Historic Monuments 3

A brief survey of Northern Ireland’s Anglo-Norman fortifications

Motte and bailey forts, Clough castle


Following John de Courcy’s 1177 seizure of eastern Ulster, his Anglo-Norman followers erected fortified mounds, or ‘mottes’, throughout the conquered territories.

While stone fortifications, such as Carrickfergus castle, are the most conspicuous monuments of the Anglo-Norman period, they are outnumbered by the mottes, of which there are almost 40 in Co Down and 70 in Co Antrim.

The motte, sometimes paired with an enclosed and fortified area known as a ‘bailey’, was a quickly erected frontier fortification consisting of a flat topped mound surrounded by a wooden palisade. It also perhaps featured a wooden tower on top. 

By the late twelth century the construction of mottes was largely restricted to eastern Ulster, Scotland and the Welsh border. Elsewhere, Norman authority was firmly established and fortifications more permanent.

At Clough Castle, in the Co Down village of Clough, a late thirteenth century stone tower sits on an earlier motte. The motte itself lies to one side of a kidney shaped bailey, originally separated by a 2m ditch.

Excavation has shown that the motte was enclosed in a wooden palisade, with pits for archers. A thirteenth century rectangular hall on top of the motte seems to have been a domestic, rather than military, addition.
Other mottes can be seen at Holywood and Dundonald, Co Down and at Harryville,
Ballymena, in Co Antrim.

Fortification in stone, Carrickfergus castle

The best preserved and most imposing of Northern Ireland’s Anglo-Norman fortifications, Carrickfergus castle, was founded in the late twelth century by John de Courcy and was continuously used as a military outpost for some 750 years.


Its position on the coast of Belfast Lough, its harbour facilities and its domination over routes north into Antrim and south into Down, made Carrickfergus strategically vital. The castle and to a lesser extent the town, therefore remained the administrative centre of Ulster throughout the medieval period.

The castle developed in stages in response to its changing historical context and to the evolution of the art of warfare. The original four storey keep and walled inner ward, or courtyard, were built soon after de Courcy’s 1177 incursion into Ulster.

In the thirteenth century, the castle was strengthened by the addition of middle and outer wards and a massive two towered gatehouse.

Noteable moments in the castle's colourful history include King John's seizure of Carrickfergus castle in 1210 during his struggle against the powerful de Lacy family. In 1315, it was besieged by Edward Bruce, brother of the Scots king, Robert. Protestant settlers took refuge in the castle during the 1641 rising of the native Irish. Williamite forces led by Schomberg landed at Carrickfergus in 1689, followed by William III himself, in 1690, en route to the Boyne. 

As late as 1760, the castle saw action when it was captured by French forces led by Commodore Thurot.

Dundrum castle, in Lecale, south east Co Down, was de Courcy’s second major fortress, but it exists predominantly as ruins. The largely intact fabric of Carrickfergus therefore, testifies to its long military, political and historical role.



The Archaeology of Ulster from Colonization to Plantation (1991) by JP Mallory and TE McNeill; Living Places: Archaeology, Continuity and Change at Historic Monuments in Northern Ireland (1997) by J Colm Donnelly; Historic Monuments of Northern Ireland: An Introduction and Guide (1998) by HMSO; Pieces of the Past: Archaeological Excavations by the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland 1970-1986 (1998) by C Hamlin and J Lyn.