Everyone likes castles, right? They’re one of the things that make the medieval period what it is in many people’s eyes. Of course, not every castle looks like Bodiam (yes, that one that’s on the cover of pretty much EVERY book to do with castles or medieval England) or, to pick one I visited not all that long ago, Warkworth in Northumberland…
Many medieval castles lack any (above-ground) masonry remnants and instead exist as earthworks – and many others nowadays have little or nothing whatsoever to show for themselves on the ground. But they can be remembered in other ways: in documents, for example, or in a place-name. A few years ago, I spotted a trio of field-names that looked to me as if they could denote the site of a lost castle in the Surrey countryside. Well, to be accurate, I thought they might represent either a later medieval castle or an earlier, Anglo-Saxon-period fortified/defensible centre. I tinkered with the possibility for a little bit, trying to understand which might be the more likely explanation, but didn’t take it very far and soon moved on to something else.
In recent months, I’ve had cause to revisit the matter and dedicate more attention to it, because a significant chunk of my time has been spent writing and now revising a research article on the burh or stronghold of (to) Escingum, i.e. Eashing, just outside Godalming in south-west Surrey. The primary purpose of the article is/will be to critically evaluate the site of the burh that was first suggested in a note published by Fred Aldsworth and David Hill in 1971, and has been accepted by all others who have written on the matter subsequently. It’s not that the original note and the contributions that followed do not make a solid case for the site in question, but a quarter of a century later David Hill himself wrote that the identification was ‘less convincing’ than others made in relation to different “lost” Burghal Hidage strongholds, which suggested to me that there’s reason to look at the evidence in a fresh, 21st-century light.
I’ve blogged previously about the main “new” piece of evidence I wish to bring to the table through my article (in fact, I have since discovered multiple earlier and later occurrences of that particular field-name) but there are other elements to the analysis besides. One of these was checking that there was not a more credible burghal site awaiting re-identification in the immediate surroundings of the present-day Eashing hamlets. In the end, I identified three possible alternative sites, one of which being the field-name cluster that implies the former existence of a castle.
The anonymous reviewers of my article draft quite rightly commented that what I wrote was overkill in view of the fact that none of my three alternatives comes anywhere near to being as credible as the one suggested by Aldsworth and Hill – albeit Nicholas Brooks seems to have been the first to come up with the idea, but that’s another story… Most of the words I wrote about this trio have been excised from the revised text, but I felt some of them merited presenting here as a standalone piece that shows the benefits of paying close attention to historic name-forms (not that I didn’t write about this very topic at the very end of last year). As for the other two candidate sites, well, you’ll just have to wait until the finished article is published; not this year as I’d hoped, but next year or the year after (else you should have come to the talk I gave about it back in February!).
The fields and field-names I want to focus on here were situated in the vicinity of Oxenford, approximately one mile to the south-west of the Eashing hamlets in the neighbouring parish of Witley. (Their sites are largely free from later development but their boundaries have been largely erased, hence why I don’t refer to them in the present tense.) Oxenford is a small sub-parochial place that first emerges in the historical record in the 12th century as a property of Waverley Abbey, located a few miles further west. In a document of appendices to a 2010 article entitled ‘The home estate, granges and smaller properties of Waverley Abbey’, Mark Service reported the field-names Castle Field, Castle Field Mead and Castlefield Row from the tithe apportionment for Witley, shown on the accompanying map in a cluster south of Elstead Road close to Oxenford Grange (S29, S31; both the apportionment of 1844 and map of 1840 are kept at the Surrey History Centre, catalogued as respectively MIL/10/1 and 864/1/135).
This trio of abutting fields were positioned at and just beyond the eastern end of a low outcrop of Sandgate Beds sandstone on the southern edge of the Wey floodplain, adjacent to a small tributary stream. This is not a site of great natural defensibility, but the field-names would seem to point to the former presence of a fortification (albeit not necessarily one of medieval origin; the district of Castlefield in Manchester takes its name from early recognition of the remains of the Roman fort of Mamucium). The first half of the name would appear to represent OE castel or ME castēl, ‘castle’, which got me thinking about a curious reference made by John Aubrey on page 40 of the third volume of his Natural History and Antiquities of the County of Surrey, written in the late 17th century but revised and published in 1718:
‘West of Oxenford, near the Heath, is a round artificial Hill or Barrow.’
There is no such feature visible in the approximate location today. But, bearing in mind the relative proximity of Castle Field and its namesakes, might it be possible that this round artificial hill was a motte, and that, instead of West, Aubrey meant South? I’ll readily admit that I’m forever getting my directions muddled up in writing, and that south of the fields lay Bagmoor Common, now a heathland nature reserve. Nonetheless, it’s a bit of a stretch to accept such a fundamental error (more so given that west of Oxenford is Royal Common, another area of ‘open acid grassland heath’), and to be certain of the credibility of the field-names – let alone that they marked the site of Aubrey’s mound – requires additional, earlier attestations.
A lot of searches of online catalogues led me to identify a number of other historic sources in local archives that I anticipated could contain earlier forms of the same field-name(s). My first port of call was the Surrey History Centre in Woking, and a date with a curious 1812 notebook of tithe information from the Godalming area (G145/BOX64/5). However, there was no trace of any Castle Field/Castlefield-type field-name under Oxenford. What was in evidence, on the other hand, was Causeway Field – not so different in spelling, but very different in meaning.
I felt like I had a game on my hands, and the halftime score was Castle 1, Causeway 1. I kicked off the second half (sorry, but I like this footballing metaphor and I’m sticking with it) by turning my attention to an early 18th-century transcription of information from a lost Oxenford estate map of 1715 (G145/BOX1/1). This yielded what on first impressions was an equivocal, could-stand-for-one-or-the-other name: Causey field. With everything still to play for, I took the match to extra time…
…and a different venue, the small but perfectly formed Local Studies Library of Godalming Museum. Among its small collection of original local deeds (the earliest of which is a gorgeous mid-13th century charter that will be the subject of a future SM post or page) is a 1681 release of a moiety of Oxenford with an appended, seemingly contemporary schedule of lands and properties (PWD/27/2). It’s a somewhat difficult document to read, but after a good deal of peering and getting used to the handwriting, I spotted the name I’d come for – Casey Feild:
By this time, I knew enough on the language side of things to be confident that a spelling like Casey (or Causey) was not some vernacular mangling of Castle, but something consistent with a form of ME caucē(e) < Anglo-French caucié(e), ‘A raised and surfaced road; a highway or causeway’. With what was now getting on for a century and a half of consistent written testimony weighed firmly in favour of this interpretation, I blew the final whistle: 3-1 to Causeway, and a clear winner – if not the one I’d expected when I started!
It must be noted that there are differences between the recorded acreages of these fields, sometimes fluctuating by more than an acre, but these may represent boundary alterations or differences in surveying techniques/competency! Over all, I find it highly probable that they all pertain to the same piece of land later mapped and named as Castle Field. My confidence is also based on the trip I took at the end of January to the Historic England Archive in Swindon, where I looked at aerial photographs of this and the other possible burghal sites. No likely cropmarks were perceptible in any of the images I looked at, which spanned several decades and were taken at different times of the year.
The original reference would appear to be to the causeway that still carries Elstead Road (the B3001) across the apparently-nameless stream that flows north to join the Wey. It is possible that this superseded an earlier crossing that gave its name to Oxenford (an unusually transparent OE name *Oxenaford, “ford of the oxen”), although this may pertain to a crossing of the Wey between Witley and Paper Harow parishes. Indeed, it’s got me wondering if the causeway was perhaps a creation of Waverley Abbey, not only holder of Oxenford but also proposed as the patron of the nearby 13th-century Somerset and Eashing Bridges.
But how to account for the change Cause(wa)y > Castle? If 1812 is treated as a terminus post quem, then it would appear to have occurred remarkably late in time. My preferred explanation currently centres on the fact that the Witley tithe apportionment was created at the same time as the finishing touches were being applied to a new gatehouse and barn at Oxenford (plus an extraordinary arched wellhead for the medicinal Bonville Spring nearby) designed by the great Gothic Revival architect, Augustus Pugin. The building of such unapologetically medievalist structures hereabouts in 1843-44 (according to pages 12-14 of Christopher Budgen’s West Surrey Architecture, 1840-2000; The Pugin Society attribute the farm buildings to the year 1841) may have been the spur for a similar intervention in the surrounding toponymy. Could it be that, as a counterpoint to the lavish ecclesiastical stylings of Pugin’s new edifices, someone was inspired to reanalyse the name of Causeway Field and its smaller neighbours as something altogether more estimable and befitting of (neo-)medieval Oxenford?