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Odiham Castle excavation summary

During the de Montforts' residence at Odiham, the Countess Eleanor kept a Household Roll, or inventory, carefully compiled by Christopher and Eudes, her clerks. Entries for the first half of 1265 have survived, and provide a fascinating view of 13th century daily life. Here can be found details of diet; bread, meat and fish figure prominently, particularly salted herrings, which were consumed in vast quantities during Lent.

Also listed are Eleanor's many visitors, ranging from royal officials to great ladies. On a more local level the names of some of her servants are recorded, including Hicquc Cissori, the tailor, and messengers including Gobithesti and Truebodi. Her ladies-in-waiting included Hawisa and Christiana.

The main dating evidence from the excavations comprises pottery and a few coins. Other finds from this waterlogged site include over 2,000 animal bones, many of deer - red, roe and fallow, and from the cess-pits, digested herring bones.

Metalwork includes spurs, a barrel padlock, buckles, and a Jew's harp (right). But how does the archaeological evidence fit with the accepted history of Odiham Castle?

Perhaps the most exciting discovery is that the great octagonal keep is not the first structure on the site. If work began on a virgin site in 1207, as seems likely, the castle built for King John was more a well-defended hunting lodge than a towering stronghold. Indeed, the domus regis itself may be represented by the decorated doorway of which part remains (right).

Soon afterwards, perhaps as a result of damage sustained during the siege of 1216, the octagonal tower was built. The first mentions of a turrus in the documentary sources, apparently referring to repairs, occur in 1224/25, and it is perhaps relevant that the dendrochronology (tree-ring) date for the timber in the sump is 1232. The moat which surrounds the keep is another unexpected find, which makes immediate sense of the many references to buildings and rooms, notably the kitchen, being suspended on piles 'above the fosse of the castle', and a royal directive of 1276 that part of the moat 'against the tower' should be filled in.

The palisade and ditch unearthed in the inner ward might well point to a particular episode. In the 14th century, a certain Robert le Ewer was among other things Keeper of the Castle, Manor, Town, Hundred and Park of Odiham. When the much despised Despensers came to prominence le Ewer rebelled against king Edward II, and was outlawed. One of several acts of defiance he carried out was an attempt, in November 1322, to storm Odiham Castle, which had been handed to John St John of Basing, and Ralph de Camoys to guard in the king's name.

That the assault was a full-bloodied affair is suggested by the number of known conspirators. In addition an inventory shows that of twenty dozen arrows at the disposal of the garrison, eight dozen were used in repelling the attack. Less direct evidence is the amount of repair work required at the castle that winter, particularly to roof tiles and timbers. An interesting but understandable aside, is the fact that the garrison consumed two and a quarter casks of wine to celebrate their repulsing of le Ewer and his men.

Robert le Ewer was seized at Southampton in December 1322, and was imprisoned 'in a cold place, clad only in a thin shirt'. He was given bad food and foul-smelling water, and after suffering 'peine fort et dure' died there in chains.

Other evidence from the excavations suggests that after the defensive structures, the moats, ditches and palisades, had been removed or filled in, a number of planting holes were dug, as the inner ward was turned into a small garden. A flint foundation here could be the base of a small 'summer house' or it may have been the foundation for a watchman's hut. When the castle was declared surplus to requirements there would have been a constant stream of wagons carrying building material away, and a need to keep an eye on this process.

The definitive archaeological report describing the excavations is now in an advanced state, and specialist reports have been written for the animal bone, pottery and tile. It is hoped that the final sections will be completed during 2004, and that the report will appear during 2005.