Totternhoe Castle: a motte and bailey castle, medieval quarries and cultivation terraces


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Scheduled Monument
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Ordnance survey map of Totternhoe Castle: a motte and bailey castle, medieval quarries and cultivation terraces
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Central Bedfordshire (Unitary Authority)
National Grid Reference:
SP 98079 21979

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of time, motte castles continued to be built and occupied from the 11th to the 13th centuries, after which they were superseded by other types of castle.

Totternhoe Castle is the largest motte and bailey castle in Bedfordshire. Its importance is emphasised by the commanding position it holds on the chalk downland overlooking the Ouzel valley, which illustrates its strategic role in the establishment of control over the area in the years following the Norman Conquest. The castle is of an unusual form, having three baileys surrounding the motte; this, in addition to its size, provides an indication of its significance within the line of Norman fortifications to which it belongs. The castle is also exceptionally well-preserved. The baileys are likely to contain evidence which will enable the identification of areas devoted to accommodation, service quarters, stores, granaries, stock enclosures and perhaps gardens. Dressed stone recovered during excavation of the well and observed in the mid-19th century indicates the presence of masonry buildings on the site, evidence for which may well survive below the present ground surface.

Stone quarries have been operated in England since the Roman period. Stone suitable for fine carving was particularly prized in the medieval period when extensive industries developed to meet the demands of churches and other high status buildings. The quarries on the Totternhoe Knolls represent a particularly important aspect of this industry, recorded as early as 1131 when control of the workings passed from the Crown to Dunstable Priory. Totternhoe Stone, highly valued for decorative work, is widely found in the region's churches and in buildings further afield such as Westminster Abbey and Windsor Castle. The development of the industry is documented in numerous sources and is also evident in the range of quarrying techniques employed on the site. Further information will remain preserved within the buried workings, including artifacts deposited at the time and the impressions left in the working faces by implements used in the quarrying process.

Lynchets are terraces set into hill slopes or coombes in order to provide areas of cultivation. Their construction may reflect population density and a need to exploit to the margins of available land or, perhaps, the development of specialised crops, such as vines or hops, which require a specific aspect in relation to the sun, particular soils or highly effective drainage. Lynchets are frequently regarded as distinctive traces of medieval argricultural practice, although some examples may have still earlier origins. They are comparatively common in the chalk downlands of south western England (notably across Salisbury Plain) but considerably less common to the east. Well-preserved examples, particularly those which are associated with settlement remains or similar related archaeological monuments, will normally be considered worthy of protection.

The Totternhoe lynchets are amongst few such sites in the Chilterns (others can be found near Barton Le Clay, on Sharpenhoe Clappers and near Stopsey Common, Luton) and are considered to be the best surviving example in this group. While the terraces are best preserved within the east and south east parts of the coombe, the terraces masked by soil erosion to the west are also significant since the later deposits will seal valuable archaeological evidence for the date of construction, as well as environmental evidence for the nature of their use and the appearance of the surrounding landscape at the time. The likelihood of an association between the lynchets and the occupation of the adjacent castle further adds to their archaeological interest, and their proximity in the landscape still contributes to the visual impact of the castle's setting.


The monument includes a motte and bailey castle occupying the western end of the Totternhoe Ridge (a northern projection from the chalk hills of the Chiltern escarpment), together with a series of medieval quarries cut into slopes to the north and north west and a flight of cultivation terraces, or lynchets, arranged within a steep-sided coombe to the east.

The earliest written reference to the castle appears in a grant of land to Dunstable Priory dated between 1170 and 1176, wherein it was termed `castellaria de Eglemont'. The builder of the castle is thought to have been one of the Domesday lords - perhaps William Chamberlain, or the Bishop of Bayeaux, but more probably Walter de Wahull, who also built castles in the Bedfordshire parishes of Odell, Podington and Thurleigh.

The central defensive position within the castle, the motte, is a conical earthen mound about 5m tall, set on the highest point on the spur overlooking the Ouzel Valley and crowned by a concrete Ordnance Survey triangulation point (BN S4552). The mound has a diameter of 40m at the base and 14m at the summit, surrounded by a broad ditch of variable width on all but the south western side where the ground falls away steeply at the edge of the spur. A slight hollow in the top of the motte marks the location of an unrecorded antiquarian investigation, although the raised rim may also conceal the base of a stone tower noted by Chamborn in 1859.

The motte is enclosed between two baileys situated immediately east and west. The smaller western bailey is an oval enclosure measuring about 63m by 80m, defined by a broad bank, except on the south west side where defence was provided by an artificial scarp accentuating the slope of the spur. The second bailey surrounds the north and east sides of the motte and is separated from the first bailey (and the motte) by an 8m wide ditch and a broad counterscarp bank. This bailey is roughly triangular in plan, measuring approximately 100m north to south by 30m east to west, enclosed to the east by a 12m wide bank, a broad external ditch and a counterscarp bank. A well shaft, known as the `Money Pit', lies toward the western side of the bailey. Dressed building stone was recovered from the shaft when it was excavated to a depth of 34 feet in the early 20th century.

A third bailey, or outer ward, lies immediately to the east of the motte and inner baileys. This is rectangular in plan, measuring 90m in width and extending some 150m eastwards along the spur. The level interior is contained by a well-defined scarp increasing the severity of the natural slope to the south west. To the south east the boundary is formed by a substantial ditch 10m wide by 3m deep and internal bank, 12m wide and 2m high, providing a formidable rampart broken only by a single gap at the southern end. The ditch and bank remain visible at the eastern corner of the bailey, although the north eastern arm is now only marked by a slight scarp and traces of the internal bank. Material from the bank may have been used to infill the flanking ditch, now thought to lie buried beneath the adjacent bridleway.

The medieval quarries lie on the hillside below and to the north and north west of the motte. They appear as a series of infilled pits, spoil heaps and extraction scars lying both in open ground and in woodland. Several periods of extraction are represented by these workings. Totternhoe was an important source of stone in the medieval period since the product, the soft limestone known as `Totternhoe Clunch', was much in demand for carving and dressing. It can be found in churches and other medieval structures throughout Bedfordshire and beyond, including many of the highest status, such as Windsor Castle and Westminster Abbey. Documentary references to the quarries are numerous and include Henry I's grant of the land to Dunstable Priory around 1131, and the reporting of a fatality in 1269 when a deep pit in the `schalkpuutes' collapsed.

To the east of the castle a series of cultivation terraces, or lynchets, are arranged within a steep sided, bowl-like coombe set into the southern slope of the Totternhoe Ridge. The lynchets descend 30m from the 152m contour, forming steps which average 3m in height and terraces approximately 5m broad. This arrangement is most easily appreciated across the eastern arc of the coombe, where five successive steps remain fully visible. Further to the south, along the south eastern arm of the coombe, the lynchets have been modified to a certain extent by later landscaping, although the continuation of three terraces remain evident. To the west, around the northern and western sides of the coombe, the terraces have become buried by subsequent soil movement - although it is apparent from minor changes in the gradient, and from more pronounced scarps on the north western slopes, that the system once extended throughout the coombe.

Totternhoe was the last parish in Bedfordshire to see its fields rationalised and enclosed by Act of Parliament (in 1886) and several maps made prior to this event clearly depict an extensive pattern of strip fields characteristic of the medieval `open field' system. The lynchets formed part of this pattern. The 1829 tithe map and book of references for Middle End, Totternhoe, show the five terraces (termed `lands') in the north eastern part of the coombe divided in ownership between Dunstable Chantry, the Countess of Bridgewater and Messrs Fossey, Pinnaces and Cartwright, with tenancies (indicating active use) in the hands of Messrs Pratt, Fossey, Purton and Battams. The intervening steps (or `linces') are noted as being held in common. To the east, alongside `Dogs Bank', three parallel strips are marked as `old inclosures' and these match the positions of the three remaining terraces on this side of the coombe. These three strips are shown subdivided by a boundary mid-way along their lengths, and the resulting six plots are listed according to ownership and use. The three holdings towards the head of the coombe are listed as meadows and orchards belonging to the Countess and Messrs Pinnaces and Pratt. The three nearest to the main street (now Castle Hill Road) formed the gardens and tenement plots of `Wren Park' (owned by Mr Pinnaces and occupied by Mr Battams), a cottage belonging to the Countess (occupied by John Holt) and Mr Pratt's house (now Tudor Cottage). To the west of the coombe the now vestigial terraces of `Castle Hill Furlong' (two lands and a strip known as `Shoulder of Mutton piece') belonged to Mr Cartwright and Mr Pratt and were rented to Mr Pratt.

The precise date of the lynchets' construction is not known, although it is thought that they may have developed during occupation of the medieval castle. Topographical constraints suggest that the principal approach to the castle would have followed the ridge to the east, skirting the rim of the coombe prior to making an entrance through the western arm of the outer bailey. A geophysical survey undertaken in 2001 revealed evidence of a buried trackway, flanked by ditches, extending from this gap in an easterly direction toward the track which still follows the upper terrace around the head of the coombe. The lynchets would have proved suitable for the cultivation of crops requiring both good drainage and a southerly aspect (perhaps vines or hops), but such an elaborate feature may also have been designed to enhance the setting of the castle, and to impress visitors ascending to the gate.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries there was speculation concerning a pre-medieval origin for the castle. Several small scale excavations between 1900 and 1922 failed to reveal any evidence to substantiate these theories, although the castle does occupy a topographic position reminiscent of several hillforts found further south along the Chiltern Hills. The possibility of some earlier earthworks incorporated within the medieval fortification cannot be excluded. The geophysical survey in 2001 revealed a series of buried ditches (invisible on the ground surface) forming an irregular grid pattern within the outer bailey. These small enclosures, none greater than about 35m in width, share an axial alignment which does not match the north east - south west alignment of the bailey itself. It is thought, therefore, that the enclosures represent earlier land use preserved in truncated form within the outline of the medieval earthwork. It is not presently possible to assign a precise date to these earlier fields although, by analogy, a prehistoric (probably Iron Age) origin seems likely.

All modern buildings and features including a stable block and shooting facilities as well as all fences, fence posts and garden structures are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath 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.

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Books and journals
Allcroft, A H, Earthworks of England, (1908), 416
Chamborn, , Dunstapologia, (1859), 15-16
Hayward, M R, The Dunstable Manor Court
Hunnicott, R F, Bedfordshire Coroner Rolls
Salsman, L F, Buildings in England, (1992), 131
Dix, B, 'Beds Arch J' in An excavation at Sharpenhoe Clapper, Streatley, Bedfordshire, , Vol. 16, (1983), 65-70
Geophysical plots and interpretations, Marshall, G, (2002)
Geophysical plots and interpretations, Marshall, G, (2002)
Gurney's notes in SMR 2605, Gurney, F, (1922)
notes in SMR 2605, Dyer, JF, (1970)
Notes, 2437,
Oblique monochrome, CUCAP, DW69 13-7-49, (1949)
Oblique monochrome, CUCAP, LK12. 22-4-1953, (1953)
Rolleston, M, Prehistoric Agriculture in South Beds, 1972, Unpublished thesis (SMR 2605)
Schedule Entry (Version A) 23401, McKeague, P, Motte and Bailey Castle and medieval stone quarries on the Knolls, (1993)
Schedule Entry (Version A) 23401, McKeague, P, Motte and Bailey Castle and medieval stone quarries on the Knolls, (1993)
Title: Totternhoe Tithe Map and Award Source Date: 1829 Author: Publisher: Surveyor: Beds RO: BW1004/1 & /2
Title: Totternhoe Tithe Map and Award Source Date: 1829 Author: Publisher: Surveyor: Beds RO: BW1004/1 & /2
Title: Totternhoe Tithe Map and Award Source Date: 1840 Author: Publisher: Surveyor: Beds RO: MAT46
Title: Totternhoe Tithe Map and Award Source Date: 1840 Author: Publisher: Surveyor: Beds RO: MAT46
Totternhoe Parish Survey, 1972, Unpublished MS in SMR 2605
Totternhoe Parish Survey, 1974, Unpublished MS, SMR 2605


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.

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