Hoghton Tower: Hunting for the Lost Great Keep of 1643

The community dig at Hoghton Tower in June 2019 hunting for the lost Great Keep.

The COVID-19 pandemic may have reduced the amount of community archaeology and research excavations across Britain, but it has also provided an opportunity to complete the post-excavation side of many projects. One such is the hunt from the Great Keep at Hoghton Tower in Lancashire. Funded by a grant from the Castles Studies Trust, a community project, led by the Centre for Applied Archaeology at the University of Salford, was undertaken for the Hoghton Tower Trust in Lancashire throughout 2019.

A range of volunteer training workshops, building surveys, geophysical surveys, and excavations were carried out working with community and local groups as part of the Hoghton Tower Community Survey and Excavation Project. The final report on this fieldwork was completed in May 2020.

Hoghton Tower, a Grade 1 listed building in the Ribble Valley 8km south-east of the city of Preston, is the ancestral home of the de Hoghton family who were descended directly from Harvey de Walter, one of the companions of William the Conqueror. The site is first mentioned in the 12th century, and a deer park was added in the 14th century. The hall was rebuilt as a fortified hilltop manor house in the years 1560 to 1565 by Sir Thomas Hoghton. Later, the site played a part in the First Civil War when it was besieged in 1643, resulting in the destruction of the Great Keep which was blown up with the loss of one hundred people. Although the house was extended and repaired in the period 1692 to 1702 by Sir Charles Hoghton, by 1768 it was being rented to weavers and other craftsmen. The house was reoccupied and extensively rebuilt by the family between the 1860s and 1901 and has remained the family residence until today.

Thomas’ 1560s manor house was substantial. Built around two courtyards, the scheme included a Great Keep, a chapel, and great hall around the inner or upper courtyard, whilst the lower courtyard to he west and down the hillside was entered through a large stone gateway flanked by two towers. This rebuild appears to have been a conscious attempt to create a ‘great house’ with a sense of history. Its location at the top of a prominent hill provides it with a commanding position overlooking the Ribble Valley, and to the north-west the town of Preston.

The plan of the stone structure identified at Hoghton Tower in 2019.

This strategic location made it a valuable prize during the First Civil War in the mid-seventeenth century. The Tower was captured by the Parliamentarians in February 1643, without a shot being fired. Shortly afterwards the Great Keep, which was being used to store gunpowder, exploded, killing many of the Parliamentary garrison. The precise location of the Great Keep was lost in subsequent repairs and rebuilds of the manor house.

As part of the year-long project, five days of test-pit excavation was carried out on an area of raised ground to the north of the Great Hall range, part of the inner or upper courtyard. The aim of the excavation was to investigate the pre-1560 origins of the site. A platform on the northern side of the hall was specifically targeted as one of the open areas that might reveal evidence for the earliest structures at Hoghton Tower. In particular, this area was one of the possible sites for the Great Keep, destroyed in the 1643 explosion. Although landscaped in the 19th century, the garden retaining walls of the platform incorporated large amounts of worked and dressed stone blocks, whilst a watercolour painting of 1810 shows the corner of a ruined stone wall at the northern eastern end of the site.

A total of eight test pits were excavated across the platform which targeted anomalies seen on the results of a geophysical survey undertaken for the project by the Tameside Archaeological Society. The test pits also targeted the existing wall-like features.

A stone rubble layer was revealed in most of the test pits which was thought to be a demolition deposit and overlay most of the structural features on the site. Below this layer stone walls comprising large dressed stone blocks, rubble interior, and lime mortar, were located in TP1, TP6, and TP7. The western external wall alignment of this structure survived as narrower, later, stone garden wall. The southern wall of this structure was not located. The eastern exterior wall in TP6, the northern end of which can be seen in the 1810 painting, proved to be at least 0.6m in width. A flagged floor area was also located in TP3 and TP4 at a depth of 0.5m. This suggested the presence of a stone structure, roughly 16m wide, aligned west-to-east, and at least 8m deep, north-to-south, with at least one internal wall running north-to-south wall.

The finds from this building comprised 14th to 19th century pottery sherds, heat- affected glass (from TP5), clay pipes, animal bone, and occasional items of metalwork. 14th and 15th century Medieval pottery was found in association with the eastern wall in TP6 and TP4, and fragments of medieval roof tile also in TP4. A number of 17th century objects were found. In TP3 this includes two clay pipe bowls of the period 1640 to 1680; in TP5 a lead musket ball; and in TP6 a glass onion-shaped bottle. The other finds are associated with the demolition and landscaping phases of the site.

The style of the structural remains revealed and the date of the associated artefacts combine to suggest that the platform area was occupied by a substantial stone building of several stories during the late medieval and early post-medieval periods. It had been demolished by the 18th century and the area landscaped in the 19th century.

One further location at Hoghton was studied which appeared to reveal a pre-1560 structure. Survey work on the outer gatehouse to the lower courtyard was undertaken revealing three phases of building work. The earliest fabric, formed by a central two storey stone gate tower incorporating the arched entrance tunnel and a single room above, was no later than the mid-16th and might well be earlier.

The outer gateway at Hoghton Tower.

Is the platform to the north of the Great Hall, then, the location of the lost Great Keep, destroyed in February 1643? Its still not clear but we do now have a very good candidate. At the very least we have identified late medieval activity for the first time at Hoghton Tower. A second season would help to answer what kind of structure we have located and its overall size.

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