800-year-old Norman motte uncovered at Mount Stewart

New Norman motte dating back 800 years is revealed at Mount Stewart
Published : 01 Dec 2017

National Trust rangers were joined by over 100 volunteers who contributed 850 volunteer hours to rescue the late 12th century Norman motte from beneath dense scrubby woodland at Mount Stewart Demesne on the shore of Strangford Lough, County Down.

The monument sits in a part of the estate which was acquired by us three years ago. We then embarked on a project to uncover the true scale of the motte as our regional archaeologist Malachy Conway explains:

‘There are several records of visits being made to the motte to inspect it going back to the 1950s and the observation was made that the overgrown shrubbery and invasive trees were a developing threat to the condition of the monument.  

 ‘To get a clearer picture of the motte we commissioned LiDAR, a surveying method that uses light in the form of pulsed laser to measure distance from the air and create high resolution digital 3-D maps of the ground. The images revealed an imposing structure that stands nearly eight meters (26ft) tall, with a surrounding ditch nearly five metres wide.

Over 100 volunteers spent 850 hours clearing the site
Over 100 volunteers spent 850 hours clearing the site
Over 100 volunteers spent 850 hours clearing the site

‘An Anglo Norman period motte,” Malachy continues, ‘is a defensive structure, being a large, tall mound; in this case 23 metres in diameters, surrounded by a very deep defensive ditch. Mottes and Motte and Bailey castles were constructed in Ulster following the arrival of John de Courcey and his band of knights in 1177 as they set about capturing land from the native Irish tribes and petty kings and began consolidating their position in eastern Ulster through the building of these imposing defensive structures. A motte like this would have been seen for miles in the landscape, being a symbol of power and control and this is a remarkably well preserved example.’

A measured survey of the motte was carried out with volunteers from the Ulster Archaeological Society in advance of the clearance work on the invasive trees and scrub which gave tantalising glimpses into the impressive size of the motte. The survey group also undertook historical research into the site and were able to link it to a Robert de Sengelton, who if not actively using the motte, held the land or estate which included the Mount Stewart Motte at its centre in 1333.   

850 hours of volunteering later

A year ago the motte was barely visible due to the dense vegetation and it’s taken a team of volunteer rangers and local corporate volunteers, including Business in the Community groups from Herron Bros, Ulster Bank, CiTi, Fujitsu, Co-Ownership Housing, and InvestNI, over 850 hours to clear the area of shrub and trees.

National Trust area ranger Toby Edwards explains how this recent work will benefit visitors and local wildlife alike: ‘Last year we embarked on a five year vision to open up new walking trails around Mount Stewart Demesne providing quality access to a working countryside landscape and its many natural and human features.

'Six miles of trails are already in place with the area around the motte opening very shortly and we are encouraging visitors to explore these lesser known areas of the estate to discover a very different side to Mount Stewart.’

Creating new opportunities for nature

As well as adding to the visitor experience, the recent work to reveal the motte has many conservation benefits as Toby reveals: ‘Much of the work involved the removal of non-native invasive plant species like laurel and sycamore. Moving forward, the motte will be managed as a woodland glade with new micro habitat opportunities created for solitary and mining bee species, a group that are under huge pressure from habitat loss. We also hope that the glade will benefit many moth and butterfly species from larvae to adult flight stage.’

While access to the monument is off limits to protect the structure, visitors to Mount Stewart will be able to view the motte from the Green walking trail.