UCLan students dig to reveal Cumbria’s past
The archaeological students will take part in a new investigation of Lowther’s medieval castle and village
The remains of a medieval Cumbrian castle and village will be the subject of a new archaeological investigation involving the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) this summer.
The project, funded by the Castle Studies Trust, 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 the remains of Lowther’s medieval castle and its adjoining village may date to the late 11th or early 12th Century. If so, the site would 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, while the archaeological investigation will be run by Allen Archaeology, together with UCLan undergraduate and postgraduate students.
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.”
"It’s an exciting opportunity for our second-year, third-year and masters’ students to work on a site that may rewrite our understanding of the Norman conquest of Cumbria"— Dr Jim Morris, a Senior Lecturer in archaeology and Course Leader in archaeology & anthropology at UCLan
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 early summer.
Dr Jim Morris, a Senior Lecturer in archaeology and Course Leader in archaeology & anthropology at UCLan, will lead the students on their mandatory summer dig.
He says: “It’s an exciting opportunity for our second-year, third-year and masters’ students to work on a site that may rewrite our understanding of the Norman conquest of Cumbria. There has never been an archaeological dig on this site before, and there is very little archaeological knowledge of the early Norman period, so we’re excited about what we might discover.”
The students’ commitment to the project, which will see them working alongside professional archaeologists, means they will live on the Lowther Estate for the duration of the excavation.
Jim adds: “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.”
Jeremy Cunnington, of the Castle Studies Trust, comments: “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.”
"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"— Dr Sophie Thérèse Ambler, a Reader in Medieval History and Deputy Director of the Centre for War and Diplomacy at Lancaster University
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 19th 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, adds: “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, County 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 thus set to make a significant contribution to our knowledge of Britain’s medieval past.