From the Archives

From the Archives: The Brays

We know a great deal of the phases of development of Kenilworth Castle itself, but what of its enigmatic counterpart known as The Brays? Was it a hastily constructed rampart thrown together as a result of the Siege of 1266? Was it constructed earlier during the reign of King John? Or does it in fact pre-date the Castle altogether and date from Anglo-Saxon times, the Roman era or even earlier?

Norman Stevens ponders these very questions, in an article first published in the 2010 edition of Society’s yearly publication Kenilworth History:

The Brays

by Norman Stevens

That Kenilworth had a Roman settlement within it or in the immediate vicinity cannot be doubted. The tile kilns at Cherry Orchard and Chase Wood underline that, as do the Roman tiles to be found associated with the Abbey, in what little is left of the visible structure and in the debris washed into the 12th century access shaft of the water conduit running from near the Queen & Castle to the Abbey. A ground-penetrating radar trace of an underground continuous level beside the Abbey ruins suggests a building layer years before the Abbey.

Roman artefacts found in the Cherry Orchard Dig of 1964
Roman artefacts found in the Cherry Orchard Dig of 1964

Further, the settlement known as “Chesford” clearly has a Roman origin, and an examination of the topography shows possibly one or two platforms above the River Avon to the east of Chesford Bridge in the contiguous fields there, beyond the clearly defined hollow-way that at one time was the access to the ford itself. An investigation of the site is well over-due.

A quotation from a principal commentator on the Anglo-Saxon (A-S) development of England, Warwick Rodwell, ties the Roman presence in Kenilworth with a later Anglo-Saxon feature. He says: “There are . . . many instances of Anglo-Saxon manor houses emerging on or close to the sites of Roman villas and farmsteads . . .” “. . . it is fundamental to the history and topography of the late Saxon and mediaeval country-side.” p14 col. 1

He goes further: “. . . . the villa was the central point of an estate, the residence of authority, and it was that authority which could and did embrace Christianity, giving rise to the construction of a private estate church which formed an integral part of the contemporary suite of manorial buildings. As so often happened, that church became parochial in the tenth or eleventh century.” p15 col. 1. [Churches in the Landscape: Aspects of Topography and Planning, Studies in Late Anglo-Saxon Settlement. Ed. Margaret L. Faull. Oxford University Department for External Studies. 1984]

I have argued before that the pair of stone cottages on Castle Green, Nos. 12 & 13, is, in fact, a Saxon church [Kenilworth History 2001-2, KHAS, published annually]. Then, I claimed the mass dial, arrow-sharpening marks, the double plinth, the squint, the orientation, and the recorded fact that there was a church/chapel in Kenilworth before S. Nicholas’ Church, made it quite clear that this was a very early church. Since that article, I have had the privilege, thanks to the present incumbent, of measuring the thickness of the walls, and these, at just under 30 inches, (75 cms) are typical of a Saxon church, and atypical of a Norman one, which was very rarely less than three feet.

No's 12 & 13 Castle Green - a Saxon church?
No’s 12 & 13 Castle Green – a Saxon church?

We have to accept, if all this is true, that Kenilworth was a stable Anglo-Saxon community in the early 1100s, already recorded at Domesday in 1086. At the moment, all we have is the Castle Green “church”. There is not a lot of evidence otherwise of Anglo-Saxon presence in the town, although there is plenty around, nonetheless. Perhaps the nearest most significant is Blacklow, where the Society found a high-status A-S burial and associated grave goods in the course of a rescue dig in 1971-2.

The Avon valley, generally, has evidence of A-S presence, as one might expect. One might almost ask “why not?” And by far the most important is Warwick itself, a major A-S site. It would appear to have enjoyed some sort of defensive bank and ditch arrangement appropriate to its importance, but much of that has been subsumed by the major works applied since the Conquest.

Tamworth, further north, enjoyed a similar treatment, and, as a Saxon “burh”, or burgh, was well fortified, and, as Warwick, later over-whelmed by Norman work.

As I have argued before [KH1994] Kenilworth stands on a drovers’ road, of what antiquity we don’t know, although these were in use for centuries. It is near a significant crossing of the Avon, and is a nodal centre for a number of ancient trackways. It is not very far, in fact, from Watling Street, which became the boundary between A-S Wessex/Mercia and the Danelaw. So there is some reason to suppose that it had an importance which is not reflected in theDomesday entry which speaks of a community of some seventy souls.

All this is merely a preliminary to the question: what is “The Brays”? Considerable research, examination and thought may provide an answer. To the best of our knowledge, no concentrated, even superficial, work has ever been carried out on the area other than an English Heritage (EH) survey of levels. In his article on the 1563 Survey of the Castle in EH Historical Review, Vol 3, 2008, Nicholas A D Molyneux speaks of ‘a massive earthwork enclosure of uncertain date’. The Castle as we know it is such an iconic structure that it absorbs all our attention, and we fail to address a remarkable, but very knocked about, feature right alongside it.

The Brays
Aerial view of The Brays, courtesy of Bing Maps

From the top of the banks to the bottom of the ditches it is 30 feet (Keith Croucher’s otherwise excellent monitory article in KH2002-3 suffered a regrettable misprint which states 25 metres). This is not, then, an insignificant earthwork. The extensive works that clearly once existed in the area of the Brays will have been executed either in an emergency, or at a time when such things were normal and could be achieved within the every day routine. If the former, was it Geoffrey de Clinton, newly arrived in an unknown environment, providing himself a secure earthwork camp he could use as a base for building the castle that Henry I had commissioned? If the latter, was it an A-S ‘burh’, like Warwick, built against the threat of the Dane ? On the other hand, however, the earthworks may already have been there. Whenever they were built, there were considerable resources available, either of manpower or time.

Brays Entrance
The entrance to The Brays from Castle Road

It stands at the end of a tongue of land sloping down towards a confluence of three streams, and, as we have noted, commanded several established routes through the countryside. No dating evidence has ever been found, and, we suspect, ever been looked for, to determine when these substantial earthworks were made. They are the size of Helmsley Castle’s, Castle Acre’s, and Castle Rising’s. But, and it is a big ‘but’, they are a funny shape. No Norman motte and bailey ever had a perimeter as irregular as this. An examination of Iron Age and Neolithic forts, contour-hugging, shows a much closer parallel. A-S towns, like Wareham, were not as regular as the Norman fortifications. Roman fortifications were utterly and predictably regular, so these are not Roman.

Where are we to place them in the time scale? We can see that they were much curtailed and reduced later. Who did that ? King John, in building his dam to heighten the Mere ? Were they really erected against the 1266 siege, complete with walls, and with the towers that the 1925 Ordnance Survey map shows ? In that short time? That is the received wisdom, but a walk up the lane towards Grounds Farm shows us that the powerful trebuchets of the 13th Century would have caused havoc, as the fortification is downhill from there. Or were the changes made by John or Robert Dudley redesigning the site, landscaping it to the ideas of their day ?

The Brays as seen from Castle Grove
The Brays as seen from Castle Grove

Ultimately, we are forced back to saying that “The Brays” is an enigma. We have found no detailed research work on it as yet, and (apart from a recent unrevealing trench dug along the road to lay cables) no excavation or even soil-sampling to establish either the actual depth of the ditches, or the presence of stone where the mediaeval walls and those ‘Towers’ shown on the 1925 Ordnance Survey sheets were supposed to be. The iconic presence of the Castle, as we and the rest of the world knows it, is our enemy ! All eyes are on that : the Brays is where you park your car !

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