Acton Burnell Castle, a moated site with chamber block and tithe barn
- 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.
- Shropshire (Unitary Authority)
- Acton Burnell
- National Grid Reference:
- SJ 53395 01944
Reasons for Designation
Around 6,000 moated sites are known in England. They consist of wide ditches,
often or seasonally water-filled, partly or completely enclosing one or more
islands of dry ground on which stood domestic or religious buildings. In some
cases the islands were used for horticulture. The majority of moated sites
served as prestigious aristocratic and seigneurial residences with the
provision of a moat intended as a status symbol rather than a practical
military defence. The peak period during which moated sites were built was
between about 1250 and 1350 and by far the greatest concentration lies in
central and eastern parts of England. However, moated sites were built
throughout the medieval period, are widely scattered throughout England and
exhibit a high level of diversity in their forms and sizes. They form a
significant class of medieval monument and are important for the understanding
of the distribution of wealth and status in the countryside. Many examples
provide conditions favourable to the survival of organic remains.
Acton Burnell Castle moated complex survives well and is a good example of a large moated site of high status, one of the most substantial of its kind in the county. The moat itself is unusually large and designed both to protect the domestic complex and underline the status of its owner. Elements of the substantial buildings contained within the moat remain in fine condition. The chamber block, though a ruined shell, stands to its full height and remains an impressive building. The gable walls of the substantial tithe barn are equally impressive, and both structures retain many of their original architectural details. The site is well documented, being used as both residence and meeting place for the most powerful men of the medieval kingdom. Archaeological evidence will survive in the vicinity of the chamber block and tithe barn, relating to the construction of these buildings and their use and occupation. The buried remains of other buildings, and archaeological material relating to the occupation of the site, will survive stratified throughout the interior of the moated enclosure. Environmental evidence relating to the landscape in which the monument was constructed will survive sealed beneath the floors of the buildings and in the fills of the moat. The site is in the care of the Secretary of State and is open to the public throughout the year.
The monument includes the remains of Acton Burnell Castle, a 13th century
residential complex situated on level ground south of Acton Burnell Hall, with
easy access to the Roman road from Wroxeter to South Wales. The site includes
the ruins and buried remains of a substantial chamber block and tithe barn,
and the earthwork and buried remains of a perimeter moat.
The manor of Acton is first mentioned in Domesday, and a century later it was
held by William Burnell, whose descendant Robert was responsible for the
construction of many of the standing features. Robert Burnell served as
secretary to Edward I, as Chancellor of England and Bishop of Bath and Wells,
and was one of the most influential and powerful men of his time. He was
granted a licence by the king to crenellate and fortify a property at Acton
Burnell in 1284, and work began on the site around this date, replacing the
earlier house in which Robert was born. Work continued on the manor throughout
Burnell's lifetime, and it seems likely that it was still in progress at his
death in 1292. The property stayed in the family, but the descent of the
lordship suggests it had ceased to be used as a residence by 1420, which would
explain the absence of later medieval modifications. It subsequently passed by
marriage to the Lovells of Titchmarsh, and was confiscated by Henry VII in
1485 and given to the Earl of Surrey in return for his services at the battle
of Flodden in 1513. In the 16th century it became part of the estates of the
Duke of Norfolk and by the 17th century had passed to the Smythe family. By
this time most of the original buildings had been demolished. In the 18th
century Acton Burnell Hall was built to the north of the castle, and the
estate was remodelled to create the parkland seen today, Burnell's chamber
block being incorporated into the park as an ornamental barn.
St Mary's Church, Burnell's chamber block, and the tithe barn, all lie on a
roughly rectangular platform which is orientated WSW to ENE along the slope.
Overall the platform measures c.250m long by over 138m wide. A perimeter moat
can be traced for most of its circuit along the east, north and west sides,
but the southern arm is no longer visible as a surface feature. Along the east
side, the inner slope of the moat is visible as a well defined scarp
slope averaging 1.5m high and running roughly NNW-SSE through parkland. The
outer slope of the moat here has been spread and modified by later
landscaping. At its southern end this arm of the moat passes into arable
farmland and its extent and orientation are uncertain. The western side of the
enclosure is visible as a clear ditch 8m wide and 1.5m deep, running along
property boundaries west of the site for up to 100m. At its southern end it
becomes infilled and its relationship with the southern arm is obscured by the
plantation through which it runs. To the north the ditch ends in line with the
modern approach road, which lies at a lower level than the ground to its
immediate south, along a distinct scarp up to 0.8m high. It seems probable
that this lies on the original line of the northern ditch, its southern edge
being defined by the scarp edge of the platform. This northern arm continues
east as a buried feature, lying partly under the later buildings of Acton
Burnell Hall, and partly under landscaped lawns.
The layout of the buildings within the platform is only partly evident.
Centrally placed towards the western end sits the parochial Church of St Mary.
This church was completely rebuilt in the time of Bishop Burnell and must have
been an important element in his reconstruction of the site. That there was a
church in this position before, however, is suggested by the alignment of the
two surviving medieval churchyard walls to the south and east, which are set
at a different angle from the other known buildings in the enclosure, and are
included in the scheduling. The grandest building known from Burnell's
rebuilding campaign, however, is the surviving chamber block containing the
bishop's private apartments. The ruins of this building stand south of the
centre of the moated enclosure and south east of the parish church, and are
Listed Grade I. The block constitutes a self-contained suite of rooms, similar
in concept to a Norman keep, though designed primarily for convenience and
display rather than defence. It is a two-storeyed building of coursed
sandstone ashlar on a rectangular plan, with dimensions of 30m east-west by
16m north-south. In the centre of the west side is a large projecting
garderobe tower with a pyramidal roof. At each corner of the building are
projecting towers of a rectangular plan with moulded plinths and chamfered
offsets, which rise to a third storey. Three of these retain their original
battlements, whilst the south west tower has a pyramidal roof added in the
18th century to convert it into a dovecote. These towers are supplied with
small rectangular windows. The main chambers on the first floor were equipped
with large windows filled with simple geometrical tracery. The ground floor
chambers also had traceried windows in the south side, but to the north were
lit by simple lancets. The main block was roofed in two spans rising behind
ornamental battlements. The ground floor was originally entered through one of
three doors in the eastern part, at least two of which communicated with
service buildings, probably of timber and connected to the east wall of the
chamber block. Evidence for this two-storeyed structure can be seen on the
outer face of the wall, and its foundations will survive below ground. The
ground floor was divided into four chambers, two large halls and two smaller
rooms, with small chambers in the western towers and porch-like chambers in
the eastern ones. The main chambers were on the first floor and were dominated
by a large, nearly square, hall at the eastern end. This hall was divided
east-west by an open arcade, and appears to have been entered directly from
the outside by a staircase leading to a porch or waiting room in the now badly
ruined north east tower. To the west was a single private chamber equipped
with garderobes and a private stair leading up to a second chamber.
The surviving remains of the chamber block show it was designed as the main
dwelling for the Chancellor and his household. However, an establishment of
this status would have provided housing for manorial officials, guests and
attendants, as well as domestic provisions such as stables, barns and a brew
house. Of these, the only remains standing above ground are the ruins of a
large tithe barn, which stand some 100m north east of the manor. The two gable
ends of the barn survive to their full height, and evidence for the side
elevations will survive below ground. The gables would have formed the north
and south ends of a substantial aisled building, 50m long by 13m wide. This
barn is, by tradition, the place where in 1283 Parliament sat for the first
time. Although no longer visible as surface features, the remains of the other
medieval buildings will survive as buried features within the enclosure,
probably mostly located to the north and east of the chamber block.
Although an original part of the medieval building complex, St Mary's Church,
a Grade I Listed Building, is totally excluded from the scheduling as it
remains in ecclesiastical use. Its graveyard is also in contemporary use and
therefore excluded. However, the medieval churchyard walls to the east and
south of the church are included, being regarded as important elements of the
medieval building complex.
All modern buildings, including Acton Burnell Hall (Grade II* Listed), all
boundary features, benches and information boards, all modern roads, paths,
and playing surfaces, are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground
beneath all these features 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.
- Legacy System number:
- Legacy System:
Books and journals
Ralegh Radford, CA, Acton Burnell Castle, (1985)
ancient monument terrier, HBMC, Acton Burnell Castle, (1984)
on site information board, HBMC,
site information board, HBMC,
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