Castles and their agricultural buildings

I was recently asked to write a blog post for the Castle Studies Trust about agricultural buildings within castles. You can read the post here. Our understanding of castles so often focuses on the military and defensibility that we often forget they served a wide range of functions. My research for this piece focused on the king and the great lords, mainly because the sources I had to hand were The History of the King’s Works and Anthony Emery’s catalogue of the greater medieval houses of England and Wales (volume 2). These castles showed a distinct lack of agricultural buildings. The only relevant buildings were stables, dovecotes, barns, and granaries. Stables were for housing the lord’s horses, rather than for keeping plough horses, and the other buildings were for the storage of foodstuff for the castle staff and the household. There was some evidence for a larger complex of agricultural buildings at Castle Hedingham (Essex), where a map of 1610 indicates a barnyard (Emery 2000, 113). I also came across a documentary reference to a pigsty within the enclosure of Clare Castle (Suffolk) (Ward 2014, 64). this may have been associated with the malt house, as pigs can be fed on the waste of the malting process and a similar arrangement was suggested for Castle Acre Priory (Wilcox 2002, 19).

When I turned my attention to Ireland, I found considerable evidence for agricultural complexes within or close to castles. Here we are predominantly looking at earthwork castles, with the agricultural buildings in the bailey associated with a motte. Kieran O’Conor has summarised the evidence for agricultural buildings at castles and high-status sites in Ireland (O’Conor 1998, 26–33). In addition to motte and bailey castles, O’Conor discusses the evidence from moated sites and considers them to also be primarily defensive (O’Conor 1998, 58–69; O’Conor pers. comm.). Therefore, in Ireland, we get a picture of the high-status agricultural buildings being located within moated or banked and palisaded enclosures, protected from opportunistic raiders. We find continuity throughout the later middle ages with the creation of stone bawns around tower houses, which protected the agricultural buildings. These types of castles are often described as lesser castles when compared against the likes of Dublin, Trim, Dundrum, Carrickfergus, or Limerick. many of these castles were manorial and estate centres, managing the agriculture in the surrounding countryside. Mount Stewart is a good example of a motte constructed as a manorial centre surrounded by demesne, which remains in some form to this day as the National Trust property. This motte was probably an estate centre for the Savages’ in the northern Ards (their main centre was at Ardkeen, north of Portaferry), possibly held by Lucian d’Arquilla in the early 13th century. The area around Mount Stewart appears to have been held by the Earl of Ulster in the 14th century and leased out to various individuals. A bailey and associated settlement are yet to be identified, but they were likely located alongside the motte and church that formed this manor. You can read more about the motte and surrounding landscape in the survey reports of the Ulster Archaeological Society.

Reconstruction of the motte and bailey at Clough (Co. Down).
Reconstruction of the motte and bailey at Clough (Co. Down). (© Duncan Berryman 2021)

Returning to England, we know of the existence of many similar lesser castles but they have received relatively little study compared to their greater counterparts. These lesser castles are also rarely thought of as manorial centres, rather they are seen purely in their defensive terms. By contrast, moated sites have been the focus of several studies and are quite well understood in terms of domestic accommodation and agricultural buildings. However, English moated sites are primarily viewed as symbols of wealth and status and are not considered defensive structures.

It appears we have two contrasting views of lesser castles and manorial centres. In Ireland, manorial centres were primarily encastellated. While in England, castles were separate from manorial centres. There will be many exceptions to this generalisation, but I want to draw attention to the difference with which historians and archaeologists view these two countries (or regions of one kingdom, as they were during much of the Middle Ages). I can’t help but wonder if these differences are because we back-project more recent history onto this earlier period. Ireland is seen as having a violent past and this must extend back through all history. Doesn’t the Táin Bó Cuailnge depict Ireland in a near-constant state of war, with great armies of warriors? Isn’t this warfare the reason that Ireland has the highest density of castles in all of Europe? It is probably true to say that many of these motte and baileys were a relict of the settlement of parts of Ireland by English landlords, and at one point they probably did have defensive functions. But mottes were also the accepted norm for aspiring and established gentry, they were as much a status symbol as a defensive structure. We know that small-scale raiding and inter-family warfare was common in later medieval Ireland, much as it was along the Scottish borders. Thus motte and baileys, tower houses with bawns, and moated sites provided protection from these raids. However, raiding and opportunistic theft in England is ignored. There must have been significant concern about theft, as many manorial accounts mention purchases and repairs of locks for the doors of all types of buildings within the farm. Surrounding the manorial curia with a wall or moat, as was normal, would also suggest that the lord was worried about raids on the contents of the buildings. As much as we need to look beyond the defensibility of castles, I would suggest that we need to view moated sites and lesser castles in England and Ireland as being more similar and both partially a response to low levels of criminality and violence in society. Of course, all these structures had significant symbolic roles in both societies, but we need to consider them as multifaceted and multipurpose structures.


Emery, A. 2000, Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

O’Conor, K.D. 1998, The Archaeology of Medieval Rural Settlement in Ireland (Dublin: The Discovery Programme).

Ward, J. (ed.) 2014, Elizabeth de Burgh, Lady of Clare (1295–1360): Household and Other Records (Woodbridge: Boydell Press).

Wilcox, R. 2002, ‘Excavations of a monastic grain-processing complex at Castle Acre Priory, Norfolk, 1977–82’, Norfolk Archaeology 44, 15–58

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