Hampshire Countryside Service

Odiham Castle Excavations

Excavation summary

Coins Henry IIIDuring the de Montforts' residence at Odiham, the Countess Eleanor kept a Household Roll, or inventory, carefully compiled by Christopher and Eudes, her clerks. Entries for the first half of 1265 have survived, and provide a fascinating view of 13th century daily life. Here can be found details of diet; bread, meat and fish figure prominently, particularly salted herrings, which were consumed in vast quantities during Lent.

Also listed are Eleanor's many visitors, ranging from royal officials to great ladies. On a more local level the names of some of her servants are recorded, including Hicquc Cissori, the tailor, and messengers including Gobithesti and Truebodi. Her ladies-in-waiting included Hawisa and Christiana.

The main dating evidence from the excavations comprises pottery and a few coins. Other finds from this waterlogged site include over 2,000 animal bones, many of deer - red, roe and fallow, and from the cess-pits, digested herring bones.

Metalwork includes spurs, a barrel padlock, buckles, and a Jew's harp (right). But how does the archaeological evidence fit with the accepted history of Odiham Castle?

Coarse pottery sherdsPerhaps the most exciting discovery is that the great octagonal keep is not the first structure on the site. If work began on a virgin site in 1207, as seems likely, the castle built for King John was more a well-defended hunting lodge than a towering stronghold. Indeed, the domus regis itself may be represented by the decorated doorway of which part remains (right).

Soon afterwards, perhaps as a result of damage sustained during the siege of 1216, the octagonal tower was built. The first mentions of a turrus in the documentary sources, apparently referring to repairs, occur in 1224/25, and it is perhaps relevant that the dendrochronology (tree-ring) date for the timber in the sump is 1232. The moat which surrounds the keep is another unexpected find, which makes immediate sense of the many references to buildings and rooms, notably the kitchen, being suspended on piles 'above the fosse of the castle', and a royal directive of 1276 that part of the moat 'against the tower' should be filled in.

Metal objectsThe palisade and ditch unearthed in the inner ward might well point to a particular episode. In the 14th century, a certain Robert le Ewer was among other things Keeper of the Castle, Manor, Town, Hundred and Park of Odiham. When the much despised Despensers came to prominence le Ewer rebelled against king Edward II, and was outlawed. One of several acts of defiance he carried out was an attempt, in November 1322, to storm Odiham Castle, which had been handed to John St John of Basing, and Ralph de Camoys to guard in the king's name.

That the assault was a full-bloodied affair is suggested by the number of known conspirators. In addition an inventory shows that of twenty dozen arrows at the disposal of the garrison, eight dozen were used in repelling the attack. Less direct evidence is the amount of repair work required at the castle that winter, particularly to roof tiles and timbers. An interesting but understandable aside, is the fact that the garrison consumed two and a quarter casks of wine to celebrate their repulsing of le Ewer and his men.

Robert le Ewer was seized at Southampton in December 1322, and was imprisoned 'in a cold place, clad only in a thin shirt'. He was given bad food and foul-smelling water, and after suffering 'peine fort et dure' died there in chains.

StoneworkOther evidence from the excavations suggests that after the defensive structures, the moats, ditches and palisades, had been removed or filled in, a number of planting holes were dug, as the inner ward was turned into a small garden.

A flint foundation here could be the base of a small 'summer house' or it may have been the foundation for a watchman's hut. When the castle was declared surplus to requirements there would have been a constant stream of wagons carrying building material away, and a need to keep an eye on this process.

The definitive archaeological report describing the excavations is now in an advanced state, and specialist reports have been written for the animal bone, pottery and tile. It is hoped that the final sections will be completed during 2004, and that the report will appear during 2005.


Excavation trench

Odiham Castle excavations 1207-1216

The earliest work included the digging of the square moats (square in plan), and construction of an internal bank. At this period ground level was about 2m below the level visible today.

The trench (right) is seen looking west at a section through the gravel layers to show the OGS or 'old ground surface' (the black layer).

This would have been the original land surface when building first began at the site in 1207.

When the octagonal keep was constructed the whole surface area was raised by nearly 1.5 metres with dumps of gravel and stone.

Some structures were built directly onto this horizon, and some pits (e.g. the water-filled hole in the foreground) where dug into it. When the octagonal keep was constructed the whole surface area was raised by nearly 1.5 metres with dumps of gravel and stone.

Buildings were constructed on top of this 'old ground surface' and cess-pits were dug into it.

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The surviving fragments of these early buildings included the lowest course of a finely decorated doorway, which had been blocked-in during the lifetime of the structure it served

Looking west (left) of the blocked doorway of a high status building constructed on the 1207 ground surface.

This may be the 'domus regis' or king's house referred to in the documentary sources.


Odiham Castle excavations 1216-1300

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The construction of the great octagonal keep, or tower, resulted in the destruction of most of the early buildings, in this locality at least.

One particular agent of their demise was the new, circular moat, which immediately surrounded the tower (right).

Subtle colours - Octagonal keep with traces of a well-defined arrow slit and the pronounced ledge for the malmstone blocks of the castle wall outer skin; the foreground consists of the old ground surface with part of a latrine or toilet pit (whitish triangle) cut into it. This in turn is cut by the moat surrounding the keep (grey - immediate foreground).  

Beyond this 'inner moat', spoil from its excavation and debris from the construction of the tower were used to build up and level out the inner ward, or compound. On this gently undulating surface a rich occupation soil accumulated.

As well as numerous bits of pottery and animal bones, several rough hearths were found in this area.

The keep was constructed on a massive foundation of mortared flint, material which also formed the wall core. This was then faced with large malmstone ashlar blocks. Most of these were robbed in antiquity, but several courses survive in situ below ground level.

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At the centre of the structure were the much disturbed traces of a massive posthole. Just to the east was a well-preserved sump, sunk into the gravel subsoil, and lined in both timber and stone (right). This had a timber and stone surround.

The timbers provided a dendrochronology (tree ring) date of 1232; the stones included some architectural fragments which could have come from the 'king's house'.

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Odiham Castle excavations - 14th century

At some stage a substantial palisade was constructed just beyond the inner moat, fronted by a flat-bottomed ditch. The post-casts of this palisade survived in excellent condition.

This may have been called into action in 1322, when Robert le Ewer, onetime Constable of Odiham Castle, attempted to retake the fortress having been outlawed by Edward II.

The ditch appeared to have been deliberately filled, and among the things buried in it were dismembered horse carcasses, and roughly rounded stones (right).#

The latter were clearly candidates for siege catapult or trebuchet ammunition, but so too were the former.

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Medieval accounts exist of these unsavory missiles, impregnated with bacilli, being fired into a fortification as a primitive form of germ warfare.

Another offensive weapon occurring in some quantity in this locality was the armour-piercing arrowhead - wicked looking socketed spikes of iron, up to 200mm in length (right).

A small rectangular building was terraced into the west side of the early period bank, and would have been a lean-to structure, possibly a store.


Excavation trench

Castle excavations - 15th century

The inner moat was in-filled, and the surrounding area levelled even further. A repeating pattern of bowl-shaped pits appears to represent tree or shrub planting holes.

This gardening activity would certainly have improved the view from the keep during its final years of use as a hunting-lodge.

A small square building foundation may be of this date also, or may belong to the period when the main structure was being robbed of its dressed stone).

When the octagonal keep was constructed, light grey malmstone chippings and debris spread out from it on all sides. This distinctive layer then buried beneath the dumps of gravel used to raise the general ground level. The layer was also cut through by the inner moat, which was probably the source of most of the gravel.

The sides of this ditch were treated with yellow mortar in order to stabilise them, and the curve of the ditch can be plainly seen. Beyond the ditch is the small square flint foundation which might be the remains of a garden feature, or possibly a watchman's hut.