General location is given by the historic county (Strictly speaking the county as on the 1st edition OS map of the mid to late 19th century), by the current local authority and by the county after the changes of 1974. Despite some common beliefs the counties of England have never been static and changes of a slight nature where boundaries were tidied up have occurred fairly often. Some major changes took place in 1888 and the historic counties are not the same as the counties in 1973, often given in older sources. Differences which may cause confusion because of the inconsistency between various sources are;
A major change of administrative areas took place in 1974 and again in 1996. Some sources will refer to administrative areas which were in existence between these dates. The Sites and Monuments records and the authorities with responsibility for recording and protecting historic sites are generally, at a local level, based on the new post 1996 administrative areas in England.
The smallest area of civil authority in England is the Civil Parish, this is used to locate sites is some sources. Modern administrative areas are also not entirely tidy and some non parish areas exist. It should be noted that the Civil Parishes do occasionally change names and boundaries so the Civil Parish given in older sources may not be the same as that given in Gatehouse. Civil Parishes are not the same as church parishes although they do often cover the same or similar areas and have the same or similar names. They are certainly not the same as medieval manors and any similarity in name must be treated with circumspection.
The medieval administrative areas of Wales were cantrefs and commotes. (Click on the map below for a map of the commotes) The so called historic counties were formed by statue in 1535, although some of the counties had existed since the 13th century. In Wales the Sites and Monuments records, although supposedly based on the modern authorities, are actually held by four archaeological trusts which are based on the 1974 administrative areas (Still having some legal status and technically called the Preserved Counties). It should be noted that the pre 1974 and post 1996 counties of Denbighshire and Flintshire are significantly different.
Monmouthshire has had a peculiar status, always closely connected to Wales, it was technically, for a long period, an English county. It is now officially part of Wales but some old sources might still refer to it as part of England.
The smallest area of civil authority in Wales is the Community, this is used to locate sites is some sources. It should be noted that Communities do occasionally change names and boundaries so the name given in older sources may not the same as that given by me. Communities in Wales are not the same as church parishes although they do occasional cover the same or similar areas and have the same or similar names.
Genuki does give some information on the various boundary change.
Welsh place names often have variant spellings. Welsh pronunciations can get
anglicised spellings. Attempts at producing 'standardised' welsh spelling often
fail and can be irksome to some people. Few welsh people would want their anglicised
surnames, of Jones, Davies and Williams to be changed to 'proper' welsh names
of Iones, Dafys and Gwilym and pedantic correctness about place name spelling
can be nearly as offensive. There can be significant regional variations in
spellings and pronunciation between North and South Wales.
Specific locations (where known) are given as Landranger map grid reference, usually 8 figure but occasionally 6 or even 4 figure. In the downloadable database Gatehouse also gives the 12 figure OS map grid reference since making distribution maps from these figures should be straight forward. The accuracy of the OS grid reference given in sources and, therefore in Gatehouse, is variable, at it's best it is accurate to 10m, typographical errors aside it should, at its worst, be accurate to a kilometre. All references are checked against online Ordnance Survey maps (current and 1st edition versions)
All OS grid map references tend to have a degree of error that occurs because of a failure to appreciate that a map reference defines a square area and not a point location. Map references should identify the south western corner of the square area in which a monument is in, the number of digits in the map reference implying the size of this area; i.e. SO53289999 is a 10m square area. However, reports often describe a monument as centred on a particular grid reference. As portable GPS systems become more available grid references are given with greater numbers of digits, these are not more accurate; defining a motte sized monument to a 1 sq meter (or even 10 sq cm) area is simply ridiculous. However, in practice, many 6 or 8 figure map references in this gazetteer should be considered as point locations, whilst 4 figure references refer to the square in which a site probably existed.
From summer 2010 locations are also given by latitude and longitude. These figures were initially generated from the OS grid reference by Andrew Herrett. The mathematics to convert OS grid reference to lat/long figures is complex and subject to some error which is combined with the error of the OS grid reference. Gradually records are being manually checked for the given lat/long figures on Google Maps. Wales was completed in December 2010. Generally lat/long figures given to four decimal places are uncorrected and those given to five decimal places have been corrected. For such lat/long figures it is attempted to give a location in the centre of the monument. However for some lost buildings the given reference is likely to be the nearest parish church. For large structures like town walls the reference will be to a significant bit of surviving remains or the main town church.
A number of possible castle sites are identified because of place name evidence. Such evidence has to be taken with considerable caution but should not automatically be dismissed. Oral history, of which place names are a significant part, has repeatedly been shown to be resistant to corruption and pretty reliable although there are also significant examples of supposedly ancient place names which are fanciful inventions.
On top of this care should also be taken to note that for many people in the past castle is a generic name for any fortification of any age, particularly Iron Age hill forts, and that place names do alter, becoming corrupted in various ways, which makes interpretation even more difficult. Charles Coulson (The Castle in Medieval Society p. 30) and other recent scholars have shown how subtle, diverse and nuanced the use of the term castle was in the medieval period and a medieval 'castle' might refer to a large masonry building, an earthwork and timber structure, with or without a castle mound, a manorial centre with no fortification whatsoever or even a village or town (the village of Bethlehem is called a castellum in the Vulgate Bible). Abigail Wheatley explores this fully in The Idea of the Castle. Some individuals have fallen into the trap of putting limited ideas of what a medieval documentary reference to castle means to dismiss obvious moats or other such monuments for the documented site because it does not have a tall conical motte or otherwise fit into their limited idea of a castle.
A 'castle hill' place name may refer to a motte, now so eroded and damaged as to be unidentifiable (including disappearing entirely). However, it may also refer to a hill within the holdings of a local castle - a more clear example of this might by Maes y Castell (Meadow of the Castle); is this a meadow with a castle in it or a meadow in the demesne holding of a local lord based at a nearby castle.
This 'castle hill' might also have got its name simple because it roughly looks like a castle motte or because generations of children have played 'king of the castle' at the site. Some rocky crags or hills can look particularly impressive and, despite being entirely natural, get castle names to reflect this.
Some relatively modest houses, even at fairly early dates, may have been given the title of castle by grandiose owners. They certainly were at later dates, sometimes confusing things even more by producing fictional 'histories' of earlier origins to increase the kudos of the owner. At another extreme some small, mean shepherd's huts in mountain areas and other such tiny dwellings may have 'castles' names because of ironic humour.
A final reason for a place getting a castle place name is that the area, although not altered and remaining natural, is used as a place of retreat. There are some isolated valleys deep in the welsh mountains with castell place names which seem highly unlikely as the sites of real castles but are exactly the sort of place where people would 'retreat to the hills' in times of trouble. Here, it may be that oral history has preserved as a place name a semi-secret location. There is also at least one lazencastle which was possibly an unofficial, unsupported leper colony.
This page last updated 25 January 2012