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Derby Cockpit Hill

Also known as, or recorded in historical documents as;

In the civil parish of Derby.
In the historic county of Derbyshire.
Modern Authority of Derby; City of.
1974 county of Derbyshire.
Medieval County of Derbyshire.

OS Map Grid Reference: SK355361
Latitude 52.92118° Longitude -1.47135°

Derby Cockpit Hill has been described as a certain Timber Castle.

There are no visible remains.


Derby Town museum record "In 1151 Ranulph II, Earl of Chester, could have built a form of 'motte and bailey' castle in the Castlefields and Cockpit Hill area". Harvey writes "Derby alone among county towns did not substitue a masonry castle for its early mound" PastScape records reads "The castle is recorded in 1085 and disappeared at an early date. Speed's map of 1610 shows an artificial mound which was levelled at the end of the C18". Castle Hill, now Cockpit Hill, was a Norman motte and bailey castle which disappeared at an early date. The castle is recorded as 'copecastel' in 1085, 'the castle near the market'. 'The Cock Pitt' first appears in 1610 on Speed's map, and looks like a Norman castle with artificial mound, which was levelled at about the end of the 18th century. (Derbyshire HER ref. Williamson and Cameron)

The Norman rationale behind failing to site a major castle here remains unclear, yet it may be significant that Derby was administratively paired with Nottingham in the late Saxon period. Derby is a notable anomaly within Domesday in that the entry relating to the borough follows as opposed to precedes the folios relating to the remainder of the shire, and is thus associated in the text with the Nottinghamshire, with which it shared a sheriff (Martin 1987, 56). A major castle foundation at Derby may thus have been superfluous in political terms; a parallel situation with regard to Norwich and Ipswich - the former with an early castle, the latter without - may be illuminating (Barley 1976, 70). Given these preconditions, a minor castle site, overlooking rather than overawing the pre-Conquest population may have been deemed expedient in the immediate post-Conquest years. (Creighton 1998)

Gatehouse thanks Andy Darlington for the follow extracts from local newspaper articles.

In 1827, a book called A Walk Through Derby claimed that: "A castle stood on the south east corner of the town. What precise period or who built it is unknown. It appears to have existed in the 10th century for we are told in the Saxon Chronicle in the year 918 that the Danes were in possession of it and that the heroic Ethelfleda attacked it and lost her bravest generals at the castle walls." In 1266, the castle was allegedly granted by King Henry III to his younger son Edmund Crouchback. In 1791, William Hutton said that the remains of a castle had been discovered on the summit of Cock Pit Hill.
This was how he described it: "A place of security stood out of the town in an open field, no houses were near it, guarded on one side by the River Derwent and on the other London Road. The chief approach was thence also the fields towards the east, now Mr Borrow's park, which acquired the name of Castle Fields."
We are told of the castle which existed for a time at Derby and that it was of a simple Norman motte and bailey type with defences of timber which, like the walls of the town, were never converted into permanent defences. The reason for this was that a few miles east and west, at Nottingham and Tutbury, were two enormously strong natural sites on which castles were built and so Derby Castle became redundant. The castle was built on Cockpit Hill, for centuries known as Castle Hill.
CASTLEFIELDS THERE has long been debate as to whether there was ever a castle at Derby, and it is a subject upon which I have spread myself before in these pages. The scholarly consensus, derived from a suggestion made by Professor Martin Biddle, is that some site near the Derwent - probably Cockpit Hill - was probably adapted as a temporary castle (the technical term is 'adulterine') by Ralph, Earl of Chester, during the civil war between Stephen and Empress Matilda. All readers of Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael detective stories will be more than familiar with this period. Ralph was basically using the opportunity of the anarchy, which effectively distracted both sovereign participants, to try to carve out for himself a separate kingdom or principality north of the Trent. One of his strategies was to build a string of these hastily constructed earth and timber castles across the Midlands either side of the River Trent. Professor Biddle found one in the headmaster's kitchen garden at Repton in 1987, which he and his wife initially thought was a Viking dock! This would explain the complete lack of documentation for these castles, unlike officially approved ones, where there is always plenty of paperwork in the Public Records Office to go with them, and at least a licence to crenellate. Whatever the true story at Derby, the castle name stuck and, as late as the 18th century, earthworks parallel to Albion Street were being recorded which were then believed to be its outer bailey. One of these names was Castle Fields, a group of water meadows west of the Derwent and The Siddals and south of The Holmes.

Gatehouse is of the opinion that Derby's mound was probably of C11 date built, by William I, in a Danish camp of late C10 date by the Derwent, it may have been refortified in C12, when Ranulph. Earl of Chester was granted the borough of Derby by King Stephan, but lack of stone defenses implies early abandonment as at Stafford Kings castle. (Although Derby was the county town administratively Derbyshire tended to be considered with Nottinghamshire and was administered from Nottingham Castle from an early date and, therefore, a castle at Derby would have little function. Much the same is true of Stafford, where Shrewsbury Castle administered two counties.) The site has undergone several periods of intense development, demolition and redevelopment, it is now completely built over and it is unlikely anything survives from this short lived castle site.
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This record last updated 15/08/2017 15:56:47

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