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  • Michael Smith, Author, Translator, Printmaker

The motorway motte - Lilbourne castle and mediaeval village, Northamptonshire

Travellers on the M1 motorway just as it joins the M6 at Junction 19 in Northamptonshire may often be too busy to look around them into the countryside at this point but a cursory glance towards the village of Lilbourne reveals a special treat for the castle-lover– a well preserved motte and bailey.

Preserved Mediaeval Landscape

The landscape here is fascinating, still retaining many of its mediaeval features.

The motte and bailey castle lies just to the south of the winding river Avon (across which lies Leicestershire) and watches over the crossing, suitably high above the river to avoid flooding.

All Saints Church, itself an ancient building, nestles close by as would be expected. The land surrounding the settlement also show distinctive traces of mediaeval strip fields. There is also a second motte, approximately half a mile away at nearby Lilbourne Gorse.

This is a special place.

Castle Earthworks

The earthworks themselves comprise a large motte, approximately 30’ high, with a small adjoining bailey. Both are protected by a dry ditch and, to the south east, is a further bailey with more pronounced banks, perhaps 10 feet high from within the bailey itself.

Channels leading into the main defensive ditches suggest that at one point these were provided with water from the adjacent river, although it is difficult to know to what level they were actually flooded.

This second bailey is unusually regular in shape, measuring approximately 120’ square, and is more strongly protected by its banks than those enclosing that next to the motte. The castle ditches towards the church are shallower than those elsewhere; this may reflect their proximity to the road and centuries of run-off from farm vehicles etc.

(Above: The key features of the castle earthworks at Lilbourne, Northamptonshire)

A particularly interesting feature is a shallow depression to the north east of the smaller bailey. Rectangular in shape, this feature was domestic rather than defensive, creating a fishpond connected by water channels to the river and to ditches of the bailey.

Beyond the church, and also below the castle itself, extensive remains of mediaeval strip fields provide a fascinating glimpse of the rural economy of villages during the mediaeval period.

All Saints Church

On the day of my visit, the church was closed but a casual glimpse shows that it was built over many different periods; the round-headed doorway to the chancel may well date to the 12th Century and therefore contiguous with the motte in its prime.

Some of the exterior decorations carry curious carvings which seem to allude to an earlier age than suggested by the architecture itself (see right) and may have been re-used. A fragment of mediaeval glass still preserved in the window at the chancel end hints at this place's former glory.

The bulk of the current building dates from the 13th and 14th Centuries; the Historic England listing (see below) suggests that the interior contains much remaining mediaeval work, both in timber and stone; it is noteworthy that the building itself is listed Grade 1.

Lilbourne today

On a beautiful summer’s evening, the lumps and bumps of Lilbourne seem to glow in the fading light, telling their ancient tale to the traveller whose eye drops upon them.

That said, one local who I spoke to by the lane side was unaware that the earthworks she was looking upon was anything other than a hill. Here was heritage seen and unseen, a history hidden from view.

But if such lack of knowledge of earthworks is entirely excusable, what is not is the destruction wrought upon the landscape by the 1960s obsession with motorways, cars and the tax-burdened conceit of individual freedom. An illusion which persists to this day.

Beautiful to look at in its bucolic ancient setting, the view the other way to the M1 and M6 is anything but. More, the noise of thousands of cars, day and night, year in year out, have left this quaintest and most ancient of villages in a grotesque purgatory of endless sound and night turned day.

While Stonehenge– despite all the advice to the contrary – is curiously able to gain a tunnel to remanufacture a landscape which hasn’t existed for thousands of years, no government minister for one minute is interested in the rights of rural folk of the rest of Britain to a life of silence.

Not for the people of Lilbourne a signed government order in contravention of environmental advice or UNESCO’s badge of world heritage. No one in power, it seems, is interested in heritage that doesn’t make money these days.


Further information about Lilbourne castle and church

  • Historic England Listing for Lilbourne Castle and earthworks - more here

  • Historic England Listing for Lilbourne Church of All Saints - more here

  • BHO (British History Online) entry for Lilbourne - more here

  • Aerial photograph of Lilbourne by Paul R Davis - more here


About the Author

Michael Smith read history and later mediaeval literature and languages at the University of York. He is an historian, printmaker and translator of fourteenth century Middle English poetry.

His illustrated translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was published by Unbound in 2018. His translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure, a poem written during the time of Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke, published in February 2021. He is currently translating the 14th Century romance William and the Werewolf; if you would like to be a named patron of this book, please click here.


Selected images of Lilbourne Castle and Earthworks, Northamptonshire

The photographs below highlight much of the fascinating landscape present at Lilbourne today. The plan of the earthworks is taken from the BHO website (see above); the map itself is from the Victoria County History for Northamptonshire.


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