Two archaeologists in hi-vis gear surveying a small motte and bailey castle.
Surveying the castle. Photograph courtesy of Mark Bowden
Surveying the castle. Photograph courtesy of Mark Bowden

The Castle at Apple Dumpling Bridge, Gosport

Research for the Gosport Heritage Action Zone has drawn attention to a previously little explored castle in the Alver Valley, showing that such sites are much more than 'underwelming mounds of earth'

By the River Alver where it flows through Rowner, near the delightfully named Apple Dumpling Bridge, are the remains of a small castle consisting of a motte (mound) and a bailey (enclosed court) surrounded by a bank. 

There is no sign of a surrounding defensive ditch but the south side of the castle is flanked by a marshy channel, apparently known at one time as ‘Dead Man’s Hollow’. The motte is no more than 3.5 metres high (though it was probably higher originally) and the whole site is no more than 60 metres across. In fact it is so modest that for a long time the motte was considered to be a windmill mound or even just the upcast from gravel digging. However, our recent survey as part of the research underlying the Gosport HAZ initiative has confirmed that it is indeed a medieval castle. The site is protected as a Scheduled Monument and is currently in woodland accessible to the public.

The significance of the commonplace

Ten years ago a historian regrettably referred to small earthwork castles like this as ‘underwhelming mounds of earth’.

Compared with palatial stone castles such as Windsor, Dover or Kenilworth these earthwork castles are indeed modest but their archaeological and historic importance is huge and they give a broader context to the great castles. Small motte-and-bailey castles such as this and the closely comparable ‘ringworks’ (small circular timber castles) are numerous. The remains of about 625 mottes and ringworks are known in England (Higham and Barker 1992, 46). They are frequently found on the borders of Scotland and particularly Wales (there are no less than 12 within a 10-mile length of the Golden Valley in Herefordshire) but also in other, less obviously warlike, parts of the country.

These small castles were manorial centres established by the many minor feudal lords of Norman and Angevin England; they were symbols of their lordship and were familiar places to themselves, their families, retainers, dependents and tenants. They therefore represent the life-experience of far more people in this period than the relatively few ‘great’ castles.

On the other hand it has to be admitted that most of the small earthwork castles seem to have been very short-lived, while many of the ‘great’ castles were in use for centuries. The early castles represent the wholesale redistribution of land and power following the Norman Conquest of 1066.

Though they present to the modern viewer as rather amorphous mounds, the earthworks of small castles conceal great complexity and diversity.

There are hardly any contemporary pictures or descriptions of these castles and very few of them have been excavated; our detailed knowledge of them is slight but where excavation has taken place it has revealed a complex of timber buildings, which could be elaborate, densely packed and frequently replaced.

At this site there was limited scope for domestic accommodation in the tiny bailey but there will have been a hall, lodgings and functional buildings. The timber defences themselves, though not as long-lived as stone walls, may have been rendered and painted so as to be indistinguishable from masonry. Those defences will have included curtain walls around the bailey and a tower, maybe as much as 15 metres tall, on top of the motte (Wyeth 2018, 147).

The castle’s history and location

Like nearly all earthwork castles, the date of the motte-and-bailey at Apple Dumpling Bridge is unknown but it was probably established at some time between the late 11th and the end of the 12th centuries. It was built either by the Mauduit or the Falaise families. William Mauduit held the manor of Rowner at Domesday but by the later 12th century it was in the hands of William de la Falaise. Mauduit was a relatively minor landowner but he was a personal companion of William the Conqueror and his family was on the rise; by the 13th century they had come to prominence as hereditary chamberlains of the exchequer. The Falaise family, on the other hand, held 25 manors at Domesday, mainly in Devon, Dorset and Somerset, but by the time they acquired Rowner in the mid 12th century they were in decline; one of them lost the manor in the late 13th century because he had been convicted of a felony.

Castles were often established adjacent to parish churches, emphasising the twin authorities of king (through the lord of the manor) and church, but at Rowner the church is 1.5 kilometres away to the north, at the other end of this elongated parish. There is supposed to have been a manor house near the church, though no traces now remain; whether this was a replacement for the castle or whether the two were contemporaries is uncertain. Rowner had more than one manor in the later middle ages so the manor house and castle may have belonged to different manors. The location of the castle may be significant.

It is often argued that these small earthwork castles occupied important strategic locations. In most cases these claims are unconvincing but the Apple Dumpling castle is a rare exception.

If ‘Dead Man’s Hollow’ is a former course of the River Alver, as seems probable, the castle may have been built here to guard a river crossing, which could have been within bowshot of its walls, and also to watch the nearby coast, which would have been clearly visible from a tower on the motte. Perhaps William Mauduit built this modest castle as a coastal outpost to the great castle at Portchester that he held for the king.

A fore-runner to Gosport’s military character

In this regard the castle at Apple Dumpling Bridge pre-figures the coastal defences of Gosport established in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries (see Cocroft and Bayer 2020). Forts Grange and Rowner were built behind the castle in the 1850s and in the early 20th century the intervening land became a military airfield. This led to the re-fortification of the castle when a Type 26 variant pillbox was built into the southern bailey bank during the Second World War, to defend the south-western approach to the airfield.

Our research has established the significance of the motte-and-bailey castle at Apple Dumpling Bridge, an example of a very common type often overlooked, but a vital element in the imposition of the new landholding regime following the Norman Conquest. As such it forms the earliest link in the long military history of Gosport, the character of which will be sustained by the HAZ initiative and will support the physical, economic and social regeneration of the borough.

Mark Bowden MCIfA FSA

Mark has recently retired, having worked for Historic England and its predecessor bodies for over 30 years as an Archaeological Investigator and latterly leader of the Archaeological Survey & Investigation Team for South and West England. Timber and earthwork castles have been a particular research interest throughout Mark’s career. He has published widely on various aspects of landscape archaeology and history and is currently Chair of the Landscape Survey Group.

Further information

Cocroft, WD and Bayer, OJ 2020: ‘Gosport: a town defined by its military heritage’ Historic England Research 15. 18-27 (Issue 15 of magazine is available as a PDF, the article is also available as a web page)

Higham, R and Barker, P 1992: Timber Castles Batsford: London

Wyeth, W 2018: ‘Medieval timber motte towers’ Medieval Archaeology 62.1. 135-56

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