Athlumney motte is a grass-covered mound of earth, on which stood a wooden defensive structure, erected by the first Anglo-Norman settlers in the late twelfth century. This was an earthwork castle.
Athlumney motte is located in the townland of Athlumney, civil parish of Athlumney in county Meath.
The motte is located on the south or right side of the river Boyne. On the opposite side of the river is the town of Navan which was established in medieval times. The motte is located in a green area now surrounded by modern housing on three sides and by the river Boyne on the fourth.
The river Boyne acted as a barrier and a line of defence for the Anglo-Normans. The motte protected the ford, a crossing point on the river. The siting of the motte on the riverbank on high ground, well above the river, gave it good defensive characteristics and commanding views of the opposite riverbank and river valley.
The motte is a roughly circular mound of earth artificially raised on the bank of the river. The flat summit is also roughly circular. There is a notch on the eastern summit rim where a cow track reaches the top.
The motte has a diameter at the base of 31.5 m and is 5.5 m high and the summit has a diameter of 11.5 m.
The top is quarried with a hole of two metres in depth (Plate 5). This quarrying was presumably carried out by treasure hunters who thought the mound was a passage grave or burial site.
The sides are steep with the western side of the motte joining the riverbank, thereby adding to its height above the river and increasing its defensive characteristics. The surface of the mound is uneven. There are the stumps of two substantial trees on the mound with a number of small bushes on the sides of the mound.
There is a trace of a fosse on the northside but there is also a field boundary close to the motte at this location so it may be part of the field boundary rather than a medieval fosse.
The motte appears to be made of earth. A motte at Galtrim, 15 kilometres to the south, was found to be constructed from fine-grained soil in sub-horizontal compacted layers.[i] Some mottes were adapted from ringforts and others were adapted from natural features such as moraines. Navan motte is likely to have been adapted from a gravel hill. The Bayeux Tapestry depicts a motte being constructed using layers of earth but when it was excavated it was discovered to be composed of sand.[ii]
Bayeux Tapestry – Construction of a Motte
The motte forms part of a complex of archaeological remains. It is the earliest surviving monument in the complex and the surviving monuments in the vicinity date to later periods.
The place name ‘Ath Luimnigh’ meaning the ford of the bare spot of land[iii] and the uncovering of a souterrain on the west bank suggest that this area was guarded or occupied before the Anglo-Normans arrived.[iv]
Associated settlement include a nearby fifteenth century church (Plate 6) and a tower house. A church is recorded at Athlumney as early as 1233.[v] Parish churches are seen as marking manorial centres.[vi] A motte was a well-defended fortress capable of withstanding attack – most castles also functioned as private residences and administrative centres so the motte was the centre for the manor of Athlumney. Athlumney castle is a fifteenth century three storey tower with projecting corner towers.[vii] Attached to the south is a large seventeenth century three storey, four bay stone house.[viii]
The earthen mound at Athlumney would have been surmounted by a wooden tower and the circumference would have been defended by a wooden palisade. There is possible evidence for a bailey at Athlumney.[ix] A bailey was at the forecourt of the mound and formed an enclosure within which the retainers and the horses sheltered and the lord’s hall was often located. The presence of a bailey can distinguish a motte from a ringfort – 45% of mottes had baileys[x]
A contemporary visitor’s eye viewed them as timber castles [xi] so the top of the mound would have been surmounted with a timber palisade.
The sides of the motte at Athlumney would have steeper sides and the slopes of the motte may have been revetted with planks or stone slabs to make climbing more difficult.[xii] Weapon pits and the remains of timber palisades are the most common features of mottes in Ireland but there is no evidence for weapon pits at Athlumney.[xiii]
Very few mottes in Ireland have been excavated – at most sixteen.[xiv] D. Waterman uncovered the remains of a house and wooden tower on the summit of the mound at Lismahon, Co. Down.[xv] Excavations at Lurgenkeel, Co Louth, also produced traces of a wooden tower surrounded by a palisade.[xvi] Evidence of domestic life on the summit of mottes has been found in very few instances[xvii] but these mottes were private residences and not just military fortresses.[xviii] Athlumney was a settlement site and the centre of a manor so the lord must have had his accommodation nearby, possibly in a bailey of the motte. Mottes were defensive structure and were often located at the centres of seigneurial manors which acted as the basis of the initial colonisation.[xix] A case has been made for the continuation of use of mottes up until the fifteenth century.[xx]
It is difficult to accurately date the construction of the motte at Athlumney but using documentary evidence, typology and archaeological evidence from other sites it is presumed that the motte was constructed between 1173 and 1200 and probably nearer the earlier date.
The barony of Skreen was granted to Adam de Feipo before 1176 and perhaps as early as 1173.[xxi] Mottes were erected within a decade of settlement.[xxii] The primary mottes erected were as caputs for the baronies. Hugh de Lacy erected a motte for de Feipo[xxiii] but the location of this motte is unknown. It may have been Skreen or may have been elsewhere in the lordship of Meath.
Secondary mottes such as Athlumney were erected as centres for manors. In a charter confirmation dating to before 1194 Amaury de Feipo, the Big, is listed as lord of Athlumney, holding his lands in fee from Adam de Feipo.[xxiv] Secondary mottes were located at defensible sites such as the one at Athlumney. Control of the river and crossing points was a priority for the Anglo-Normans in order to establish security for the new settlers[xxv] and a motte such as Athlumney would date to the earliest period of colonisation.
Mottes were not built after the thirteenth century, [xxvi] in fact the motte was already going out of fashion in England and Europe when the first mottes were being erected in Ireland. Athlumney motte would fit into this pattern.
Finds from excavations on the summit of mottes date to twelfth or early thirteenth century[xxvii] so archaeological evidence would also confirm a date of the late twelfth century.
The documentary sources confirm this as a motte but it does resemble a prehistoric burial tumuli. The quarrying on the summit of the motte was the result of treasure hunters seeking the non-existent burial chamber.
Athlumney motte may be usefully compared to mottes throughout the lordship of Meath, throughout Ireland and also compared to those in England, Wales and the Continent. Mottes vary in shape and size with over sixty mottes in County Meath alone.[xxviii]
The nearest motte to Athlumney is Navan, less than a mile away across the river, but differs from Athlumney as it was constructed on a gravel moraine and has two fossses.[xxix] Athlumney has no visible fosses and is sited on level riverbank. The motte at Navan was the caput for the barony of Navan. Navan motte was located on the northside of the river Boyne, the side most likely to attacks from the Irish and so is a much larger motte with more defences.
Athlumney motte is located in the barony of Skreen. The motte at Skreen was the caput of the barony created by de Feipo. Skreen motte is slighly larger in diameter, height and summit in comparison with Athlumney, marking out its superior status. [xxx]
A more useful comparison would be with Clonard which is located by the river Boyne and is associated with a church site as is Athlumney. The motte at Clonard is larger and higher than the motte at Athlumney.[xxxi] It is twice the height of Athlumney at 11m. The remains of a timber palisade and a ringworks were discovered at Clonard. These additional defensive features may be a result of its situation closer to territory not controlled by the Anglo-Normans.
Comparing monuments with each other allows us to see what the monuments have in common and in what ways they are they different. This allows the questions to be formed as to why this monument is like this and why the other monument differs from it. By studying large numbers of similar monuments a trend or general statement may be made about the monuments on a wider level.
By studying and comparing sitings of monuments one can build up a picture of the associated settlement and so examine the development of a monument. Monuments change over time due to better design or adaptation and by comparing one monument with others you can see what stage of development the monument fits into.
By comparing a monument with a similar one that has been excavated then one can make suggestions as to the dating and occupation of the monument you are studying.
From an examination of a monument we learn the dimensions of the monument and its location and siting in relation to other parts of the local landscape.
An examination of the motte at Athlumney gives us a visual image of the monument. A written description and a photograph could allow us to create our own mental picture of the motte but to actually visit and examine the motte itself allows us to have a much more accurate image. From examining the monument we build up our mental picture of the monument and we may examine one particular aspect of the site, which may be different from someone else’s mental picture or viewpoint. We see some significance in one aspect of the site while someone else might see some other aspect as significant.
In historical document the motte at Athlumney rarely receives a mention but from these mentions we do not get a layout of the monument or its relationship to the river or the other settlements in the area.
PRINTED PRIMARY SOURCES
Giraldus Cambrensis – Expugnatio Hibernica The Conquest of Ireland (1978) edited with translation by A.B. Scott and F.X. Martin.
Ordnance Survey Field Name Books of County Meath (1835-1836) No. 9. Parish of Athlumney.
T. B. Barry, The Archaeology of Medieval Ireland (London 1987).
M. Clinton ‘Settlement Dynamics in Co. Meath: the Kingdom of Lóegaire’ in Peritia 14 (2000) pp. 372-405
O. Creighton. and R. Higham R. Medieval Castles (Princes Riseborough 2003)
P.J. Gibson and R. Breen, ‘The internal structure of the Galtrim motte, County Meath, as revealed by ground-penetrating radar and electrical restivity geophysical techniques’ in Riocht na Midhe Vol. XVI 2005. pp. 23-28.
J. T. Gilbert (ed.) Chartularies of St. Mary’s Abbey, Dublin (London 1884) Vol. I p. 165-70
B. J. Graham, ‘Anglo-Norman Settlement in County Meath’ in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, vol.75, 1975, sect. C.
B. J. Graham, ‘The evolution of the settlement pattern of Anglo-Norman Eastmeath’ in R. H. Buchanan, R. A. Butlin, D. McCourt (eds.) Fields, Farms and Settlement in Europe (Belfast 1976) 38-47.
B. J. Graham, ‘The mottes of the Norman liberty of Meath’ in H. Murtagh, (ed.) Irish Midland Studies (Athlone 1980) 39-56.
B. J. Graham, Twelfth-and thirteenth century earthwork fortifications in Ireland in The Irish Sword vol XVII no. 69 (1990) Summer. pp. 225-243
E. Hickey, Skryne and the early Normans (Dublin 1994).
E. P. Kelly ‘Recent Investigations at Navan’ Riocht na Midhe Vol. VII No. 2 (1983-1983) pp. 76-85.
H. G. Leask, Irish Castles and Castellated Houses (Dundalk 1951)
T. McNeill, Castles in Ireland. Feudal Power in a Gaelic World. (London 1997)
M.J. Moore, The Archaeological Inventory of County Meath (Dublin 1987)
K. O’Conor, “Anglo-Norman Castle in Co. Laois” in P.G. Lane and W. Nolan (eds) Laois- History and Society (Dublin 1999) 183-211
T. O’Keeffe, Medieval Ireland, An Archaeology. (Stroud 2000).
T. O’Keeffe, ‘Concepts of ‘castle’ and the construction of identity in medieval and post-medieval Ireland’ in Irish Geography vol. 34 (1) (2001) 69-88
N.J.G. Pounds, The Medieval Castle in England and Wales Cambridge (1990)
G. Stout, Newgrange and the Bend of the Boyne (Cork 2002)
D. Sweetman Irish Castles and Fortified Houses (Dublin 1995)
D. Sweetman The Medieval Castles of Ireland (Cork 1999)
[i] P.J. Gibson and R. Breen, ‘The internal structure of the Galtrim motte, County Meath, as revealed by ground-penetrating radar and electrical restivity geophysical techniques’ in Riocht na Midhe Vol. XVI 2005 p. 26.
[ii] T.B. Barry, The Archaeology of Medieval Ireland (London 1987) p. 40.
[iii] Ordnance Survey Field Name Books of County Meath (1835-1836) No. 9. Parish of Athlumney.
[iv] M. Clinton ‘Settlement Dynamics in Co. Meath: the Kingdom of Lóegaire’ in Peritia 14 (2000) p. 383
[v] J. T. Gilbert (ed.) Chartularies of St. Mary’s Abbey, Dublin (London 1884) Vol. I p. 165-70
[vi] K. O’Conor, ‘Anglo-Norman Castles in Co. Laois’ in P.G. Lane and W. Nolan (eds.) Laois History and Society (1999) p.194.
[vii] M.J. Moore, The Archaeological Inventory of County Meath (Dublin 1987) p. 166.
[viii] M. J. Moore, The Archaeological Inventory of County Meath (Dublin 1987) p. 178.
[ix] E. P. Kelly ‘Recent Investigations at Navan’ Riocht na Midhe Vol. VII No. 2 (1983-1983) p. 78.
[x] D. Sweetman, (1999) The Medieval Castles of Ireland Cork p.22.
[xi] T. McNeill Castles in Ireland Feudal Power in a Gaelic World (London 1997) p. 56.
[xii] D. Sweetman (1999) The Medieval Castles of Ireland Cork p. 23.
[xiii] T. B. Barry, The Archaeology of Medieval Ireland (London 1987) p. 42.
[xiv] T. McNeill Castles in Ireland Feudal Power in a Gaelic World (London 1997) p. 63.
[xv] T. B. Barry, The Archaeology of Medieval Ireland (London 1987) pp. 40-2.
[xvi] D. Sweetman Irish Castles and Fortified Houses (Dublin 1995) p. 6.
[xvii] N.J.G. Pounds, The Medieval Castle in England and Wales (Cambridge 1990) pp. 185-6.
[xviii] K. O’Conor, ‘Anglo-Norman Castles in Co. Laois’ in P.G. Lane and W. Nolan (eds.) Laois History and Society (1999) p 206-7.
[xix] B. J. Graham, Twelfth-and thirteenth century earthwork fortifications in Ireland in The Irish Sword vol. XVII no. 69 (1990) Summer. pp. 225-243
[xx] T. O’Keeffe, (2001) ‘Concepts of ‘castle’ and the construction of identity in medieval and post-medieval Ireland’ in Irish Geography vol. 34 (1) p. 70.
[xxi] G. Stout. Newgrange and the bend of the Boyne (Cork 2002) p. 95. E. Hickey, Skryne and the early Normans (Dublin 1994) p. 33
[xxii] T. McNeill Castles in Ireland Feudal Power in a Gaelic World (London 1997) p. 72.
[xxiii] Giraldus Cambrensis – Expugnatio Hibernica The Conquest of Ireland (1978) edited with translation by A.B.Scott and F.X. Martin. p. 195.
[xxiv] J. T. Gilbert (ed.) Chartularies of St. Mary’s Abbey, Dublin (London, 1884) Vol. I. pp. 92, 96, 156-7.
[xxv] B.J. Graham, (1975) ‘Anglo-Norman Settlement in County Meath’ in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, vol.75, sect. C. p. 238
[xxvi] T. McNeill Castles in Ireland Feudal Power in a Gaelic World (London 1997) p. 56.
[xxvii] T. B. Barry, The Archaeology of Medieval Ireland (London 1987) p. 38.
[xxviii] M.J. Moore, The Archaeological Inventory of County Meath (Dublin 1987) pp. 156-161.
[xxix] R. T. Meehan and W. P. Warren The Boyne Valley in the Ice Age (Dublin 1999) p. 23
[xxx] M.J. Moore, The Archaeological Inventory of County Meath (Dublin 1987) p. 161
[xxxi] M.J. Moore, The Archaeological Inventory of County Meath (Dublin 1987) p. 156.