Green-fingered finds: Piecing together the history of Scotney’s Old Castle

Plans for a new, more sustainable garden within the ruins of Scotney Castle in Kent have given archaeologists the rare opportunity to explore the medieval mansion’s buried remains. Carly Hilts visited Nat Cohen on site to find out more.

The creation of a new subtropical garden whose plants will need less watering in a changing climate have given archaeologists the opportunity to explore the ruins of Scotney Castle, near Tunbridge Wells in Kent.

Founded in 1378, Scotney would have once resembled the nearby (and rather better preserved) Bodiam Castle, c.10 miles away in East Sussex, as a fortified mansion with four corner towers, a curtain wall, and a moat. During the site’s colourful history (documented in A Castle in England, a recent graphic novel created by Jamie Rhodes and the National Trust), the castle witnessed star-crossed lovers separated by Elizabethan religious turmoil; concealed a Jesuit priest for seven years during the Protestant Reformation; and one of its earls possibly participated in Georgian smuggling gangs before mysteriously disappearing, leaving behind a coffin that was later found to be full of rocks. Between 1837 and 1843, however, the cold and damp Old Castle was partly pulled down by its then-owner, Edward Hussey III, who built a grand new house on higher, drier land overlooking the valley, and transformed its predecessor into a picturesque ruin to adorn his carefully landscaped gardens.

The ruins of Scotney’s Old Castle, deliberately transformed into a picturesque ruin by its Victorian owner. This summer, excavations have explored what survives in its interior. Photo: C Hilts

Today, the only upstanding portion of the old mansion (which, together with the 19th-century house, has been in the care of the National Trust since 1970) is a section of its central range, thought to have contained service facilities and possibly the medieval kitchen. As the castle has seen so many alterations over its long occupation, however, its building sequence is very complex, with various features dating to the 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. What was not known was how much medieval material survived under the surface – and in July, volunteers led by National Trust archaeologist Nat Cohen and Simon Stevens, a Senior Archaeologist with Archaeology South-East, set out to learn more, carrying out the first modern excavation ever undertaken in this part of the castle as part of the CBA’s Festival of Archaeology.

Reconstructing a ruin

The investigation saw 12 test pits opened at regular intervals over the location of planned planting holes for the lush new foliage that is set to be installed next spring. In the 1980s, a previous excavation at the other end of the range had uncovered medieval masonry, and so it was hoped that the new archaeological work might also shed light on the much-altered castle’s original plan.

Investigations by National Trust- and Archaeology  South-East-led volunteers were carried out ahead of the planned creation of a new subtropical garden within the mansion remains. Photo: C Hilts

Almost immediately, the team – made up primarily of volunteers from Scotney’s on-site team, including administrative staff and gardeners – came down on demolition material from when the old castle was deliberately ruined. What was surprising about the rubble, Nat said, was how tiny the fragments were compared to the size of the medieval masonry blocks that can be seen in surviving walls.

‘This was clearly a very thorough demolition,’ she said. ‘What we don’t know, though, is where most of the material went. It wasn’t used in the construction of the new mansion, whose stone was quarried anew, or in the estate buildings that were built at this time – they also used newly quarried local sandstone as well as bricks – and it doesn’t appear to have been dumped nearby. Perhaps it was shipped off site and/or sold on.’

Most of the volunteers were drawn from the on-site team at Scotney Castle, which today is in the care of the National Trust. Photo: Nat Cohen

Plans of the castle from the 1830s suggested that some of the test pits were located over the remains of cross walls subdividing various service rooms, but no foundations relating to these have been uncovered; it is possible that these spaces were separated using wooden partitions instead. Some test pits did reveal surviving structural remains in the centre of the new garden, however, relating to one of the mansion’s walls. Other finds included fragments of brick and tile; pieces of medieval pottery and 18th-century bottle glass; animal bones; clay tobacco pipes; and – more unexpectedly – a lead toy soldier.

With the dig now concluded, these discoveries are set to be analysed and a full report written by Archaeology South-East. Complementing the archaeological research, elsewhere on the estate a long-running initiative is exploring the extensive archival record associated with the site. Documents relating to the estate’s management and history have accumulated over centuries and, Nat noted, the castle’s final owner, Christopher Hussey, was an eminent architectural historian who carried out detailed research of his own. When he bequeathed Scotney to the Trust, it came with rich collections of amassed artefacts, manuscripts, and other curiosities. These are now being carefully catalogued, and are already proving to be one of the most extensive archives associated with any National Trust property.

Further information 
Scotney Castle’s gardens, moated ruins, and the Victorian mansion are all open to the public; for more information about the site, and about visiting, see