Photograph of the tower at Snodhill Castle.
The motte and later stone-built great tower at Snodhill Castle. © Historic England, James O. Davies, image reference DP181985.
The motte and later stone-built great tower at Snodhill Castle. © Historic England, James O. Davies, image reference DP181985.

Snodhill Castle, Peterchurch, Herefordshire

Revealing a Marcher castle.

Snodhill was a significant frontier castle, but its history is obscure and it has been inaccessible for a generation.

In 1986 both castle and manor were sold at auction, and the new owners were absentees who prohibited all access to the site, not least by neglecting it so that brambles and scrub invaded. It became physically impossible to get through the gate; Snodhill Castle was entombed in a thicket as dense as that which surrounded Sleeping Beauty’s castle.

The site was placed on the Heritage at Risk Register in 1998. In 2016 Historic England was instrumental in transferring ownership to a newly established Snodhill Castle Preservation Trust (itself set up with support from Historic England’s team in the West Midlands). Grants of more than £500,000 from Historic England enabled clearance of overgrowth to reveal the castle once more, major repairs and establishment of a management regime to ensure access and enjoyment of the site in the future.

Historic England’s Research Group was then allowed the privilege of surveying a major Marcher castle which had been inaccessible to scholars for a generation.

Documentary sources are extremely sparse, so archaeological study of the physical remains was of paramount importance. The research has informed conservation work at the site, and will form the basis for the preservation trust’s own proposed research programme. The trust’s volunteers had already made a good start on clearing the site so, following a very fruitful visit involving staff from Historic England and members of the Castle Studies Group, the survey began in the winter of 2016–17.

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The castle lies within the Golden Valley, six miles east of Hay-on-Wye and close to the Welsh border. It is situated on a steep-sided knoll, from which it dominates this part of the valley.

It is a large motte-and-bailey castle of 11th- to 12th-century date, with surviving masonry elements that attest to later medieval developments. It sits within a landscape that preserves many historic features, including a deer park, a moated site, settlement remains and evidence of former routeways, fields, and quarries.

Our research therefore involved detailed survey and investigation of the castle’s earthworks and stone structures, and a wider-ranging aerial investigation of the setting. Concurrently with our survey Herefordshire Archaeology opened some small excavation trenches in advance of consolidation works, revealing further details of the castle’s structure.

The castle's history

Snodhill Castle was founded at some time before 1136, probably by one of William the Conqueror’s lieutenants in the Welsh Marches. It undoubtedly had a timber-framed tower and other wooden defences, but our research suggests that a substantial stone-built hall may also have stood in the bailey from a very early date. Only the lower part of one wall of this building is currently visible. By the mid-12th century the castle was in the hands of the Chandos family, who were to hold it for 400 years. It was the head or caput  of the Honour of Snodhill, a group of manors and estates scattered across Herefordshire.

The castle was re-fortified in stone, probably in a piecemeal fashion, at various points during the 12th to 15th centuries. An elaborate great tower was built on the motte and subsequently enlarged by the addition of a substantial forebuilding. A curtain wall was constructed, probably in a series of phases; later, probably in the 14th or 15th centuries, at least two towers were added to it; they stand on the north and south-east sides of this wall. A range of buildings was also constructed within the northern and western sides of the bailey. Two of the very few historical references to the castle suggest that it was ‘in ruins’ in the mid-14th century, but that by the beginning of the 15th century it was thought capable of being put in a state of defence against the Welsh. This probably reflecting reflects the fluctuating fortunes of the Chandos family.

A lordly landscape?

The current settlement at Snodhill consists of a few farms and houses, scattered mainly to the west of the castle. It is probable that the medieval settlement was no more extensive, though possible building platforms have been noted on an area close to the castle known as The Green, however, there is an extensive open space on the east side of the castle knoll itself, and this may have been intended for some function attached to the castle, such as an outer bailey or a garden.

It may also be that the castle’s founders intended to lay the area out as a borough, an economic development  of a type carried out by many lords of Marcher castles, with varying levels of success. If this was the intention at Snodhill it seems never to have been accomplished, though further research may throw more light on this question. Snodhill is situated in a very fertile valley, and the economic basis of any settlement there will have been mainly agricultural – but the area’s complex geological formations have been extensively exploited by quarrying, and if this took place early it may have added significantly to the revenues of the manor.

It was probably in the 14th century that the owners of the castle laid out an extensive deer park, occupying a side valley to the south-west of the castle and stretching to the near horizon when viewed from the handsome windows in the castle’s great tower. This park incorporated lodges and subsidiary enclosures, perhaps for specialised functions such as the breeding of deer. The park pale survives well on Vagar Hill, where a massive drystone wall is fronted by a still-visible ditch.

‘A modest version of the grand “Pleasance” at Kenilworth, possibly including a garden’

On the opposite side of the castle from the deer park, in the valley bottom, is another site of great potential interest. Close to a farm called The Gobbets, near the River Dore, is an earthwork resembling a small moated site with a pond or small lake to one side. This is known locally as ‘The Splashes’. Traditionally interpreted as a ‘homestead moat’, this site seems more likely to be another element in the designed leisure landscape of the castle – a modest version of the grand ‘Pleasance’ at Kenilworth, possibly including a garden. It is notable that moats are extremely rare in this part of Herefordshire and that the only one close to Snodhill is also adjacent to a castle, at Chanstone.

Snodhill is one of many castles in the region – there are no less than twelve in this part of the Golden Valley alone, all within a distance of ten miles. Virtually nothing is known of the history of any of these castles and archaeological study has been extremely limited so far. A great deal more research is needed. Thanks to the efforts of the Snodhill Castle Preservation Trust a good start has been made at this, one of the more prominent castles of the border area. It will be opened to the public when the current programme of conservation work is complete.

The authors

Mark Bowden

Senior Investigator with Historic England

Mark manages one of Historic England's Historic Places Investigation Teams. His research interests include landscape archaeology, hillforts, castles, designed landscapes, common lands, and the history of archaeological survey. He has published widely on these and related issues and contributes to training courses on archaeological survey and investigation. He is currently Chair of the Landscape Survey Group.

Rebecca Lane

Senior Investigator, Historic England

Rebecca worked in the commercial sector for six years as a buildings archaeologist, and latterly as a historic buildings consultant before joining the Architectural Investigation team at English Heritage in 2010. She is currently responsible for a range of projects looking at Early Fabric in Historic Towns, and has recently drafted the new edition of Understanding Historic Buildings a guide to good recording practice.  

Contact Rebecca Lane

Fiona Small

Investigator, Aerial Investigation and Mapping section of Historic England’s Historic Places Investigation Team.

Fiona has worked for the organisation and its predecessors since 1992, trained as an air photograph interpreter, and subsequently worked as an aerial investigator. She has been involved in a number of major National Mapping Programme projects. Fiona has particular interests in 20th-century military archaeology, and in the contribution aerial archaeology can make to understanding historic landscapes and the evidence for the continuity of human activity through time.

Further reading

Bowden M, Lane R, Small F 2017: Snodhill Castle, Peterchurch, Herefordshire. Archaeological, Architectural and Aerial Investigation and Survey; Historic England Research Report Series 76/2017