On a clear day, looking down from any of the ring of Iron Age hillforts — Pilsdon, Lamberts Castle, Coney’s Castle, Lewesdon — which encircle the Marshwood Vale, the eye may come to rest on a smaller fortification almost exactly at its centre. These stones — 10-foot thick walls resting on a raised motte — are all that remain of Marshwood Castle.
Walking among the ruins, the nearby pond and tracing some of the ditches and depressions which indicate a cobbled road towards Chideock, we are back in the Middle Ages. It was William de Mandeville, whose name is commemorated in nearby Mandeville Stoke Lane, who first raised a hunting lodge at Marshwood, alongside a Norman church dedicated to St Mary. The buildings and two acres were compassed by a moat and, in turn, by an extensive deer park and woodland.
By the mid-14th century, the castle was in the hands of no less a personage than Lionel of Antwerp, First Duke of Clarence, the third son of King Edward III. And in December 1357, local yeomen Peter Blount and Peter Colfox — both from notable local families — received instructions to employ “masons and other workmen” for the repair of the buildings and enclosures at Marshwood for his Grace’s use.
Marshwood’s connection with the Duke of Clarence invites us to consider his family and household, which included a young Geoffrey Chaucer. In 1342, Clarence had married Elizabeth de Burgh, Countess of Ulster, an Irish aristocrat who had Chaucer as a page in her retinue; aged around 17, he makes an appearance in her household accounts in 1357, the recipient of a short cloak, shoes and a pair of red and black breeches. Thus attired, he served both de Burgh, her husband, and, latterly, the King himself.
It is a tantalising thought that Chaucer may well have accompanied his master and mistress to the newly-refurbished Marshwood, surveyed its wide acres of woodland and its deer leap. At this time, he was reading widely in Latin, French (the language of the court), Anglo-Norman and Italian. In the coming few years, he would write an acrostic prayer-poem called simply ABC, a translation of the French allegorical poem Le Roman de la Rose and his mythological Book of the Duchess. All bore the hallmarks of courtly life and patronage.
There are more earthy connections with 14th-century rural life in Chaucer’s great poem The Canterbury Tales, which took shape piecemeal from the late 1370s. Conceived as a collection of pilgrims’ stories — two each from some 30 pilgrims on their way to and from Canterbury — it was never finished. If Chaucer did indeed visit Marshwood and travel through the West Country, he would certainly have found inspiration here. The Tales’ rich cast of characters — the Yeoman, the Squire, the Merchant, the Pardoner, the Miller among them — would all have been familiar figures in 14th-century Dorset and pilgrimage to the shrine and relics of St Wite in Whitchurch Canonicorum (a mile or so from Marshwood Castle) was well-established.
As ever, West Dorset’s history lies just below its surface; and the stones of Marshwood Castle, silent and largely forgotten as they are, serve as intriguing reminder of a colourful medieval past.