Castle Hill – In Search of the Knights Hospitaller

Speaker: Mathew Morris

20 February 2018

Mathew Morris from University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) visited to tell us about the community archaeology dig which has been run at Castle Hill in Beaumont Leys.  In 2016 and 2017, Leicester City Council and ULAS conducted the dig as part of the ‘Story of Parks project’, a two-year Heritage Lottery-funded project.  The aims were to increase understanding of the origins and development of Castle Hill with the help of local volunteers, involving 2 weeks on site in 2016 and 2017.

Firstly it was believed Castle Hill might have prehistoric or Roman origins. Later it was thought it could be a medieval estate of the Knights Hospitaller. The land was held by the earls of Leicester until Simon de Montfort granted it to the Knights Hospitaller in the mid-13th century, and it was held by them between c.1240 and 1482.  The Hospitallers were a militant monastic order set up to provide hospitality to and protect pilgrim routes to the Holy Land. Later it became a royal deer park but was disparked by Henry VIII in 1526 into private ownership, with no sign of later occupation until the 19th and 20th century when it was used as a sewage treatment site. Today, it is part of the Castle Hill Country Park and has protection as an ancient monument.

Following a 2015 geophysical survey by ULAS, volunteers were involved in digging 3 trenches in 2016 and 5 in 2017.  Trench 1 included a metalled surface running along the inside of the bank, the bank itself and the ditch and some evidence of an entranceway. Trench 2 unearthed stone kerbing, a land drain and stone surfaces that may have been a pond. In Trench 3 stone rubble, broken roof slates and medieval pottery were uncovered, and some signs of iron working. In 2017 the first 3 trenches were reopened, and two more dug, trench 3 finding further evidence of the footprint of the building including the paved yard with a stone hearth. Iron slag suggests it was used as a smithy.  In a well, a high water table has preserved wood that was probably timbers from the building. These are being conserved for further examination.

Overall, the finds agree with the dates of the occupation of the site by the Knights Hospitaller. The excavations show that damage from the sewage farm was minimal, with the medieval earthwork very well preserved; the enclosure comprises a large ditch and stone-built bank; inside, at least one building had a slate roof and glazed ridge-tiles, suggesting it was more than a simple farm building, and had more than one use. Pottery finds are consistent with occupation on the site between 1240 and 1484 and there is no evidence of earlier or later occupation, with the site probably being abandoned and demolished in the 15th century.  Much of the excavated material is still being examined and catalogued.  The trenches have been covered but it is planned to make an application for more funding with the hope of returning to the site in 2019. If successful, Mathew promised to return with an update.


For more information on:

The excavation:

The Story of Parks:

Castle Hill Country Park: