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‘Portly and strong’

Sturminster Newton boasts a castle that was never a castle. Or was it? David Durkin reviews the evidence.

A plan of the manor house within the Iron Age earthworks

Sturminster Newton ‘Castle’ is a colloquial name for the ruinous remains of a rubble-built 14th-century manor house constructed within the enclosure of an Iron Age hillfort. In private grounds, the ruins and the surrounding fields are under the protection of English Heritage and are a scheduled ancient monument. The site contains the earliest known evidence of settlement in the area and dates from between about 1000BC to 43AD. A fairly typical Iron Age promontory hillfort was probably abandoned towards the end of the Iron Age, then re-occupied some time after the Romans left in the 5th century AD, before once again being developed into a fine manor house by Katherine Parr.

The hillfort sits on a raised triangular spur of Corallian limestone at Newton, to the south of the Stour, and was protected on the north side by the river. On the east side, protection was by a deep combe that drained the higher grounds to the south. On its south side, two sweeping man-made ditches formed an arc-shaped enclosure of about two hectares (five acres) and a similarly shaped inner enclosure of about half a hectare. The outer banks and ditch have all but disappeared, lost to years of ploughing, but just discernible, if you know where to look, is the south-west entrance and the slightest remains of what was once the outer enclosure bank.
Both the Stour and the permanently running coomb stream would have provided a plentiful supply of fresh water. The shape of the promontory minimised the labour required to construct a relatively short length of defensive bank and ditch enclosing a relatively large area of land. The hillfort’s positioning would have controlled access upstream; even in those times the Stour was being used for transport and trade. The settlement was well positioned for contact and exchange and dominated the ford across the Stour, ensuring access to the fertile floodplains on the north side of the river.

A 1905 postcard shows the castle with a luxuriant growth of vegetation

Most archaeologists now believe that hillforts were not entirely defensive but also made a social statement with regard to the status of the occupants and were only a single element of a broader pattern of settlement representing a complex hierarchical social structure. The Newton hillfort would have imparted a daunting impression, particularly on its northern or riverside flank. Since no archaeological excavation has been carried out, it is impossible to know when the settlement was constructed, how long it was occupied and when and why it was abandoned; it may have survived until the Roman invasion, or its people may have been subsumed into the larger hillforts of Hambledon and Hod some four miles to the east. With no visible internal features, it is difficult to assess how this site fitted within the general landscape and cultural context.

It is impossible to say when the name Sturminster Newton was first used, because early references are frustratingly ambiguous. The name Sturminster comes from Old English as the ‘minster on the Stour’, while Newton is derived from ‘new-tun’, a new settlement. The etymological evidence therefore suggests the settlement at Sturminster existed before the settlement at Newton. The minster may date from the late Saxon period (c.800AD), but we have to wait until the 10th century before any documents positively identify Sturminster or Newton, when Alfred’s great-grandson, King Edgar, gave 30 hides ‘at Stour’ to Glastonbury Abbey. It is the 11th century before our castle is mentioned again: in 1016, King Edmund ‘Ironside’ made an additional gift of ’17 hides of Newetone Kastel’ to Glastonbury. And it is ‘Newentone’, not Sturminster, that is recorded in the Domesday survey of 1086 as belonging to Glastonbury Abbey, confirming that Newton, not Sturminster, was the manorial centre in this period. Unfortunately, while Domesday refers to manorial names, its main objective was to determine taxes and it often reveals little about the settlement or the nature of the site and no mention is made of a castle or other building.

The castle today

Following this, we have to wait until the early 13th century and King John for the castle to re-appear in the record. Hunting, eating and drinking his way around the countryside, the King stayed at ‘Cerminstr castle Neuton’ on several occasions between 1204 and 1214. Edward I also visited on 30 December 1275. Entries in the Glastonbury rolls show that ‘Nywton-Sturmynster’ was still owned by the Abbey in 1269.

Following the Dissolution (1536 and 1539), Henry VIII gave the site as a dowry to his Queen, Katherine Parr, in 1544. The certificate of the lands of the abbey record: ‘The site of the said house standeth upon a high hill, just by a great running river in the valley. It is of the ancient building, portly and strong, able and meet for a knight to lie in. The demesnes belonging unto the same are of the yearly value of £13 6s 8d.’ Although Queen Katherine is credited with building a new manor house in the old castle grounds, she is perhaps more likely to have given the earlier manor an extensive Tudor makeover.

Subsequently Edward VI gave the manor to his sister, Princess Elizabeth, in 1551. Elizabeth, when Queen, gave it to her courtier (and alleged lover), Sir Christopher Hatton, in 1571, who leased the property the following year to Robert Freke. The acquisitive Freke family would be described these days as ‘upwardly mobile’. In this way the site and attached lands came, by way of marriage and inheritance, through the Freke family to the Pitt family in 1714.

From the 16th century the castle appears in various documentary sources. John Leland, writing his itinerary in 1540-43, gives this uncomplimentary account of the town and refers to the decayed castle and manor: ‘The townlet of Stourminstre standith in a valley, is no great thing and the building of it is mean…. At the end of the bridge, on the right bank of the river Stour, is a faire manor place of a hill made steep and round by man’s hand, called in old writings Newton Castle. King (Edmund Ironside) gave this Stourminstre and Newton unto the abbey of Glastonbury. The castle since clearly decayed, and the abbots of Glastonbury made there a fair manor place, and used to resort unto it.’ Coker in the mid-17th century records it as: ‘a mount cast up it seems by man’s hands, where stood formerly a castle and house of the west Saxon kings, but of it now only the name remains’.

The bumps and hollows surrounding the castle are a legacy of human habitation for 2000 years

Hutchins records another old building on the site called ‘Coombs’, which he concludes is a rectory house, with its glebe. Adjoining this house were the remains of a barn, largely demolished in 1732 and completely demolished in 1840. It is probable that this house was located just below the possible castle site on the western side of the combe, and the glebe comprised the area of land within the combe. The stream within the combe appears to have been dammed at some stage, possibly to form fishponds in the medieval period. In the 17th and 18th centuries the old manor house was rented out and much altered. It was occupied until the late 18th or early 19th century before gradually falling into its current state of ruin. An elderly inhabitant of Sturminster recalled in 1903 that his father, when a boy, knew the last resident to be ‘an old lady who used to sell cider’. The Rivers Estate owned the site and its surrounding land until about 1980 and, though later sold, it is still in private hands.

Whilst the Iron Age hillfort is certainly in evidence and a magnetometry survey in 2004 suggested the location of two potential roundhouses, we cannot be sure from the evidence we have whether Sturminster ever had a ‘castle’ in the accepted sense of the word. Castles, as we know them, were a Norman import and placed strategically in the landscape to control communication and the people. Such early castles were often of wooden construction and as such leave ephemeral archaeological evidence. Only careful investigation would reveal whether the name here refers to a castle or, as with some other examples, to the defendable hillfort. However, the documentary evidence is quite impressive and the early accounts of a castle, in particular the 1016 record (which predates the Domesday and the Norman invasion), suggest strongly that there may well have been some form of early, possibly defendable, Saxon building here. If that were the case it would be one of only a handful in Wessex, the nearest equivalent being the Saxon hall on Cadbury hillfort in Somerset.

Detail of the stonework within the castle, showing beam-holes and a roof-line

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