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Earthwork Castles of Gwent and Ergyng AD 1050-1250: Dorstone Castle

Place name:

Golden Valley, Dorstone


1050 - 1250


This summary concerning Dorstone Castle is an extract from a Doctoral thesis by Dr N Phillips, University of Sheffield (2005), entitled ‘Earthwork Castles of Gwent and Ergyng, AD 1050-1250’. This thesis is concerned with the earthwork and timber castles built in the southern March of Wales, addresses the presence of the castles and discusses their roles as weapons of conquest and structures of administrative control.


DORSTONE CASTLE - Grid: SO 31217 41623




Dorstone motte is situated to the west of the small village of Dorstone in the Golden Valley. The village lies on the B4347 Ewyas Harold to Hay on Wye road.


The site occupies a corner of land which is surrounded on two sides by the River Dore. A road through the village now crosses the north-east end of the probable bailey’s original extent, where there is a bank within the roadside hedgerow.

Today the motte is a very imposing structure, (Vol. 2. plate 96) commanding fields that are used for pasture. The top has been planted with large trees, originally, probably twelve around the circumference with one in the middle. The top of the motte is very unusual in size and shape within the area studied. The other large mottes, with the exception of Ewyas Harold, all have small tops. The motte top at Dorstone is similar to the surface area of the lower mottes that predominate the locality. The bailey is evident to the north east of the motte and its shape suggests the possibility of an entrance base at the west end. Remains of masonry were found in a ‘scratch dig’ on the east of the motte top which were interpreted as a gatehouse (Shoesmith 1996. 88). It is possible to postulate from the plan view, (see Vol. 2. surveys), that a large bailey may have extended some distance to the north but most of it has been lost to farming practices. There is no way of knowing if this was indeed the case but it is arguable that the large motte top must have held more than just a wooden tower and such a large castle would have needed a large work-force to be accommodated, and the bailey would be the place for this accommodation.

Topographic survey: (Survey 16)

The site at Dorstone is a curious mix of two apparently different motivations for building. The motte is tall, 8.66m, allowing for good defence but it also has a large top surface area, 727.411m², which would allow for defence more suited for a large number of people than a man in charge and his immediate retainers. The latter observation was supported by the geophysical survey, see below.

The contour plan shows a ramp bridging the ditch to the west, (see Vol. 2 surveys). The ramp is today the chosen route to the top of the motte but whether it is original or not is open to question.

A small rise in the ground level to the south of the ramp could mark a possible bridge base but this is speculation. The mound does not show up on the contour plot unless the setting is changed to 0.10m. Unfortunately, such a setting tends to confuse the rest of the site when shown on a printout. It has to be noted, however, if the supposition that the bailey extended to the north-east is correct, see above, then the access to the motte top would probably have been from the west. A small depression in the outer bailey bank, above the motte ditch, may mark a more likely location, (see Vol. 2 surveys). There is a corresponding change of shape on the motte itself, noticeable at this point where the motte flares slightly into the ditch.

Geophysical survey:

The geophysical survey was conducted on this site in order to investigate the hypothesis that such a large surface area must have supported buildings. The hypothesis was confirmed by the geophysical survey which indicated a large number of potential masonry structures on top of the motte, (see Vol. 2 geophysics). Most of the structures appeared to share north-south, east-west alignments, possibly indicating a large building with internal room divisions rather than individual buildings. A high resistance curvilinear anomaly was also recorded around sections of the motte rim, probably indicating the remains of a shell keep.

Strategic position:

There doesn’t appear to be any reason for the placement of the castle in such a place’ no natural defence and no observable strategic advantage. The castle is however situated within a very fertile valley.

Documentary evidence

Primary reference:

The earliest record of Dorstone is in Db. H where it is listed under the land of Drogo son of Poyntz having formerly been in the possession of Earl Harold (Thorn and Thorn 1983. 186c,d). It will be remembered that in the section on Clifford Castle above, Dru fitz Ponz, was named as an under tenant to Ralph de Tosney, of Clifford (Bannister 1912. 42).

Antiquarian reference:

The name Dorstone is derived from the Welsh dŵ r meaning water and ton the Saxon for enclosure (Robinson 1869. 50).

Modern record: HMCW1559

The map shows how the layout of the area appeared in 1891 and it is possible to see that the south-east end of the site had already been truncated with a hedge-row, see above, and footpath which are still used today (Vol. 2. figure 49). The more archaeologically trained eye of the VCH surveyor was able to identify a more cohesive structure for the site as can be seen in the 1908 site map (Vol. 2. figure 50). The surveyor was able to produce a standard motte and bailey castle layout, uncluttered with features that confused the intention. It is useful to note the inclusion of the causeway in this map, see above. The third map, (Vol. 2. figure 51). produced for the RCHME in 1931, includes the features that the previous map neglected, features which are still evident today such as the ramp to the north of the motte and the development to the east. The record also makes note of the absence of an outer rampart which is indeed unusual for such a site (RCHME 1931 236).

There have been suggestions that Durand of Gloucester was tenant in chief at Dorstone (Marshall 1938. 145). This is based on an interpretation by Duncumb that Dorstone is a derivation of Torches-stone which actually refers to Stratford Hundred (Robinson 1886. 50). Marshall’s account itself is derived from Theophilus Jones’s interpretation that the name Dorstone transmuted from Thurstan a standard bearer to William the Conqueror (Marshall 1938. 152). There is no record of ownership of the castle within the period of this research but in the late 12th century the castle became the holding of the Solers Family (Shoesmith 1996. 89). This site was included in the survey.

It has been inferred that the plan of the village is suggestive of a borough plantation probably associated with the ancestors of the Clifford family before they became holders of Clifford (Noble 1964. 66).

Additional references:

Hogg and King 1963. 104.

King 1983. 205.

Interpretation: Motte and bailey (Mid)

The interpretation of the site is based on actual remains, topographical survey, geophysical survey and location. The overall impression appears to suggest that the function of the motte was as a large scale defensive structure rather than a small offensive motte and bailey of the conquest period. It is possible to infer from its size that the castle may have been an important administrative centre, the defence motivation behind the height being to protect the office of a lord rather than the person. There is no evidence of any private strongholds on the site which would date the castle to an earlier period, therefore, Dorstone motte and bailey may represents a stable period possibly early 12th century.



The material is copyright by the author, and is reproduced here from the Archaeology Data Service website of the University of York for research purposes under their terms of use


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