St Neots’ Castle


When St Neot's Castle was first built is uncertain. Its location is on the west bank of the River Great Ouse in Eaton Socon, formerly Bedfordshire (TL1735890).  It was probably a wooden palisade housing the landowner’s troops. They could control river traffic upstream to Bedford or downstream to the Wash. It is thought that an iron chain was laid across the bed of the river and then pulled tight and fastened to strong posts on either side. This was to stop river traffic. Enemy boats could be attacked and others stopped until the boat captain paid the appropriate toll. Then the chain was lowered allowing it to pass.


There is archaeological evidence that shows a defensive site before the Norman Conquest. Whether it was a defensive earthwork put up in Saxon times to defend the settlements from the Vikings and Danes is not known. Whether the village was ransacked during the Danish occupation of this area in the 10th century is uncertain. It is possible that they built the earthworks. Certainly their boats would have passed through this area. Their troops erected a wooden stronghold on raised earth banks at Tempsford, a few miles south of Eaton Socon. It was called Cannock’s Castle. From here they could control the river traffic at the confluence of the Great Ouse and the River Ivel.


According to the Domesday Book of 1086, before the Norman Conquest, Eaton, as it was then known, was one of Wulfmer’s  Bedfordshire estates (sometimes written as Wulfmar). He was described as the great Bedfordshire ‘thane of King Edward’. The background of these people proves interesting. An internet search revealed that Wulfmer was a woodsman who was killed at Hastings. (His other land in Sandy and Gamlingay was appropriated by Ralph Tailebois and Osbern, son of Walter.)


Following William, the Duke of Normandy, being crowned king of England, Saxon landowners had their estates confiscated. Wulfmer’s Eaton Socon estate was “awarded” to Eudo Fitzhubert (Eudo Dapfier). This land in Eaton amounted to about 30% of Eudo’s holdings in Bedfordshire. He was clearly a powerful man as he also owned land in Berkshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Huntingdonshire and Northamptonshire. (Victoria County Histories, (VCH). Bedfordshire, p.190)

Full control over the country was not achieved until 1072 and it may have been that some disgruntled Saxons used guerrilla tactics to attack the occupying Normans. Hereward the Wake’s men were centred in the Cambridgeshire fens, a short boat ride away to the northeast. Whilst it is possible that Eudo’s troops would have used captured Saxon men and boys to improve the Saxon stronghold as a motte and bailey castle, the Wikipedia website states the castle was not built until around 1140AD, apparently without permission of the monarch. Which documents were used to get this information were not quoted. It went on to state that it was probably of timber construction, may never have been completed and demolished about 15 years later by the order of King Henry II. (

British History Online mentions that Eudo died in 1120 and that his lands were then granted by the Crown to a member of the de Beauchamps family. In 1156 Hugh de Beauchamp bought the manor from his father. Several sources refer to the de Beauchamps having a castle in Eaton Socon.,


In G. T. Clark’s Mediaeval Military is stated that three deep semi-circular cuts were made to divert the water of the river round it to make three fortified islands for extra protection. The outer ditch was between 40 and 50 feet wide and the earth removed was banked up 8 -10 feet on the outside of the inner bailey. To increase its security a wooden stockade wall would have been placed. In Dr Prior’s 1886 article on Bedfordshire’s earthworks he included a complicated description: -


‘The work is composed of three parts, an inner, northern and outer ward. The inner and northern wards lie side by side upon the river, separated by a cross ditch. The two are contained by another ditch, which communicated at each end with the river. Beyond this, covering the south-western front, is the outer ward, and beyond this again the outer ditch, which commences at the south-east corner of the mill lead, covers the south-western front, and at the north-western angle sweeps round to join the ditch already mentioned, and thus, through it to communicate with the river at the north-east corner of the work.’


(Clark, G.T. Mediaeval Military Achist. ii, p.36, quoted in VCH. Beds. i. pp.297-8)


Access was by a sloping way alongside the riverbank and a wooden bridge over the outer ditch.  Subsequent excavation of the site revealed no masonry walls suggesting that there was little military opposition to their take-over in this area. The earth from the inner ditch was built up to create a high motte or mound, 15 feet higher than the outer ward and about 40 feet wide. A small mound within this could indicate a house platform where a wooden keep, the fortified family residence of the Eudo family, was built. Access to this motte was by a fortified wooden bridge in its north-western corner. The northern section had ramparts to the north and west. There is a markedly higher mound on its north-eastern corner suggesting a fortified wooden watchtower. The Norman soldiers would have been stationed in these outer and northern baileys. Excavations near the southern entrance revealed human skeletons and long swords. Human skulls were found in the ditch between the inner and northern mounds and coarse burnt pottery on the river side below the motte. (VCH, Beds. i, p.297-300)


On the Gatehouse website, the comprehensive gazetteer of medieval fortifications and castles of England and Wales, it mentions that it is also known as the ‘Hillings’.  It is described as 


Ringwork and bailey with partly underlying Saxon cemetery and settlement identified from excavations. A large horse-shoe ditch enclosing on the river side two sub-rectangular wards. Excavated 1949/50. In the northern ward were found at least 40 Saxon burials (associated with St Neots pottery) and there had probably been there a settlement and a Church (stone and mortar debris was found overlying the burials) defended by the horseshoe ditch which appears earlier than the other earthworks. (Harvey list Eaton Socon twice once in Bedfordshire and once in Cambridgeshire.)


Here was anciently a castle, the residence of a branch of the family of Beauchamps; BEAUCHAMP , the name of several important See also:


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