Situated on a hillock on the SW bank of a NW-SE run of the River Boyne and probably at the limit of that river’s navigation. Like the whole town of Trim the castle was on land that seems to have always been Church land (Duffy 2011, 8-9). In 1172 Henry II granted Meath to Hugh de Lacy ‘as Murrough O’Maelaghlin best held it’ (Otway-Ruthven 1967, 52-3). This king of Meath died in 1153 before the province was dismembered, so in theory de Lacy’s fief, if he could secure it by settling suitable territories with his liegemen, was as extensive as the modern counties of Meath, Westmeath, Longford, and a large part of NW Offaly. Hugh decided that Trim would be the caput or centre of this vast estate and commenced planning a suitable headquarters for it in a castle that would be defensively strong as well as visually impressive and capable of administering a wide area. Because one of the first accounts of the castle in the 1830s by Richard Butler (1861, 25) suggests that the castle was built in 1220 this date has been followed by some later writers. However, excavation (95E0077) by Hayden (2011), together with historical research (Duffy 2011), the conservation (Cummins 2011) and recording (O’Brien and Fenlon 2002) of the masonry structures, and a re-interpretation of an earlier excavation (E00094) by Sweetman (1978), elucidates its entire structural history.
The first defensive structure was the ringwork castle (ME036-048033-) but this can only have lasted until c. 1175 as de Lacy commenced construction of the masonry keep around that time (Duffy 2011, 9-10), and this is confirmed by dendrochronological dates from the keep itself (Condit 1996). The keep has the unique design of a large rectangular central block (ext. dims c. 20m x c. 20m) which has large square towers (ext. dims c. 8m x c. 7m) attached at the centre of each wall. It rises to four stories including the ground floor or basement level. The first phase consisted of the ground floor (Basement) and Level 1 of the keep, the walls of which rose up to the height of Level 2, and the same levels of the attached towers. In the keep the scars of the double roof over Level 1 can be seen rising through Level 2 in the internal faces of the N and S walls, and the scars of the lean-to roofs of the attached towers can also be seen (McNeill 1990, 314-6). The roof was originally supported by a central pillar, and the springing of a stone arch survives in the E wall at Level 1. The basement levels in all the towers belong to this phase, and the foundation trenches of the W and S towers describe semi-circles against the keep (Hayden 2011, 117-20), indicating that it may have been laid out on the medieval ‘cana’, a measurement of 2.2m and another of 0.7m (ibid. 106). It is clear from deposits excavated from the towers that occupation continued into the late fifteenth century (ibid. 116-7, 119, 269). There is no well within the castle but rainwater was directed from the roof to the N tower where it could have been collected in barrels over the kitchen, and the exit points from a double row of holes in the N face of the keep can be seen as the N tower does not survive (ibid. 107-110; O’Brien and Fenlon 2002, 36-40).
The floor of the keep at Level 1 was supported on wide offsets, but while there may have been a trapdoor to its basement level (max. potential H 4.7m) it had no natural light and would have been used for little other than storage (Hayden 2011, 120-4). Externally, the entrance doorway in the N wall of the E tower at Level 1 was reached by a wooden stairs, the foot of which was protected by a small masonry forework. Its N wall, with the abutment of a bridge across the deepened fosse of the ring-work was barely evident (ibid. 126-31). Limekilns were required for all this building, and evidence of at least seven were recovered in excavation, although most of these were post-medieval in date. A large kiln that was built into the fosse of the ringwork at NW (ME036-048081-) survived almost complete and would have provided most of the mortar for the keep. The N part of the curtain wall with the Trim Gate and the rectangular towers on the NE circuit (ME036-048078-) could be coeval with this phase.
The square keep, with a square tower attached to the centre of each wall, is an almost unique, even experimental, design whose many facets could provide a degree of enfilading fire but also presented numerous angles that might be undermined. The wooden hoardings that oversailed the walls were accessed from Level 1 and were supported on projecting beams, the putlogs of which are still visible. It was a complex design that was not repeated anywhere else in Ireland. The insertion of a N-S supporting wall to Level 2, and the insertion of the Level 2 floor into the main keep constitute a second phase conducted in the 1190s by Hugh’s son Walter. Window openings had to be broken through the keep’s N and S walls (T c. 3m), and cap-houses were added at the NW and SE angles to supplement those already over the newel or spiral stairs at the other angles (O’Brien and Fenlon 2002, 40-1). The facing of a plinth or talus was added to all the external wall faces, probably as part of the second phase, and a two-storey garderobe or latrine tower was constructed just S of the W tower, only the scars of which remain.
A third phase c. 1201-07 saw the addition of Level 3 to the keep, necessitating the raising of its walls and cap-houses and the raising of the projecting towers to the same height for the first time, but the crenulations do not survive. Originally, the third level of the keep was a large open space acting as a great hall but a N-S dividing wall and masonry arches were added to support the twin roofs probably before 1300 (ibid. 44-6). This wall and the arches were sketched early in the nineteenth century but both collapsed in 1820 (Butler 1861, 37). With the addition of the N-S internal wall at all levels, the eastern portion became the public part of the keep while the W, with a large fireplace at Level 1, was the preserve of the lord and his family. From the lobby inside the entrance in the E tower a passage that had two doorways led to the hall. The chapel above the lobby has an inserted aumbry and piscine beside what was a twin-light window displaced to the N in the E wall. There is an inserted sedelia or seat in the N wall, and the priest’s room is above the chapel at Level 3. This tower, and the kitchen, groin-vaulted cellar and cisterns in the N tower are accessed from a newel stairs at the NE angle of the keep, while its companion at the SW angle accessed storerooms in the S tower and the lord’s chamber at Level 2 in the W tower. This room has an inserted twin-light ogee-headed W window, a fireplace inserted in the N wall and access to the garderobe tower. Like all the projecting towers it originally had a lean-to roof which was replaced by a wooden cruck-frame roof, the supporting corbels of which are still present (O’Brien and Fenlon 2002, 43). Above it was probably the lord’s bed-chamber with an inserted two-light rectangular window in the W wall. Both newel stairs accessed the battlements and the great hall at Level 3, which probably did not function long as it would have been replaced by the new Great Hall (ME036-048079-) inside the N angle of the castle ward.
LATER HISTORY OF THE CASTLE, MANOR AND LIBERTY OF TRIM
The castle was finished by 1224 when it had to be recaptured by the justiciar, William Marshall the younger, from William, a younger half-brother of Walter de Lacy, after a seven week siege (CDI 1203; ME036-048075-). Walter’s sons having pre-deceased him, Hugh’s original lordship was divided between Walter’s granddaughters Matilda and Margaret in 1244. However, Trim castle remained in the King’s hands until 1254 when it was returned to Matilda’s husband, Geoffrey de Geneville, with the liberty of Trim. The liberty was co-extensive with the modern county apart from the northern and eastern baronies of Kells, Morgallion, Slane, and Duleek. However, the contiguous Westmeath baronies of Fore, Delvin, Farbill, Fartullagh, and the barony of Moyashel and Maheradernon were also part of the liberty, making a large unified block with scattered territories further west and north (Otway-Ruthven 1967, 410). The de Verdon portion became centred on Loughsewdy (WM024-004----), forming the core of the county of Meath, which was established in 1297 (ibid. 412).
All the King’s powers were devolved on the Lord of a liberty including the dispensation of justice, apart from some reserved crimes, and only the cross lands or Church lands were outside his jurisdiction. The castle, manor and liberty of Trim are often mentioned together in documents, and the manor or home-farm was an essential support for the castle. In 1540 twenty two cottiers in the town owed labour services to the castle (Mac Niocaill 1992, 57), and day to day maintenance depended on them. No title is associated with the liberty of Trim but the lord took part in the politics of a realm that extended from Ulster and Meath through England and Wales to Aquitaine. Throughout its history the reversion of the castle and the liberty to the Crown, through the minority of the heirs or political disfavour, would affect the status and upkeep of the castle, as any guardian of minors or custodian of the castle was in a position to exploit the property for their own benefit.
The division of Hugh’s original lordship in 1244 would be the only major one in its history. Geoffrey was abroad 1266-73, and again after his term as Lord Lieutenant (1273-6), but he returned to Ireland permanently in 1284, when the Great Hall (ME036-048079-) might have been built. In 1308 he entered the Dominican friary he had founded at Trim (ME036-048022-) in 1263, having settled the liberty on his only eligible granddaughter Joan and her husband Roger Mortimer, the first Earl of March, lord of Dunamase (LA013-052----) and heir to the de Verdon share of Leinster (Duffy 2011, 14), but these were just his Irish interests. Roger probably undertook the construction of the masonry forework (ME036-048082-) outside the keep.
The liberty, castle and manor of Trim would remain in the Mortimer family for 120 years, apart from periods when it reverted to the Crown as it did in 1322-6 and 1330-7 after the earl had been implicated in the death of King Edward II and his execution in 1330 (Earle 1975, 72-5), but Joan settled all the property on her grandson Roger Mortimer, the second Earl of March in 1347. He probably never visited Ireland and died in 1360 when the castle reverted to the Crown, leaving an eight year old son as heir (Duffy 2011, 16-18). While it was in the King’s hands it served as a base for Lionel of Antwerp, a younger son of King Edward III, and the Crown re-furbished the castle extensively in 1367 since Edmund Mortimer, the third Earl of March and Earl of Ulster, was married to the King’s granddaughter, Philippa, and through this connection the castle would ultimately become royal property in 1425. The royal works of 1367 were on the hall constructed c. 1300 and a contemporary document describes how they were intended to: ‘rebuild the tower beyond the west gate… as well as the chamber beyond the gaol connected to that same tower there, and also the chambers of the red hall beneath the said castle which are joined to the tower called Magdalen tower, and the chambers joined to this same tower, including walls, wooden planks, iron, lead, and all other necessary roofing’ (ibid. 18).
The third Earl died in 1381 leaving an infant son, Roger, who would not come of age until 1393 and only live to 1398 but he was probably the largest landowner in the country and connected to the Yorkist camp in England. He made Trim his headquarters in Ireland, fortifying the castle and securing funding for the town walls. The fifth Earl March was only six in 1398 and could have played no part in the events around the Lancastrian coup of 1399, but Trim castle was where the Yorkist King Richard II had placed his treasury while in Ireland. The Earl was one of the principal hopes of the York faction as he carried Royal blood but he served the Lancastrian kings Henry IV and Henry V loyally. Nevertheless, he remained under royal suspicion until his death in 1425, and Trim castle suffered neglect by association (ibid. 20-1). The fifth Earl had no male heir so the Irish property came to his sister’s son, Richard Plantagenet the third Duke of York, whose son succeeded to the English throne as Edward IV in 1461 when the castle became a royal castle by right of ownership (ibid. 21-2). The castle would never have a resident lord again, and the liberty was open to being absorbed into the county of Meath. This did not finally occur until 1479, but the logical step of dividing the combined liberty and county into east and west was not taken until 1541 (Potterton 2005, 113-16), and that division continues to the present.
Richard Plantagenet was only six in 1425 but he spent a year in Ireland as Lord Lieutenant in 1449-50 when he visited Trim. After the Yorkist defeat at Ludford Bridge he fled to Ireland in 1459-60 and established a mint (ME036-048087-) at Trim castle that continued until 1478 at least (ibid. 227-8). Parliaments met at Trim in 1465 and 1485, although probably not at the castle, and in 1494 the disappearance of the Mortimer records from Trim was noted (Duffy 2011, 22-3; Potterton 2005, 116). Under the Tudors plans were made to conduct repairs at the castle but it is doubtful if they were ever effected as Silken Thomas captured it in two hours in 1534, and lost it just as easily the following year. The fabric of the castle continued to disintegrate, despite being mooted as a residence for the Lord Deputy in 1537 and lauded in a proposal of 1584 for a University at Trim. In 1576 a report by the Lord Chancellor describes the great hall: ‘I found the hall where the cessions had bene kepte all open, full of donge and cattayll (cattle) in it as though it a pynefold…’ (Duffy 2011, 24-5).
Grants of the manor of Trim continued into the early seventeenth century with stipulations about building new houses and conducting repairs, which seem never to have been carried out. Nevertheless, when it was attacked by Myles O’Reilly and Catholic rebels in 1641 prolonged fighting was required to oust the defenders under Thomas Prestwick. The castle was recaptured by royalists in 1642 but must have declared for Parliament as it was besieged again by royalists under Preston in 1647. He failed to capture it on that occasion but it did succumb to the royalists in 1649, in time for them to abandon it without a struggle at the approach of Oliver Cromwell. Large forces were involved in these encounters with garrisons of up to 1200 and investing armies of up to 8000 (ibid. 25-6). Alterations in the fabric of the castle at this time are confined almost exclusively to the curtain walls where the large windows of the hall were closed up and replaced by short narrow slits for muskets, and square gun-ports were added to some of the towers.
This was the end of the castle as an effective fortification, and from this time it was being plundered for materials. Sir Adam Loftus who held the lease of the manor complained in 1663 that ‘the back-gate was left wide open, whereby all the planks and floor-beams of seven or eight lofts, together with the roof and other houses or offices belonging to the said castle have been carried away..’ (ibid.27). However, an effort at securing the castle was made in 1689, even before the arrival in Ireland of either King James or King William. Nevertheless, it never saw action as William’s victory on the Boyne at Oldbridge opened the entire east coast to his army and the Jacobites abandoned the castle. Thereafter Trim castle became a property to be bought and sold until it came into state ownership in the 1990s and conservation works began on what is perhaps the finest and most complete late twelfth and early thirteenth century castle in the country.
Trim Castle is a National Monument in state ownership, and is open to the public, from February to November. Access to the grounds is free but only guided tours of keep on payment of a small fee is allowed. See this web-page accessed on 25/05/2022: https://heritageireland.ie/visit/places-to-visit/trim-castle/
See the attached plans of the four levels
Compiled by: Michael Moore
Date of upload: 11 July, 2019Description Source: Department of Housing, Local Government & Heritage