Birmingham Museums Trust will be closed across summer 2020 as a result of the impact of Covid-19. This is a critical time for the Trust and a fund raising drive has been launched. The next few Notes will be dedicated to the wonderful historical and cultural sites in Birmingham that we will be missing. At the bottom of the post is a link to the Trust’s fundraising page, please consider making a donation, small or large, to support the future of our city’s history. Ta.
At around 750 years old, Weoley Castle is one of the oldest structures that you can see in Birmingham and is a schedueled ancient monument. I used to live on the estate, just around the corner, for several years and enjoyed a tour in which I had the opportunity to stand underneath the ruined garderobe (that’s a loo, to you and me!) and saw the ancient masons marks carved into the brickwork. Much of the building is gone, but there’s enough of it left to get a sense of its history, and it has been well cared for by a team of volunteers.
Weoley Castle was not a castle in the sense of the term that we might understand – this was no Cardiff Castle – but was rather a fortified hunting lodge. It had a moat, battlements complete with arrow slits and of course, a great hall. The whole shabang was located within a huge deer park which stretched over a thousand acres. One of the earliest mentions comes from 1264, when Henry III granted Roger de Somery, Lord of Dudley, permission to fortify both Weoley and Dudley Castle. This grant was a reward for his support during the second Baron’s War, that was the civil war in which Simon de Montfort attempted to overthrow the monarchy. Roger’s grandson, who eventually inherited the estates, including presumably Weoley, was a seemingly unpleasant and unpopular man who was accused of murder and extortion by some of his tenants.
The site was caught up in all sorts of dodgy dealings over the course of the 15th century, but during the latter half it was home to Sir William Berkeley, who then had the property forcibly removed from his ownership because, unlike Roger de Somery, he had the misfortune of choosing the wrong side during the Wars of the Roses. There is one further intrigue around the ownership of Weoley Castle. Berkely had been what we might crudely call a squatter -his father had forcibly taken ownership of the building when it was empty and his son had remained until evicted. In 1531, a private investor, Richard Jervoise, purchased the building – although presumably not from the owners, as they brought a case (which failed) to reclaim the castle in around 1536.
Along with the ruins, there are some very lovely archaeological finds, some of which have been on display at BMAG, in the History of Birmingham galleries. You can download images of these from the BMAG asset bank, and I’m going to add some below now. They give a real insight into the domestic life of Weoley Castle.
Look closely at this fragment of floor tile – you can see a knight with his bow and arrow; and the decoration around the edge, a fleur de lis perhaps?
This well preserved piece of decorative pewter was likely used to pour the communion wine.
I’m always impressed at how glass survives in good condition for centuries – I’ve never been able to move house without smashing some of our glassware! This neck piece is from a glass urinal. In medieval times there was a great interest in bodily fluids, and these urinals would have been used like sample bottles for medics to investigate for any diseases, a process known as uroscopy.
This hollow terracotta piece is believed to have been a roof finial. It is clearly an animal of some sort, but with very human looking hands. Maybe shading its eyes from the sun, or looking out across the deer park. Or just having a bad hair day? This sort of zoomorphic presentation was popular in medieval times. What do you think it represents?
I hope you’ve enjoyed this Note from medieval Birmingham. If you want to ogle some more images, do check out Birmingham Museums Trust Asset Bank, where you can download the images for your own delight free of charge.
If you’re interested in finding more about Weoley Castle, there is a guidebook available in the online shop: https://shop.birminghammuseums.org.uk/collections/books/products/weoley-castle-guidebook
If you wish, you can make a donation to Birmingham Museums Trust here. Do consider leaving a message of support, having spoken with staff I know these mean a lot: