The Castles of the Lune Valley

Last updated on April 23rd, 2024 at 11:10 am

North-West England’s River Lune meanders around 50 miles from the Cumbrian fells to Lancaster.  It seems attractive and tranquil, a mixture of woodland, meadows and beckoning hills, punctuated by attractive stone-built villages.  Yet, once upon a time, it must have been a very different, possibly even violent, place – because it possesses an apparently disproportionate number of old fortifications – the castles of the Lune Valley.  It is a higher concentration, some say (without a trace of hyperbole) than anywhere in Britain outside Wales.  Some of these defences are obvious – Lancaster Castle, for example, is hard to miss; others are more modest, and shy.  You can count at least 10 castles or forts from urban Lancaster along the valley to the neat Cumbrian market town of Kirkby Lonsdale, a distance of under 20 miles.  Heading roughly north-west from Lancaster, they are: Halton; Arkholme; Whittington; Hornby (two); Melling; Burton in Lonsdale; Thurland; Burrow (site of a Roman fort) and Kirkby Lonsdale.  Some Lune Valley castles are located adjacent to medieval churches with wonderful views nearby.  You could easily turn it into a tour; indeed, I recommend that you do exactly that – either from your armchair or, ideally, in person.

Lancaster Castle, built partly on a Roman fort

Lancaster Castle has a brooding presence in the city, where it has been used as a prison since the 12th century. In fact, it continued to be a prison until 2011 and is still used as a court. The origins of the castle are a little uncertain. Recorded as Loncastre in the Domesday survey of 1086, the pre-conquest settlement had been owned by Tostig, exiled brother of King Harold. The current castle dates from 1150, but is thought to have been founded by Count Roger de Poitou, who held lands in Lancaster from 1092 until 1102, when he rebelled against the King. It stands partly on the site of a Roman fort built overlooking the river Lune in the 1st century AD. The later medieval castle may have started life as a simple motte and bailey fortress similar to others in the Lune Valley.

Of course, not every castle can be the classic stone affair with formidable towers, dungeons and crenellated battlements.  Lancaster Castle comes close.  Thurland Castle dates from the 14th century, but these days is a country house divided into high-end apartments.  The present Hornby Castle might originate from the 13th century, but is now mostly Victorian and a private residence that occasionally opens its gardens.  Excluding those and the site of the Roman fort (greatly covered by an 18th century mansion, Burrow Hall), the remaining seven are all examples of the motte and bailey type of castle made of earth and wood – hallmarks of 11th century Norman invaders.  However, the thing is, no one seems to know exactly why they are there or who built them.  The only certainty is that they exist.

Few people, even dastardly Normans, build forts or castles for the fun of it.  So, what was happening in this part of Britain getting on for a thousand years ago?  The short answer is we don’t really know.  However, let us try to provide a bit of context, as well as offering some images of the Lune Valley’s castles that you can see for yourself today.

All of the Lune Valley castles will be found on ABAB’s Places.

Wait for it…

The Lune Valley

Our story must start with the Lune, whose waters are shared these days by three counties: Cumbria, Lancashire and North Yorkshire.  The River Lune begins modestly, with streams trickling off the hills coalescing near the small Cumbrian villages of Newbiggin and Ravenstonedale.  Growing with confidence, skirting the Howgill Fells, it defines the Lune Gorge, which, if you’re travelling along the M6, appears like a railway modellers’ landscape complete with its very own toy railway (the west coast main line).  In real life, it is the best north-south route sandwiched between the high fells of the Lake District to the west and the Yorkshire Dales to the east.  Meandering roughly south, then south-west, the countryside enveloping the river softens and widens into the lower reaches of the Lune Valley, often known as Lonsdale, swollen by waters running and tumbling off the western Yorkshire Dales.  Eventually, the river flows inexorably into the wetlands of the Lune Estuary near Lancaster and thence into Morecambe Bay and the Irish Sea. 

Halton – Haltune at the time of Domesday – was owned by Tostig before the conquest and various online sources suggest it was an important place, possibly a centre of administration.  The remains of Halton motte and bailey castle can easily be seen on a small hill at the junction of Foundry Lane and Church Brow, above the old church.  It’s said there has been a church there since the 7th century.  The motte and surrounding lines of the bailey are clear, there is a flagpole on top and, apparently, the remains of a WWII lookout post.  It is possible to look at the site from the road, but there doesn’t seem to be any public access.  Whilst I was visiting to research this article, I came across a leaflet regarding a proposed community project to find out more about Halton’s Castle Hill and facilitate access.  I hope they succeed!

Halton motte and bailey

The Lune Valley’s early history

The Lune Valley has been an important highway for a considerable time.  The name ‘Lune’ is generally thought to be Celtic in origin; in other words, it pre-dates the Roman period.  It is said to mean ‘healthy or pure’.  From ‘Lune’, we get ‘Lancaster’ (and Lancashire) and ‘Lonsdale’.  The Romans used part of the Lune valley as a north-south route all the way through the Lune Gorge to Hadrian’s Wall and Carlisle (Luguvalium).  At least one road ran from their fort at Lancaster to the fort at Burrow in Lonsdale (Galacum or Calacum) south of Kirkby Lonsdale, joined by the road from Ribchester and thence on through the Lune Valley to Low Borrowbridge near Tebay (where there is yet another motte and bailey castle, by the way).  Another road branched off from the Lune route in a northeast direction toward Ingleton and thence the fort near Bainbridge (Virosidum).

Of course, the Romans weren’t the first people in these parts.  There are a number of prehistoric and Romano-British settlements located along or in close proximity to the Lune Valley – at Sellet Bank near Whittington, Claughton and Castle Hill at Leck, for example.

As we know, Britain’s history becomes a little blurred after Roman rule ended in the 5th century. Following a period of localised home rule, what became England was settled first by Anglo-Saxon, then Viking, invaders.  Different kingdoms came and went.  By the 10th century in North West England, the River Eamont in present-day Cumbria marked the boundary between the Kingdoms of England and Strathclyde.  Sometime after that, the boundary moved south – possibly as far as the Lune.  It is thought that the population would have been a mingling of pre-Roman Celts with Anglian and Irish-Norse settlers.  Place name evidence supports this.  By the early 11th century, Strathclyde had been absorbed into the Kingdom of the Scots – although some parts around the Keswick area were conquered by Siward, Earl of Northumbria.  And, albeit precise borders were indistinct, that was the position at the time of the Norman invasion of England, in 1066.

Arkholme motte and bailey castle

ArkholmeErghum or Ergune at the time of Domesday – was another manor or settlement once owned by Tostig.  The motte is located right next to the little parish church.  At first glance, it looks like a small slag heap, but closer inspection reveals the classic motte shape.  The motte (and the church) are located right at the bottom of Arkholme’s Main Street, leading off the B2654 which is a cul de sac ending at the river.  It is a peaceful spot and a nice stroll, past pleasant, leafy and attractive properties.  ‘Tis said there used to be a ferry crossing at this stretch of the Lune and the castle was built to guard it.  There is even a Ferryman’s Cottage today – so it must be right.  The motte and bailey castle at Melling is almost directly opposite, giving the idea of a double guard over a valuable river crossing.

The Norman Conquest of the North

Duke William of Normandy’s victory over King Harold at Hastings in October 1066 did not mean everyone in England immediately succumbed to regime change.  With King Harold dead, William accepted the surrender of the remaining official English leaders in December 1066 at Berkhamsted, north of London.  Only then did he proceed to the capital to be crowned King William I at Westminster on Christmas Day.  However, as with most military invasions, there was resistance.  This varied across the land, but, famously, was particularly marked in East Anglia and the North of England. William’s eventual reaction to this was what history has come to term ‘the harrying of the North’ over the winter of 1069-70.  This phrase is a euphemism for a brutal scorched earth policy in which whole communities simply ceased to exist.  It’s a familiar story down the years, isn’t it?  Rebel against us, and this is what will happen – not only to you, but to everyone around you – men, women and children.  One contemporary account reports there being not one single inhabited village on the road between York and Durham.  The only visible living creatures were wolves and wild dogs feeding on the corpses of the slaughtered and starved.

The remains of Whittington’s motte and bailey castle lie entirely in and under the parish church and graveyard of St Michael the Archangel.  It is situated on the side of a hill, with wonderful views.  In spring, the churchyard is full of daffodils and crocuses.  The oldest part of the church is thought to be 16th century, but it is believed that a church has been on the site since the 12th century.  With the exception of the motte, the earthworks have become so degraded by the church structure, enclosure and graveyard as to have completely lost their original form.  The remains of the motte, which is covered with burials, lies to the west of the church and has a sundial on the top.  Some say the site was a pre-conquest moot hill, or meeting place.

Whittington Motte and Bailey, Lancashire


In 1086, William sent his men into every shire of England to record, for both 1066 and 1086, who owned what land, what properties were worth, who lived there, what livestock they had – and so on.  This was the Domesday Survey – a remarkable idea, and a remarkable achievement.  It has survived and is an invaluable primary historical resource.  However, many of the settlements listed in the north of England are bleakly noted as ‘wasta est’ – it is waste.  There was nothing there – or at least, nothing of any value.  The normal conclusion drawn from this is that these settlements had yet to recover from the devastation unleashed upon them sixteen years previously.

The Domesday Survey did not include most of what is now called Cumbria north of the Lune Valley, because at that time it was part of the Kingdom of Scotland.  The farthest north in these parts seems to have been the manor of Strickland, about 3 miles from Kendal.  However, all of the settlements of the Lune Valley with the aforementioned motte and bailey castles were recorded in Domesday.  They were located in the hundred (or wapentake) – administrative area – called Amounderness, part of the vast county of Yorkshire, which stretched south to Preston.  Lancashire did not exist as a county until 1182.  And none of those manors or settlements record anyone living there; not a soul.  It was the same for most of Amounderness – only the area around Preston appears to have had any population at all.

What we don’t know is whether this apparent desolation was caused by the Normans as part of the harrying.  Accounts of that event suggest it mostly took place further east and historians who seem to know their stuff suggest that the Normans did not have the resources to cause as much destruction as indicated by the Domesday records.  Assuming the records are accurate, (it is possible the Domesday commissioners did not visit, or do their work properly), the damage in Amounderness could have been caused by Viking, Scot, or Irish raiders.  Or any combination thereof.  However, another interesting fact is that none of these properties is shown as having any value in 1066, either, which seems odd.  At that time, most of them were owned by Earl Tostig Godwinson, or Tosti, Earl of Northumbria and brother of King Harold – a powerful and presumably wealthy man.  Exiled by his brother, he was killed alongside the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, just before the Battle of Hastings.  So, was Amounderness devastated before the Normans arrived in these parts – or was it just extremely poor?

Cockpit Hill, Kirkby Lonsdale's castle.

The remains of Kirkby Lonsdale’s motte and bailey are so degraded that it is hard to be sure it was once a castle.  The bailey cannot be identified, but the low hump of the motte can, over the wall from Ruskin’s View or from the adjacent churchyard to the north of St Mary’s Church.  It is known locally as Cockpit Hill, for the simple reason that cock fights were once staged on it. Kirkby Lonsdale was Cherchebi (place with a church) at the time of Domesday and in 1066 was owned by Thorfin of Ravensworth.  It is not known where the bailey of the castle was situated, but it could have extended to the east, where Church Brow and Ruskin’s View now is.  This area has also been known as ‘Fisherty Brow’, of which an old legend records “a curious kind of natural hollow scooped out, where, ages ago, a church, parson, and congregation were swallowed up by the earth. Ever since this terrible affair it is asserted that the church bells have been regularly heard to ring every Sunday morning.”

The border between England and Scotland

Another piece in the jigsaw is the shifting border between England and Scotland.  William I died in 1087 and the throne of England passed to his third son, William II, known as ‘Rufus’.  In response to incursions into England by the King of Scotland, Malcolm III, Rufus took an army north in 1092 and established a castle at Carlisle.  It is generally assumed that this marked the reconquest of what became the counties of Cumberland and Westmorland – present-day Cumbria.  Actually, taking advantage of the anarchy that reigned in England between 1138 and 1153, the area north of the Ribble temporarily reverted to control by the King of Scotland in 1141, until being taken back in 1157.  Despite the border being settled on the Solway in 1237, this part of England and southern Scotland remained bandit country for many years.

Sketch of a Motte and Bailey Castle from A Bit About Britain

Motte and bailey castles

The characteristics of motte and bailey castles are the motte – a small hill or mound, normally (but not always) man-made, surrounded by a ditch, on top of which would be a wooden defensive tower, or keep, surrounded by a wooden fence, or palisade.  If the tower or keep was large enough, it might contain living quarters for the lord and his family.  Surrounding or next to the motte is the bailey – an area defined by a ditch and earthwork on top of which would have been a wooden palisade.  The bailey contained buildings necessary to the functioning of the castle – such as living quarters, stores, stables, a hall – and so on.  The motte was accessed from the bailey by means of a bridge, or steps.  Sometimes, motte and bailey castles developed into grander, stone-built, affairs.  Windsor Castle is a good example.

Some motte and bailey castles may have predated the Norman Conquest, but most are a feature of it.  One of William’s first acts on landing at Pevensey was to build a castle and the Normans went on to build castles at strategic points all over the country, to both provide security and project power.  It has been estimated that 80% of the castles built were of the motte and bailey type and that, ultimately, perhaps as many as 1,000 were constructed throughout Britain, up to the end of the 12th century.

So, where does that leave us with the enigmatic motte and bailey castles of the Lune Valley?  Who built them, when – and why? They are by no means the only motte and bailey castles in the area, but the cluster along this part of the Lune does suggest a coordinated strategy.

Burton in Lonsdale’s castle, locally known simply as Castle Hill, is a classic motte and bailey affair, but relatively large and imposing, with an enormous motte and two baileys.  It is unmistrakable as you drive through the village on the A687.  Excavations carried out in 1904 suggested that the castle began as a ringwork in the 12th century and was converted into a motte some time later. Also, the motte appears to have been ‘paved’ – ie covered in stones – which would have made it look really impressive.  It has also been suggested that the site might have been originally prehistoric.  Accounts of 1130 refer to expenses at ‘de castro de Burtona de Lanesdala’ for payment of a ‘militis’ (knight), 10 ‘servientes’ (sergeants), a ‘janitoris’ (gatekeeper) and a ‘vigil’ (watchman).  The site is on private land and not generally accessible.  In fact, apparently, the current miserable peasant that owns it has even refused permission for churchgoers to erect a cross on the motte at Easter, as they have been accustomed to doing for many years.

Burton in Lonsdale, Castle Hill

Who built the Lune Valley Castles, and when?

If the castles were all built at the same time, you cannot help but wonder what the project plan looked like.  Were they all constructed simultaneously, or consecutively?  Did the project come in on time and on budget?  It would have been a large undertaking and, perhaps, local labour was used – or maybe help was shipped in from elsewhere.  It is interesting to note that, although all are of a similar pattern, motte and bailey forts were not a standard design – unlike Roman forts.

The general view seems to be that the Lune Valley castles date from the late 11th century.  Although it is possible the fortifications predate the Norman Conquest, it is unlikely motte and bailey castles were built this far north at that time by anyone other than Normans.  That is not to say that earlier strongpoints – perhaps at Halton – were not modified post-conquest.  So, given all of the above, were the motte and bailey castles built:

  1. Shortly after 1066?
  2. At the time of or shortly after the harrying of the North (1070)?
  3. After William II’s push into the Kingdom of Scotland in the 1090s?

A builder often mentioned in connection with the castle at Lancaster, and the parish of Melling, was Roger the Poitevin, or Roger de Poitou.  He was a Norman baron with lands in France and England, who was also awarded lands in Lonsdale by the king in the 1090s.  A history of Melling Church states categorically that it and the parish was owned by Roger de Poitou by 1094, when he granted it to the monastery of Sees in Normandy.  Another, though I think less likely, candidate was an Ivo de Taillbois, First Baron Kendal, who died in 1094.  Roger hung around until he was banished in 1102 for rebelling against the King, Henry I.

Melling Castle Mount, Lancashire

There is really very little to see of Melling’s late 11th century motte and bailey castle.  Its remains can be seen, in the garden of the former vicarage, by looking over the east wall of the churchyard.  It has been partly landscaped and a set of steps added.  The castle was abandoned in the late 12th/early 13th centuries and the bailey has been partly covered by the 12th century church of St Wilfred.  Despite that, Historic England maintains that “the lack of subsequent occupation on the site means buried structural remains and environmental evidence are likely to survive well.” Really?  The motte and bailey at Arkholme, on the opposite side of the river (which was closer to Melling in the past), suggests both sides of this stretch of the river were worthy of being guarded.  Melling was Mellinge at the time of the Domesday survey of 1086 and its lord in 1066 is recorded as Ulf. 

Why were the Castles of the Lune Valley built?

Many accounts of the fortifications along the Lune blandly state that they helped control movement along the valley and had a role in imposing and demonstrating the new post-conquest feudal order on the area.  Well – yeah; that is insightful.

The fact is we don’t know what was going on here in the 11th century.  The forts were evidently constructed as a measure to protect something and control someone: was this the local population of native Brits (who were all apparently absent at the time of the Domesday survey), exiled Anglo-Danes attempting to reassert authority, raiding Norse, Scots, Irish?  Perhaps robbers attacking merchants moving goods along the valley?  Or maybe any/all of the above?

The fortifications are all sited at good vantage points along the river.  But what was so important about the Lune Valley – and that particular stretch of it?  There is no similar chain of fortifications (if that’s what they are) elsewhere in North West England.  If you look at a map, the Lune Valley offers an obvious passage into the interior of England for anyone arriving by sea, as well as providing access to the main north-south route mentioned earlier.  However, beyond Kirkby Lonsdale, the next contemporary fortification in the valley seems to be Castle How, another motte and bailey some 20 miles away, at Tebay.  This can be seen from the northbound carriageway of the M6, by the way.  (There was also a motte and bailey at Castlehaugh, Sedbergh, but that seems a bit off piste.) With the possible exception of Castle Stede and Burton in Lonsdale, the Castles of the Lune Valley all seem too small for large garrisons.  Were they checkpoints, observation posts, part of an early warning system, there to gather intelligence on and react swiftly to a local threat?  By the way, the suggestion that Burton in Lonsdale’s castle was built during the 12th century may – or may not – mark it out as discrete from the others.

Was the Lune a frontier?  If it had been, wouldn’t we expect to find additional defences to the east?

Whatever their purpose, if it was deterrence it worked because there’s no evidence of any major conflict at the time.

None of the sites has been properly excavated in modern times – some apparently haven’t even been touched.  The entries in Historic England’s listings are much the same for each, which merely underlines the lack of specific knowledge.  HE often suggests that “lack of subsequent occupation on the site means buried structural remains and environmental evidence are likely to survive well.”  That may be, but in the case of Melling, Arkholme, Whittington and Kirkby Lonsdale, where the baileys have been covered by churches and centuries of inhumations, buried remains will have been considerably damaged.  In any event, excavation would not be possible.  Excavation at Halton, Castle Stede and Burton in Lonsdale would be possible, however, if permission were granted – although damage to remains is likely to have been caused by ploughing. 

Castle Stede near Hornby (Hornebi at the time of Domesday) was a substantial and sophisticated motte and bailey fortress.  Some suggest it was constructed on the site of an earlier Iron Age fort or settlement.  Stede probably means ‘place’ or ‘enclosed place’ in Old English.  There is no certainty over who built it.  However, there is evidence to suggest that the castle was in use in 1205, when it was taken from Roger de Montbegon (1165-1226) by King John and returned a mere three months later.  In the later 13th century, Castle Stede passed into the hands of the powerful Nevilles, who built a new castle at Hornby (Hornby Castle) and allowed Castle Stede to decay.  Although clearly visible for what it is, all that remains above ground are extensive earthworks – the oval-shaped bailey and the tree-covered mound of the motte. However, the strategic importance of the site, overlooking the Loyn Bridge crossing over the Lune, hasn’t changed.  Close to a modern stone causeway leading into the bailey area is a WW2 pill box.

Castle Stede, motte and bailey castle near Hornby, Lancashire

Lune Valley churches

Finally, let us not forget that four of the sites are occupied by medieval churches and their surroundings.  This suggests that the churches may have developed from chapels that were built within the baileys – presumably for the use of anyone living there, or perhaps in a surrounding settlement.  Alternatively, perhaps the motte and bailey became natural focal points.  At Halton, the church is believed to have always been in its current location.  There is no evidence of a chapel in the baileys at Castle Stede or Burton in Lonsdale.  The current church adjacent to Burton’s Castle Hill is Victorian and replaced a chapel of ease nearby, of unknown age.  The village of Hornby may have shared worship with Melling.  There was also a small Premonstratensian abbey in Hornby, just to the south of Castle Stede.

Therefore, until someone unearths some revealing historical records, or undertakes a bit of coordinated archaeology, it seems to me that the only thing to be done is to explore these old sites and wonder, not for the first time, what on earth our ancestors were up to.

The Lune Valley in Lancashire
The tranquil Lune Valley

19 thoughts on “The Castles of the Lune Valley”

  1. This was well worth waiting for Mike. I always get excited when hearing the words Motte and Bailey as it takes me back to school and one of the few subjects that really grabbed my attention. That, and the fact that these are in one of the most fabulous areas of the country, means you have my full attention. Thank you. I hope the WP gremlins stay away for a good long time!

  2. Due to me feeling like shit I only read bits here and there and enjoyed the photos, what I did read I liked as I will never get to visit such places in person

  3. Thank you for another lovely armchair adventure, Mike! You know SUCH A LOT about British/European history!!!! So many different cultures have visited, conquered, settled down and then assimilated into what is now called Britain… And all the while the river Lune just keeps flowing along, bless it! I did what I always do when I read one of your blog posts — pull up a map of the area and trace the path you describe. I was happy to notice all of the twists and turns the river Lune makes en route to the Irish sea (because I often feel as though the path my own life is similarly full of twists and turns…) Hurrah for your patience updating your site AND dealing with all of the distressing surprises along the way! Congratulations!

    1. Thanks, Will. You have a wonderful way of putting things – the reality of the river just keeping flowing while things happen around it. I love history – it’s our story, after all – but need to look most of it up. Hah – this time I gave you a map! 🙂

  4. Excellent work as always, Mike. I know some of the Lune Valley (mainly in passing through it), and I have always thought that it was a lovely, unspoilt area. Perhaps on the back of your most interesting article, it’s time that I did some actual exploration. Thanks for this, and for what you do.

    1. Thank you, Colin 🙂 It is an attractive place – and a handy location, too. Go down one side of the river and back the other. Kirkby Lonsdale has a couple of good places for refreshments.

  5. A very interesting post Mike but have you changed the blog layout? The text is spread out right across the pc screen and I’m getting the same gobbledygook at the bottom as John does.

    1. Thanks, Eunice. Layout-wise – I just took out the sidebar for this post, because I thought it looked better. Yes, the gobbledygook were actually error messages that should have remained in the back end, as it were.

  6. Helen Devries

    That was a fascinating tour of the Lune valley castles….with gorgeous photographs. Left me wondering why the area was so well fortified….and when…

  7. Such amazing history, Mike! Imagine living in those days and years… I am seeing a whole bunch of this: “Warning: Attempt to read property “ID” on int in /home/bitabout/public_html/wp-content/plugins/toolset-blocks/vendor/toolset/toolset-theme-settings/compatibility-modules/controllers/toolset-theme-integration-settings-front-end-controller.php on line 64″ towards the bottom of this post, bad code?

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