British History,Monarchs of Great Britain,King Arthur

The English Castle, Part 2
by David Dawson

This article is the second 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



In the first article, we saw how the Normans, following their defeat of the English army at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, consolidated their hold on England by rapidly constructing numbers of motte and bailey castles. While such castles were quick and cheap to build, they suffered from one major drawback. Timber, one of the two materials from which these castles were built (the other being earth), was perishable and, more importantly, vulnerable to fire. A more durable and resistant medium was required and that was provided by stone.

The Normans were prodigious builders. Not only did they erect massive stone castles in England but they replaced most of the Saxon churches with equally impressive ecclesiastical edifices in stone. It is probable that their great building campaigns of the late 11th and early 12th centuries were designed, in part, to impress upon the conquered English the permanence of Norman rule and the superiority of Norman technology (Durham Cathedral shown at right).

Once the initial urgency of the Conquest subsided, the timber defenses of motte and bailey castles were gradually replaced by walls and towers of stone. As the years passed and an Anglo-Norman society evolved, the realization dawned upon the Norman overlords that they had more to fear from each other than from the local populace. Feudalism as a social order worked best when there was a strong central authority in the form of a forceful and determined king on the throne. If the royal authority was weak, or worse, was disputed, as in the reign of Stephen (1135-1154), then feudalism invariably degenerated into anarchy. Such periods saw any number of feudal overlords, each with his private army, vying for local or even central control. Add to this the development, during the 12th Century, of improved methods of attacking and besieging castles and the need for stronger, more durable defenses becomes very evident.

While the Norman castle changed its principal building material, its layout remained essentially unchanged. The motte and bailey gave way to the keep and bailey. The mound and enclosure was replaced by the great tower and enclosure. The keep in this new variant took two forms; the shell keep and the tower keep. In either form, the keep, like the motte, remained the focal point of the castle. It was the last resort of the garrison should the bailey be captured and, consequently, it was strongest and most skilfully fortified part of the castle. It was designed to sustain a long siege, with living and service quarters, storerooms and its own well. Frequently, it doubled as the residence of the lord and his family.

Although the word keep is used by all modern authorities on Medieval military architecture, it was unknown in the Middle Ages. In contemporary writings, the shell keep is usually referred to simply as the motte and the tower keep as the great tower (Latin: magna turris) or later by the French word donjon; which, incidentally, is the origin of the English dungeon. The basements of many tower keeps were, on occasions, used as prisons. Donjons must have become associated in people's minds with dank, dark, underground cells and dungeons was the resulting expression.

The shell keep was the simplest of the two keep variants, being formed by replacing the timber palisade around the motte with a high stone ring wall. Most shell keeps are, therefore, circular or ovoid in shape. Living and service quarters were built against the inner face of the wall around a small central courtyard. These buildings were, in most cases, originally of timber but some were later rebuilt in stone. The great round tower of Windsor Castle, Berkshire, dating from the reign of Henry I, if not earlier, is probably the finest example of a shell keep. Although its outer wall was refaced and heightened at the beginning of the 19th Century, it retains the original layout of internal timber buildings. Arundel Castle, Sussex (above), also possesses a notable shell keep, erected in the reign of Henry II, but this too has undergone several transformations down the centuries.

Anyone planning a visit to England's West Country should note two splendid examples of shell keeps, both in Cornwall: Restormel and Trematon. Both were stone keeps raised on earlier mottes. Today both are in ruins but give an excellent impression of a shell keep without modern alterations. Restormel is almost completely circular and measures 120 feet in diameter. Its wall is 8 feet thick. Inside are stone buildings dating from the later 13th Century which replaced earlier timber buildings and, probably, followed their layout. Trematon has a shell wall 10 feet thick and 30 feet high. It is interesting for showing how the stone wall of the enclosure was carried up the sides of the motte as two wing walls joining the keep.

While shell keeps became a common feature of English castles, the tower keep is the most striking legacy of Norman castle building. Most tower keeps were built in the 12th Century but the form was used by the Normans in France from the beginning of the 11th Century and brought with them to England. As early as 1070, William the Conqueror ordered the construction of what is the most famous of all English tower keeps; the White Tower at the Tower of London. Other tower keeps, built at the king's command, followed in 1080; at Colchester, Essex, Canterbury, Kent and Pevensey, Sussex . These were clearly deemed by William to be strategic sites of the first importance and required stronger defenses than the customary motte and bailey; possibly for symbolic as well as military reasons.

The tower keep was generally, though not always, rectangular in shape. It had thick walls (10-12ft and thicker at the corners) built of rubble and mortar faced with squared stones. Usually, the walls rose from a splayed or battered plinth which protected the base of the building. Each wall was strengthened with shallow, flat buttresses in the center and the corner; the corner buttresses being taken up above the battlements to form turrets. The walls frequently contained small rooms, such as bed chambers, latrines, guardrooms and even small kitchens. The corner turrets contained spiral staircases providing access to the various floors and on to the roof and battlements.

Internally the keep was divided vertically by a central cross wall and horizontally into several storeys (four was a common number). Each floor was then subdivided by partitions into separate rooms. These internal arrangements were designed to accomodate the twin functions of a residence and a fortress. There was only one entrance to the keep, usually at second floor level. This was reached by an external staircase running up against the outer wall and covered by a forebuilding. Windows were small and restricted to the upper storeys. At the lower levels, their place was taken by loopholes and arrow-slits.

The dimensions of these tower keeps are truly impressive. The White Tower, at London, measures 118ft by 107ft and rises to a height of 90ft. Colchester is even larger, 152ft by 111ft but its original height cannot now be determined since the upper stories have disappeared. Both of these keeps were built with a large apsidal extension at one corner to contain a chapel. Similarly impressive examples of tower keeps in the South-East of England, although of a later date, can be viewed at Castle Hedingham, in Essex and at Dover and Rochester (shown at left), both in Kent.

Due to their great size and weight, the tower keeps could not be built on the motte (unless this was a natural outcrop) and were, therefore, erected on flat land either within the bailey or straddling its outer defenses. This brings us back to the bailey itself. The simplest way to convert its defenses to stone was to replace the timber stockade running along the crest of the the earthen ramparts with a stone wall. From the earliest date, stone walls appear to have been crenellated; that is they had battlements (the term crenellation comes from the word "crenel" meaning an opening or embrasure. These alternated along a wall with solid upright sections know as merlons.) Battlements were also added to the walls of keeps, whether shell or tower.

In these first stone castles, we also see attention being paid to the gate. As the principal and obvious means of entry into the castle, the gate was a very vulnerable point. Attackers frequently concentrated their full force on a castle's gateway. Two early means of defending the gate were, firstly, to enclose it in its own stone house or tower and secondly, to build two flanking towers against the outer wall of the bailey, one on either side of the gateway. At Portchester, in Hampshire, an early stone gatehouse was later transformed into a keep by blocking the entrance and adding on extra stories. Dover has an excellent example of the flanking tower arrangement guarding the gateway to its inner bailey.

To what extent the other buildings within the bailey, referred to as the houses of the castle in contemporary chronicles, were converted to stone is difficult to say. Most probably remained as timber buildings, although the chapel may have been the first to have been dignified with conversion to stone. Examples of stone halls of the 12th Century can be seen at Christchurch in Hampshire and Oakham in Rutland, but whether these were common is open to question. The halls of most castles date from later periods.

By the end of the 12th Century, the English Medieval Castle was beginning to adopt the form that we recognize as a castle. It was defended by battlemented stonewall bounded by a ditch (or moat). It possessed a keep and a gatehouse and within its walls were a hall and a chapel and the other buildings necessary to support its dual role as residence and fortress. Yet, by the end of the period, developments in siege warfare were to render the Norman castle obsolete. To bring it up to date, its owner would need to make significant modifications and improvements. These changes and what made them necessary will be the subject of Article 3 in this series.

The English Medieval Castle, Part #1
The English Medieval Castle, Part #3


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