Halton Castle: a ruined shell keep castle on the site of an earlier motte and bailey


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
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Ordnance survey map of Halton Castle: a ruined shell keep castle on the site of an earlier motte and bailey
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Halton (Unitary Authority)
National Grid Reference:
SJ 53765 82061

Reasons for Designation

A shell keep castle is a masonry enclosure, extending around the top of an earlier motte or castle ringwork, and replacing the existing timber palisades; there are a few cases where the wall is built lower down the slope or even at the bottom. The enclosure is usually rounded or sub-rounded but other shapes are also known. A shell keep is relatively small, normally between 15 and 25m diameter, with few buildings, and perhaps one tower only, within its interior. Shell keeps were built over a period of about 150 years, from not long after the Norman Conquest until the mid-13th century; most were built in the 12th century. They provided strongly fortified residences for the king or leading families and occur in both urban and rural situations. Shell keep castles are widely dispersed throughout England with a marked concentration in the Welsh Marches. The distribution also extends into Wales and to a lesser extent into Scotland. They are rare nationally with only 71 recorded examples. Considerable diversity of form is exhibited with no two examples being exactly alike. Along with other castle types, they are major medieval monument types which, belonging to the highest levels of society, frequently acted as major administrative centres and formed the foci for developing settlement patterns. Castles generally provide an emotive and evocative link to the past and can provide a valuable education resource, both with respect to medieval warfare and defence, and to wider aspects of medieval society. All examples retaining significant remains of medieval date are considered to be nationally important.

The present castle dates from the 13th century but it is clear from excavations that it supercedes a motte and bailey castle which occupied the north western side of the site. This form of castle was introduced by the Normans and consisted of a mound of earth capped by a timber fortification. A ditch was cut into the bedrock on the east side and the attached bailey occupied the rest of the crown of the hill. The ruins of the castle at Halton survive well despite the later insertion of a courthouse on the site of the gatehouse and the creation of a folly garden within the ruins. It has within the western half of the interior the buried remains of an extensive range of late medieval domestic buildings as well as the remains of six lock-ups from the 18th century refurbishment of the site as a courthouse and prison. Excavation during 1986-7 has revealed that much of the site retains buried deposits of the earlier phases of occupation of the castle. The castle is a prominent local landmark. When it is considered together with the priory and later abbey at Norton and the remains of the medieval village of Norton, it is clear that here are the vestiges of an extensive surviving medieval landscape. Many of the features of this landscape survive in an area of extensive 20th century development for the new towns of Widnes and Runcorn.


The monument includes the ruined castle remains at Halton together with an area to the east of the castle which will retain buried deposits of midden material and the remains of secular settlement located immediately outside the castle. The castle stands on a prominent hill of red sandstone and overlooks the estuary of the River Mersey to the north and east and the low marshlands at the foot of the hill on the western and eastern sides. It is in a strategic position overlooking the Runcorn Gap. Halton is one of a series of castles built on the sandstone ridges of Cheshire including to the south Beeston Castle. The first castle on the site was a motte and bailey timber castle built by Hugh Lupus, Earl of Chester, in c.1070. This was formed by cutting off the highest part of the promontory on the north western side by a ditch 8m wide and utilising the natural platform on the rest of the hilltop as a bailey. The castle was occupied by Nigel, the first baron of Halton, who also founded the priory at Norton. In the subsequent three centuries the phases of building and rebuilding in stone are obscured since all rebuilding took place after scraping the previous phase off the bedrock and rebuilding on that foundation. Any surviving remains from these demolitions will lie at the bottom of the slope outside the curtain wall on the east, north and west sides. By c.1250 the curtain wall had been built, together with a square tower on the west side, over the ditch (which had been infilled), a round tower at the north end, and stone buildings in a range along the north western side. During this period, from the 11th to the 13th centuries, the ownership passed to the Lacy family, the Lords of Pontefract, who became Dukes of Lancaster in 1311. In the 15th century a gatehouse was constructed and a survey of 1476 mentions a number of buildings including a great chamber, a withdrawing room, a chapel, a hall and a number of lesser domestic buildings on the site. The castle was used as a prison for Roman Catholic recusants in 1579. It was besieged and captured by Sir William Broton in 1643 and partly demolished on Cromwells orders in 1644. The castle was depicted in a view by the Buck brothers in 1727 as a ruin. In 1738 the gatehouse was replaced by a new courthouse and prison and a series of small lock-ups built in the castle interior to the north of this building. Again the previous remains were cleared from the bedrock on the site and the new building erected on the platform. The site was investigated by excavation in 1986-7 and nine trenches were uncovered mainly in the north and west of the site. The standing remains are interpreted here in the light of these excavations. Nothing remains of the early timber phase of the buildings and the ditch of the early motte site was filled in in the 13th century. The curtain wall, which surrounded the castle platform, only survives as foundations with some courses of stone remaining on the north west side and the south side up to the west wall of the courthouse building. The best preserved section is to the west of the square tower remains on the north west wall. The rounded plan of the western end of the site suggest a stone built shell keep. The stone tower dates from the 13th century and measures 12m square at the base with walls up to 2.75m thick. Next to this tower are the foundations of a building which is interpreted as a kitchen range with a serving hatch in its east wall. Little of the buildings survives above ground. In the 18th century the walls of a folly were constructed to the east of the courthouse where they still form a castlellated feature. In the interior of the platform there is now a walled garden dating from the 19th century and the cells of the 18th century lock-ups have been incorporated in the east side of this enclosure. In addition, the eastern half of the enclosure was laid out as a bowling green in the 19th century levelling the interior and obscuring the remains of any earlier buildings. The castle ruins are Listed Grade I. Two concrete platforms for pavilions for the bowling green in the centre of the site are excluded in the scheduling, although the ground beneath them is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
McNeil, R, Halton Castle a Visual Treasure, (1987)
McNeil, R, Halton Castle a Visual Treasure, (1987)
McNeil, R, Halton Castle a Visual Treasure, (1987), 27
McNeil, R, Halton Castle a Visual Treasure, (1987), 21
Ormerod, , History of Cheshire, (1882)
Ormerod, , History of Cheshire, (1882)


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