St Michaels Hill, Montacute

The phone rang today… Was I on my way?

Where? …St Michael’s Hill…. It doesn’t feel good when you’re supposed to be somewhere.. and aren’t.

A speedy trip along the A303 to Montacute. Parked my car on the dirt track leading to the hill and across the grass field to the gate beside the notice board with its reconstruction of a Norman Castle.

The stile and notice board showing an artist's reconstruction of the Norman castle.

The stile and notice board showing an artist’s reconstruction of the Norman castle.

I reached the top of the hill, caught my breath and apologised. I hoped that they would forgive me for arriving so late and began to talk about this special place (Usually I bring pictures, I hope this blog makes up for that a bit)

The National Trust does own some spectacular hill tops and St Michaels on the Montacute Estate is a good example. The rain cleared while we were on the summit and the views across the Somerset countryside stretched gin clear for many miles in all directions.

The 18th century prospect tower built on the flat summit of St Michael's Hill with its views out across the Somerset landscape.

The 18th century prospect tower built on the flat summit of St Michael’s Hill with its views out across the Somerset landscape.

Such a vantage point must have been valued in pre-Saxon times. The Saxons found a stone cross here which they venerated as a sacred Christian relic. The Normans took the place over in 1066 and decided to build a castle here and renamed the place the steep hill (Mons Acutus). The locals were angered by this lack of respect for a holy place and attacked the new castle …but their revolt failed.

The castle was not needed for long and in 1102 a monastery was founded at the bottom of the hill, the castle was cleared and a chapel built there. It was dedicated to St Michael the archangel, leader of the heavenly host, often the saint chosen for hill top locations.. Glastonbury Tor and St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall are other examples.

The 18th century prospect tower over the footings of the medieval chapel of St Michael.

The 18th century prospect tower over the footings of the medieval chapel of St Michael.

The chapel stayed there until at least 1630.. even after the priory was put out of action in 1538, during Henry VIII’s ‘Dissolution’ of the monasteries.

About 1600, the Phelip’s family (who had purchased the monastic land from the crown) built the magnificent Montacute House out of the local golden-coloured Ham stone. It was built next to the village reusing much of the stone from the ruined monastery which in its day had taken materials from the castle.

By 1760, the hill was valued as an ‘eye-catcher’ for the house.. something to look up to. A spiral track lined with trees was designed to enable easy access to the top of the hill. Here they built a prospect tower and above its door, in Ancient Greek, they inscribed the word ‘periscope’. You can still climb up the tower’s stone spiral stair to the top.

The view from the lower bailey showing the rampart and the steep slope up to the summit and the 1760 prospect tower.

The view from the lower bailey showing the rampart and the steep slope up to the summit and the 1760 prospect tower.

We walked down the hill to the middle castle ward and looked at the moss covered wall hidden by trees marking the terrace edge. We considered the massive amount of work needed to re-profile the hill, probably using conscripted Saxon labour.

Today’s conservation management of the hill is a battle with trees and scrub. In the 1940s the hill was grass covered and grazed by sheep but grazing stopped and it became overgrown with scrub woodland. George the ranger has worked hard with his team of volunteers, it looks good this year but needs a few cattle up there in the Spring to keep the regrowth down.

St Michael's Hill in the 1940s when the hill was grass covered and the 'hat-like' shape of the hill was clear. The timber Norman keep once stood on the summit the perimeter defended by palisades. The stables, garrison and store buildings would have been on the lower terrace. Montacute House is middle left in the photo. The priory site is centre right in the field right of the parish church.

St Michael’s Hill in the 1940s when the hill was grass covered and the ‘hat-like’ shape of the hill was clear. The timber Norman keep once stood on the summit the perimeter defended by palisades. The stables, garrison and store buildings would have been on the lower terrace. Montacute House is middle left in the photo. The priory site is centre right in the field right of the parish church.

There has been very little archaeological excavation to help understand the massive earthworks created over 900 years ago, but in 2010 I carried out a watching brief when a new water trough was installed on the hill. I noticed that burrowing animals had dug into the broad lower terrace. It’s always worth looking in mole hills and rabbit burrows. In the disturbed soil was some of the rubbish the Norman garrison had left behind.. fragments of cooking pots and splinters of animal bone, left-overs from their meals.

Norman pottery uncovered by rabbits burrowing into St Michael's Hill

Norman pottery uncovered by rabbits burrowing into St Michael’s Hill

Such scraps enable you to touch the past and to realise that there is still so much more that can be learned about this place.

9 thoughts on “St Michaels Hill, Montacute

  1. Pingback: All quiet? | Lufton Project

  2. Was at top of St Michael’s Hill this morning 2.2.15. Its been my fourth time in 10yrs but I didn’t climb the steps this time.

  3. Pingback: The England I love. Montacute

  4. I am doing research on the late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman period, specifically, early Norman settlement, and this site with its Norman history going back to 1066, is very helpful.
    I appreciate the detail on Anglo-Saxon and then Norman occupation. I plan to visit England
    this spring and visit the site. Thank you.

  5. 118081 National Importance
    Site of Medieval Motte and Bailey Castle at Montacute
    ST49351699 SM24104
    Description: St Michael’s Hill is an isolated natural knoll which has been artificially sculpted to create impressive earthworks. A substantial conical motte was formed on the upper part of the hill. It is flanked on the western side by a strong bank and ditch. It is almost completely enclosed by a broad terrace at its base, about halfway up the knoll. The origin and function of this terrace are unclear but it may have been created to form an annular bailey. There is a substantial horseshoe-shaped bailey on the southeastern side of the knoll with a deep outer ditch and a partial inner bank, which cut across the line of the broad terrace. Unusually very little of the interior of the bailey is level. It is crossed by four narrow terraces along the slopes (118275). The earthworks were surveyed by English Heritage in April 2000 and a report published (Fletcher 2000).
    The castle is the earliest known structure on the summit of St Michael’s Hill, built after the Norman Conquest by Robert, Count of Mortain, by 1086. There are some indications that the hill may have been occupied before the Norman Conquest (Aston and Leech 1977, 104; Toulmin Smith 1964, 157–8), but there is no definite evidence for buildings pre-dating the castle. Together with Dunster, the castle is one of only two Somerset castles mentioned in the Domesday Book (Aston 1982, 123). It is thought that the castle may have been built of stone, but this would be very unusual for such an early castle. A manuscript from Waltham Abbey records the legend of the finding of a miraculous cross buried on top of St Michael’s Hill, which Tovi, a local lord, took to Waltham, Essex (Dean 1975, Watkiss and Chibnall, 1994). A church was built to house the cross and gave rise to Waltham Abbey. The cross continued to work miracles, although it failed to prevent the Normans winning the Battle of Hastings, where apparently “holy cross” was invoked as a battle cry. It is thought that the siting of the Norman Castle at Montacute on the findspot of the cross may have been a deliberate insult to the defeated English (Dunning 1974, 212). The castle was besieged briefly in 1086, during an English revolt (Page 1911, 180), the records of which give the first firm evidence of buildings on the summit of the hill, but presumably the castle quickly lost its strategic importance because it was given to the nearby Montacute Priory in c. 1102 (Adkins and Adkins 1989, 125).
    Donne’s 1774 Estate Map shows a tree-lined spiralling path winding up to the summit of St Michael’s Hill, with a bower on the south side.

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