British History,Monarchs of Great Britain,King Arthur

The English Castle
by David Dawson

This article is the first in a series which attempts to outline the development of the English Medieval castle and to describe its major features. Where possible, reference is made to existing castles within a comfortable day's journey of London so that the visitor who wishes to view a selection of English castles, but has limited time at his or her disposal, need not travel far from the capital



Perhaps the first issue to be dealt with is an answer to the question, "what is a castle?" The English Medieval castle, like its counterparts in Europe, is a unique phenomenon. Most buildings are created to fulfil a single, specific purpose: a church, a house, a factory, a school, a bank, a hotel etc. A castle, depending upon the status of the man who occupied it, could be variously, a military base, a seat of government, a court and a stronghold for the surrounding region. It could be any or all of the above but it was principally the private residence of its owner, his family and his dependents.

England had known fortifications before the advent of the castle. The Iron Age peoples of Ancient Britain fortified hilltops with massive earthworks, such as Maiden Castle in Dorset, for tribal defense. The Romans dotted the countryside with innumerable military encampments and built the impressive chain of fortresses, known as the Saxon Shore forts (e.g. Portchester Castle, below), to guard South-East England from Saxon raiders in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. The Normans later built castles within the walls of two of these Roman Saxon Shore forts, at Pevensey in Sussex and Portchester in Hampshire. The Anglo-Saxons and the Danes entrenched their towns behind earthen banks and timber palisades to create fortified towns, burhs, from which is derived the modern word "borough." Yet, all these structures were for, essentially, communal purposes. What distinguishes the castle from these and other, later fortifications is its function as a private residence.

Castles were the product of that period of Medieval history termed the Age of Feudalism. Feudalism is a much misused word. It is strictly applied to the military society which was created in Europe during the 9th and 10th centuries AD and which reached its most developed form in Normandy in the 11th century. Very simply put, feudal society resembled a pyramid. At its apex was the king who, in theory at least, owned all the land in his kingdom. Immediately below the king was a group of major landholders who held their land directly from him, his tenants-in-chief. These were the great lords and magnates of the kingdom. In return for their land, they swore to give the king military service; that is, they and their retainers would fight for the king whenever and whereever he chose.

The tenants-in-chief let out land to their tenants, the lesser barons and lords, on the same terms. This process was repeated all the way down the pyramid to the knight who was the local lord of the manor. The amount of land a man held was directly proportional to the amount of military service he could render. A knight might only be liable to appear at the muster with a horse, his weapons, a suit of chain mail and one or two servants as men-at-arms. A tenant-in-chief would be expected to provide scores of knights and several hundred men-at-arms.

This decentralisation of land-holding and power required that each landholder provide himself with a base from which to operate. This base should also be designed to afford protection to himself, his family and all those who lived on and worked his lands. The great magnates and many of the lesser barons would hold lands in different parts of the kingdom and require several bases.The landholdings of a knight, being much smaller, would usually be concentrated within a single locality and would require only one base. As Mediaeval government was frequently incapable of guaranteeing peace and order, such bases needed to be defensible. Thus the castle was born.

Although these articles deal with the development of the English Medieval castle by ascribing successive types and forms of castles to various periods in history, only a small number of castles assumed the form we see today in the course of one period of building. Most were the product of several centuries of modification and rebuilding, as new forms of defense were raised to counter new means of attack.

It should also be realized that life in a castle was predominantly a quiet, peaceful process. Castles were primarily the residences of the nobility and the gentry and the life lived in them was very much akin to that of the later country house. Indeed, we shall see that towards the close of the Medieval period, as society became more peaceful, castle design began to lay more stress on the comforts of life and less on the needs of defense. Contrary to the image portrayed by Hollywood, castles were not continuously in a state of siege, crowded with armed men and ringing with the clash of arms! In times of peace, the castle would contain the owner's family and servants. The owner might frequently be absent, in which case, the castle would be occupied by only the caretaker and a few servants. In time of war, the castle would be garrisoned by the lord's tenantry, fulfilling one of their feudal obligations; castle-guard. Once the crisis was past, the garrison would revert to being farmers and farm workers.

The Norman Conquest and the First Castles
The Norman conquest of England in 1066 introduced feudalism to England. We have already seen that castles were a feature of feudalism so it follows that the Normans introduced castles to England. In fact, castles were the means by which William the Conqueror and his followers secured their hold on England following their victory over the English army at the battle of Hastings. The chroniclers of the period frequently refer to the castle building activities of the Normans. Immediately after Hastings, according to Ordericus Vitalis, William ordered castles to be raised at Warwick, Nottingham, York , Lincoln, Cambridge and Huntingdon. The "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" tells us that in the following year, 1067, while William himself was away dealing with affairs in Normandy, his two co-regents in England, Bishop Odo of Bayeux and Earl William fitz Osborn wrought castles widely thoughout the kingdom and oppressed the poor people.

The practice of castle buiding was not confined to William and his chief ministers. Virtually every Norman baron must have felt the need to raise some sort of defensive structure (e.g. castle) to secure his newly acquired lands and to protect himself and his family from a sullen, resentful and potentially hostile Saxon populace.

"My son" said the Norman Baron, "I am dying and you will be heir
To all the broad acres in England that William gave me for my share; When we conquered the Saxon at Hastings, and a nice little handful it is. But before you go over to rule it I want you to understand this; "The Saxon is not like us Normans. His manners are not so polite. But he never means anything serious till he talks about justice and right. When he stands like an ox in the furrow with his sullen set eyes on your own, And grumbles, 'This isn't fair dealing', my son, leave the Saxon alone."

Rudyard Kipling
Norman and Saxon

The Domesday Book, the great national land register which William commanded to be compiled and which was completed in 1087, records innumerable castles and "defensible houses" raised by every class of Norman overlord. What were these first castles like? They were most definitely not what we usually think of when visualizing a castle; a massive edifice of stone with towers and battlements. The first Norman castles were hurriedly constructed of earth and timber, in many cases using forced labour and most conformed to a basic plan; that of the motte and bailey.

The motte was a large conical mound with a flat top (at right, Launceston Castle in Cornwall, showing the motte). Where possible use was made of natural hillocks or outcrops of rock, but most mottes were raised by digging a deep ditch around its site and heaping up the result soil. Frequently more material was needed to produce the required size and height of mound and this was obtained elsewhere. Archeological evidence has revealed that on occasion, the Normans even made use of material from demolished Saxon houses in raising a motte.

The bailey was a simple enclosure with its own ditch. Motte and bailey castles came in a variety of configurations but the most common was a single mound and enclosure, with the motte at one end of the bailey and separated from it by its ditch. Both mound and enclosure were defended by the ditch and an earthen bank behind the ditch, topped with a timber stockade. Where practicable, the ditches were filled with water and in some instances had a raised bank in front as well as behind, known as a counterscarp which may have had a hedge of thorns or briars planted on it. A splendid example of this type of motte and bailey castle can be seen at Berkhamstead in Hertfordshire. Here, the later stonework has all but vanished revealing the original Norman earthworks (shown at left, outlined in red).

Within the stockade of the mound, there would have been a timber tower. Tower and motte formed the strongpoint of the castle; the last defense if attackers overran the bailey. The tower was also the residence of the castle's owner and had to be large enough to contain his family and their servants. Within the bailey were the buildings, also of timber, necessary for the running of the castle; the hall where everyone in the castle usually gathered for meals and other social events, the kitchens, barns, workshops, stables and the chapel. The entrance to the bailey was by means of a strongly defended gate, fronting a bridge over the ditch.

The primary advantage of motte and bailey castles was that they were quick and cheap to erect, particularly if you had forced labour at your disposal. Yet, in spite of its primitiveness, such a castle would have presented a formidable obstacle to attackers equipped with the weapons of the period. Mottes ranged from 25-30 feet to over 80 feet in height, with the timber tower giving the defenders a further advatange. The bailey could cover anywhere from one to three acres. It was usually laid out so that any point on its circumference would be within bowshot of the tower.

Many of England's existing castles began as motte and bailey castles. Windsor Castle, Berkshire, perhaps England's most famous castle and the favorite home of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, is in origin a motte and bailey castle. In fact, it has two baileys (see illus. at right), one on each side of its motte, as does Arundel Castle in Sussex, home of the Dukes of Norfolk, hereditary Earl Marshals of England. Today, the mottes in both of these castles are crowned with stone towers, known as shell keeps. The conversion of the timber defences of motte and bailey castles to walls and towers of stone forms the next article in this series.

The English Castle, Part #2
The English Castle, Part #3


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