THE SEARCH FOR OSWESTRY TOWN WALL

by DERRICK PRATT


I. THE BUILDING OF THE WALL


THE CASTLE

Town life in Oswestry began, in characteristic Marcher style, with the erection of a castle, the earliest of six motte and bailey structures that defined the westernmost limits of Norman penetration into northwest Shropshire (*l) . Any of these castles was a potential nucleus for the development of a small urban settlement along the border with Wales.

Oswestry's precarious, albeit strategic, position in the March of Wales, and its function in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as a border garrison town, ordained that its defensive capabilities should ultimately have been enhanced by the building of a wall, complete with what may be flatteringly termed 'gatehouses'. It is a source of constant surprise to local historians that (a) almost two centuries elapsed before a wall was actually constructed, and (b), all traces of such a massive linear work have disappeared so completely. Its former course may only be accurately determined by piecemeal archaeological excavation or a rare exposure of footings during road improvements or building operations.

Domesday Book (1086) reveals that Renaud de Bailleul, sheriff of Shropshire and under-tenant of Roger de Montgomery, first earl of Shrewsbury, in addition to estates in Sussex, Warwickshire and Staffordshire, held over seventy manors in Shropshire. They included twelve of the eighteen manors in Mersete (later Oswestry) Hundred, which had its administrative centre at Meresberie (Maesbury). Within this latter manor, sometime after 1074, and on the orders of earl Roger, Renaud erected a castle, which, at the compilation of the Domesday survey, was evidently so new that it was referred to simply as Luvre (L'Oeuvre) or 'the work' (*2) . For ease of construction Renaud utilised the smallest of the several mounds of glacial debris that screen Oswestry to the north, possibly that surmounted by the prominent tree that at one time grew on, or marked the boundary of, the estate of the Saxon farmer Oswald, after whom the town eventually was to be named (*3 ).


GROWTH OF THE TOWN

The early history of Oswestry is inextricably bound up with the annals of border warfare, recorded in both English and Welsh chronicles and in contemporary financial accounts (*4) , and reflected in the fact that several widely disparate Shropshire manors, such as Pitchford, Alderton, and Withington, owed castle guard or knight service at Oswestry Castle (*5 ).

However, one must not lose sight of the fact that the Marcher lordship of Oswestry embraced both the hills and moorlands of Wales in the west and the Shropshire Plain extension in the east. The town of Oswestry itself is advantageously situated on the 'fall line', the junction of two contrasting physical, economic, and cultural environments. Here the differences of race, language and geography were to blend and fuse in a manner excelled only at Wrexham among the urban communities of medieval Wales and the March. The small settlement that grew up in the shadow of Oswestry Castle very early took upon itself certain economic functions. It was for the improvement of its weekly market, and to exploit further the commercial possibilities of the town, that William FitzAlan, in 1189, granted Oswestry, or rather Blancmonasterium (*6 ), its first charter of incorporation, bestowing upon its inhabitants the customs and liberties of Shrewsbury (*7) . The continued expansion of the borough was given further stimulus by the granting in 1228, despite opposition from the merchants of Montgomery and Shrewsbury, of the four-day St. Andrew's Fair (30 November) (*8) . In 1263 a second, more comprehensive seigneurial charter gave the burgesses, inter alia, the right to promulgate bye-laws for the profit and improvement of the borough (*9) .

Beatrice Gate - Click to Enlarge
Beatrice Gate as it appeared when taken down in 1782

Medieval Oswestry's economic sphere of influence was not restricted to the Perry basin and the valleys of the Tanat, Cynllaith and Cain, but extended beyond the Berwyns into Penllyn and Edeirnion (*10) . Merchants from the Corwen, Llangar, and Bala areas followed the moorland roads and passes long familiar to Welsh marauding bands and armed expeditions from England. By 1272 the market tolls of Oswestry amounted to £20, rising to £27 in 1276; the tolls from the two fairs were farmed at £10 (*11) . The borough was a tight agglomeration of houses and workshops that hugged the perimeter defences of the castle bailey and, indeed, increasingly encroached upon the outer courtyard.


THE MURAGE GRANTS

But even the most integrated town could not escape the periodic pillage and destruction of border warfare. Much of Oswestry was wasted by a vengeful King John in 1215 in the wake of Magna Carta, and again by Llewelyn ap Gruffydd of Gwynedd in 1230. That the town was attacked and sacked on several occasions before some thought was given to providing it with defences must be considered a characteristic feature of contemporary warfare and military strategy. The castle was still the key element in defence, and it, rather than the town, was the objective an attacking force sought to capture and control. The defence of the town was of only secondary importance, whereas occupation of the castle signified control of the lordship and its resources.

Murage grants to meet the cost of fortifying towns were first recorded in 1220, but it was not until 1257 that John FitzAlan II, lord of Oswestry 1244-67, petitioned for, and was granted on 28 December, a muragium or 'wall tax' for a period of five years to enable a wall to be built around the town (*12) . Details are lacking about the construction of this wall, if indeed work actually started on it at all. If built this early wall could conceivably have been a simple bank and ditch strengthened by a timber palisade, as at Rhuddlan or Montgomery. A stone wall would have been only partially completed within the prescribed period, since a five-year murage grant, making the usual allowance for the misapproriation of funds by the murringers or collectors, would have produced insufficient funds to have walled about the whole of the existing town, particularly if it were intended to include the parish church of St. Oswald within the fortifications. However, the character and extent of Oswestry's subsequent expansion makes it most unlikely that these problems will be satisfactorily resolved, even by excavation on a larger scale than that carried out hitherto.

St. Oswald's Church c.1812 - Click to Enlarge
The parish church of Oswestry was left outside the town wall when built.

While it may have been a matter of pride amongst Marcher lords that their towns should have been walled, it was the strategic importance of Oswestry as a military base during the Welsh campaigns of Edward I that gave the necessary impetus either for the completion, or building de novo , of its defensive wall, possibly on a more circumscribed line than that originally envisaged, one that left the parish church outside the wall. War was declared against Llewelyn ap Gruffydd in November 1276, and in that same month some forty knights and seventy troopers were dispatched to Oswestry (*13) . During the minority of Richard FitzAlan I (b. 1267), custody of the castle, town and lordship of Oswestry was in the hands of Bogo de Khoville, sheriff of Shropshire, Oswestry served as his headquarters from December 1276 to July 1277 and it was he, therefore, who was instrumental in securing, on 28 November 1277, a second, six-year, murage grant to the bailiffs and good men of Osolvestre for the purpose of adequately walling the entire circuit of the town (*14) . The terminology hints possibly at a completely new start on the wall. Continued oversight of the work was maintained by Roger Springhouse, de Knoville's successor as sheriff in 1278 or 1280. The wall, at least a mile in circumference, was to be ditched on the outside, which moat could be partly filled when needed by the several streams that traversed the town.

One can only speculate how far work on the town wall had proceeded before the fresh outbreak of hostilities on 21 March 1282. The following day, Palm Sunday, when its inhabitants least expected it, Oswestry was raided by Welshmen from Powys Fadog, Penllyn and Edeirnion. The castle was not taken, but the merchants and craftsmen of the town were plundered of goods to the tune of £470 15s. 0d. (*15) . In the ensuing campaign Roger Springhouse served under Roger Mortimer, the English commander in the middle March, as captain of forces at Oswestry. He maintained there, between May and August, a garrison of two heavy and two light troopers, three crossbows, and sixty foot. Their period of duty was extended for a further forty days from 9 August by the king's special command (*16 ).

In the September and October the Welsh insurgents rapidly lost ground in the face of concerted advances by Edward I from Chester, and Roger Mortimer from Montgomery. But their resistance had not been altogether crushed, and on Monday, 14 September 1282, and again the following Sunday, Oswestry was once more the objective of audacious attacks by marauding bands of Welsh rebels, again drawn mainly from beyond the Berwyns, but on these two occasions also reinforced by malcontents from Dudleston, St. Martin's, and Maelor Saesneg. Many houses and shops were set on fire and damage to property in the town was conservatively estimated at £2,500 in silver (*17) . Almost certainly the town wall, whether still only partly built or newly completed, would have sustained considerable damage by the simple, but effective expedient of toppling several courses of stone-work or burning scaffolding and staging. It is against these events that one must view the letter patent, dated 24 February 1283, permitting the bailiffs of Oswestry to continue collecting murage in accordance with previous licences (*18) , and another, dated 17 December 1283, which diversified the tolls payable, and increased the period of murage for a further twenty years (*19) . Ostensibly this latter grant was for the repair of the town wall, but making good and completion is almost certainly meant. A translation of this grant is given as an Appendix to this report.


THE CONJECTURED LINE OF THE WALL

No further murage grant was made and it must be assumed that Oswestry's town wall was completed by 1304. Remarkably, at the present time, no trace of the wall or its gateways remains above ground, hence the exploratory operations carried out by the B.C.A.G. in 1979-80. However, the position of the four gates may be determined with some exactitude, because, although linking stretches of wall had long vanished, they were retained, until their demolition in 1772 and 1782, as convenient points for the payment of tolls, which continued to be collected at these strategic points of entry into the borough until 1833-4.


Price's Map of Oswestry c.1815
Price's Map of Oswestry c.1815

Attempts to recover the exact line of the wall are hampered by the fact that, apart from that published by W. Price c.1815 in his History of Oswestry &c ., there is not a single vintage map that purports to show the course of the wall (*21) . This report will attempt to show that the greater part of the wall had been demolished by 1660, so that the chances of any significant remnant of the wall remaining exposed in 1815 must be considered very slender. It could also be argued that Price had an undoubted advantage over present-day researchers, that of writing some 166 years nearer actual events, at a time when oral tradition and/or human memory was perhaps stronger and more reliable. Unfortunately the scale and accuracy of his map is such as to render it virtually useless to any archaeologist seeking potential sites for exploratory trenches. Nevertheless, in the absence of any other cartographic evidence, Price's map, with all its drawbacks, must serve to give an approximate indication of the wall's conjectured alignment.

Price's line has been modified by later researchers in the light of new theories held, but as yet all remain untested by excavation (*22) . On the ground, even the most superficial survey of the presumed track of the wall has revealed that suitable areas for excavation are few and far between, and that the odds on actually cutting the line of the wall are immense. There would appear to be ample scope for a geophysical survey, coupled with the judicious use of a JCB, in any preliminary investigatory work!

New Gate - Click to Enlarge
New Gate as it appeared when taken down in 1782

From the New Gate pillar in Church Street the wall ran S.E. beneath the shops and derelict cottages on the left-hand side of English Walls (confirmed by a sighting in June 1973), swinging N.E. at the 'Golden Tankard' inn before running (possibly under the road) to 'The Bear' inn, where the Black Gate (Porth Ddu) straddle Salop Road or Leg Street. From thence the course of the wall is at its most problematical and hypothetical. It is generally assumed to have run a short distance parallel to the lane to Coney Green. At the rear of the Presbyterian Chapel, Oswald Road, the wall presumably turned N.W., making for the 'Plough' inn at the top of King Street, where stood the Beatrice Gate. From here the wall continued up Plough Bank to the castle, effecting a junction with the latter's defences and those of the bailey head. West of the castle motte or mound, the wall is thought to have run through the rear gardens of the houses on the left-hand side of Chapel Street to Castle Street, turning westwards to the Willow Gate, which stood at the junction of Willow Street, Welsh Walls and Castle Street. Eton the Willow Gate the wall ran along the left-hand side of Welsh Walls to somewhere near No. 27 where it turned sharply S.E. across Cae Glas Park, along one of several possible alignments, making for the Old Post Office (Agri-Electrics) yard and the New Gate.

Along the complete circuit of the town wall there have been less than a dozen confirmatory sightings of footings. In many places boundary and partition walls, and the walls of seventeenth and eighteenth century buildings, contain large amounts of worked and shaped stone, which, it is often asserted, may derive from derelict and dismantled walls. While it is tempting to accept this association one should not lose sight of the fact that there is a date discrepancy of some 150 years between the demolition of the wall and the building of those properties along its conjectural line, and that there are also many stone quarries in close proximity to the town.


JOHN LELAND'S VISIT TO OSWESTRY

One of the earliest, simplest, and yet most factual topographical descriptions of Oswestry is that afforded by the antiquarian John Leland, writing c.1539 (*23) . Abstracting references relating specifically to the borough's defences we read (translated Latin phrases underlined):

The cumpace of the towne withyn the walle is aboute a mile.
There be 4 gates, the New Gate (Portnewith) by south.
The Blake Gate, alias Portdee, by south est toward Shrobsbyri.
The 3. Beteriche Gate, whence is the road of the same name which leads to the town , north est. toward Chester.
The 4. Williho Gate, alias Mountain Gate, because through this one travels to the nearby mountains almost four miles distant, north west toward the montaine of Penllin in Merionneth.
There be no towers in the waulles beside the gates. The tounne is dikid about and brokettes ren ynto it. The Chirch of S. Oswalde is a very faire leddid chirch with a great torrid steple, but it standeth without the New Gate; so that no chiroh is there withyn the towne.

*******

Ther is a castelle sette on a mont be likelihod made by hand and dichid by south west betwist Beterice Gate and Williho Gate, to the wich the town waul cummith.

*******

There goith thorowg the town by the crosse a broke (*24) cumming from a place cullid Simons Welle, a bow shot without the waulle by north-west. This broke cummith in thorough the waulle betwixt Williho Gate and New Gate, and so renning thorough the towne, and goith oute under the Blak Gate

*******

Ther is a brook caullid Betterich, bycauae it rennith thorough a bridglet of tymber at Beterich Gate. The 3. goyth under the stone bridges of Wulli Gate, New Gate and Blake Gate. Then go they all 3. with Crosse Broke a mile lower by south west in to Morda Ryver.

Leland's description sheds light on how the moat could be watered, while references to the course of the Cross Brook, now culverted, may help recover the exact alignment of the wall in the featureless terrain of Cae Glas Park. The bare statement that Oswestry town wall did not possess a single tower throughout its not inconsiderable length would seem to call for some reassessment of its defensive role. Leland was writing when the greater part of the wall was yet intact, and one is inclined to accept his utterances in preference to an assertion made much later, in 1782, "that the town was formerly walled around and had several strong towers built on the wall thereof..." (*25) .


MISCELLANEOUS TOPOGRAPHICAL DETAIL

Ancient wood engravings exist depicting the New Gate and Beatrice Gate in ruinous condition before demolition in 1782, while others purport to show all four gates in a rather more pristine condition (see page 7), as they would have appeared had the suggested restoration and alterations - notably the raising of the arches and the widening of the roadways - taken place as an alternative to demolition and removal. None of the gates would appear to have presented a formidable obstacle, being a simple passageway between two guard chambers, extending back inside the defences rather than forward to cover the bridge and adjacent sections of the wall.

The wall and gateways were built as an integrated whole. There is no evidence, apart from reading too much into their names, to support statements that New Gate and Beatrice Gate were built later (*26) . The former, possibly remodelled in 1570, hence its name, also contained the town prison or lock-up and toll-collectors' room. Regretfully, the various derivations of the name 'Beatrice Gate', which have enjoyed considerable currency, must be discounted on dating and place-name evidence (*27) .

The building of Oswestry's town wall was essentially a local effort, financed by monies raised locally within the lordship. Labour was recruited locally, local quarries supplied the stone, and supervision was entrusted to local masons. There was little sophistication in concept or execution of the work compared with Conway or Caernarvon, and one questions statements that the building of Oswestry's wall was carried out by Henry of Ellerton, officer of the royal works. No direct evidence exists for this, although there is considerable precedent. The accomplished nature of the design and lay-out of Denbigh Castle and Town Wall and the great baronial castles at Chirk and Holt show that the master of the king's works was certainly involved in their initial planning and setting out. On the other hand, it may reasonably be argued that the relative crudity and weakness of the Oswestry defences ought not be attributed to the man, who, in 1304, was sub-magister to Master Walter of Hereford at Caernarvon, succeeding the latter there in 1309, and who, in 1318, in turn became 'master and surveyor of the king's works' at all the castles in North Wales (*28) .

Occasional references are made in contemporary records to a 'Red Gate' ( rubra porta ) and a 'Cripple Gate' (*29) . The latter certainly did not form a prominent feature of Oswestry's outer defences. The solitary reference locates the 'Red Gate' in the general area of the bailey head, more specifically, the length of a tenter's frame from the bridge over the castle moat. It can only allude to the outer gate to the castle, possibly constructed of a brown or reddish sandstone, but more probably located in that higher part of the bailey known as le Redehull or 'the red hill' (*30) . East of the castle motte, Bryn-y-castell, on the north side of Powys Place, stands on what used to be known as 'Cripple Bank', alleged site of an outer gate of the castle "at which the halt and blind were usually relieved". Sadly this romantic notion must be dismissed. 'Cripple Gat' is derived from O.E. crypel-geat = 'a low opening in a fence or wall' (lit. 'a creeping gate') sufficient to allow the ingress or egress of small animals such as sheep. More usually, as in Shrewsbury, it merely permitted the passage of a drain or sewer through the defences, in the case of Oswestry, from the castle ditch into the swamp at Cripple Gate and into the 'Beatrice Brook', the stream that drained Castle Fields (*31) .