Soon after the Norman conquest of England, a wooden motte and bailey castle was built on high ground in the Castleton area of Rochdale, overlooking the River Roch. Who lived in it is not known, in fact much of its history is shrouded in mystery. However, there are some historical records which mention the castle, and part of the earthworks remain today. Before we turn to the castle itself, we’ll look at what might have stood on the imposing site before the Norman fortifications were built.
Possible Pre-Norman Fortifications
There has been speculation that a Saxon castle existed on the site before the Norman one was built. However, the Saxons were not great castle builders; instead, t built fortified settlements known as burhs. There were two types of burhs – either a fortified village settlement or a defendable home of a high status person.
The fortified settlements consisted of a series of outer ditches and wooden ramparts. They would be within easy reach of neighbouring farms. In the Lancashire and Cheshire region, the Saxons used them to consolidate victories as they pushed into the Danelaw area that was held by the Vikings. We know that there were burhs at Runcorn, Thelwall, Manchester and Penwortham (in Preston). These were constructed by King Alfred the Great’s daughter, Aethelflaed and her brother, Edward the Elder. The fortified homes of Saxons rulers live on in local names such as Bury and Pendlebury (‘bury’ being the modern form of ‘burh’).
However, the area the Norman castle was built on is called Castleton. This is definitely a Saxon word, with the ‘ton’ part meaning farmstead. The ‘castle’ part is more intriguing though, as the Saxons often used the word ‘caestre’ to denote an Iron Age fort or Roman fort. This gets corrupted into ‘castle’ or ‘chester’. Examples exist within Lancashire – there is Castle Stede near Lancaster, and Castlesteads at Bury both of which are known Iron Age fort sites. To denote a Roman site, the word becomes ‘chester’ as in Ribchester, and of course Chester in Cheshire.
There is no known Roman activity in central Rochdale, so the mostly likely use of the word Castleton would come from a previous Iron Age fort. In fact, the position of the Norman Castle, high up on a promontory site overlooking a river, is a typical Iron Age fort site.
So what are we looking at here? The site of the Norman castle was probably built on a re-used iron age hillfort. It may well have been a Saxon defended homestead too, although this is not recorded in the Norman Domesday book.
Gamel, the Saxon Thegn
We do know from the Domesday Book that a high status Saxon man lived at Rochdale and owned land, both before the Norman Conquest and afterwards. He was called Gamel and was a thegn. The term thegn means a land-owning freeman who was obliged to fight for the king. There were 21 such men in the Saxon Salford Hundred area, of which Rochdale was a part. During the time of King Edward the Confessor (the last Saxon king the Normans regarded as legitimate) Gamel held two hides of land. A hide was up to 120 acres in size. Gamel was free of all the usual customs and fines normally owed to the king, except for six. These were listed as theft, breaking and entry, highway robbery, breach of the king’s peace, breach of a boundary fixed by a Reeve and combat persisting after an oath has been taken.
After the conquest, the Norman knight Roger of Poitou was given much of the land in Lancashire. The Domesday Book tells us that Gamel still retained two carucates of land (and had held two hides before the conquest). Carucates and hides are broadly similar amounts of land, carucates being a land measure in the Danelaw area and hides being an Anglo-Saxon word. Why the Domesday book should switch from one to the other is not clear, and some sources feel that his land holding had been reduced.
The Norman Motte and Bailey Castle is Built
Sometime after the 1066 conquest, the Norman castle was built. Its not clear when exactly, but if we look at other motte and bailey types in Lancashire, we can get an idea of a likely date. Penwortham was built before 1086, Castle Stede at Hornby 1086, Halton 1092, Lancaster 1093, Clitheroe 1102. (Click on any of the links to take you to our pages on these castles).
We know that Rochdale was a typical motte and bailey castle. The motte was a high steep mound with a wooden castle keep on top. Beneath it was a large flat bailey area that would contain the buildings that supported castle life. These might consist of barracks, stables, a kitchen and stores. The whole construction was protected by a surrounding ramp and ditch. At Rochdale we know that a second ditch was added later to the south and east. The site was naturally protected on its north and east sides by the steep drop of the hill.
The motte stood at the northerly most point of the hill, at the apex of a triangular shaped platform. It was flat topped and had a diameter of 100 feet. To the south of it was the bailey, which was an irregular square measuring 120 feet east to west, and 100 feet north to south.
The site was a strategic one, chosen for its high lookout point. Beneath was the meeting point of the Roch and Spodden rivers, with the River Roch originally flowing around the base of the cliff, some 100 feet below. The castle had a large sheet of water called Castle Mere to the east of it, and a ‘dead water’ known as Twofoldhee to the west. A river crossing point existed on the Roch which was at the ford known as Trefford.
The Norman Landowners of Rochdale
In 1102, Roger de Poitou was deprived of his land after he took part in a failed rebellion against King Henry I, who was William the Conqueror’s youngest son. His estates were taken over by Robert de Lacy and remained with the family for many years. The de Lacys were the Lords of Pontefract, Bowland and Clitheroe. In 1178, John de Lacy became a patron of Stanlow monastery in Cheshire and later de Lacy family members would give successive grants of land in the Castleton and the wider Rochdale area to the abbey. Roger de Lacy (1170-1211) also gave the Rochdale parish church to Stanlow. The family continued to be an influence in the area, with Edmund de Lacy being granted a weekly market charter for Rochdale, which was held every Wednesday. He also received a charter for an annual fair to take place on the feast of St Simon and St Jude, every 28th October. For more on the family and the manor house at Ightenhill see our page here.
The Castle is Abandoned
The Norman motte and bailey castle was abandoned in the early 1200s, and the reason for this is not clear. It continued to be mentioned occasionally in charters and deeds as a landscape feature, but little is known of what state it was in after this date. In 1626, Gabriel Taylor held a home known as Castle Hill on lease from the Duchy of Lancaster on the “reputed site of a castle standing there, but now clean defaced”.
The Castle is re-examined in the 1800s
In the early 1800s, a new turnpike road from Rochdale to Manchester was planned that ran close the castle earthworks, clipping the south-east edge. This involved doing a survey of the remains of the defences. The upper motte and lower bailey areas could still be made out, as could the mounds of earth forming the defensive structure of the south and west sides. It was noted that the north and east sides were naturally inclined, so did not need much addition in the way of earthworks.
The historian Henry Fishwick was aware of this survey and composed his own plan of the castle, and wrote about it in the Transactions of Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society. He published more about what was known of it in his History of Rochdale book, giving us the most complete knowledge to date on it. His detailed drawing is reproduced above.
What Survives Today
Today, the site of the motte and bailey has been levelled and covered in houses. A large square Georgian house sits on the area where the castle once stood. This is Castle Hill House, built in 1820. Part of the earth rampart of the bailey survives and in 1972, a Mr Page, curator of the Rochdale Museum, dug a trench across it. However, he only found pottery dating to the 1800s in it.
The site is still worth seeing, especially in winter when the trees that grow on the surrounding natural steep slopes are bare.
Park on the side street of Manchester Road (just off the A58 through Rochdale, also called Manchester Road). Head up towards the car repair garage on your right. If you look past the garage, up on the hill is Castle Hill House. This can clearly be seen at the edge of the natural cliff, marking the point where the wooden castle keep once stood (although in summer the trees obscure this view). Continue up Manchester Road until you reach the Castle Inn (now permanently closed). Turn right onto Castle Hill Crescent. This steep climb leads you into the bailey area, now covered with houses and bungalows either side. You can walk to the end of the Castle Hill Crescent to view the grand Castle Hill House (private residence) which marks the position of the motte. The large mature trees that surround it mark the steep sides where the hill drops away to give the site its natural defence.
Site visited by A. Bowden 2020
To find on Google Maps type in ‘Castle Hill Crescent Rochdale’.
Park on the side road called Manchester Road (off the A58 main Manchester Road). To view the castle from the bottom of the site, or from where the motte and bailey was, follow the above instructions. The castle is at grid reference 8912 1286 (on OS and A-Z maps).
Nearby, just a short drive away
A little further afield
Townships: Castleton, in A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 5, ed. William Farrer and J Brownbill (London, 1911), pp. 201-206. British History Online
british-history.ac.uk/vch/lancs/vol5/pp201-206 [accessed 21 February 2020
Rochdale Castle pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=45159
Domesday Book: Cheshire, Edited by Philip Morgan (1978) Phillimore. (Lancashire did not exist as a separate county at the time of Domesday).
Lancashire Castles and Towers, Leslie Irving Gibson (1977) Dalesman Books
A Frontier Landscape: The North West in the Middle Ages, Nick Higham (2004) Windgather Press