Blog – West Derby Castle

It is not the majesty of a building that dictates its history, but the people,
events and daily moments that produce its legends, myths and folklore.
Unfortunately most are being lost to history – it is therefore our duty to keep their memory alive, as they  are pieces in the jigsaw that make us who we  are today. 
(Sue Carter 2015).
  • West Derby,
  • Liverpool.
  • Lancashire.


West Derby Castle is situated within West Derby Hundred in the county of Lancashire. Although there are no physical remains of this once important castle, its legacy lives on as being the major center of administration for the north-west of England and the precursor to the legendary castle at Liverpool, in terms of wealth, power and politics during the 11th and 12th centuries.

West Derby Hundred
John Steed


Previously West Derby had been known as Derbi and West Derbie with the names deriving from doer – meaning deer; and –by – meaning an enclosure (Greaney 2015). The name ‘West’ was added to separate it from the town of Derby, in Derbyshire. There was a large hunting forest in the area so the etymology fits well to this site. The name was given by the Danes, as were many of the local villages and towns in the area; Fornby, Crosby, Kirkby, Roby, Ormskirk, Thingwall, Garston and Widness (Baines 1868: 290).

The positioning of West Derby Castle, when it was built, was one of strategic importance. It sat between two brooks, roughly a mile apart, on raised ground, so that three of its sides were protected by river and mash (Farrer & Brownbill 1908: 544), and the whole site was surrounded by woods.

The layout of the castle was typical of the motte and bailey type of its time. Looking at the diagram below, A was the area of the motte with B being the bailey. The motte would have held the keep and is surrounded by a double ditch. The area labelled B, the bailey, was slightly larger than that of the motte and this would have held ancillary building for the garrison and others attending to those living in the keep.

Plan of West Derby Castle
Public Domain


The total area of the site covered just 1¼ acres, but size should not take away from its importance and aesthetics. In its heyday it would have been an imposing sight – motte, bailey, and moat, defended by wooden palisades, a mobile bridge system and naturally defended by marshes, rivers and woods.

The history and people associated with the castle is interesting and demonstrates its importance within English history. Our research begins with the ownership of the area by Edward the Confessor around the year 1042. During his reign part of Lancaster was included in Yorkshire with the remaining parts of the county and Chester divided into three. The Hundred of West Derby was located in the area between the River Ribble to Mersey. It is not known whether The Confessor visited his estates in Lancaster but they were perfectly catered for in terms of hunting lodges and mansions. The district of West Derby, in the year 1066 covered an area of 50,567 acres (Baines 1868: 196).

Prior to the Confessor’s reign, the Mersey had acted as a boundary between kingdoms – those of Northumbria and Mercia, and of the territories of the Danes and the Saxons. According to the Domesday Survey

In Derby Hundred King Edward had one manor, named Derbie, with six berewicks. There were four hides; land sufficient to employ fifteen ploughs; a wood two miles long and one broad, and an earie of hawks. (Baines 1868: 537).

Soon after the Domesday Survey was compiled, the manor of Newton and Warrington were incorporated into West Derby, expanding its borders and making it richer in the process.

The landholder following the Norman Conquest in 1066 was Roger of Poitou, (also known as Roger de Poitou, Roger comes de Poitou, and Roger the Poitevin). He was the younger son of Roger de Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury (Chandler 1989: 1), who held vast areas of land in England and France, and a major player in Norman politics

Roger himself married a wealthy woman, ‘Almondis, daughter of Audebert II, Count of La Marche and Poitou’ (Green 2002: 353; Crouch 2005: 44) who had vast lands which included the very wealthy Honour of Eye in Suffolk; and when this was added to Roger’s lands it made his position in Norman England a very powerful one, just like his father.

Roger constructed the castle at West Derby sometime during the 11th century, and it is unknown if this was the first structure on the site or whether it replaced a possible hunting lodge that may already have existed. He is believed to have ‘constructed a timber castle on an earthen mound, with ancillary buildings within an outer bailey’ (Pollard & Pevsner 2006: 18), a standard design for the time.

Surrounding the castle and its lands were six berewicks ‘Thingwall, Liverpool, Great Crosby, Aintree with part of Walton, Everton, Garston with Aigburth, and Hale with Halewood’. But by the end of the 12th Century more land was added to the manor including ‘part of Walton, Wavertree, part of Formby, Altcar, Raven Moels, Ainsdale, and Uplitherland’. A forest was created by either Henry I or Roger de Poitou, and ‘Toxteth, Smithdown, and a part of Knowsley called Croxteth were afforested’ (Victoria County History 1907).

The extent of the lands held by Roger de Poitou, his family lands, the importance of his marriage and the citing of his castle at West Derby meant that he was a very powerful member of the Norman aristocracy. West Derby castle became the centre of administration for the North West of England (Dugden 2012; Greaney 2015), whose importance was equal to that of Lancaster, the chief seat of the county (Victoria County History 1907), which Roger also held. He had built the castle at Lancaster at the end of the 11th Century and also founded Lancaster Priory in 1094.

Part of the administration handled at West Derby Castle was the laying down and upholding the laws and the entries below, from the laws of the time under Roger de Poitou, show that crimes have not changed much over the centuries;

–       i,  269v (R1-40b) Roger the Poitevin; West Derby: If any freeman committed theft (facaret farcum), robbery (forestel), housebreaking (heinfara), or breach of the King’s peace (pacem regis infringebat), he paid a fine (emendabat) of 40s.

–       i, 269v (R1-40c) Roger de Poitevin; West Derby: If anyone drew blood (facibat sanguinem), raped a woman (raptum de femina), or stayed away from the shiremoot without a reasonable excuse (remanebot de siremot sine rationabili excusantione), he paid a fine (emendabat) of 10s.  (Fleming 2003: 221)


In 1102 Roger rebelled against Henry I with his brothers. The result was he lost all of his English lands. Henry I kept hold of the Hundred of West Derby as it produced a really good yearly income. The Hundred stayed with the Crown and when Stephen became king in 1135, he granted the honour of Lancaster, including the Hundred of West Derby, to his son, William de Blois.

In 1153 Ranulf, Earl of Chester claimed the lands as an hereditary right,

Duke Henry’s Charter of 1153 – The terms suggest that Ranulf claimed the hereditary right in the Honours of William d’Albini Brito, Erneis de Burun, Alan of Lincoln and Roger Malet. To these we may add the Honour of Roger de Poitou, since one of the Earl’s charters implies that his father Ranulf Meschin had once been Lord of the portion between Ribble and Mersey (White 1976:558).

He therefore took possession and in the same year it is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that the castles throughout England were repaired and strengthened, with Lords placing all of the labour upon the shoulders of their peasants. It is therefore believed that West Derby Castle would also have been strengthened and/or repaired in line with the unrest. In 1146 the Scots had invaded as far south as Lancaster (White 1976:556) and in 1149 Ranulf allied himself with King David of Scotland.

It is unsure how long he held the lands as West Derby Hundred was controlled by Robert de Ferrers, 2nd Earl of Derby. in 1156. Robert had upset the king and later in that year the lands were confiscated and granted back to William of Blois.

William died in 1159 without issue and the lands he held reverted back to the Crown. Henry II had visited Ireland in 1171 using Liverpool as an anchorage. Situated in the south west of the West Derby Hundred, the small anchorage was gaining a reputation as a good port with easy access to Ireland. (Blake 2003) demonstrating his knowledge of this site as the possible prospect for a larger and more important port.

First known view of Liverpool
©Liverpool City Group

In 1176 Henry II granted the Hundred to Warin de Lancaster, governor of Lancaster Castle. Liverpool however, was not included in this grant, showing the growing interest that the Crown had in the small hamlet and it’s closeness with easy access to Ireland.  The West Derby lands did not stay in de Lancaster’s hands for long and were granted to John, Earl of Mortain (later King John) in 1183. In 1185 John visited Ireland and used the anchorage at Liverpool as his port. (Blake 2003). Dudgeon (2012) has put forward the theory that John may have used West Derby Castle as his headquarters whilst he was in the area due to its importance and closeness to Liverpool, and ease of access to Ireland (Dudgeon 2012), and this may very well have been the case, as there were no other adequate defended sites within the area.

In 1194 the Hundred of West Derby and the area of Liverpool were taken from John, by his brother, King Richard. In his hands, repairs to West Derby Castle were undertaken in 1197 (Historic England 2015).

Following the death of Richard I in 1199, John inherited the throne, and therefore all the lands that had been taken from him by his brother, including Liverpool and West Derby Hundred came back into his hands. In 1202 further repairs were made to the castle.

King John, busy running the country, leased out the West Derby lands to Henry fitz Warin. West Derby Castle was a hive of activity at this time for ‘the Pipe Rolls of 1213 records a garrison of 140 foot soldiers, 10 knights and 10 crossbowmen’ (Dugden 2012). This seems a large force for in 1207 the centre of Administration for the area moved from West Derby Castle to Liverpool and earlier in the year King John had made Liverpool a Royal borough, cementing its importance terms of both its location and connections (Pollard & Pevsner 2006: 19).

The importance that King John now placed on Liverpool are demonstrated in the grant of lands to Henry fitz Warin,

John’s personal interest in Liverpool was immediately made known however, when he became King, when on confirming lands of the principal tenants of the Crown in Lancashire, Liverpool was omitted from the deed to Henry fitz Warin, the son of Warin de Lancaster. This suggests that John had already decided to take possession of Liverpool, and establish a port there. John’s plans were to prove fatal to the old administrative and military stronghold of West Derby, and were to prove to be the first step in Liverpool’s rise to ascendancy over its parent manor.

 Liverpool was also legally separated from West Derby by the establishment of its own court, the Portmoot, which took the place of the old manorial court, the Halmote, held at West Derby (Blake 2003).

And so began the decline of West Derby in respect to losing its important role as one of England’s main administrative centres.

In 1216 West Derby Hundred was held by Ranulf, Earl of Chester, as custodian. It is recorded that between 1218 and 1227 ‘considerable expenditure was incurred in repairs to the drawbridge and the garrison quarters in the bailey’ (Historic England 2015). This shows that the site did not go out of use the minute its administrative functions were relocated to Liverpool. The fact that repairs were carried out shows that the castle was still considered an important place and worthy of the time and cost of repairing it.

William de Ferrers, Earl of Derby, was custodian of the Hundred in 1226 and 1227. In 1227 Liverpool had grown stronger and wealthier than the whole of West Derby Hundred, and in 1228 custodianship changed from the Earl of Derby to Adam de Yoland, and in 1229 Henry III wrote a Charter that

Sealed Liverpool’s ascendancy over West Derby. Liverpool was confirmed as a free borough forever and was relieved from attending the Hundred Courts at West Derby (Blake 2003).

The Earl was granted funds ‘for keeping ward of the castles of Lancaster and West Derby, and of the county’ (Victoria County History 1907). His reputation was not a good one though and he ‘infringed the rights and liberties of the men of that region, especially in respect of the forest’ (Victoria County History 1907), and the lands were confiscated.

In 1229 Henry III granted West Derby Hundred to Ranulf, Earl of Chester and Lincoln, but not Liverpool. Ranulf died in 1232 without issue and his lands were divided between his four sisters and their husbands (Gregson 1817: xiv). West Derby Hundred went to his sister Agnes, and her husband, William de Ferrers, Earl of Derby.

William de Ferrers is believed to have been the builder of Liverpool Castle ‘inferred from writs of 19 January, 1235, for an aid to be made to him for the strengthening of his castle at Liverpool’ (Victoria County History 1907). This implies that he held both West Derby Hundred and Liverpool too.


Liverpool Castle
Public Domain             

William I de Ferrers died in 1247 and he was succeeded by his son, William II de Ferrers. This William inherited all of his father’s lands which included Liverpool and West Derby Castles. His reputation seems not to have been a good one for in 1253

He was impleaded by the Kings Court by the men of the hundred for illegally forcing upon them a gryth – sergeant of his own election, whom they by custom ought to elect by the consent, and under the advice of the sheriff (Victoria County History 1907).

The case was never finalized as the Earl died in 1254 and was succeeded by his son Robert de Ferrers, Earl of Derby. Robert was only 14 when he inherited and during his minority the King granted the lands to be kept by his son Prince Edmund.  Robert came of age in 1259 and took over his lands and responsibilities, and he took them very seriously, for in 1263 he is recorded as having taken men from his lands to court ‘for offences in his forest against deer’ (Victoria County History 1907). In 1264 he took part in the Second Baron’s War, against the King, and the lands were confiscated and reverted back to the Crown. De Ferrers submitted in 1265 and was pardoned, but he had not learned his lesson. He rebelled again in 1266 and was defeated at the Battle of Chesterfield, along with his followers, and this time the lands were taken off of him permanently and granted to Prince Edmund, founder of the House of Lancaster permanently.

Prince Edmund with St George
Public Domain

The king granted Edmund the Honour, county, town and castle of Lancaster, including all the king’s demesnes in Lancashire, on 30 June, 1267. Prince Edmund died in 1296 and his lands were inherited by his son, Thomas, who then became Earl of Lancaster.

West Derby Castle appears to have been neglected by the previous owners for it is recorded as having been abandoned by 1297 and that ‘cattle were grazing on the site’ (Pollard & Pevsner 2006: 20). The castle was then forgotten over the years and the next recorded event was when the motte was levelled in 1817.

Archaeology can tell us a lot about a site, and West Derby Castle is no exception. It was first excavated in 1927 and 1957 by Liverpool University (English Heritage 2015). Trenches were cut across the motte and bailey ditch and this revealed two V-shaped ditches, with each ditch measures 4m wide. (Cheetham 1928: 240). This is confusing if it represents the defences of the site. For a place with the important job as the administrative centre for the north west of England, these ditches are shallow, with only a 350 angle to them.

A second trench was cut across the bailey ditch and this showed that the banks on both sides had been heightened

The second trench showed remains of an artificial raising of the level on both sides of the outer ditch which proved to be single, 9 m wide, and cut to the same depth as the river ditches (Cheetham 1928:240).

Again, these ditches are very shallow for such an important site. Following is a revised plan of the castle that I have illustrated showing the two ditches around the motte site marked A, as per the excavation findings.

Suggested Plan of West Derby Castle
©Sue T Carter 2015

The raising of the banks of the bailey ditch indicated the need for further protection for the site during a time of conflict and my guess is that this occurred during the 1218-1227 period, as we have a record of works being carried out, however, more dating material, in the way of finds, would be a bonus, as we know the site had works undertaken in 1197, 1202 and possibly during the Anarchy in 1153.

Ideally evidence of earlier occupation of the site would be great to uncover. Newman (2006) has mentioned that West Derby Castle, amongst some others, may have originated as a ringwork.  Further archaeological investigations would be required to demonstrate if this were the case.

The 1927 excavations also revealed the remains of a bridge that spanned the ditches across to the bailey. There are no written records of this, however, archaeology has thrown up some answers. The bridge was short and appears to have been built only once and never replaced or repaired. What is thought to be the remains of the uprights still survive and measure 3m square and were made of oak. Slanting struts supported the uprights at the four corners (Cheetham 1928: 240).

Engineering analysis has shown that the levelling was of a high standard, showing that the carpenters and engineers of the time knew what they were doing and that no expense was spared in its construction. There is also evidence of a mobile section, meaning that part of it could be raised, or lowered, if the need should arise, for defence purposes (Rigold 1975: 64).

Plan of the remains of the bridge structure
©Rigold 1975


Other significant finds were also revealed dating from the 13th and 14th centuries and these include lead glazed pottery, metal, the leather sole of a shoe or boot, some bone or horn and some in situ timbers representing the palisade that once stood around the bailey (Historic England 2015; English Heritage 2105).

Not all of the finds on the site are directly related to the ancient castle. The excavations also turned up the remains of a structure that had been built on the site in the 14th or 15th Century, believed to have been a dwelling. It had a remodelled partition hearth and fireplace, and a clay floor (Gaimster et al 1990: 202). This had been partially built over one of the infilled ditches. There are no records of this so these are important finds which add to the history of the site, which has been forgotten over the years, and add another chapter to its history.

With the dwelling dating to the 14th-15th Centuries, and the discovery that it was constructed over part of the infilled ditch, we can then assume that the ditches would have been filled in pretty soon after the castle went out of use and fell into ruin. The building may have been constructed out of materials that were part of the ruined castle. One hypothesis put forward has been that the building may have been a mill, for a ‘shallow negative feature running east-west at least 26 m long and 8 m wide’  was uncovered and ‘may have been associated with the motte ditch or perhaps with an early mill site’ (Gaimster et al 1990: 202).


Timeline for West Derby Castle,

*                      Motte and bailey castle of high importance within the region, and administration center for lands south of the River Ribble.

*                      The Court Leet was held at the castle every 3 weeks and called the Wapentake Court. The Halmote Court was also held for the area of Wavertree. They had their own bailiff.

*                      Timber motte and bailey castle built by Roger de Poitou which included a moat and timber bridge.

1100-1135          During: Parts of the manor were afforested by either Henry I or Roger de Poitou.

12th C                End: Manor enlarged.

c.1207               Administration center was moved to Liverpool Castle.

1213                 The garrison included 140 foot soldiers, 10 knights and 10 crossbowmen.

1226                 The Earl of Derby was granted an allowance of £100 annually for the county of Lancaster and the castles of Lancaster and West Derby.

1229                 18 October: Lands granted to Ranulf, Earl of Chester by Henry III.

1230                 Ranulf, Earl of Chester died, and the site passed to William de Ferrers through his wife Agnes.

1247                 The Earl of Derby died.

1247                 10 November: West Derby and Liverpool castles were signed over to William de Ferrers upon the death of his wife, Agnes.

1251                 A Charter of Free Warren was granted.

1253                 The Earl was taken to court by the men of his manor as he had appointed his own serjeant.

1254                 The Earl died, and the lands were granted to Prince Edward whilst the earl’s son was still a minor.

1260                 Robert de Ferrers came of age and took over his lands.

1263                 Robert de Ferrers, the 6th Earl, took action against poachers in his forest.

1263                 Robert de Ferrers took part in the 2nd Barons War.

1265                 Robert de Ferrers was pardoned after he submitted to the king.

1266                 Robert de Ferrers led at the Battle of Chesterfield, was defeated, taken to London and disinherited. The lands were granted to Prince Edward, the King’s second son.

1297                 The site was abandoned, and cattle were grazing on it. The buildings ruined.

1327                 In ruins.

1817                 The motte was levelled.

20th C                The moat was excavated.

West Derby Castle really is an interesting site and one which thoroughly deserves more archaeological investigations to uncover the pieces still missing from the jigsaw puzzle of its history. Held by Kings, and Knights of the Realm, this little piece of English history has a fascinating and colourful past, and must be remembered for its importance and the role it played in early English political history.



Baines. T. 1868. Lancashire & Cheshire: Past and Present. Volume 1. T. Baines.

Blake. N. 2003. The Decline of the Manor of West Derby and the Rise of Liverpool during the Medieval Period. Mike Royden’s Local History Pages. Available at Viewed 27 March 2015.

Chandler. V. 1989. The Last of the Montgomery’s: Roger the Poitvin and Arnulf. Historical Research, Vol. 62, No. 147 (February 1989), pp. 1-14.

Cheetham. F. H. 1928. Excavations at West Derby, Liverpool. The Antiquities Journal, Volume 8, No. 2 (Apr., 1928), p. 240.

Crouch. D. 2005. The Image of Aristocracy In Britain 1000 – 1300. Oxford: Routledge.

Dudgeon. P. 2012. Our Liverpool. London: Hachette, UK.

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Flemimg. R. 2003. Domesday Book and the Law: Society and Legal Custom in Early Medieval England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gaimster. D. R. M., Margeson. S., & Hurley. M. 1990. Medieval Britain and Ireland in 1989. Medieval Archaeology, Vol. 34., pp. 162-252.

Greaney. M. 2015. History of West Derby. Historic Liverpool. Available at Viewed 2 April 2015.

Green. J. A. 2002. The Aristocracy of Norman England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gregson. M. 1817. Portfolio of Fragments Relative to the History and Antiquities of the County Palatine and Duchy of Lancaster. Liverpool: GF Harris’s Widow and Brothers.

Historic England. 2015. List Entry – West Derby Castle. Available at Viewed 2 April 2015.

Newman. C. 2006. The Medieval Period Resource Assessment. Archaeology North West, Vol. 8, Issue 18 (2006), pp 115-144.

Pollard. R., & Pevsner. N. 2006. Lancashire: Liverpool and the South West. Yale: Yale University Press.

Rigold. S. E. 1975. Structural Aspects of Medieval Timber Bridges. Medieval Archaeology, Vol. 19, pp. 48-91.

Victoria County History. 1907. A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 3. London: Institute of Historical Research.

White. G. 1976. King Stephen, Duke Henry and Ranulf de Gernons, Earl of Chester. The English Historical Review. Volume 91, No. 360, (Jul., 1976), pp. 555-565.



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