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Barwick in Elmet’s Iron Age Hill Fort and Motte Bailey Castle

After visiting a friend in Barwick in Elmet, I remembered years ago he’d mentioned the remains of a motte bailey castle behind the local Methodist church. I thought it was worth a quick look to find out more.

Walking next to the Methodist church graveyard and up a short path close to the centre of the village, I came to a gate. At the gate I was immediately met with the sight of a great grassed mound with an obvious ditch around it.

Whilst not of the scale of the mound on which Clifford’s Tower in York sits, it was obviously a man-made mound (or motte) which was a key part of a Norman motte bailey castle, which after the Norman conquest in 1066 were used to subdue the local population.

But the signage told of a far earlier historical site - that of an earthwork dating back to the Iron Age. Whilst there are 100 recorded sites of iron age hillforts in England very few are located in Yorkshire and only 2 in West Yorkshire. Those that are found in the region date from between 400 BC to 100 AD.

Whilst it was difficult to see the remains of the hillfort which encompassed a much larger site including the nearby graveyard you can just about make out the remains of a bank and ditch whilst taking a walk on the path around the site. They often enclosed a settlement and a key feature was always a defensive ditch around buildings with evidence of roundhouses and grain stores. In the Barwick example on excavation they did find evidence of post holes from the round houses where the iron age owners lived.

The hillfort remains enclosed two adjacent hills - now known as Hall Tower Hill and Wendel Hill. A hillfort usually indicated the high status of the inhabitant and acted as a reminder of their power. Coins dating to the 2nd century BC have also been found on the site.

The Motte Bailey castle dates to a much later date and we have to fast forward to the 1100’s to understand this. In this Barwick in Elmet example, the Motte occupied Hall Tower Hill only and is basically a large conical mound of earth. On top of this would have sat a timber tower or palisade.

This tower then would have been surrounded by an embanked enclosure – the Bailey which enclosed more buildings. These structures were often strongholds or forts for millitary operations and often centres of local administration for the new Norman landowners and French Barons. They are prime examples of Post-Norman Conquest monuments.

The Barwick in Elmet Motte is approximately 15m high and the surrounding ditch is about 15m across. Whilst the Bailey did extend further than the iron age hillfort on one side, in reality it only took up an area of 25% of this. Much of this area has been built over by housing over the years.

Often the wooden towers built on the Motte were replaced with stone structures but in Barwick there is no evidence of this indicating it was not in use for long.

It is understood that the Motte Bailey Castle was built by the De Lacy family who also owned the Honour of Pontefract. Originally used as an administrative centre for the area around Leeds, this moved to Rothwell and the castle was abandoned.

When I climbed to the top of the motte/mound, I was surprised to see a large square concrete base. On investigation it turns out that during World War 2 the motte became a viewing platform for the Royal Observer Corps where a small building sat. The views from the motte helped with the spotting of enemy aircraft.

A fascinating little bit of Yorkshire history slap bang in the centre of Barwick in Elmet.


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