Looking inside the medieval Holt Castle
A medieval castle built by a baron on land given to him by Edward I has been digitally reconstructed to show what it would have looked like 600 years ago
Holt Castle in Wrexham was constructed in the 13th century by John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey. Largely destroyed during the Civil War in the 1640s, many of its stones were later used by Sir Thomas Grosvenor to build the original Eaton Hall near Chester.
Now, drawing upon inventories, antiquarian drawings and plans, as well as the results of recent excavations, leading experts Rick Turner and Chris Jones Jenkins have digitally reconstructed Holt both internally and externally. Funded by the Castle Studies Trust, the project reveals what the castle looked like and how it functioned at its high point in the late 15th century.
Here, Rick Turner, a PhD student at Swansea University, explores the history of Holt Castle, and explains how it has been digitally reconstructed…
To secure his conquest of north-east Wales, Edward I created five new Marcher lordships in 1282, and gave them as reward to his political allies and close friends. The lordship of Bromfield and Yale was granted to John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey (1231–1304), who started building Castrum Leonis, or ‘Chastellion’, as Holt Castle was known in the Middle Ages.
The castle is first referred to in 1311, some years after it was likely completed. Warenne’s master mason chose an open and relatively flat site above the west bank of the river Dee, close to one of the ferry crossings into Cheshire. This allowed him to create a symmetrical pentagonal castle with a tall round tower at each corner, and the main rooms ranged around an inner courtyard.
There were up to three storeys raised above the original ground level, and up to three basement levels cut down into the sandstone bedrock. It was a revolutionary design, and one of a group of similar architectural experiments being undertaken by the other new Marcher lords at castles such as Denbigh, Ruthin and Chirk. At all these sites, geometrical complexity, architectural grandeur and the provision of well-appointed accommodation seemed to be more important than defensive capabilities.
The 6th Earl was succeeded by his grandson John, the 7th Earl of Surrey (1286–1347). Described by Alison Weir in Isabella: She-Wolf of France, Queen of England (2014) as “a nasty, brutal man with scarcely one redeemable quality”, Surrey was involved with the political upheavals of Edward II’s reign, including the loss of Holt Castle for a time to Thomas, Earl of Lancaster.
John died without a legitimate heir, and Edward III intervened to bestow his estates upon Richard FitzAlan, 3rd Earl of Arundel (c1313–76). His son, Richard, 4th Earl (1346–97) was one of the ‘Lords Appellant’, who had curbed Richard II’s powers and had the king’s closest allies executed or exiled during the ‘Merciless Parliament’ of 1388 [when many members of Richard II's court were convicted of treason].
It took nine years before the king was able to wreak his revenge on these powerful men. Arundel was brought to trial for treason at Westminster on 21 September 1397, and was convicted and beheaded on the same day. Richard II seized his estates and incorporated Bromfield and Yale into his new principality of Cheshire, with Holt Castle as its main stronghold.
Building work was commissioned in 1398, which saw the chapel tower extended and included a water-gate, called ‘Pottrell’s Pit’ in later documents, linked to the river. Over the next year more than £40,000 in coins, jewellery, gold and silver plate was transferred from the royal treasury in London to Holt for safekeeping.
When Henry Bolingbroke – later Henry IV – returned to England in 1399, he shadowed Richard II up the Welsh Marches and was quick to recapture Holt Castle. Despite being defended by 100 men-at-arms and being well provisioned, Henry’s men, including the French chronicler Jean Creton, were able to enter through the new water-gate and ascend “on foot, step by step”, to take the castle unopposed and so recover this vast proportion of the king’s disposable wealth.
Over the next 139 years, three more owners or stewards of the lordship of Bromfield and Yale were to be executed for treason. The first was Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham (1455–83). A year after his death, Sir William Stanley (c1435–95) acquired the lordship from Richard III. Despite his role at the 1485 battle of Bosworth, which brought his relative Henry VII to the throne, he was implicated in the Perkin Warbeck affair in the 1490s [Warbeck was a pretender to the English throne, claiming to be Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, second son of Edward IV, who died in the Tower of London in 1483] and was executed in 1495, after which time Holt Castle reverted to the crown.
The last of this group was William Brereton (c1487–1536), who was appointed steward of the castle where he held “great porte and solemnities”, before he was convicted of adultery with Anne Boleyn and beheaded.
Holt Castle remained the property of the crown and was to form part of the estates of the Princes of Wales. It was held for the king during the Civil War, and in the 1670s the buildings were sold off to Sir Thomas Grosvenor, who systematically dismantled nearly all the stones and transported them to help with the building of his Eaton Hall, a few miles south of Chester. This has left us with the stump of rock and walling that survives today.
c1264, Edward I. Holt Castle was built upon land given by Edward I to John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Reconstructing Holt Castle
Two previous attempts have been made to understand the original appearance of Holt Castle: by Alfred Palmer in 1907 and Lawrence Butler in 1987. Both had access to plans and views of the castle drawn in 1562 and 1620. The problem they faced was that these two sets of drawings are contradictory, and they are hard to relate to what survived of the castle.
Since 1987, however, new evidence has been made available, including documentary evidence for Richard II’s building work; the publication of a transcript of the Holt Castle inventory taken after Sir William Stanley’s arrest in 1495; the discovery of a new early 17th-century plan of the castle in the National Library of Wales; and a programme of masonry consolidation, archaeological excavation and a survey led by Steve Grenter of Wrexham County Borough Council in 2013, in partnership with the Holt Local History Society.
This new work prompted me to try to reconstruct Holt Castle. With the help of a grant from the Castle Studies Trust, I was able to commission the well-known castle reconstruction artist, Chris Jones-Jenkins, to develop a 3D digital model that was flexible enough to capture and assimilate the new data.
How did we go about this? Well, the surviving masonry of the castle and the 2013 topographical survey of the site provided the primary model on which the remainder of the castle was constructed. The model also drew on archaeological evidence for the bases of three of the towers and the line of the channel leading into the water gate.
To get a sense of the internal layout of the castle, we drew upon the list of the castle’s rooms detailed in the 1495 inventory. However, it became clear that not all the rooms were listed – rooms without contents, such as the triangular ante-rooms to the towers and the latrines, were omitted. Furthermore, none of the views of the castle were architecturally detailed, and none showed all of the exterior or much of the inner courtyard. This information had to be derived from surviving details from other Edwardian castles in north Wales built at the same time as Holt, such as Rhuddlan, Denbigh, Caernarfon, Flint and Conwy. We analysed the architectural styles and designs of these buildings.
Chris and I then started to develop the model: we tried different combinations of layout and floor heights, building on the fixed points surviving at basement level and rising up in an effort to accommodate all the rooms. Suites of accommodation began to emerge, and can be seen in the video fly-through. Sir William Stanley’s great chamber led off the high end of the hall. It controlled access in one direction to his counting house (the room in which all the lord's business was done) and the chapel, and in the other to the treasure house (where William Stanley's treasure was stored) and the high wardrobe (where valuables were kept and where the king/lord’s officials sat doing the accounts).
Across the courtyard Stanley’s wife, Elizabeth, had her own bed chamber, in which she slept, and a great chamber where she would entertain special guests of her own, both linked to the nursery. Above her accommodation was a chamber for her ladies-in-waiting, well away from the yeomen’s dormitory under the lord’s great chamber.
The kitchen was connected at basement level to a larder, pastry house and a wine cellar on one side and offices for the cook and butler on the other. As was normal at the time, the constable had a suite over the inner gate, but unusually a stable for 20 horses was created in a basement below the hall with access for the animals across the moat and up a ramp into the castle.
Working on this reconstruction, our admiration only grew for the original designer, John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey. Holt is as much a chivalric ideal as a practical castle.
Below you can watch an animation of the reconstruction of Holt Castle, produced by Mint Motion of Cardiff. Please refresh the page if the video fails to display properly.
The castle remains have been conserved and made accessible by Wrexham County Borough Council.
Rick Turner is a PhD student at Swansea University and was until recently an inspector of ancient monuments at Cadw, the historic environment service of the Welsh government.