Motte and bailey castles are medieval fortifications introduced into Britain
by the Normans. They comprised a large conical mound of earth or rubble, the
motte, surmounted by a palisade and a stone or timber tower. In the majority of
examples an embanked enclosure containing additional buildings, the bailey, adjoined the motte. These castles acted as garrison forts during offensive military operations, as strongholds, and, in many cases, as aristocratic residences and as centres of local or royal administration.
Built in towns, villages and open countryside, motte and bailey castles generally occupied strategic positions dominating their immediate locality and, as a result, are the most visually impressive monuments of the early post-Conquest period surviving in the modern landscape. Over 600 motte castles or motte-and-bailey castles are recorded nationally, with examples known from most regions. As one of a restricted range of recognised early post-Conquest monuments, they are particularly important for the study of Norman Britain and the development of the feudal system. Although many were occupied for only a short period of time, motte castles continued to be built and occupied from the 11th to the 13th centuries, after which they were superseded by other types of castle.
Despite some later disturbance Fenny Castle survives well. Soils present exhibit a high presence of snail shells, indicating a good potential for environmental evidence regarding the surroundings of the site. Earthworks and excavated evidence suggest that stonework and other features will survive below the surface. The hill and castle are prominent features in the landscape, and are traditionally associated with King Alfred.
It is set on a small natural hill surrounded by flat former marsh land. The hill is an elongated ridge, orientated north west-south east. The north-west end of the hill has been scarped into a steep-sided conical mound to form a motte, while the south east end has been levelled to create a narrow bailey. Beyond the motte to the north-west, but still above the level of surrounding land, are earthworks and platforms representing an additional area of occupation. The bailey, to its south-east, is a levelled area with a number of mounds, hollows and scarps indicating the presence of former buildings in this area, though stone robbing has confused the plan at ground level.
In the 19th century it is recorded that part of the slope at the north-west
end of the hill was removed to enable easier access around it. In the process the remains of 20 skeletons, possibly of a period predating the construction
of the castle, were removed.
The castle is first referred to historically in 1327, when William atte Castle
is recorded as a local resident and taxpayer, and again in 1354 when Alice
atte Castle was a tenant. In 1470 William Worcestre wrote of a castle called
Fenney Castle, which was a ruin, and had been built of stone, of which traces
were still visible. The historian Leland, writing in 1540, confirms this.
In 1825, the Rev J Skinner visited the site shortly after damage had been
incurred by a farmer, and recorded that `foundations of buildings may yet be
seen, and quantities of squared free-stone have been conveyed from thence in
the memory of man, and employed in the walls of some of the edifices in the
neighbourhood'. Some digging in the castle was undertaken, to a depth of
6 feet, and a strong wall was found defending the summit, as well as iron
rings, an iron implement, and pottery. Skinner also mentions a paved causeway
running to the hill from the hamlet of Castle, and this was apparently still
visible as a slight grassy bank in 1928, running across the field from near
Fenny Castle House, but it is not obvious today.
Local tradition has it that King
Alfred is buried in Castle Hill.