At the turn of the 15th century, Sir Ralph Eure, a notable figure from Northumberland, married Katherine de Aton and set about building an improved building which would be more effective against any future Scottish raids. He based his design on a Pele (pronounced peel) Tower which was a common defensive dwelling of the day along the Scottish Borders and in his native Northumberland, but rarely built this far south.
The Pele Tower
The small fortified keep was built on the site of at least two earlier strongly constructed dwellings belonging to the de Atons. It would have been originally surrounded by a high defensive wall which provided the first line of defence to the tower, and which in times of danger offered refuge both to the resident family and to the local community who worked the de Aton's land and who lived in simple huts outside these walls. The villagers would herd their animals inside and help defend the Pele in return for shelter by their landlord.
By an Act of Parliament in 1455, each of these towers was required to have an iron basket on its summit where signal fires could be lit by the household to warn of approaching danger.
The only access into the tower was through an armoured door in the west wall. This opened into the lower ground which was divided into a kitchen and store room. The vaulted stone roof, which still survives, protected the tower above in case of fire.
To the left of the door, a staircase built into the thickness of the wall led to the rest of the castle. The first floor was used as a communal room where the estate and household business was carried out and the second floor comprised the private quarters. The staircase continued on up to the turret and roof-walk. A secondary staircase in the south east corner, which can still be seen today, joined the store room to the first floor.
Life in a Pele Tower
Within the walls, as well as the tower itself, were a series of other buildings which served the de Aton household. These would have included granaries, stables, barns, a brewhouse and a blacksmith's forge. Excavations have also revealed the remains of a dovecote and fishponds which would be principally for food production. These were ‘living larders’ and, due to their construction and maintenance costs, were often associated with sites reflecting nobility, or religious authority.
Dovecotes were buildings designed to house doves. In the medieval period they were subject to manorial monopolies. A range of forms existed but all featured niches for the doves to nest in and open access, usually through the roof, so that doves could feed in the local countryside. Ground level access was restricted to keep out predators and for security. An average dovecote could have 1000 nesting niches.
Fishponds were artificial fresh-water pools for breeding, raising and storing fish and were often complex, with groups of ponds and several water channels. These were typically associated with high status sites such as manor houses, castles and monasteries. Since they required a fresh water supply valley locations were typical. Most were close to settlements, so that they could be watched as was the case here at Ayton.
Pele Towers were built with little consideration for comfort and as living standards had improved by the 1500s, the harsh conditions of the castle encouraged the Eure family to move to the relative luxury of their Malton mansion.
The castle was leased, then sold, and by 1680 was unoccupied. In 1775, stones from the by then ruined castle were used in the construction of the bridge between East and West Ayton. Finally, in Victorian times the ground floor was adopted for use as a cowshed.