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Authors: Marc Morris

Kings and Castles


Kings and Castles


Marc Morris


© Marc Morris

Marc Morris has
asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be
identified as the author of this work.

First published 2012 by Endeavour Press Ltd.


1. English
Castles – A Spotter’s Guide


Castles are an exceedingly mixed bunch. They can apparently
be anything from giant fortress-palaces to underwhelming mounds of earth; they
can date from thousands of years ago or from well into the modern age. Even for
those who know their history, the diversity of what constitutes a castle can
seem more than a little baffling.

So what is a castle? The Oxford English Dictionary tells us
that the word itself derives from the Latin
and suggests that a castle is ‘a fortified building... a stronghold’. Most
castle experts would go further. A true castle, they would say, was also a
private residence – a home – and this important qualification helps narrow the
field considerably. Take, for example, Maiden Castle in Dorset,
Castle in Oxfordshire – both majestic
fortifications, but, crucially, communal ones, erected to protect entire
prehistoric communities; rightly speaking, we should (and generally do) refer
to them as Iron Age hill forts. Similarly, we can disqualify
‘Castle’ in Kent, which was in reality a camp
for Roman soldiers. And, while we’re kicking impostors out of the castle club,
we should exclude all those little ‘castles’ that Henry VIII built along the
south coast to foil a French invasion. Deal,
, St
, Camber,
, Hurst, Portland – sturdy little troopers all, but
artillery forts for Henry’s gunners, not homes for the king himself.

The true castle was not prehistoric, Roman or Tudor, but
medieval. It is in the
Ages (from 1066 to, say,
1500) that we see fortification and domesticity fusing to create a new and
distinctive category of building. In a castle, defensive elements (the drawbridge,
the portcullis,
and battlements) are
elegantly combined with the residential ones (the hall, the chapel, chambers
and kitchens). Of course, not all castles possess all these features – like
modern private homes, no two are exactly alike. As you might expect, in a
period spanning more than four centuries, there was an awful lot of variety in
castle design.

As the date 1066 suggests, the story of castles in England begins with the Normans. These earliest castles were first
and foremost weapons of conquest, used by the Normans to hold down a reluctant English
population, and as such the vast majority of them were built at great speed –
out of wood. For the most part they were also built to a common design – the
famous ‘
and bailey’. The
a giant artificial mound of earth surmounted by a wooden tower, was the
castle’s look-out and ultimate place of defence; the adjacent bailey, an
enclosure formed by steep banks and ditches, housed the rest of the castle’s
buildings. Pickering in Yorkshire
provides an excellent example. Of course, the original wooden walls at such
castles are now long gone but, if you spot a
you can be sure it was erected early: certainly within a century (and most
likely within a generation) of the Conquest itself.

While most early castles were hastily erected from earth and
wood, a tiny handful were being built out of stone, and to a far grander
design. In place of a
, the richest
castle-builders – the king and his greatest barons – erected giant stone towers
(or keeps, as they are sometimes called today). The earliest belong to the
eleventh century, but in general ‘the great tower’ is a twelfth-century
phenomenon. And phenomenon, as the recreated interior of Henry
Great Tower at Dover
makes clear, is an entirely appropriate word, for these buildings were palaces,
nothing less. Identifying them is fairly straightforward, because of their
sheer size and bulk (Rochester in Kent, soaring to 113 feet, is the tallest such
tower in Europe). The period in which they
were built means that they exhibit ‘Romanesque’ features – look out for
semi-circular arches, chevron decoration and blind arcading (as at Castle
Rising in Norfolk).
Perhaps surprisingly, great towers often display no obvious military hardware –
few of them, for example, have
– because
in each case they were surrounded by defensible walls which have often (as at
in Suffolk) entirely vanished.

Those walls, however, are the key to the next big development
in castle design. Around the year 1200, great towers fell out of favour –
probably because they were viewed as vulnerable to new more advanced forms of
attack (the giant catapults known as trebuchets). Attention shifted to the
perimeter walls, which were now interrupted by towers. Early examples (such as
in Suffolk)
favoured square towers, but soon the preference was for round ones (again,
probably because they were believed to be stronger). At the same time, extra
care was taken to defend the castle’s entrance by positioning a tower either
side of it, creating a ‘twin-towered’ gatehouse. Such gatehouses, and round
mural towers – these are the tell-tale signs that you are confronting a
thirteenth-century castle. Goodrich, near the Welsh border in Herefordshire,
provides a splendid example.

As we move into the late
Ages, identifying a common type of castle becomes virtually impossible.
Contrary to popular belief, England
at this time was relatively peaceful; there was little need to build for
defence and, consequently, castles tended to become more architecturally
exuberant. Certain defensive features help with dating: sure signs of a late
medieval build are
(as opposed to
) and machicolation (masonry standing proud
around the top of a tower). At the same time, these features are often so
mannered that modern experts wonder whether they were merely stuck on for
reasons of status. In general, if a castle seems to be almost too picturesque
in Somerset),
or its design too clever by half (Old
Wiltshire, or
in Northumbria), a late medieval date
is likely. The same is true if a castle is built of brick, like Kirby
in Leicestershire, built from 1480. Or rather
half-built, for construction there came to an abrupt halt in 1483 when its
unfortunate owner had his head chopped off – about as good an end for the story
of the medieval castle as one could wish for.


Castles and Symbolism


Castles are the most important architectural legacy of the
Ages. In terms of scale and sheer numbers, they
outclass every other form of ancient monument. What’s more, the public has an
enduring love affair with these great buildings. Every year, over fifty million
people pay a visit to a castle in the UK.

But what is a castle? A thousand years after their
introduction to Britain,
you’d have thought the experts could come up with a straightforward answer to
such an apparently simple question. But when it comes to castles, we live in
uncertain times. At present, a satisfactory definition of what they really are
seems to be more elusive than ever.

The Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, is not
particularly helpful. A castle, it tells us, is ‘a fortified building, a
stronghold’. But it takes only a moment’s reflection to work out that this
definition will not do as a qualifying test. Plenty of other things besides
castles could be described in this way: Iron Age hill forts, nineteenth-century
Martello towers, and Second World War pill boxes are all ‘strongholds’ – but
they are clearly not castles.

In fact, historians have been pointing out for a long time
that a ‘true’ castle ought to have more than just military potential; it also
had to function as a home. A real castle was a private residence for a lord and
his family, not simply a stronghold for a garrison of fighting men.
Accordingly, at a castle we should expect to find not just
battlements and drawbridges, but also great halls, chapels, bedrooms, kitchens
– all the things necessary for an aristocrat and his household to lead the
medieval good life.

So historians eventually settled on a definition of a castle
as a ‘strongly fortified, private home’, and this seemed to do the trick. It
distinguished the earliest Norman castles from the communal defences of the
Anglo-Saxons and the Romans that came before them, and it differentiated later
castles from the purely military buildings that were constructed once the
Ages were over. Using this definition, we could point
to places like
Castle in Oxfordshire (really an Iron
Age hill fort) or Deal Castle in Kent
(one of a number of artillery bastions built along England’s south coast by Henry
VIII) and knowledgeably expose them as castle frauds. For a long time everybody
was happy with the idea that a true castle was a fortress and a private home
rolled into one.

Recently, however, some bright sparks have politely pointed
out that there is a tiny problem with this definition: a lot of the country’s
favourite castles seemed to be useless as fortresses.

Take, for example,
in Sussex.
A late fourteenth-century creation, it belongs towards the end of the
castle-building tradition in England.
Nevertheless, its credentials as a castle seem impeccable. Indeed,
seems to strike a perfect balance between the military
and the domestic – a beautiful, comfortable place to live, but also a supremely
well-equipped fortress. Bristling with battlements and towers, protected by
portcullises and gun-loops, and situated at the centre of a broad moat,
exhibits all the military hardware that the
security-conscious medieval family could wish for.

The only snag is that none of these military features
actually work. The gun-loops are ill-positioned, the moat could easily be
drained and the battlements are small and thin. The castle’s main gate, which
speaks loudly of military might, is contradicted by its back entrance, which
would have been easy to access and weakly defended.
in other words, is all talk and no action; in a real fight, it would have been
almost useless.

The castle, however, is not weedy by accident. Its builder,
Sir Edward
, was an expert soldier –
indeed, he paid for
using the profits he made
in war. As such, he would have been the first person to spot whether or not a
building was suitable for defence. But like the mason whom he employed to
design the castle, Sir Edward was well aware that late fourteenth-century England (Chaucer’s England, if you like) was a
peaceful place, where serious fortification was unnecessary. What he needed was
not an impregnable fortress, but a splendid home, crammed to the rafters with
accommodation. At
, you can still count around
thirty fireplaces and a similar number of toilets.
was a man rising rapidly through the ranks of society – his family came from
humble origins, but he ended his days as a royal councillor. The castle he
built was not intended to house a garrison of soldiers, but to provide
hospitality for honoured guests.

At the same time, Sir Edward was a knight, not
hotelier. He needed a home in which to play the host, but
it had to be a home that spoke of nobility. In short, it had to be a castle.
is decked out with portcullises, battlements, towers
and a moat, not because they were necessary as defences, but because they were
essential as symbols of aristocratic power.

It is this symbolic value of castles that has attracted the
attention of scholars in recent years. They have been keen to point out that
castles did not necessarily have to be built as functional fortresses, but as
symbols of their owners’ right to rule. What’s more, this was true not only of
late medieval castles like
, where defence was
only a minor consideration, but also of earlier examples, where fortification
would still have been high on the list of priorities.

Travel back a hundred years from
to the late thirteenth century, and leave the rolling hills of Sussex for the wild frontier of Wales. King
Edward I, having conquered the country, has secured his hold on it by building
the most remarkable string of castles in the world. The mighty structures that
still stand at
, Conwy, Caernarfon,
and Flint are
tribute to the iron will of the king, the genius of his master mason, and the
enormous power of late medieval England as a state. There is no question that
these buildings, as well as being luxury residences fit for a king, were also
fighting machines par excellence. The technology of defence at each of Edward’s
castles is absolutely state of the art.

But Edward also wanted his new castles to be symbols of his
power. By choosing to build the greatest of them at Caernarfon, he was bringing
to life an ancient legend. The king was an enthusiastic devotee of chivalric
literature, and knew of an old Welsh story that told of a great castle at
Caernarfon, ‘the fairest mortal ever saw’. The fortress-palace that Edward
began to build was certainly worthy of such a description. But fulfilling the
legend meant more than simply creating a castle that was big and beautiful.
When they came to design Caernarfon, Edward and his architect made a radical
departure from the features used at his other Welsh castles. At
, Conwy and
, the towers are round, and the walls were once
whitewashed. At Caernarfon the walls are polygonal, and the masonry was left
bare, in order to expose the different coloured bands of stone in the castle’s

Why the difference? The answer is that Caernarfon was said in
legend to be the birthplace of the Roman emperor Constantine, founder of the
city of Constantinople.
The ancient walls of this imperial capital had polygonal towers and banded
masonry. Edward, by building his new
castle to the same pattern, was delivering a powerful
message to all who cared to read it. Welsh independence, he declared, was over;
was now part of a new English empire. As a finishing touch, stone eagles were
perched on top of Caernarfon’s greatest tower, hammering the imperial message

Edward I was not the first English king to go to such elaborate
lengths in order to make a political point. The greatest castle building king
of the previous century, Henry II, was also responsible for creating castles in
order to symbolise his authority. One of the king’s castles,
in Suffolk,
has a great tower built to a highly unusual design. The body of the keep is
round, and supported by three large buttressing towers. Traditionally these
features have been explained as developments in military technology, but
recently this analysis has been rejected; if anything, such novelties made the
keep itself more vulnerable.
actually seems to
be an intentionally whimsical creation, built as an exercise in geometry, and
inspired by descriptions of circular halls in twelfth-century romances.

Likewise, Henry’s new keep at Dover, which is always interpreted as a
stronghold built to guard the White Cliffs from some unspecified foreign
menace, can be understood as the king’s response to a threat much closer to
home. Just fifteen miles from Dover stands
Canterbury Cathedral, then as now the administrative heart of the English Church. Thanks to Henry’s unintentional
martyring of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170, Canterbury became an international
destination for pilgrims. The keep at Dover,
constructed just over decade after Becket’s death, was perhaps a royal response
to Canterbury’s
growing power – a reminder to all who saw it that Henry, although he was very
sorry about Becket’s death, was still determined to be master in his own

Even when we cast our eye back to the eleventh century, we
find William the Conqueror, the builder of the first stone castles in England, using
castles for propaganda purposes. The king’s contemporary biographer is forever
comparing his royal subject to Julius Caesar, and likens William’s leading men
to the Roman senate. Such flattery seems to have rubbed off on the king
himself, to judge from some of the castles he built. Wherever he invested in
stone, William deliberately invoked the Roman past. In his new capital, he
began to build the Tower
of London, making use of
the existing Roman walls to form the outer enclosure. At Colchester, a similar
great tower was erected over the foundations of the ruined Roman temple of Claudius. At Chepstow the king
constructed a great hall using material from an old Roman town, and decorated
throughout in an imperial style. With such grand castles, built in a
‘Romanesque’ style, William declared himself a conqueror on a par with Julius

Even the humblest type of early castle – the kind made from
earth and timber – could be built with attention to symbolic detail. Take a
look at the castle at Bayeux
as shown on the famous Bayeux Tapestry. The mound of earth, or
, is topped with a very elaborate, decorated
structure, complete with what appears to be a dragon’s head over the doorway.
This image is a useful reminder that even castles made of wood were not
constructed exclusively for reasons of defence and accommodation. They were
built to proclaim loudly their owners’ authority, and to show off their
strength. In England
after 1066, such castles advertised the arrival of a new power in the land.

Such ostentatious castle-building was not confined to England and Wales. The distinctive type of
castle that dominated late medieval Scotland, the tower house, had a
symbolic importance that often outweighed considerations of security. This is
especially obvious in the case of the very last examples, like
in Aberdeenshire (about as useful in a siege
situation as the Disney castle it resembles). But it is also true of earlier
models. Take
, near Edinburgh, the biggest tower house of them
When the Scottish king James I licensed the construction
of the tower in 1430, he gave the builder specific permission for ‘defensive
ornaments on top’.

Kings and nobles at the time, in other words, were under no
illusion that the castle they built made flamboyant statements about their own
importance. It is only later, more imaginative generations who mistakenly
interpreted the architectural embellishments on these buildings as serious
military hardware. The main purpose of
Castle was the same as
– hospitality. Its suitability in this regard is
perfectly underlined by its present day use as a fancy hotel.

So, the next time you visit a castle, and the guide talks
exclusively in terms of crossbows and cannonballs, boiling oil and battering
rams, ask yourself if you’re getting the whole picture. Remember, castles were
homes to their owners, not just instruments of war. And ask yourself if the
castle is really spoiling for a fight, or just wearing a military costume for
eye-catching effect. Medieval society was steeped in symbols, from
coats-of-arms to religious icons. A castle’s symbolic power was often the
greatest strength that it possessed.

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