ABOUT MOATED SITES
Moats: What were they?
Most sites referred to by archaeologists as ‘moat’ only survive as a moat or ditch surrounding an island.
The ditches are relatively wide, normally between 3m and 6m. Excavated examples show that they were usually U-shaped in cross section and about 2m deep and most once contained water. The majority are no longer wet and there was often a dam across one end to retain the water.
Most islands are usually quite small, most are less than 0.25ha in area. In many cases the island is completely isolated by the moat, although some have causeways across the moat. Moats without causeways must have had some kind of bridge to allow access to the island.
What were they like when in use?
When moats were active the focus of that activity was the island. Here there would have been a complex of buildings. Sometimes the buildings would have been of stone, more often they would have been made of timber or a mixture of timber and stone. At least one of the buildings would have been a dwelling. This would have been the open hall occupied by the owner of the moat probably with private rooms for the owner at one end and with a separate kitchen set apart from the hall (a precaution against fire). Often there would be agricultural structures (barns, dovecotes, etc.) and sometimes there was also a chapel and perhaps a gatehouse, guarding the approach across the moat.
Sometimes this complex would have taken the form of four ranges around a central courtyard. The outer walls of the ranges of buildings lie along the edge of the island, giving the site something of the appearance of a castle. In other cases the structures are arranged in a less formal plan, as buildings, courtyards and perhaps gardens.
When they were in use the moats were almost always filled with water. Many moats were clay lined and with timber or stone sides, and it was fairly common for one or more arms of the moat to be broadened out into a fishpond or fishponds. Fish were an important element of a wealthy man’s diet, especially as the Church prohibited the eating of meat on Fridays.
When were moats built?
The fashion for building moats began in the mid-late 12th century. The peak of moat building was between about 1250 and 1350. Moats then gradually fell from favour but some were being constructed as late as the early 1500s.
Who lived inside a moated site?
Moats were occupied by the more wealthy elements of mediaeval society. The relative size of the moat is a good clue as to who had them built; the larger they were, the more wealthy and powerful their owner probably was.
Why were moated sites built?
Moats were constructed more to impress, as symbols of wealth and power. They may have been able to resist an assault by the local peasants but they would not have withstood a determined military force for any length of time.
PIGGY’S HOLLOW – THE MOATED SITE IN EVINGTON
Evington’s moated site lies on the southern edge of the village of Evington, immediately to the west of the parish church, St. Denys. The relationship between the manor-house and the church is common and reflects the fact that most churches would have been build by lords of the manor and would be sited to become adjuncts of the manorial complex. In this case we know from documents that a church existed here fairly soon after the Norman Conquest. (It is likely that the Normans pulled down an old Saxon Church) and was given by the two lords in 1141 to Leicester Abbey. The present church seems to have been built in the late 13th to early 14th centuries at about the time the moat would have been dug.
The surviving earthworks consist of an island approximately 65m x 25m (0.16ha) with a moat that runs on the northwest, north east and west sides of the island. Much of the western arm of the moat has been widened out to form a series of fishponds and there is also evidence for additional fishponds to the south, but these have been destroyed with the building of the modern golf course.
The presence of fishponds is a sure indicator that the moat was originally filled with water. Closer examination reveals that there is a small stream that flows into the site from the north and that there was a spring in the northeast corner called ‘Pinkwell’, which means ‘The Spring of the Finches’. The ground falls gently away to the south, so there is a main dam on the southern side of the moat and a series of smaller dams running east- west.
There are very few clues on the ground as to what happened on the island. Only the odd stone poking up from below the surface suggest that there might have been any structures on the island. The only excavation of which we are aware took place in the 1970s. This was a very small trench a couple of metres long and less than a metre wide, which was excavated to the north of the island. The discovery of masses of slate, and traces of mortar and worked sandstone confirmed the presence of mediaeval buildings, but tell us nothing of what they were.
Short of a large scale excavation, we will probably never know what buildings stood on the island. However, the will of 1308 does cast some light on the issue. It lists the property of the late lord of the manor, Henry de Grey.
This states “…there is a capital messuage (i.e.. manor-house) in Evington worth, with the easements of the houses and gardens 40s. yearly; a dove house worth 2s yearly; 2 ponds worth half a mark; a watermill worth 20s; and a windmill worth 10s.”
Of these only the watermill and dove-house are not identifiable. It is however, likely that the watermill was near the large dam to the south that crossed the valley of Evington brook.
Documentary Evidence of Ownership
Fortunately there are many documents that cast light on who owned the site and what buildings might have stood on the island.
The Domesday Survey of 1986 tells us that at the time Evington was held by the baron who held Leicester castle (who subsequently became the Earls of Leicester.)
A document of 1239 informs us that Richard de Grey has acquired the manor of Evington, as a tenant of the Earl. Later documents reveal that the Grey family held the manor until 1491, when the manor passed to Sir William Stanley.
A will of 1308 provides clear evidence that one of the Grey family, probably Richard’s son, Henry de Grey, built the moat in the 1200s as the site of the manor house.
In recent years the site has been purchased by Leicester City Council as part of their arboretum and is now in the care of the Recreation and Arts Department.
What was there in 1627?
The earliest map of Evington that survives is dated 1627 and was probably drawn at the time of the enclosure of Evington’s open-field. No building is shown on the moated area and we may suspect that the buildings became disused in the 16th century when, rather than being the principal Leicestershire base of a relatively wealthy family, the parish became one amongst many local possessions of the Hastings and subsequently Cavendish families. The function of the earthworks was still remembered because the name ‘Hall Yard’ was attached to the area. It was only in the 19th century that the modern local name ‘Piggy’s Hollow’ came into use, allegedly because of the site’s ownership by a local pig-farmer, who is said by some to have used the site to prevent his animals straying.
The location is similar to many moats across the country: in close proximity to the parish church and the village. In this case the parish church of St. Denys lies just to the east of the moat and the original core of the village lay next to the church. A deer park, which is also mentioned in Henry de Grey’s will, lay to the west forming the basis of the modern golf course. It is interesting to note that the earliest fabric in the church dates from around the same time as the moat was constructed, revealing how strong the links were between the mediaeval aristocracy and the church.