New investigation of Lowther’s medieval castle and village set to reveal Cumbria’s past

Old map showing the site of the proposed dig at Lowther © Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.
The key area of the dig site runs from Lowther Castle (the 19C castle) northward to encompass ‘Castlesteads’, which is the potentially Norman castle, up to St Michael’s Church.

The remains of a medieval castle and village at Lowther (Cumbria) will be the subject of a new archaeological investigation in summer 2023, thanks to funding from the Castle Studies Trust.

The project 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, together with students and staff from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).

Dr Ambler says: “This is a tremendously exciting project. We have 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.

“The archaeology at Lowther offers a fantastic opportunity to understand how the estate was established – and this will hopefully provide important new evidence for a critical period in Britain’s past, when Cumbria was annexed to the English realm.”

The team will conduct a geophysical survey and open trenches across the earthworks of the castle and village. Their goal will be to uncover evidence of when the castle was built, its relationship to the adjoining village, and how the site changed over the centuries.

The investigation will run for a month in the early summer of 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.”

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.

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 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 image is reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland (Map Images website.)

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