Montacute Castle: a motte and bailey castle on St Michael's Hill.
- Heritage Category:
- Scheduled Monument
- List Entry Number:
- Date first listed:
- Date of most recent amendment:
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
- South Somerset (District Authority)
- National Grid Reference:
- ST 49355 16966
Reasons for Designation
Motte and bailey castles are medieval fortifications introduced into Britain
by the Normans. They comprised a large conical mound of earth or rubble, the
motte, surmounted by a palisade and a stone or timber tower. In a majority of
examples an embanked enclosure containing additional buildings, the bailey,
adjoined the motte. Motte castles and motte-and-bailey castles acted as
garrison forts during offensive military operations, as strongholds, and, in
many cases, as aristocratic residences and as centres of local or royal
administration. Built in towns, villages and open countryside, motte and
bailey castles generally occupied strategic positions dominating their
immediate locality and, as a result, are the most visually impressive
monuments of the early post-Conquest period surviving in the modern landscape.
Over 600 motte castles or motte-and-bailey castles are recorded nationally,
with examples known from most regions. As one of a restricted range of
recognised early post-Conquest monuments, they are particularly important for
the study of Norman Britain and the development of the feudal system. Although
many were occupied for only a short period of time, motte castles continued to
be built and occupied from the 11th to the 13th centuries, after which they
were superseded by other types of castle.
The castle at Montacute survives as a good example of its class, and partial excavation has shown that archaeological remains are present relating to the use of the summit. It is one of two castles in Somerset mentioned in the Domesday Book. There are indications both in documents and on the ground of an earlier Saxon work here, though this has not been investigated by excavation.
The monument includes a motte and bailey castle formed from a natural conical
hill, overlooking low-lying areas to the north and east.
The hill has been scarped to form a motte, with an outer terrace around three
sides, and a bailey on the south east slope. An 18th century folly tower
stands on the summit, but is excluded from the scheduling.
The motte is a conical mound created from steepening the top of the hill, and
has an oval summit 50m by 30m. Around the south eastern sides of the motte, 7m
below the top, is an upper terrace 20m wide, with an outer face up to 7m high.
Below this is the bailey proper, extending to the foot of the hill. The bailey
is lobe-shaped and encloses 0.4 ha. The ditches of the bailey cut into the
edge of the upper terrace towards either end of it, and diverge down the hill
to the east and south east, then become a scarp around the lower end of the
bailey. The ditches average 4m deep and are c.10m wide. The scarp is up to 9m
high, with a shallow ditch at its foot. The bailey is enclosed by a broad bank
c.1m high on the south west, south and north sides, though this is absent on
The interior of the bailey, which would otherwise be steeply sloping, is
terraced, with two broad steps 25m wide at top and bottom, and two narrow
steps 9m wide half-way down, one of which runs only part-way.
The outer terrace around the other sides of the hill runs at approximately the
same level as the top terrace within the bailey. It is 15m below the summit of
the motte and 35m wide. Below it is a 15m high scarp to the base of the hill,
around which runs a shallow ditch.
Separating the outer terrace from the base of the motte on the north west side
is a bank 2m high, the ground inside which has been excavated to steepen the
motte, forming an inner ditch. This ditch runs round to the ends of the upper
terrace, and the line of the bank approximately continues that of the upper
The approach from the foot of the hill onto the outer terrace is a hollowed
trackway on the north west. The ascent from the upper terrace to the summit of
the motte is a path from the south west side just inside the bailey.
The approach from the outer terrace to the upper terrace (ie: into the castle
proper) is more complex. Here, the upper terrace extends beyond the top of the
bailey ditches (which constrict it but do not cut it) for a short way on
either side of the bailey, forming a platform below the motte on the
north east and south west. Terraced tracks lead up to these from the outer
terrace below on the north west, running up outside the bank and ditch and
replacing the bank towards the top. The ditch turns outwards to cut across
these tracks where they meet the platforms. It would appear that these were
the original (and unusual) entrances to the castle, and the otherwise
undefended platforms may have supported entranceworks or barbicans.
The fact that the bailey ditches constrict the upper terrace but do not cut
it, and the apparent continuation of the upper terrace by the bank and ditch
around the other side of the motte, and of the outer terrace by the top
terrace within the bailey, all hint at the possibility of more than one phase
of construction for the earthworks.
At the bottom of the bailey on the south east is what is probably a later
quarry, a broad stepped hollow cut back into the slope.
The hill or the village was known as Lodegaresbergh, or variations of this, in
Saxon times, and the antiquary Leland travelling through the region between
1535 and 1543 records a tradition of a Saxon stronghold. A manuscript of
Waltham Abbey recounts the discovery of the Saxon holy cross on the hill.
The construction of the Norman motte and bailey castle here has been seen as a
deliberate commandeering of the Saxon holy site. The castle was built during
the Conquest under Robert of Mortain, and was besieged in a revolt in 1068. It
is one of two castles recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 in Somerset, the
other being Dunster.
By 1102 the castle had passed out of use, as the hill, now known by the Norman
name of Mons Acutus, was given by William of Mortain to his newly founded
priory in the village. Leland says that the castle partly fell into ruin and
was partly taken down to enlarge the priory, and records that no building of
it remained, only a chapel set over the dungeon. This chapel to Saint Michael,
from which the hill takes its present name, is first recorded in 1102, and
according to Camden in the later 16th century it was built after the
castle had been demolished. References such as these suggest that the castle
was built of stone.
In 1246 the king granted the priory an annual three-day fair 'at their chapel
of St Michael of Montacute'. The precise location is unclear but the broad
terrace and gently-sloping field on the north west of the hill would have made
a suitable site. The priory was dissolved in 1539, and the fair seems to have
lapsed at about the same time. In 1518-19 the churchwardens of Tintinhull paid
for two loads of stone from the castle, though this may have come from the
quarry at the foot of the bailey rather than any ruin.
The chapel was last recorded in 1630, and the present folly tower on the
summit was erected in 1760 as a landscape feature. It is cylindrical with a
truncated conical top, and is 3m in diameter and 12m tall, with an internal
staircase leading up through to an external stair at the top. Earlier
foundations are visible inside and around the base.
A small excavation on the summit in 1989 found evidence for a building,
thought to be the medieval chapel, and a layer of rubble with early medieval
pottery, which may have been from the demolition of the castle.
Excluded from the scheduling is the folly tower, which is a Listed Building
Grade II, although the foundations and ground on which it stands are included.
MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract. It includes a 2 metre boundary around the archaeological features, considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.
The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.
- Legacy System number:
- Legacy System:
Books and journals
Dunning, R W , The Victoria History of the County of Somerset, (1974), 210-224
Toulmin-Smith, L, John Leland's Itinerary, (1964), 157-8
Adkins, L, Adkins, R A, 'Somerset Archaeology and Natural History' in Excavation On St. Michael's Hill, Montacute, , Vol. 133, (1989), 125-9
Fine stereoscopic record, no trees, R.A.F, CPE/UK/2491 3251 & 3250, (1948)
This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
End of official listing