Military veterans and local community help archaeologists excavate major castle site

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An archaeological project which is taking place on the site of a medieval castle near Ormskirk, West Lancashire, has been set up to help solve some baffling archaeological mysteries.

It has long been known that the 18th century mansion designed by Giocomo Leoni and known as Lathom House, stood on the same site as its much larger predecessor, a large medieval palace fortress of the same name. However, the form of this earlier building complex has long been a mystery.

The intent of the project is to excavate part of the medieval palace fortress site at Lathom near Ormskirk, which was the home of Sir Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby and his wife Lady Margaret Beaufort who was the mother of Henry VII. Stanley is immortalised as one of the heroes in Shakespeare’s Richard III as “The King Slayer”, as well as crowning Henry Tudor king at the battle of Bosworth in !485. In addition to its Tudor links, Lathom was also the site of one of the largest and longest sieges of the English Civil war and the only battle that was commanded by a female, Lady Charlotte Stanley, Countess of Derby.

Image Credit : Paul Sherman‎

Site Background

Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby –  Stanley was “a man of considerable acumen, and probably the most successful power broker of his age”.

He was titled King of Mann, and stepfather to King Henry VII of England. A landed magnate of immense power, particularly across the northwest of England where his authority went almost unchallenged, even by the Crown, Stanley managed to remain in favour with successive kings until his death in 1504.

Stanley’s first marriage was to Eleanor, daughter of Richard Neville, 5th Earl of Salisbury and sister of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (‘Warwick the Kingmaker’) in the late 1450s. This constituted a powerful alliance with the House of York. now occupying the English throne. Upon her death, he married his second wife Lady Margaret Beaufort, whose son, Henry Tudor, was the leading Lancastrian claimant to the throne. Stanley was the last to use the style ‘King of Mann’, his successors opting for the safer ‘Lord of Mann’.


In the ‘history plays’ of William Shakespeare, Lord Stanley features in a pivotal role throughout the play Richard III as an initially loyal but troubled royal servant whose misgivings as to Richard’s ‘true’ nature lead him towards collaboration with his stepson Henry Tudor and active assistance in placing him on the throne.

Richard III is believed to have been written over 1592–93. At this time, it is thought Shakespeare may already have been writing for Lord Strange’s Men, the company of Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange later 5th Earl of Derby. (Certainly, his actors were members of the company, and Shakespeare himself is formally listed as a member by 1594). As such, the Stanleys would effectively have been patrons of this work. This was a relationship that may have been continued as A Midsummer Night’s Dream is thought to have been possibly first performed at the wedding celebrations of William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby in 1595.

The Castle

Lathom is listed in the Domesday Book. The original buildings and defences at this time may well have been wooden. The 360 acres of farmland and 720 acres of woodland, which made up the Manor of Lathom in 1066 almost certainly formed the most important of 17 manors which played a key role in a defensive system of land tenure to protect the emerging kingdom of England from the Norsemen of Dublin and York. A new castle was built in the 13th century of which no details survive and was probably replaced by the structure currently being excavated.

This new structure was known as Lathom House, built in 1496, it was possibly one of the largest castles in England. It had nine towers and was surrounded by a wall two yards thick and a moat eight yards wide. Its drawbridge entrance was heavily defended by a gateway tower. In the centre of the site was a tall tower known as the Eagle Tower. However, apart from the above description we know very little as no buildings survive above ground.

The Siege

The reason nothing survives of this massive structure is due to the famous Civil War sieges of 1644-45.

James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby, was the leading Royalist supporter in the northwest of England when the civil war broke out in 1642.

In 1643, the Earl of Derby was ordered by King Charles to fortify the Isle of Man against a possible Scottish invasion. His wife, Charlotte, Countess of Derby, was left in charge of what turned out to be the last remaining Royalist stronghold in Lancashire. Sir Thomas Fairfax saw Derby’s absence as an opportunity to strengthen the Long Parliament’s position in Lancashire and set out to take Lathom. Parliamentarian forces requested that the countess acknowledge Parliament’s authority and surrender her house, but she refused, on the grounds that doing so would dishonour her husband. She offered to limit herself to defending her home, and this postponed further attacks on her position. However Fairfax did not accept this and set out to take the castle

When Fairfax arrived at Lathom in February 1644, the Countess had made every effort to conceal the strength of the castle’s fortifications. Fairfax demanded that the Countess surrender Lathom to him. She asked for a week to consider his offer, and then insisted that it was only appropriate that he visit her for further negotiations. He was received as an honoured guest, but she categorically rejected his terms for surrendering. He gave her two more days to consider her situation. The emissary sent two days later was scornfully dismissed.

The siege began with 2,000 Parliamentary soldiers (500 cavalry and 1,500 infantry) against a garrison of 300. The fortifications of Lathom House consisted of:

• Outer walls and embankments six feet thick
• An eight-yard moat
• Nine towers, each with six cannons, three pointing in either direction, and the Eagle Tower providing an excellent overview of the battlefield

In addition, the castle was at the lowest point in the middle of an open expanse that allowed superb views of the enemy’s activities. Charlotte had assembled a militia of seasoned marksmen who were able to inflict significant losses by sniping.

John Seacombe, an 18th-century historian of the House of Stanley wrote:

“Lathom-house stands upon a flat, moorish, springy and spumous ground ; was encompassed by a strong wall of two yards thick; upon the wall were nine towers, flanking each other, and in every tower were six pieces of ordnance, that played three the one way, and three the other. Without the wall was a mote, eight yards wide, and two yards deep; upon the back of the mote, between the wall and the graff, was a strong row of palisadoes around; besides all these there was a high strong tower, called the Eagle Tower, in the midst of the house, surmounting all the rest; and the gate-house was also two high and strong buildings, with a strong tower on each side of it; and in the entrance to the first court upon the tops of these towers, were placed the best and choicest marksmen, who usually attended the Earl in his hunting and other sports, as huntsmen, keepers, fowlers, and the like; who continually kept watch with scrued [screwed] guns and long fowling pieces upon those towers, to the great annoyance and loss of the enemy, especially of their commanders, who were frequently killed in their trenches, or as they came or went to or from them…. Nature herself [seemed to have] formed [the house] for a strong hold or place of security…. The uncommon situation of it may be compared to the palm of a man’s hand, flat in the middle, and covered with rising ground around it, and so near to it, that the enemy in a two year’s siege, were never able to raise a battery against it so as to make a breach in the wall practicable to enter the house by way of storm.”

During the siege, the Royalists launched several successful sorties to disrupt Parliamentary efforts to set up batteries. As a result, Parliamentary forces were unable to establish any major artillery positions against the castle, and the army refused to replenish those guns that were lost or spiked during the sorties. Morale among the Roundheads also suffered greatly as the besieged shot soldiers and engineers on the battlefield.

Nevertheless, Fairfax persisted in demanding that Charlotte surrender to his forces, going so far as to obtain a letter from Lord Stanley asking for safe passage for her. She refused to surrender under any terms, rebuking messengers in increasingly disdainful tones.

After one particularly audacious sortie in late April that destroyed several Round-head positions, Fairfax declared a day of fasting and prayer in his camp. One of the chaplains invoked the following verse from Jeremiah 50:14:

“Put yourselves in array against Babylon on every side: all ye that bend the bow, shoot at her, spare no arrows: for she hath sinned against the Lord.”

Captain Hector Schofield, a messenger from Colonel Alexander Rigby of the Roundheads, arrived to offer Charlotte an honourable surrender. She threatened to hang him from the tower gates, then asked him to convey the following while she tore the message:

“Carry this answer back to Rigby, and tell that insolent rebel, he shall have neither persons, goods, nor house. When our strength and provisions are spent, we shall find a fire more merciful than Rigby; and then, if the providence of God prevent it not, my goods and house shall burn in his sight; and myself, children, and soldiers, rather than fall into his hands will seal our religion and loyalty in the same flames.”

A similar ultimatum issued by Rigby on 23 May prompted Charlotte to respond:

“The mercies of the wicked are cruel …. unless they treated with her lord, they should never take her or any of her friends alive”.

The siege was lifted on the night of 27 May as the Royalist general Prince Rupert approached Lathom with thousands of cavalry and infantry. Charlotte and her household departed for the Isle of Man, leaving the care of Lathom House to Colonel Edward Rawstorne.

After the Parliamentary victory at the Battle of Marston Moor, which was fought 2 July 1644, the north of England was largely under Parliamentary control apart from areas close to Royalist garrisons such as Lathom. The next year (1645), in July, 4,000 Parliamentary troops returned to begin the second siege.

The garrison did not capitulate quickly, but when it became clear that no relief could be expected, and supplies were running short, famine forced Colonel Rawstorne’s hand and he surrendered at discretion to Colonel Egerton on 2 December 1645.

The Parliamentary party regarded the fall of Lathom as an event of major importance. They had achieved a great moral triumph in the fall of the famous royalist house and it signalled the beginning of the end of the Civil War. To make this an order was issued by the House of Commons:

“for the ministers about London to give public thanks to God, on the next Lord’s Day, for its surrender.”

To prevent its reuse the fortifications were totally demolished by the Parliamentarians.

The aims of the archaeological work are as follows:

To assess the research potential of the site reference will be made to the research priorities within the Research Framework for North West England..

The priorities that may be addressed from excavations of Lathom House are as follows;
• An examination of the home of Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby “The King Slayer” one of the main heroes of Shakespeare “Richard III” and a patron of William Shakespeare.
• Explore the Great Sieges of 1644-45 a key event in the English Civil War
• To gain an understanding of Cromwellen siege works that were a key part of the siege
• Evidence for trade and exchange will be sought through the distribution of cultural material including pottery, metal work and the changing face of the castle layout
• An examination of the layout, form and development of the castle as no known plan or accurate drawing remains
• To examine the links between Lathom and other sites in a 20 mile radius

The Lathom Castle Project team will be assisted on site by military veterans from the Forces Archaeological Heritage Association. The Association gives veterans the opportunity to learn a series of skills including excavation, land survey, drawing and mapping techniques and building recording on a site of national importance. It also helps rebuild self-esteem, learn skills that will help in securing employment and helping build community cohesion.

The majority of veterans taking part have injures connected with their service from places as diverse as the Falklands, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan. The participants have suffered a broad spectrum of injuries including physical and psychological trauma. However, they will be using their skills to help the local community to acquire skills to access and investigate their local heritage.

The forthcoming session of excavation at Lathom will start on 29th July and run until the 13th August and involves a total of over 20 locals and veterans.

Paul Sherman, Head of the Lathom Castle Project, said:

“Lathom Castle is one of the most significant post medieval archaeological sites in the north of England. It also occupied a prominent role in the political and social history of our nation. This project is a unique opportunity to cast new light on some of the key people and events that shaped our history and culture. It also gives people the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Richard III, The Tudors, Shakespeare, the events of the Wars of The Roses and the English Civil War. By taking part in the project, participants can not only learn about the rich heritage of the area, they can be a key part of the team making ground breaking discoveries to add to that rich heritage.”

“The team at Lathom are especially grateful for the assistance received from Diarmaid Walshe and the military veterans who are helping the team ensure that the project runs with military efficiency”

Diarmaid Walshe, Project Manager, FAHA, who is also a qualified archaeologist, said:

“This unique project provides an opportunity to demonstrate the skills of veterans in helping the local community to preserve, explore and record their heritage. It is helping to build links within the local community and engaging veterans with the local communities of which they are a key part. We want communities, especially employers, to look on veterans as skilled individuals rather than victims

Additionally, it provides a program that helps prepare veterans with training and experience allowing them to make considered choices on education and employment “

“The key to the success of the project is that the community and veterans find themselves the key focus of everything we do. They will engage in all the different activities, from digging to surveying, photography and finds processing. We give them the responsibility to ensure that the key tasks expected to be carried out are achieved.”

Garry Philips, a local veteran and community volunteer said:

“One of the best things I have done since I left the army. To be able to handle artefacts from the Tudor and Civil War periods is amazing. It also has helped my recovery process and I love coming to the site”

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