Finders Keepers

Hunting for an underground tower

One of the most perplexing aspects of Hoghton Tower in Lancashire is the question of where is the building from which it takes its name?

Arrival at the tower 2010

The site’s western profile is well known locally, and it does feature a substantial crenelated gatehouse, but that is not the building responsible for the name.  The original tower was a much more impressive and much older building.  It has been missing for 376 years. There were theories as to where it was, but no one was sure until now.

Hoghton Tower is a manor house in Lancashire, England that has been occupied by the same family  since at least the 12th century and boasts of associations with both William Shakespeare, who may have resided there in his teenage years, and Charles Dickens, who certainly did visit during one of its more neglected phases, and wrote about it in a short story: George Silverman’s Explanation.

The legendary Great Keep at Hoghton Tower turns out to not be a keep at all; though it was great.  Excavations by a University of Salford Archaeology team have just uncovered evidence of the eponymous original tower which was destroyed on Tuesday 14th February 1643 during the English Civil War.

An example of a Peel (or Pele) tower at Arnside, Cumbria, England

The keep was actually a Peel tower erected possibly as early as the 14th century.  The word Peel (sometimes written as Pele) is from the French and means stockade. (Originally from Latin pel: stake.)  They were built as isolated structures though some were later incorporated into assemblies of other buildings which may explain how this tower came to be colloquially known as the ‘Great Keep’.

Architecturally speaking, a keep is usually at the heart of a castle, whereas the excavations confirm that this tower was on the northern edge of the site.  By the time it was demolished, much of the currently extant structure had been built and it is thought that, once other buildings had been erected close to the tower, it ceased to be regarded as a Peel and became referred to as the keep.

Hoghton Tower plan ground floor with excavation siteIt is not known for certain that it adjoined the northern range but some features suggest that may well have been the case.

The excavation site viewed from the east. The Peel tower would have been a similar height to the existing gable.

The destruction of what must have been a very imposing fortification is documented in contemporary accounts of the Civil War.  Hoghton became a Royalist bolt hole following action at nearby Preston.  Parliamentarian forces surrounded and pounded it.  There are two conflicting accounts of how it met its demise. One was that the tower was offered in surrender, but when the Parliamentarians entered they found it stocked with gunpowder, and were treacherously blown up.

The alternative account is that the powder was ignited accidentally from ‘neglected matches’ being used by soldiers indulging in tobacco. Clay pipe sections have been unearthed during the recent dig, but they are from a later date, so they are not the smoking pipe in this cold case.  However, there are some pieces of glass that have been unearthed that seem to have been subjected to great heat.

IMG_8630The dig was only brief – six days – but several sections of wall have been uncovered as well as distinct floors.  Trowel-wielding hunters have accumulated a good range of finds, including a twice-fired musket ball, as evidenced by two flattened surfaces where it struck something solid.

IMG_8631The dig is now being back-filled and properly recorded.


Keeping faith with fiction

The ‘keep’ turns out to be a tad further east and not as fully integrated into the other buildings as I had been led to believe when I was researching a novel about young William Shakespeare’s time at the tower, but the mentions it gets are entirely feasible:

Will quickly realised that he had arrived at a place of some importance and influence.  Fulk took him to the top of the great keep.  The day was cloudy but clear and a strong westerly wind tugged their hair and sharpened their faces as they peered into it.

“Is that the sea?” said Will.

“Well, it’s the coast,” said Fulk.

Will at the Tower, Chapter 11 Players

Jane led the visitor out. Fulk and Will went to the great keep tower to watch their progress to the gate and the stranger ride away.  When Jane returned alone, they intercepted her in the courtyard and then all three went to the great hall.  It was empty but they could hear Elizabeth’s raised voice deep in the upper reaches of the northern range.

Jane sat in the armchair.  “Very slimy man, she declared.

“It was a woman,” said Fulk.


When they finally retired to their beds Will made a diversion up onto the roof of the keep once more. The lookout heard him coming and hence made sure he was looking out.  Will looked out too. The west wind was still blowing.  It had brought heavy clouds, so even if there was anything there the lookout was unlikely to see it. He would have to watch with his ears. Will saw nothing and saw everything there was to see. It was too much to take in.

Will at the Tower, Chapter 14: Unbidden guests

The tower also features in a Christmas ghost story The Keep which is part of the Christmas Present collection:

“Over here,” said the Victorian from the corner of the courtyard.  Strange moans filled the sky and flashes of heat made uncomfortable silhouettes of the walls.  She heard drums, dull thuds of air and the shouts of desperate men.  A new draught brought the stench of spent gunpowder.  “This way,” he said, and she rushed to be near him but stopped dead as a massive structure out-performed all digital animation and built itself before her.  It was a defensive tower, robust and proud.

 “The Great Keep,” he said.


The evidence for Shakespeare’s stay at Hoghton is discussed in my earlier blog post: Where there was a Will


The novel is available as an eBook and as a paperback from Amazon.

WATT ebook

Will at the Tower eBook

Will cover 8.5

Will at the Tower paperback

mistletoe with red berries

You can read an extract in my blog post Sliced Mistletoe

Christmas Present rebranded defrosted 2  The Keep short story features in Christmas Present



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