Caverswall : Castle and Community

Introduction

 

History is obviously written in the past tense and needs no explanation why. But instead of thinking about what happened consider what is happening or what could happen. By taking this viewpoint you are transported to the world in which your characters and landscapes exist. Like a novel, or any work of fiction, you immediately form an affinity with these people, you see their world through their eyes, and you feel their emotions. And you come closer to understanding them, and how they live.

 

The survival of local government documentation, alongside ecclesiastical records, provides snapshots of what people did and where they were, their office and obligations, the land they held, and who they were connected with. But how did they live? What did they wear, what did they eat, and what were their homes like? Only by attempting to answer such questions is it possible to look at the sort of people that actually populates a community.

 

With this in mind, this book aims to take the reader through a thousand years of English history. The setting is a small rural community that has existed since the Anglo-Saxon period and its story is typical of many within England. Therefore you could quite easily be reading about your own community. Although everywhere is unique, many settlements have similar characteristics and common themes. One exception is that this settlement possesses a moated castle, one of the few still remaining in England, and has done since at least the end of the 13th century.

 

To write from a ‘now’ perspective is not a new concept. Ian Mortimer has produced some fascinating studies of medieval and Elizabethan history. This book attempts to apply this to an evolving linear story rather than to one specific period. And the best way to start is by realising how very different the landscape is. To do this it is necessary to strip away everything that has changed during the last one thousand years to gain a starting point. Don’t worry, it’s easier than it sounds, and this book will help you.

 

Caverswall is located two miles east of the urban sprawl of Longton. However, expansion from itself as well as its neighbouring communities, means that it is almost physically joined to the large conurbation of Stoke on Trent that lies to the north east, and to which it has now principally become a commuter suburb. Geographical features helped to make Caverswall a linear or street village in form, despite the focal point of a small open Square. The most prominent building is the castle that lies immediately to the south-west of the community. Although the majority of Staffordshire castles are located in major towns such as Stafford, Tamworth, Newcastle, and to a lesser degree Eccleshall and Tutbury, there are a few outside them, including Alton, Chartley and Stourton.

 

It is impossible to say why the castle is located where it is. It appears poor from both a defensive and strategic point of view. Although located on low-lying flat land the original structure may have been on a raised motte. The site still gives extended views to the west, south and east, and is close to the River Blythe which would have offered a source of fresh water for both the moat and the fishponds. The nearest major routeway the castle could have protected is the main Roman road from Derby to Chester although this runs half a mile to the south-west. Equally it is impossible to say why the community chose to establish itself where it did. Why wasn’t it a mile to the east, or the south? The likeliest explanation is the expanse of low flat land coupled with the convenience of the River Blythe and the numerous springs, with protection offered from the north winds by the higher ground of Handley Banks.

 

Various myths and legends have become attached to the castle over the centuries. The fanciful tale of King Arthur (c.480-537) once holding court at the castle, as well as rescuing the ‘Lady of the Castle’ from some untold danger, can be discounted as the original stone castle was not constructed until 600 years after his death. Another, involving a gathering to decide who was the most virtuous female where each lady in turn had to dance wearing a garland of fresh leaves, was won by the ‘fair lady of Caverswall’, ‘upon whose shoulders the magic kirtle of chastity did not wither but retained its pristine freshness.’’ Another chivalrous and fanciful claim is that King Alfred (871-901) married the ‘Lady of Caverswall.’ Perhaps more credible, although nothing has been found to substantiate the claim, is that King John (1199-1216) visited the castle while out hunting, and which is commemorated in a carving of a wild boar hunt over the mantel of the dining room.

 

Other rumours include the existence of a tunnel or secret passage connecting the castle with the church, and somewhat more ambitiously, with other areas including Catchem’s Corner, Blythe Bridge, Meir, Lightwood and Longton. Nothing has been found to indicate the existence of any tunnels and if they once existed any trace has now been lost. However, in the basement of the castle there exists an entrance which leads curiously to a stone passage sloping rapidly down for about eight feet where it is blocked up. Different stone has been used for blocking the passage than for the wall, so it possibly marks the entrance to an underground passage. One explanation for a tunnel is that it may have been used while the castle was garrisoned during the Civil War to bring in supplies although again there is no evidence to substantiate this. If any such tunnel does, or did, exist, then its construction would have been no mean feat taking into account the necessity of having to run beneath the moat.

 

Legend claims that the large circular mound, 139 feet in diameter and 10 feet high, known as Swan Bank at nearby Cookshill is a pre-historic site. Various suggestions include a Neolithic burial barrow, a site where Roman soldiers are buried, as well as later theories including fatalities from the Civil War, as the mound is also known as ‘Dead Man’s Hill.’ Alternatively the feature, which is surrounded by a ditch, has also been suggested as the site of an early motte and bailey castle. However, all of these should be discounted as archaeological excavations have failed to produce any finds.

 

It would be foolish to attempt to discuss the evolvement of the castle without including the settlement in which it is situated, and vice versa. The two are intermingled throughout their existence, both affecting each other, and the inhabitants that occupied both.

 

1  From Saxon to Norman

 

You are standing in the Square at Caverswall. At first it feels like a dream, the view is very different, and your initial reaction is one of amazement intermingled with fear. Gone are the houses you are used to seeing, the bitchumen-covered roads, and the distant rumble of the A50. Any evidence of the last one thousand years does not exist. You can discern that the shape of the landscape is the same but is also somehow different. There is too much space.

 

The Anglo-Saxons first infiltrate Staffordshire towards the end of the 6th century, and mainly settle in the central and southern areas of the county, the Romans having returned to their native homeland a century earlier. Staffordshire, which is part of Mercia, becomes one of their most powerful kingdoms. The indigenous population probably offer little or no resistance. Those that do are pushed west into Wales, Cornwall and Ireland, and north into Scotland. However, at this point there is no Staffordshire, only Mercia, the counties of England not being formed until the 10th and 11th centuries, and England is pronounced ‘Engla-lond.’ And that’s another thing. When you meet someone you are likely to run into communication difficulties, unless you are already fluent in Old English:

 

Ƿes hai…………………“wess haal”……………………...hello

 

Hū hātest þū?.................“hoo haat-est thoo?”………….…who are you?

 

Ic hātte _____ ………...“itch haht-the”……………….….my name is ___

 

Hƿæt is þīn nama?.........“hwaet iss theen nah-mah?”….…what is your name?

 

Ēadiȝ, þeċ tō mētenne…“ay-diy thatch toe may-ten-neh”..nice to meet you

 

Þancas…………………“than-kahs”……………………..thanks

 

Georne…………………“yer-ne”………………………...you’re welcome

 

Bēo ȝesund……………“bay-oh ye-soond”………………goodbye

 

As the settlement of Caverswall is mentioned in the Domesday Book it appears that it is already well-established before the end of the 10th century if not earlier. It is likely that Caverswall is first populated by a community during the Saxon period. The evidence for this is in the name which is a combination of a personal Saxon name ‘Ceadda’ terminating with ‘wiell’, referring to either a well or a spring of water, of which there are a number in the area. Therefore the earliest inhabitants of the original settlement were those choosing to live at ‘Ceadda’s well.’ It is likely that the neighbouring settlement of Cookshill also becomes established about the same time.

 

Ceadda builds himself the principal hall at Caverswall. This is rectangular, approximately 45 feet in length and 15 feet wide, and with a door at either end. The walls are constructed of split and planed timber all cut to the same size which rest on wooden, or possibly stone, plinths. Any crevices are stuffed with either moss or ferns to help eliminate draughts. Vertical poles of oak support the rafters which, in turn, support the beams of the roof. This, like all the other buildings in the settlement, is of thatch which extends a good distance beyond the walls to protect from rain. There is no chimney, only a small hole in the thatch positioned over the central fireplace that allows smoke to escape. A partitioned area at the far end of the hall serves as a private chamber for Ceadda and is also used as a strong room for storing weapons. Along one of the walls is a raised wooden platform where Ceadda and his family sit, while others huddle around the fire when not ingaged in daily tasks. The floor is strewn with rushes although this does not prevent the damp from rising through. The rushes will soon need replacing as they have become greasey due to the meat and poultry bones discarded after meals, along with other refuse accidentally dropped. The interior is naturally dark due to only a few small unglazed windows which are shuttered in times of bad weather or during the risk of attack. Stone cressets filled with oil and wooden torches help to provide additional light. The whole is furnished with crude wooden benches and trestle tables for it is here where the commercial business of the community is conducted, as well decisions concerning matters of justice settled.

 

Ceadda’s hall is also where communal feasts, an important part of Saxon culture, are held. Meat, such as deer or wild boar, is roasted over the central fire and then eaten with bread. This is a treat for most as wild animals can only be killed by those on whose land they are found. You eat with your knife that you always carry with you as skewering food is not its only purpose. Forks do not arrive until the 17th century. Drink is served in goblets, cups or drinking horns. Mead is the most commonly-served alcoholic drink at feasts, brewed from crushed honeycombs. Ale is also drunk, made from barley, because hops are not used in the brewing process until the 14th century. Wine is less common, and less potent. Water is only drunk out of necessity. After any feast it is usual to be entertained by a minstrel with a harp extolling songs of battles and heroes, most notably ‘Beowulf’, or exchanging and guessing riddles, such as these two taken from the contemporary ‘Exeter Book of Riddles’:

 

A warrior is wondrously brought into the world
for the use of lords by two dumb things;
brightly extracted, which for his hurt
foe bears against foe. Strong though he is
a woman binds him. He obeys them well,
serves them quietly, if maids and men
tend him duly, feed him fairly.
He exalts them in comfort for their joy in life,
grimly rewards one who lets him grow proud.

 

My garment is darkish. Bright decorations,
red and radiant, I have on my raiment.
I mislead the stupid and stimulate the foolish
toward unwise ways. Others I restrain
from profitable paths. But I know not at all
that they, maddened, robbed of their senses,
astray in their actions – that they praise to all men
my wicked ways. Woe to them then
when the Most High holds out his dearest of gifts
if they do not desist first from their folly.

 

When not listening to heroic tales or guessing riddles the inhabitants of Caverswall contemplate and discuss the lives of the saints. The majority of people have long turned their backs on the ‘old religion’ and have converted to Christianity although some still acknowledge the old customs. There are already numerous saints so that their feast days regularly punctuate the calendar. People are far more aware of the saints and how they can intervene in all aspects of daily life through prayer. St Mary is particularly venerated. This is an age of faith where saints are not regarded as mythological figures but as real and identifiable individuals. Similarly, when someone is described as having the devil in him it is taken literally. Jack Frost is also just as real, responsible for biting noses and fingers, as well as making cutting the sod when ploughing more difficult.

 

The smaller dwellings, facing onto the Square and those that have begun to appear along what will later become the High Street and Caverswall Road, houses the rest of the community. These consist of a wooden frame in-filled with wattle and daub, being a mixture of clay, straw and cow-dung. As well as the door the small windows are fitted with wattle shutters to help protect against the elements, and the whole structure thatched with straw or reeds. The floor of beaten earth is also strewn with straw or reeds. In the centre of the floor is the hearth providing heat for both cooking and warmth. Sanitation consists of cess pits outside used not only by you but also your neighbours. Due to a largely vegetable-orientated diet stools were usually loose and after a bowel movement you wipe yourself clean with moss.

 

These humble crofts are surrounded by a toft in which vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips, cabbages, peas, beans, shallots and onions are grown. A communal area, opposite where Gables Cottages now stand, has been cleared and is now used for growing cereals including wheat and rye for bread, barley for brewing, and oats for porridge as well as animal food. Fruit is also cultivated in an orchard including apples, cherries and plums.

 

The roads and lanes, those that do exist, are nothing more than dry and dusty paths in summer and muddy quagmires during winter. These are only three to four feet wide, just enough for a cart or wagon to traverse. They are generally empty, you may meet a packhorse making its way towards Ceadda’s hall carrying necessities that have been ordered, or overtaken by a solitary rider delivering a message. The majority of roads seen today are those paths and lanes that have developed from where people regularly needed to go. The Hollows, which leads from the Square up towards the Common, is a mutation of the Saxon word ‘hola weg’ meaning a ‘hollow way.’

 

The shape of the fields you recognise, except for the smaller ones that will be sub-divided in the late 18th century. You also notice how different the sounds are, although that is not to say that the landscape is quiet. The sound of the community is that of birdsong and animals, the saw of the carpenter, and in the distance the splash of the oak paddles of the watermill. Every so often can be heard the rumble and creak of a cart travelling along one of the lanes perhaps accompanied by the shouts of pedlar or tinker. As the settlement lies on no direct route visitors other than those with business at Ceadda’s hall are rare.

 

Life is regulated by the months of the year. However, the new year does not begin on January 1st. Instead this begins on March 25th, also known as ‘Lady’s Day’, commemorating the annunciation of the Virgin Mary’s conception with the visitation of the Angel Gabriel. March 25th is also the spring equinox when days become noticeably longer and warmer and fresh growth appears. A few also class September 29th, known as ‘Michaelmas’, as the start of the year. It is not until 1752 that the start of the new year will be changed to January 1st.

 

Ploughing begins in January. This is accomplished by a team of oxen driven by two men, one to walk with the oxen while the other guides the heavy iron blade of the plough as it cuts through the crust of the soil. In February pruning and weed-clearing takes place to promote new growth, before planting seeds in March. Sheep-shearing occurs in May, with the fleeces then washed and combed before spinning which begins in June. In July reaping hay takes place to provide winter food for livestock, followed by harvesting during the following month. July is the month when the division between the rich and the poor becomes most apparent. The rich still have grain in their barns as well as money to pay the higher prices commanded by the scarcity of food.

 

Bread is the staple diet for most people, although this is very different from that of today. Bread is a flat round loaf with a heavy texture usually made from wheat, although barley or rye is also be used in times of hardship. This is probably old and tough by the time you eat it although it can be softened by dipping it into pottage, a thick soup made from grain and vegetables which is a stable diet of the Saxons. Mutton and pork are by far the most common meats consumed, while beef is considered a delicacy. Poultry is venerated as having healing properties and is largely reserved for those who are sick being served as soup or broth. All of these are what we would call ‘free range’ being leaner and containing more protein and less fat.

 

Starvation is not uncommon, especially during late summer before the food harvest is gathered in. Many people you meet will be light-headed at certain times through lack of food. People eat berries, acorns and even grasses as an extreme. Hedgerow herbs supplement the dwindling stocks of flour, including poppies, hemp and darnel. The ergot that flours on rye as it grows mouldy is a source of lysergic acid, unbeknown until the 1960s as LSD, although producing the same effects. This hardship continues until Lammas Day, August 1st, the day that harvesting begins.

 

Livestock consists of cows, sheep and pigs. With the exception of pigs animals are only killed when they become either ill or too old to be useful. Cows provide milk and only after their useful life are they used for hides and meat. Sheep are reared for their wool and only secondary for their meat. Pigs are the primary animal raised for their meat as they produce large litters which mature quickly ready to be slaughtered.

 

Unfortunately flies also become a noticeable nuisance during summer constantly flying around the open cess pits as well as the dung heaps – including horse and cow dung, and sheep and pig droppings – manure being a valuable commodity before the advent of artificial fertilisers. The community stinks of shit, every kind of shit, and what surprises you at first is that no one appears to take any notice. That is because those you meet do not regard it as unpleasant, just natural. Once the harvest is gathered in the inhabitants of Caverswall turn their attention to survival over winter. In September pigs begin to be culled for the winter as this is when they are at their fattest.

 

Although the majority of inhabitants are engaged in agriculture there are, in addition to the carpenter and wheelwright, a few other craftsmen such as the miller, the baker and the charcoal burner. Wood is king. Houses are made from it, so too are the items of daily use you find inside them – people eat from platters, drink from ash or alderwood cups turned on a lathe, store provisions in tubs, barrels and vats, and the majority of agricultural tools are made from it. It is also fuel for the fire, not just for cooking and heating, but also to enable the baker and charcoal burner to complete their work. It should come as no surprise that woodland is farmed just as much as pasture and meadow as one of the community’s resources. And if you stray into the woodlands you are apprehensively conscious of the mysterious spirits that dwell there.