Shell-keeps re-visited: the bailey on the motte?

Shell-keeps re-visited: the bailey on the motte?

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Shell-keeps re-visited: the bailey on the motte?

By Robert Higham

Published Online by the Castle Studies Group (2015)

Abstract: Scholarly attention was first paid to the sorts of castle discussed here in the later 18th century. The “shellkeep” as a particular category has been accepted in academic discussion since its promotion as a medieval design by G.T. Clark in the later 19th century. Major works on castles by Ella Armitage and A. Hamilton Thompson (both in 1912) made interesting observations on shell-keeps. St John Hope published Windsor Castle, which has a major example of the type, a year later (1913). Twenty years on, Sidney Toy published several case-studies in south-west England (1933). The “shell-keep” has been with us ever since. While many sorts of castles have been subject to new interpretation in the last twenty years, the shell-keep has not figured in this revisionism. This essay revisits the historiography, history and archaeology of shell-keeps, offering a critique both of past applications of the term and of the sites themselves. It is suggested:

● that the value of the ”shell-keep” category has been reduced by a lack of clarity about essential characteristics, leading to a loose application of the term for too wide a variety of sites.

● that ring-walls built on motte-tops to enclose freestanding donjon structures should be seen as a separate form;

● that multi-lobed towers built on motte-tops should be seen as a separate form; that truly circular forms (not on mottes) should be seen as a separate form;

● that the term “shell-keep” should be reserved for mottes with structures built against or integrated with their surrounding wall so as to leave an open, central space with inward-looking accommodation;

● that, defined in this way, they are found primarily in England, normally built by wealthy castle owners on larger mottes;

● that, despite an early (and sometimes repeated) view of shell-keeps as widespread and numerous, when defined thus it appears that this was not so;

● that, despite the influential idea of shell-keeps as transformations into masonry of originally timber-built structures, this putative transformation cannot be demonstrated archaeologically or historically;

● that, in contrast, the analogy of the shell-keep with the domestic and defensive planning of some early baileys – an idea first tentatively suggested more than a century ago – provides a more convincing model of development.



  1. Oedipus

    Bravo, brilliant phrase and timely

  2. Mazurisar

    Just dare to do it one more time!

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