The village of Pilsbury in Derbyshire is what experts call a “shrunken Medieval village,” to the rest of us it’s a hamlet. Pilsbury is the start of a new fascination (sorry). Obviously Derbyshire has Peveril Castle in Hathersage and there’s Haddon Hall which may indeed rejoice in the name ‘manor’ but which looks decidedly castle-ish but where are the rest of Derbyshire’s castles? They seem to have gone missing. Apparently there’s a site for a castle in Bakewell but its hardly on the tourist trail. Some ten miles from Bakewell, to the north of Pilsbury along the Dove Valley lies the village of Crowdecote which may have a motte, or large man-made mound upon which to stand a castle. Unlike so many other counties in England the castles of Derbyshire appear to be transient commodities. Not even the Earl of Shrewsbury’s castle at Sheffield survived the test of time. So, I’ve added castle spotting to my list of peculiarities.
Pilsbury Castle, which does at least rejoice in the name ‘castle,’ lies between Crowdecote and Pilsbury. It is inaccessible by road. You can’t hear any traffic, just the gurgle of the River Dove as it winds around the spur of land on which the earthworks that were once a de Ferrers motte and bailey castle stand.
The name Pilsbury gives a clue as to how old the defensive site may be – “pil“ comes from the Celtic, ‘bury,” from the Saxon and “castle” from the Norman – and they all mean much the same thing. Whatever the name of Pilsbury may tell us the archaeology is determinedly Norman with its one wall built into a natural outcrop of rock that was once a reef and its many green banks and mounds that depict a motte and bailey castle – actually its a two bailey castle as the helpful guidance board provided by the Peak District authorities illustrates.
There are several theories as to how Pilsbury came to be built in the upper Dove Valley. The first is that it came into being during the so-called ‘harrying of the North’ between 1069-1070. The idea is that the Normans having destroyed people’s homes and livelihoods found themselves in a situation where those Saxons who survived took to the hills and turned to outlawry in order to survive. If this was the case it then follows that the Norman landowners had to build defences to keep the Saxons firmly under control especially somewhere like Pilsbury which stands near a ford and a packhorse route and is in terrain ideal for fugitives. It’s not too hard to imagine the dangers of an attack in this isolated spot.
There is a problem with this though, as elsewhere in the country. Hartington and the Dove Valley were in the hands of the de Ferrers’ family. It is unlikely that William the Conqueror would rampage with fire, sword and salt across lands belonging to powerful favourites as the yield from those lands would fall rather drastically as a result making their acquisition somewhat pointless. The same may be said of landholdings, notably in Yorkshire, belonging to Alan the Red for example.
So if that theory doesn’t appeal, how about the Normans turfing hardworking Saxons off their lands in order to create a wilderness where they could hunt. The disposed Saxons may well have taken to the hills and caves in the Dove Valley, again turning to outlawry just to survive. Alternatively maybe the de Ferrers simply wanted to stamp their authority on their land with one of those new fangled castles just to remind the locals who was in charge or to extract “tax” as pack-horses laden with salt and other goods crossed the ford.
A further theory derives from the years of the so-called “Anarchy” when King Stephen and Empress Matilda were slogging it out to see who would rule England. The Rive Dove marks the boundary between lands belonging to the Earl of Derby and lands belonging to the Earl of Chester. Let’s just say that between 1135 and 1153 the pair were not the best of friends with the Earl of Derby backing Stephen and the Earl of Chester backing Matilda. Under those circumstances with a ford just down the valley a fortification becomes rather a sensible idea. Actually come to think of it, the two earls weren’t terribly friendly at other times in history so the castle may simply have been built as part of a neighbourly dispute.
The written record after its construction is somewhat vague too. Pilsbury is mentioned in the Doomsday Book but not the castle. Pilsbury is mentioned again in 1262, again the land not the castle, when the Earl of Derby, Robert de Ferrers, granted land to Henry of Shelford. Four years later the Earl of Derby was up to his neck in rebellion and his land was promptly confiscated. By the thirteenth century the land on both sides of the river was in the hands of the Duchy of Lancaster so there was no need for a defensive structure. And that as they say, is that – though I think we can safely say that the History Jar will be sporadically peppered with images of grassy knolls and hummocks purporting to be Norman mottes.
So far as Pilsbury Castle is concerned, it is possible that the castle was used as a hunting lodge during later times but it ceased to be a centre of administration after Hartington received its market charter in 1203 from King John.
Hart, C.R., 1981, The North Derbyshire Archaeological Survey to AD1500 (Derbyshire Archaeological Trust)
Millward, R. and Robinson, A., 1975, The Peak District (London: Eyre Methuen) p. 115, 121-2