook, and I think the key as to Richard de Vernons founding of the castle, is in spotting just how much Shipbrook's annual revenue had sunk during the twenty years since the Norman takeover. Its previous annual value being placed the quite considerable figure of 1 pound, double its worth in 1086. Such devaluation is not uncommon. During the winter of 1069, more than 75% of the population of northern England had either been killed or exiled during a campaign of brutal savagery waged by the new King in what has become known to history as the Harrying of the North. Cheshire, Derbyshire, and Staffordshire were almost completely desolated during the campaign as William looked to rid his kingdom of the rebellious northern populations that were proving so troublesome to the completion of his conquest. Just how savage this campaign was is illustrated well in the writings of those who documented early Norman rule.
Naturally biased and supportive of the new regime, even they found themselves unable to hide their true feelings as to the levels of barbarity that had been handed out. Writing fifty years after the event, the Anglo-Norman chronicler Orderic Vitalis wrote;
"The King stopped at nothing to hunt his enemies. He cut down many people and destroyed homes and land. Nowhere else had he shown such cruelty. This made a real change. To his shame, William made no effort to control his fury, punishing the innocent with the guilty. He ordered that crops and herds, tools, and food be burned to ashes. More than 100,000 people perished of starvation. I have often praised William but I can say nothing good about this brutal slaughter. God will punish him."
Following the campaign, and particularly due to the scorched earth tactics employed during it, the value of land in northern England had been flawed. There was little fertile land left to cultivate crops, few animals left to care for an almost complete lack of labour available for work. Hugh d'Avranches, as 1st Earl of Chester, was charged with bringing about economic recovery in the county and duly created a number of Baronial titles through which to achieve this goal. Richard de Vernon, a veteran of Hastings, was one of those Barons, and Shipbrook provided part of his administrative collection in Cheshire alongside lands Bostock, Crewe, Davenham and Leftwich.
In such a ravaged world, value was switched from the immediately economic to the more strategic, and it is most likely in light of this that of all the lands at his disposal, Richard de Vernon chose Shipbrook as his Baronial seat due to the position of the settlement overlooking a river crossing on the Dane. This would have made Shipbrook his most valuable asset, as control of such a river crossing effectively meant control of trade. As such, the construction of a fortification at Shipbrook would have been necessary almost immediately.