Secluded among the trees, by the side of the cenotaph, at the bottom of Doncaster Road, Mexborough, lays a park, containing a site so ancient that its age has been lost in antiquity. The site is that of Castle Hills, the location of Mexborough Castle. But let us not think of the castles of Arthurian Legend, with stone towers and battlements, damsels in distress and knights in armour, for our castle pre-dates any of this.
From evidence discovered during archaeological excavations on similar sites, the castle may have resembled a double mounded earthwork with wooden fortifications, into which the inhabitants of Mexborough, and their animals, could shelter from danger, and as the River Don was a boundary between two warring kingdoms the danger was very real indeed. It was strategically placed to guard the crossings over the River Don to be found here, these were known as Strafford Sands, Nether Ford, and Mexborough Ferry, and a string of castles was placed along the banks of the river.
This is the oldest, visible, man-made structure in the old parish of Mexborough, but as yet we have neglected to cover it in our monthly ventures into the vast history of this area. This month, therefore, I wish to set before you a compilation of items discovered on the subject.
Castle Hills, Mexborough. C1060 - 1080
The first extract comes from one of the small booklets which began to be written by Mr. Leonard Harrop in c1890, which was inherited by your society from his nephew, Mr. Watson, and is now to be found within our archives. These works majors on the history of St. John the Baptist Parish Church at Mexborough, but also to be discovered, little gems like the following concerning Castle Hills.
In an article from the pen of Ella S. Armitage which appeared in the Mexbro Parish Church Magazine of August 1900. We gather that it was first built as earthworks and that we have here one of the early castles which the Norman Conquerors built to establish their hold on England. These castles consisted of two parts, the citadel and the outer court.
The citadel or motte was a small hill; sometimes it was thrown up artificially, as it appears to be at Mexborough or sometimes a natural hill was used and was scarped and made steeper or heightened if necessary. On this hill was placed a wooden tower surrounded by a stockade. In the Bayeux Tapestry, which was considered by the late Dr. Freeman, to be one of the most valuable documents relating to the Norman Conquest, there is a picture of the soldiers of Duke William engaged in throwing up an artificial hillock like the one at Mexborough and the inscription above the picture is He commands that they dig a castle". The towers and walls which were built upon these mottes must have been of wood in the first instance, because structures of stone could not be placed on freshly heaped earth. The motte at Mexborough is a very small one and looks as though it could never have held anything larger than a very small tower. It may however, have silted down considerably from its former size. Many mottes were large enough to contain not merely a tower, but a small courtyard in the summit. Probably Mexborough was never as important a castle as Conisbrough.
Like Laughton, Bradfield and Tickhill it formed a part of the vast estates of Robert de Busli, a Roman Noble. At each of the places mentioned there are earthworks similar to those at Mexborough, and we may infer that those at Laughton, Mexborough and Bradfield were thrown up for the protection of Robert de Busli's Norman seneschals.
But Tickhill was his own residence and therefore it grew afterwards into a splendid castle.
Mexborough, probably never had any stone buildings on its earthworks, though it would be rash to make this statement without reserve, for excavations often lay bare foundations of which no trace was visible on the surface. It is not improbable that Mexborough ceased to be occupied as a castle and fell into decay at the time when Henry II rigorously repressed the right of private castles building and took all the castles of England into his own hands.
The average area of an early Norman Castle was about three acres; Mexborough's including its banks and ditches scarcely covers more than two acres. Mexborough was however, the seat, according to Hunter, of the Court of the Wapentake of Stafford, which would doubtless be held within this castle. It was the tendency of feudal castles, as their owners increased in wealth and importance, to grow, by adding new wards or enclosures to the old ones, and we see this tendency showing itself at Mexborough though it was early nipped in the bud.
A second small bailey was evidently annexed to the west of the larger one. This may have been for the safety of the herds and flocks belonging to the manor.
It remains still an interesting earthwork and as an open space for the people it will contribute to the modern necessities of life. What could be more suitable than that this monument of Norman aggression and tyranny should become the recreation ground of the English inhabitants, and that the children should play where once the proud baron mounted his charger, or where his wooden tower once stood to keep a sharp look out on the discontented people of the Don Valley.
Discontent has gone and with contentment in its place it is fitting that the old scene of aggression should become the home of happiness.
Extract Taken From 'Memorials of Old Mexboro' by William J.J. Glassby — 1893
He further describes that at Mexborough as an elliptical area surrounded by a high mound of earth and a conical tumulus rises near one of the foci. The tumulus is so placed that a considerable portion of it is within the mound, there are also appearances of an out-work beyond the trench.
This earthwork was no doubt constructed to form a protection to the passage over the Don at this place.
Here, close by, is Stafford Sands where the Wapentake — from the Anglo-Saxon Woepon —weapon, tak — to touch — of Stafford and Tickhill was held.
This Wapentake was the court of the Lord of the honour of Tickhill, the tenants and vassals assembling at this place twice a year swear allegiance, each one severally touching the spear held by their lord, as a token of fealty.
The castle hill rises at the eastern extremity of the town by the river, in many respects resembling the Castle of Conisbrough. The mention of castle hill here raises a question of interest. Dodsworth, the eminent collector of information relating to Yorkshire, writing concerning the Don describes the river passing "Mexborough where hath a castle". Glassby then goes on to tell of an interesting story concerning the castle, he states: The original founders of Conisbro' Castle intended building the fortress at Mexboro, but some perverse elves always came by night and transplanted the materials to their present site at Conisbro'.
Nevertheless, it is most probable that at some time a castle defiantly reared its towering battlements on this spot.
Glassby then quotes from John Wainwright who wrote in 1829:
"Several other similar edifices formerly reared their crests on the banks of the Don, but that at Conisbro' only escaped destruction. The sites of all of them arte traditionally pointed out, although not one stone of the structures can now be identified."
Extracts From Hunter's South Yorkshire - 1828
We find near the village of Mexborough one of those ancient fortified hills of which we have other specimens a Bradfield, Wincobank, Laughton, Conisbrough, and Tickhill. The construction is in all nearly the same; an elliptical area is surrounded by a high mound of earth, and a conical tumulus rise near the foci. This work at Mexborough is of greater magnitude than similar works at Bradfield and Wincobank. The area also approaches more nearly to the circle than in those works, or in the works at Conisbrough or Tickhill. The tumulus is so placed that a considerable portion of it is without the mound. There are also appearances of an outwork beyond the trench, which I do not remember to have observed in any other work of its class. The most probable supposition concerning all these works is that they belong to the Brigantian era. This is, however, a point which no indications, either in the form of the works themselves, or
in the general history of this district, are sufficient to determine.
But by whatever people it was constructed, one object in the forming of so strong a work at this place was doubtless to afford protection to the passage over the River Don at this place. Here is the Strait Ford, Strafford, still remembered in the name of Strafford-sands, given to some low lying lands near Mexborough, whence the wapentake derives its ancient name. At this central spot the assemblies of the men of the wapentake must have been held, and if we may be allowed to carry back those assemblies to so remote an era, they might also require the protection which such a work would afford. The wapentake court is no longer held, but as late as the reign of Edward I I find reference to the holding of it in this place.
Rotherham by John Guest — 1879
We visited the earthworks commonly known as Castle Hills, which are reputed to be Roman. We consider them to be of British origin, as they want the regularity of the genuine Roman Camp. These earthworks consist of a lofty mound, which might be used as an observation or watch-tower; also of a capacious camp surrounded by a deep ditch, and some earthworks. Mexborough Castle is in a grass field, on the right side of the road which leads from Mexborough to the new colliery village of Denaby Main.
Other Useful Information Concerning the Castle
Sale of the Site. On 18`h July 1900 an article appeared in the Mexborough and Swinton Times informing readers that For Sale Boards were to be seen on Castle Hills. The writer stated that it would make a perfect situation for a park.
When Castle Hills was Donation to Mexborough. In celebration of the birth of a son and heir, Mr. F.J.O. Montagu has presented to Mexborough the historic Castle Hills for use for ever as a recreation ground. Taken from the Mexborough & Swinton Times 18th July 1908.
When the War Memorial was Unveiled. This Red Granite Cenotaph was erected on Castle Hills, at a cost of £579. It was unveiled at 3.00p.m. on Saturday llth November 1922 by Brigadier-General Sir Alington Bewicke Copley, K.B.E. C.B. following a parade that commenced from Bank Street led by the Mexborough Military Band.