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Duffield Castle
Lecture by William Bland,
at the Temperance Hall, Wirksworth, on Tuesday January 11th 1887


The Burh,
The Keep,
The Forebuilding
The Stones, Masonic Signs, etc
Miscellaneous Finds
Human Bones, etc.
Kitchen and other Bones
Cutting through the Mound.
Excavations near the moat
The Old Ford

The discovery of the remains of this remarkable piece of medieval military architecture may be said to have been almost accidental. On the 26th of December 1885, Mr Harry J. Harvey, son of the owner of the Castle Hill field, made a few holes on the top of the mound with the object of finding, if possible, some traces of the lost Castle, and came across a portion of one of its inner walls. The Lecturer, hearing that he had not time to prosecute the search, and that his father did not attach much importance to the discovery, and intended to remove the stones and fill up the holes, asked permission to continue the excavations and leave was readily given. A thorough and systematic search was now made for the remains of the old Castle, and after three weeks of careful trench-work and hole-boring, the Lecturer discovered that the basement of a rectangular Norman Keep, nearly a hundred feet square, with two rooms of unequal size, surrounded by concrete walls 15 feet thick, lay beneath the greensward. He sent a rough plan of the same by the next post to the owner of the field and also to the Rev. Dr. Cox. This was in Whitsun-week, 1886, and a few days afterwards Dr. Cox wrote in reply, "Your discovery is of first importance in English Castle history, at least, so I think."

The Council of the Derbyshire Archaeological Society also attached great importance to this discovery, because a Norman Keep of this magnitude was not known to exist in the Midland Counties, and they decided to assist in raising funds necessary to remove the overlying débris, and to lay bare the foundation walls. This work was accordingly undertaken, and in the course of three months was brought to its present stage of completion at a cost (including the iron fencing) of about £160.


The Burh,the essential part of which was a moated mound, was, no doubt, originally defended by sharpened oak stakes, as black matter like charcoal, was found near the moat, but no remains of masonry. The moat has been filled up except on the west side, where it is in places 16 feet across the bottom, 32 feet broad at the top, and 7 feet deep; formerly it must be have been much larger and deeper. The moat enclosed an area of upwards of five acres. The platform of the mound is about 200 feet long by 160 feet in breadth, 10 feet above the general level of the field, and 70 feet above the ordinarily level of the River Derwent. The mound is composed of Yoredale rock and shales, with a gentle slope on all sides but the east, where it is difficult of access.

The Keep, like those of many other castles of the 11th and 12th centuries, is rectangular, and about 98 feet in length and 95 feet in breath; the White Tower in London being only a few feet larger, i.e., 118 feet by a 107 feet

Mr George T. Clark says, "The rectangular keep is of all military structures the simplest in form, the grandest in outline and dimensions, the sternest in passive strength, the most durable in design and workmanship, and in most cases by some years the earliest in date."(b). These keeps were usually from one and a half to two lengths of the base-line in height. The Keep of Rochester Castle is 70 feet long, and the height from the base to the coping of the parapet is 113 feet, and the turrets rise 12 feet higher. It is not unlikely, therefore, that the Keep of Duffield Castle was upwards of 100 feet high, and to this must be added 70 feet, the height of the basement above the Derwent, so that the building must have been a most imposing object, and of supreme importance. The basement was at the ground level, and consisted of two rooms, a north and a south chamber, one 41 feet and the other 17 feet broad, and each 63 feet long, with a partition wall 4½ feet thick, with one or two doorways, and the whole surrounded by concrete, faced on both sides with stones, forming a solid wall 15 feet thick. The floors of the basement were of oak timber resting on stout joists; all these had been burnt to charcoal and ashes by the intense fire employed to destroy this massive structure. There were well-staircases at the south-east and north-west corners of the rooms in the basement. These staircases were probably about 7½ feet in diameter, and were lighted by means of loops formed by splayed masonry, as stones answering to this description of staircase were found close by. These staircases probably communicated with every room above, and terminated on the roof, but would have no approach from the outside of the keep. Near the south-west angle of the larger room, the well, a most important accessory to Norman keep, was discovered by means of a boring-rod. The well, which is four feet in diameter and 80 feet deep, was concealed in a chamber of masonry about ten or twelve feet square. A remarkable thing about the well is that it has no stone lining, and the shales through which it was sunk 800 years ago are still firm. The well must have provided an ample supply of water, as it now stands 18 feet deep. The well, when first discovered was full of rubble, worked, and moulded stones, oak timber scorched by fire, and smaller débris. At the bottom lay a wooden spade, a wooden bowl the size of a tea-saucer, portions of a largish earthenware bowl probably having been thrown down for concealment, and the original well-bucket scorched and broken, the handle fastened to the loops on the sides lying with the staves. The bucket has been restored by the cooper, and it closely resembles those now use. It is nine inches in depth and 11 inches in diameter at the top, both inside measurements. About the centre of the larger room is a stone basement, eight feet square, built to support a column which carried the roof, and a trench or gutter, 15 in broad by seven or eight inches deep, passes under this masonry. This trench appears to have been formerly a water course, with a fall of six inches towards the east, but no regular outlet for water at this end has been discovered; there is however, the basement of a garderobe or office at the end of the watercourse, but three or four feet above it. It is, therefore, unlikely there was any connection between the two. As a shallow circular opening about 4 inches in diameter was found in the basement near the end of the watercourse, probably the waste water was conveyed by a pipe into the rock below, and then found its way under the foundation walls to the east slope close by.

The Forebuilding - a structure intended to protect the end to the Keep - was on the western side. Here has been laid bare part (30 feet by 18 feet) of a concrete basement of irregular shape, the outer stones having been long carried away, and hard by there are traces of the floors of several mural chambers. The forebuilding in a perfect or fairly complete state of preservation may be seen at Dover, Newcastle, Norwich, Porchester, Rochester, and a few other places.(c). It is usually a rectangular tower, about two- thirds of the height of the Keep. At the Duffield Castle the forebuilding was probably entered at the ground platform level of the south-west angle by means of a staircase, which may have been broken half way up by a drawbridge; and at the entrance to the Keep, at the second or third floor level, the door of barred oak may have been protected by a portcullis worked from the chamber above. In the keep-wall, under the staircase, there are remains of the basement of a recess probably used by the guard.

The Stones, Masonic Signs, etc. Most of the stones are of the millstone grit formation, and of the same nature and quality as stones from the neighbouring quarries. Some stones are the moulded heads of columns or pilasters, or parts of a cornice. Many stones, which had been part of arches, doorways, or well staircases, or which had been splayed for openings in the walls, were found in the débris of the keep or the well. Some stones exhibit the Norman axe-cut, both perpendicular and cross-work. The staircase-stones appear to have been exposed to the fiercest heat, and the quantity of burnt sand, rubble stones, and charcoal removed from the foot of the staircases was greater than any found elsewhere. Several stones sharpened to serve as knives or scrapers were also found in the Keep. These are supposed to have been used in Celtic times, perhaps by the potters for shaping the pots. On many of the dressed stones there are marks cut with a chisel or axe, such as L, H, X, T, V. Up to this date 30 distinct and separate marks have been discovered. Usually there is only one mark on a stone, though in a few instances there are two different marks on the same stone. These were supposed to have been the private marks or signs of Norman masons, put on the stones for each to identify his own work; but in a little book published by the Religious Tract Society, entitled "Recent Discoveries on the Temple Hill" by the Rev. Jas. King, the Lecturer saw several drawings of marks discovered on the deep foundation stones of the walls of the Temple of Solomon at Jerusalem, and some of these marks are identical with those found on the stones at a Duffield Castle. Mr. King writes, "An oriental scholar of Jewish extraction, named Emanuel Deutsch, then an official in the British Museum, at the request of the Palestine Exploration Society, examined the excavations. On descending the shafts, 80 feet down, at the south-east corner of the wall, where the foundations of this temple lie on the natural rock, he examined by means of a taper and magnesian light the hitherto undeciphered signs cut or painted on the stones . . . . . . . . . The learned student at once recognised most of them as familiar forms, and without hesitation announced them to be the marks or quarry signs of Phoenician masons.' In his report to the society, he says, "I think all attempts to determine the exact meaning of each and all these technical signs would, at least, at this stage, be premature. If the excavations are properly carried on, I venture to predict the occurrence of similar signs, . . . . . . . . . . . which, conjointly with those now discovered may contain . . . . . . . . a full explanation of their own purport."

The Lecturer placed himself in communication with the Rev. J.King with reference to the marks on stones of Duffield Castle, who recommended him to apply to the Rev. Canon Tristram for further information. The Canon was good enough to examine the drawings sent to him, and in his report upon them says, "I cannot throw any further light on the marks found on the stones of Duffield Castle, or on their meaning further than by saying that many of them are certainly masonic, and recognised by modern freemasons, who have not, I think, inherited all the symbols of mediaeval masonry. . . . . . . . . I am sorry that so few masons take an interest in the antiquities of the craft; which, I am sure, would well repay any diligent student." Further elucidation of these very interesting epigraphic inscriptions now being attempted by the highest authority.

Miscellaneous Finds - Amongst the other "finds" were a Norman spur, various iron nails for oak doors, window-fastener, bridle bit, and spear-head, also three knives, of the sizes that we should now term carving, table, and dessert knives, all of the same pattern, and with the same characteristic brass rings below the blade. The carving was furnished with a strong buckhorn handle, accidentally broken by a workman with his pick. Within the Keep there was also found a disc of clay or pot, one and a-half inches in diameter, with a hole in the centre. This was a spindle-whorl used in the process of spinning with a distaff and spindle. Mr. Ll. Jewitt says: "Spindle whorls vary in size from one to three inches in diameter, and those of the Celtic period are usually flat circular pieces of stone, pierced in the middle, and flat or rounded edges. Spindle-whorls of wood and of bone, of ivory and lead, etc., have been found with Roman and Anglo-Saxon remains.(e)

Human Bones, etc. - Perhaps the most interesting "finds" belonging to Anglo-Saxon times was the lower portion of what was originally a cruciform brooch made of bronze, and ornamented by the engraver; also a small portion of an amber necklace. These were found along with the human bones discovered on the mound, and indicated that there had been an internment of an Anglo-Saxon lady of rank, although two brooches might have been expected to be found, as they were usually worn one on each shoulder. The bones were found just outside the west wall of the Castle, and as they had been thrown together, it is possible that the interment had taken place before the arrival of the Normans, and that they had removed the remains to make room for the foundation walls when they were building the Castle. These bones were carefully taken up by the Lecturer, and sent in three packages to Dr. Webb, of Wirksworth, who always takes the liveliest interest in antiquarian researches. The Doctor thus reports (Oct. 20th, 1886) of these "finds" - "Package marked A, contains fragments of the long bones of the extremities (i.e., arm and leg bones), of the head and of the bones of the back vertebrae), and also some portions of the haunch bones. There is a part of the right temple-bone, with the entrance to the ear, and also that part of it in which the lower jaw is fixed. Package marked B, contains various fragments or parts of the bones of the head, vis, of the front bone (frontal), and temple-bone (temporal) as well as fragments of arm and leg-bones. Package marked C, contains the upper part of a thigh-bone, a portion of the haunch bones, and a fragment of one of the bones at the sides and the top of the head (parietal). All these bones show evidence have of having been buried for a long series of years."

Kitchen and other Bones - These were found buried in all parts of the debris, which covered the Keep, and were sufficiently numerous to fill a large wheelbarrow. The Rev. J.M. Mello, rector of St. Thomas's, Brampton, Chesterfield, devoted a long morning to the examination of these relics, and a few days afterwards sent over the following report:


An examination of the bones found during the excavations of the foundations of Duffield Castle, and which, I understand, were all found within its area, are, with scarcely more than one or two exceptions, merely kitchen refuse, and consist of broken fragments belonging to following species:

  1. Common short-horned ox (Bos longifrons).
  2. Sheep (Ovis aries).
  3. Red deer (Cervus elaphus).
  4. Roe deer (Cervus capreolus).
  5. Hare or rabbit (Lepus timidus or cuniculus).
  6. A domestic hog or wild boar (Sus scrofa).
  7. Dog (Canis familiaris).
  8. Domestic fowl (Gallus domesticus).
  9. A larger bird, goose or swan.
  10. Man (Homo)
  1. The bones of the ox, a short-horned species, probably Bos longifrons in part, are in considerable abundance. They consist chiefly of the long bones of the limbs, and ribs. The leg bones (femora, tibiae, andhumeri) have been invariably artificially split open for the purpose of extracting the marrow. Some of the ribs show a knife cuts on their surface.
  2. The sheep was also an article of food, although its bones are not as numerous as those of the ox.
  3. The red deer, which probably abounded in the neighbourhood, is represented by its bones, by fragments of antlers, and also by a few teeth. The skulls, however, not only of this animal, but also of the others whose remains are found here, seems mostly to have escaped preservation.
  4. The roe deer was possibly present. The species was once abundant all over Great Britain, although it is now confined to a few spots in the more northern parts of the country.
  5. Amongst the most highly favoured articles of food the pig must have held, perhaps, the chief place, judging from the numerous lower jaws found amongst the refused. Pig's face may have been a favourite dish with some of the inhabitants of the Castle. This is the only animal the jaws of which occur in any quantity here. Probably most of them are those of the common domestic hog, although it is not improbable that some of the specimens, especially one of a young animal with large teeth and strongly developed muscular attachments may have belonged to the wild species. It is very easy for us to picture to ourselves not only Gurth, the swineherd, the Saxon serf of some Norman lord of Duffield, lazily tending his charge in the neighbourhood of the Castle, but also the excitement of the boar hunt, the shout of the hunters and the fierce barking of the hounds as they rushed on their fierce opponent standing at bay amid the trees of the forest.
  6. The remains of a fair-sized dog also are present, amongst them part of the jaw, the relics, perhaps, of some favourite hound which came to an untimely end, since, judging by its teeth, it did not die of old-age.
  7. The hare or rabbit seems to have been also an occasional article of food.
  8. And the domestic fowl, as well as the goose, and possibly the swan, which would find a congenial home in the Castle moat, have left us the traces of their presence amongst the fragmentary bones of this old kitchen midden.

The collection of bones, judging from their condition and state of preservation, covers a long period of time, whilst some are in a perfectly fresh state, retaining all their gelatin, others are evidently much older, whilst some amongst them have lost their gelatin entirely. Some few, also, are much stained and darkened, and look as if they had been embedded in peat.

As to the human remains, there are some few fragments of a human skeleton which were found within the castle walls, but which, as they were broken up and presented no appearance of being of having been regularly interred, had probably been disturbed at an early date, perhaps by the builders themselves of the castle. Most, if not all, of the bones now described appear to have been found within the enclosure of the Keep, or at any rate not in the trench which was cut across the mound outside its walls, and in which numerous fragments of Roman earthenware have been discovered. The Castle had evidently been built upon the site of an old Roman station, one of a chain of posts erected to protect the road from the mining districts of the county, which we know were worked by the Romans, and it may be that some of the bones disinterred may carry us back to Roman if not pre-Roman times, one or two stone implements which I understand have been found, seem to point to this earlier age."


October 15th. 1886

Cutting through the Mound. On the recommendation of Dr Cox, and with the consent of the owner, a trench, a yard in width, was cut from the top of the mound to the middle of the field below, a distance of about 180 feet. The upper part, to a depth of three feet, was composed of burnt sand, bits of charcoal, and rubble stone, resting on the natural Yoredale rock and shales. The lower portion was cut much deeper. Half-way down the sides of the trench there ran a dark-coloured line, almost parallel with the surface of the field above. Probably this discoloured layer consisted of the original soil, and the decomposed vegetable matter which had formerly grown upon it. Below this line there were beds of shale and clay, and above it was artificially made ground, composed of sands, stones, shales, and clays, with a thin coating of turf. This cutting was prolific in its yield of fragments of old pottery, upwards of 500 pieces having been picked up. Dr. Cox and the Rev. J. M. Mello, who examined the pots reported that the Castle had evidently been built upon the site of a Roman station. Their conjectures were confirmed by Mr. Franks, F.S.A., of the British Museum, to whom specimens of this pottery were taken for examination both by Dr Cox and by Mr. St. John Hope. Mr. Franks was of the opinion that the "finds" submitted to him represented a great variety of Roman pottery, and proved that the site must have been continuously used for upwards of 200 years, or probably more, by those people. Several specimens were identified as Salopian, and made of white Broseley clay. Two pieces of whitish pottery from another trench were recognised as Samian ware, probably brought over from France, as Samian ware has now been proved to have been chiefly made at Auvergne.

Excavations near the Moat. - Dr. Cox made a few excavations near the edge of the moat, and found something of interest. In one spot there was a good deal of iron refuse, and near it, the rough remains of a horse-shoe. These were a foot or two below the surface, and told their tale of the time when the Saxons worked a smithy here in some rude way. In other openings there was a good deal of black matter, like charcoal, and he could not help thinking it was the remains of the stockade or fort; some of the fortifications being of oak or other wood, which had been destroyed when attacked.

The Old Ford - Dr. Cox, in examining the site of the ancient Ford over the river Derwent, near the Castle, discovered certain fragments of pottery, which he supposed to be Roman. He took them to the British Museum, and before he had said what they were, Mr. Franks identified them as part of a Roman pot or vessel. Some pieces of brick and tile came out of the same place.

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First published 1887, Website copyright 2001 Jed Bland. 27.09.01