Investigation of Lowther’s medieval castle and village to start

The north park at Lowther Castle, where lie hidden the remains of a medieval castle and village and where, from June 26 to July 21, the team will be surveying and excavating to uncover a hidden chapter in Cumbria’s past. Visitors welcome.
The north park at Lowther Castle, where lie hidden the remains of a medieval castle and village and where, from June 26 to July 21, the team will be surveying and excavating to uncover a hidden chapter in Cumbria’s past. Visitors welcome.

A new archaeological investigation to unearth the remains of a medieval castle and village at Lowther (Cumbria) gets underway on Monday (June 26).

The project, funded by the Castle Studies Trust, aims to reveal how the Normans conquered and colonised the region and what this process was like for inhabitants, and to chart the origins of the Lowther estate.

Preliminary work suggests that the remains of Lowther’s medieval castle and its adjoining village may date to the late eleventh or early twelfth century.

If so, the site might provide rare evidence of the conquest of Cumbria by King William Rufus and his brother, King Henry I – a generation after the Normans seized control of the rest of England.

The project is led by Dr Sophie Thérèse Ambler, a Reader in Medieval History and Deputy Director of the Centre for War and Diplomacy at Lancaster University.

The archaeological investigation will be run by Allen Archaeology, working with archaeology students and staff from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).

The first phase of the month-long dig will include a geophysical survey. Then two metre by ten metre trenches will be opened across the earthworks of the castle and village.

This will involve three weeks of intensive investigations in the hope of uncovering important new evidence of when the castle was built, its relationship to the adjoining village, and how the site changed over the centuries.

A dig diary with regular updates on the investigation will be available on the Castle Studies Trust website, with social media coverage #LowtherMedievalCastle

Dr Ambler says: “We’re very excited to start the project at Lowther. There’s little written evidence for Cumbria in the early and central Middle Ages: since this region wasn’t part of William the Conqueror’s kingdom it isn’t included in Domesday Book, and few records have otherwise survived.

“Archaeology offers a fantastic opportunity to uncover this chapter in Cumbria’s past – and bring to light important new evidence for castle building and its role in conquest and colonisation across Britain.”

UCLan MSci Archaeology student Jack Tobias is one of the team involved in the dig.

The 21-year-old, from Glasgow, said: “I'm very excited to be working on this research project. As UCLan students, we have the rare opportunity to gain and develop key, employable skill sets from working side-by-side professional archaeologists from Allen Archaeology.

“Excavating next to the historic Lowther Castle, in the beautiful North West countryside, will allow us to deliver tangible, ground-breaking research to a local, national and international audience."

The investigation will run from 26 June to 21 July 2023.

Jeremy Cunnington, of the Castle Studies Trust, says: “The Castle Studies Trust is delighted to be funding this project to understand more about the Norman conquest and colonisation of Cumbria. This has the potential to not only advance our understanding of the use of castles in the colonisation of Cumbria by the Normans but also more generally throughout the UK.”

Dr Jim Morris, a senior lecturer Archaeology and Course Leader Archaeology & Anthropology at University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), says: “It’s an exciting opportunity for our students to work on a site that may rewrite our understanding of the Norman conquest of Cumbria. It continues our proud tradition of working with commercial organisation, such as Allen Archaeology, on ground-breaking archaeological research in the North-West. Our students will be alongside professional archaeologists gaining important skills for their degrees and further archaeological employment.”

Tobin Rayner, of Allen Archaeology, says: “Allen Archaeology is really pleased to be involved in the investigation of Lowther’s medieval castle and village. The geophysical survey and excavation will provide a great insight into the site and I hope that our commercial knowledge will be of great help to the students of UCLan in their future archaeological careers.”

Jim Lowther, the owner of Lowther Castle, says: “The Lowther family has been on this site for many hundreds of years but our knowledge of their buildings and history only really starts from the late 16th century. It will be fascinating to learn more about the estate’s early past.

“Moreover, for our summer visitors, the excavation work itself will add an intriguing element to the experience of visiting Lowther Castle. We are much looking forward to all that this project unfolds.”

The remains of the medieval castle and village lie immediately north of Lowther’s nineteenth-century castle. Overlooking the Bampton Valley on the edge of the Lake District, the picturesque ruins of Lowther’s later castle and its extensive gardens are one of the region’s most popular visitor attractions.

Visitors to Lowther Castle and Gardens will be able to view the excavations, and the findings will be used to share the story of the estate’s medieval past.

The investigation will help scholars understand an important, but little documented, phase in Britain’s history.

Unlike the rest of England, Co. Cumbria was not conquered by the Normans in 1066. The region was historically part of the Kingdom of Cumbria, which stretched from Strathclyde across the Solway. Then, while the Normans were conquering lowland England, the area from Lowther northwards was conquered by the Scottish king Máel Coluim III.

Cumbria was only annexed by the Normans in 1092, when William the Conqueror’s son, William Rufus, led an expedition to the area. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the king then ‘sent many peasant people with their wives and cattle to live there and cultivate the land.’ But for following generations Norman rule over the region remained patchy compared to much of England.

In offering a case study of castle building, settlement and village life in the region, the new investigation is set to make a significant contribution to our knowledge of Britain’s medieval past.

The area (north park) where the dig is taking place is free for all to access. It lies immediately north of the 19C castle and can be accessed easily via the footpath from the free car park at Lowther Castle and Gardens. Visitors welcome – see for further details.

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