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
What do you think of when images of historical England are brought to mind? For many of us, few things better represent the distinct charm and lure of English history than the image of the 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. The gatehouse, the keep, the moat, and the towers; all are easy images to drum up. These great fortresses have played host to kings, queens, rebellion, and battle, if more recently primarily finding their audiences in those visitors enjoying a historical day out.
The castle is the one historical structure that everybody you know will recognise, irrespective of their interest, or lack therefore, in history as a whole. This is true in most part for the wider world as well. It is the castles that draw the more inquisitive visitors from the US, Japan, and Australia, whereas our great palaces tend to cater for those with a majority interest in British history that lies in the more personal trials and tribulations of the Royal Family. Nothing wrong with that of course, but I can’t imagine they’ll come across too many oubliettes.
In reality though, our castles are far more than mere agents of the period in which they were built, which in itself is a complex issue. Castles are often built on sites with a defensive legacy stretching back into the time of the Anglo-Saxons; a time that is as distant to those who laid their foundations as they are to those who bore witness to the events that would ultimately place them in ruin.
Those with an interest in such topics as that of the castle will appreciate that the grand structures of Warwick and Windsor are rarified examples. Most are tumbling, blow-hole-laden vestiges of all we imprint onto them in our minds. For the most part, a visit to an English castle, or a Welsh one for that matter, will bring far more by way of knee-high ruined walls, floor plan information boards, and cannon-blasted crumbled towers than it will anything classically grandiose. And that of course, is the biggest part of their charm. If walls could talk, our decaying, elemental castles would shout across the fields of events we can barely conceive.
Throughout Cheshire, we are blessed with a startling array of castles to visit and study, 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. Before the Norman conquest, when William, Duke of Normandy landed at Hastings in order to claim the throne of England, the Anglo-Saxons had their strongholds, but they weren’t like our traditional castles in their aesthetics. These were much broader defensive structures, built around communities as a whole, sometimes along the lines of earlier Roman fortifications. Founded primarily under the rule of Alfred the Great, these burhs have survived in administrative terms to give us many of our ‘borough’ borders today.
Castles, as we have come to know them, find their origins in Europe during the tenth century, and it was this new style of fortification, employed to establish control of an area both militarily and economically at speed, that would provide William of Normandy, latterly William the Conquerer, with the key tool for the cementation of his rule in England. Built in large numbers across the Saxon landscape to provide immediate protection from, or perhaps more importantly, to promote the subjugation of, rebellious local populations, the castle was crucial to the success of the new Norman regime.
Far from the classic image we have today, these early constructions were primarily formed of an earthen mound (motte) and protected courtyard (bailey), all of which would then be surrounded by a further protective ditch and palisade wall. They were cheap to construct and quick to build. The perfect ‘pop-up’ defensive site. Around a thousand were built in the aftermath of the invasion and for the existing population in the settlements around them, they constituted a new and frightening concept; especially when reinforced with a stone keep atop their central mound. From their beginnings in earth and timber, some would go on to find themselves decommissioned whilst others would grow into stunning examples of stone-built engineering. Later, as their benefits became increasingly evident, more and more castles were built in stone from the off; which together with their earlier Norman counterparts give rise to the suite of fortifications that we now have available throughout the country as a whole.
In the years following the conquest, Cheshire would be cast as a frontier region, a swell of land keeping Norman England from the warring, neighbouring kingdoms of Wales. It is no fluke that of the twenty castle sites located in the county, nine are found within just a few miles of the Welsh border.
Our earliest strongholds are found at Chester, Frodsham, and Halton. All were originally constructed shortly after the Norman conquest circa 1070, their differing fortunes across the years illustrating 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 our national history during the years that followed. The list of prominent prisoners held at Chester throughout its time reads like a roll call of England's later medieval history; King Richard II, Andrew de Moray, and John Neville plus many more spent significant time within the crypt of the Agricola Tower.
Frodsham was never converted to stone, and had fallen into disrepair come the 1300s, 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 defensive site, it 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 show how no matter the strength of the classic image, that popular, a-typical, vision with its great walls and stone towers is in fact, for the most part, a 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, representing 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 long since vanished. Some by way of war, but just as many, by fluke of economics and simple ill-fashion.
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 have certain details in common. They may be found on a modern street that follows the line of a Roman road or they may present to the world as a children's play area perched atop a conspicuous-looking hill. More elusive still, they may consist now of little more than a bumpy quarter of earth in an overgrown woodland, which only after careful study will reveal a 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 far more famous counterparts; the lost castle of Shipbrook.
From the nature of its purpose to its precise 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, as with many castles built in Cheshire, Shipbrook was first constructed in response to the Norman-Welsh wars of the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. This has held firm for the better part of seventy years, even though Shipbrook lies more than twenty miles away from the Welsh border and too far behind the Norman defensive network along the Dee to denote itself of practical use. My research into the castle will suggest something very different - and something much more personal to its founder.
There are significant clues as to the original purpose of the castle when we consider its location, which I will share now before further exploration of its history and custodians. 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 fast flow. As the land then 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 arrives at the setting of the farm. These earthworks suggest a deliberately 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 Omerod’s immense 1882 work The History of the County Palatine and City of Chester, who states the last remains of the castle as having been cleared around 1790 to make way for the farm, which itself contains antiquated sandstone in its construction, suggesting a repurposing of masonry a-typical of sites which vanished throughout the period. This is important, as the fact that there was masonry present confirms that the castle was affluent enough to have been rebuilt in stone during its early history.
The key question of that history is why, when comparatively speaking the surrounding Cheshire landscape was chock-full of sites with clear and obvious military functionality, was a castle at Shipbrook needed at all? What was it like? And what of its stewards? I promise, far from the less noteworthy ends met by some, the vanishing of Shipbrook is a remarkable and bloody tale - and it begins with the brutal events that took place across the county during the winter of 1069.
Twenty years after the Norman conquest of 1066, King William required some financial 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 to collect 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, Domesday Book.
Although the hamlet of Shipbrook is today considered to be a 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 settlement consisted of 2 villagers, 2 slaves, and 2 plough teams. At this point, in 1086, the manor of Shipbrook was 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 key to Richard de Vernon’s founding of the castle, is spotting just how much Shipbrook's annual revenue had sunk during the twenty years since the Norman takeover, its previous annual value being placed at the quite considerable figure of 1 pound; double what it was worth in 1086. It is a similar story in Davenham too, with an annual value that almost halved during the same period, and indeed so is the case with the nearby manor of Leftwich. All are signs of the dreadful situation that had arisen in the north of England across the period.
By the winter of 1069, more than three-quarters 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. Virtually all settlements across what we now think of as Cheshire, Derbyshire, and Staffordshire, had been 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 plans.
The rebellion had started in Northumbria, partly as a reaction to the way Norman rule had affected its people during William’s absence in 1067. His return home to France had seemingly taken any notion of concern for the population of England with it, and those that had been charged with ruling while he was away had taken up the dark arts of raping and pillaging with a terrible gusto. As the rebellion gathered pace through 1068 it morphed into a full-on counterclaim to the throne, rallying behind Edgar Ætheling, the last heir of the deposed House of Wessex, and a figure to whom the conquered people of England felt they could turn in a bid to restore the normalities of life lost since the conquest.
This wasn’t an altogether spurious ambition. At the start of William’s consideration of the campaign he had sent a force of 900 Norman soldiers into the town of Durham in order to secure the peace. Just two made it out alive. Come 1069, the future of England was seriously in the balance as rebellions began to surface across the Midlands too. William needed to act.
Entering the fray directly, he took to crushing revolts across the country in a game of bloody whack-a-mole that was threatening his grip on the crown; something exacerbated further still when, that autumn, the King of Denmark landed in support of the northern uprising. William raced to York to meet the Danish force and in time-honoured tradition, when it came to appealing to those known as ‘Danes’, paid them gold and silver to return home. Once they left, he vowed to hunt down the indigenous leaders of their would-be northern alliance. The problem was though, try as he might, he simply could not find them.
The rebel’s success had largely been found in their ability to operate a gorilla war, attacking quickly, and retreating into the countryside. Frustrated and tired by their elusive nature, William decided he would lay waste to the North in totality, removing any ability the rebels had to feed themselves let alone rally further banner-men. Settlements, livestock, crops, absolutely everything would burn, and nothing was off limits for the perversions of the soldiers carrying out his orders. It was, some modern observers have suggested, an English genocide. Just how savage this campaign was is illustrated well in the writings of those who documented early Norman rule, as whilst naturally biased and supportive of the new regime, even they found themselves unable to hide their true feelings regarding the levels of barbarity that had been poured onto the people of the land. Writing fifty years after the event, the Anglo-Norman chronicler Orderic Vitalis stated how;
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 from 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, and a huge reduction in the number of people who were fit and able enough to conduct a labouring life. In the aftermath, Hugh d'Avranches, Earl of Chester and William's main man in the county, was charged with bringing about economic recovery in his local region.
The first step in achieving this would be the creation of new Baronial titles, granted to those figures that d’Avranches could trust to manage their estates sympathetically to the cause. Richard de Vernon, a veteran of Hastings, was one of the men in line for such a title, and Shipbrook provided part of his administrative responsibilities in Cheshire alongside lands in Bostock, Crewe, Davenham, and Leftwich.
In such a ravaged world, practical value had temporarily shifted from the immediately obvious to the more strategic. It is in light of this, that from all the lands at his disposal, Richard de Vernon chose Shipbrook as his new Baronial seat. The position of the settlement, overlooking a crossing on the River Dane, would have made Shipbrook his most valuable asset. Control of such a river crossing meant control of trade. As such, a fortification at Shipbrook would have been necessary almost immediately.
From their base at Shipbrook, the Vernon family would begin a regional dynasty that would see their name etched into the history of both Cheshire and Derbyshire to such an extent that any visit we make today to a local historical site, country house, cathedral, or even large parish church, is more often than not accompanied by the Vernon coat of arms being proudly displayed somewhere in the vicinity. The family's roots may have been back in the Eure region of Normandy, but their Cheshire holdings had given them such a foothold in the new kingdom that they would help shape the fortunes of not just the county, but of wider English history across the centuries to come.
Richard de Vernon would go on to marry Adzelia, daughter of William Peverel (reputedly an illegitimate son of William the Conqueror himself) and would then become an advisor to William’s son, King Henry I, during the difficult early years of his reign. So close did Richard become to the new king that he was often the sole signatory to Henry's charters and decrees. As a result, come his death in 1107, Richard had expanded his personal empire significantly, acquiring lands as far away as Devon, Hampshire, and on the Isle of Wight. Shipbrook meanwhile, had become an established economic centre.
Over the following three hundred years, the castle would continue to prosper as the Vernon’s influence grew throughout England as a whole, and it is likely that it is during this period, probably around the Welsh Wars in the 1280s, that Shipbrook was formally transformed into a stone fortress. As with many such families of the period, great power was often a source of political conflict and the fortunes of castles such as Shipbrook were only ever one twist of fate away from sudden decline. Throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, England was an incredibly turbulent place. The twelfth century civil war known today as The Anarchy - when the succession of the throne of Henry I was contested between his daughter, Empress Matilda, and his nephew, Stephen of Blois - saw conflict between various English barons and war leaders as the ruling classes of the nation picked their favoured side.
It is a conflict in which Hugh de Vernon, 3rd Baron of Shipbrook (1113-1165) would no doubt have had a role to play. The fourteenth century too, with the Black Death and the decimation it brought to the population of Europe, is likely to have killed around half of Cheshire’s population, and the laws passed in its wake, designed to maximise economic governance, would have been a serious contention for people such as those living at Shipbrook Castle. But it would the fifteenth century, and its period of unprecedented Royal turmoil, that the defining moment for Shipbrook would arrive, with the first trials of that infamous conflict between the houses of York and Lancaster that would come to be known as the Wars of the Roses.