Monday, January 2, 2017

An Englishman's Castle

by April Munday

Siege of Acre: Public Domain [Wikimedia Commons]

Castles were introduced into England in the 1040s by French supporters of Edward the Confessor. There were only four of them (one at Clavering in Essex and three in Herefordshire) and it wasn’t until after the Conquest in 1066 that the English understood what castles really meant. The Normans erected them in large numbers across the country and used them to oppress the Saxons.

Castles were a tenth-century response to Viking raids in France and were developed as a means of protecting communities. By the eleventh century, they were being used by lesser lords to resist their overlords and to dominate their own underlings. These basic castles were wooden towers sited on raised mounds of earth surrounded by a wooden palisade. The mounds were mottes and the enclosure within the outer palisade was the bailey. The effectiveness of motte and bailey castles could be improved by digging a ditch outside the palisade, making it more difficult for the enemy to enter the defended area.

In its earliest forms, the bailey was situated just inside the outer palisade or wall, and provided an area in which animals could be kept or where people from the town or nearby villages could shelter from attack. Where possible, a castle was built on a hill, but where this was not possible, a hill had to be built. Then a high tower was erected within the defensive walls.

Stone castles were rare until the twelfth century. Motte and bailey castles could be erected in a few weeks (one at York took eight days), while stone castles could take decades. The castle that is being built in the thirteenth-century style at Guédelon as an archeological experiment is planned to take 20 years. The medieval building season lasted from March to September and successive building seasons can be seen in the horizontal lines in some castle walls.

In England, at the turn of the twelfth century, there was probably a castle, however basic, every 10 miles. The vast majority of these, however, have disappeared, as they fell out of use or were destroyed in civil wars. The twelfth century Bridgnorth Castle (pictured below) was destroyed by the Parliamentarians after a successful siege in 1646.

Bridgnorth Castle © April Munday

From the thirteenth century a licence from the king was required before a castle could be built in England. By then the Plantagenets had learned that castles could just as easily be used against a king as for him.

Sometimes booty brought back by soldiers fighting abroad was invested in building castles and fortifications in England. In much the same way that the exterior of a castle was designed to impress, so was the interior. The walls would have been plastered and painted with many colourful designs or covered with tapestries. The presence of garrison soldiers would have instilled a sense of fear into a visitor, welcome or unwelcome. The visitor would be led through increasingly opulent areas until they were brought before the lord in his solar. Only lords of great houses or castles had an entire room to themselves.

Edward I was one of the greatest castle-builders of the Middle Ages. He built castles in Wales to support his conquest of and dominion over that country. They were built on the coast so that they could be supplied by sea, but they were poorly maintained and fell into disuse fairly quickly.

Castles were designed to be difficult to take by besiegers. Arrow loops were built into walls so that archers could shoot out to any area from which an attack might come. Arrow loops were narrow vertical openings in the wall. Inside they opened out into a V, which gave the archer both a good line of sight to the attackers and plenty of room to shoot, but protected him from the attackers’ arrows.

Catchcold Tower, Southampton
© April Munday

Castles were supposed to put the opposition off attacking. Their walls were high to make scaling as difficult as possible. They were also thick to provide protection against siege weapons such as trebuchets and battering rams. A garrison of soldiers would be stationed within the castle. If the besiegers misjudged the size of the garrison, or if their own number dwindled after a lengthy siege (dysentery and disaffection contributed to this) the besieged could leave the castle and see off the attackers. It did not need a large garrison to withstand a siege. Castles were not impregnable, though, and walls could be brought down by mining beneath them and then lighting fires.

Castles could be military strongholds and/or royal and aristocratic residences. After the eleventh century they were not usually large enough to provide refuge for many civilians other than those already living in the castle. Although they were built for defensive purposes, they were not, however, great defensive weapons. Unless they were of strategic importance, they could simply be bypassed by the enemy. Garrison forces were not usually sufficient to fight a full-scale battle, their primary purpose being to defend the castle once it had been attacked. Most castles were never put to the test, either because they were considered to be impregnable, or because they simply weren’t considered important enough to be worth the effort involved in an attack or siege. Despite this medieval wars were usually won or lost by sieges, not by battles. Where a castle was considered to be important enough to be worth besieging, its surrender could have consequences that lasted for generations. When the castle was taken, so was the region that it protected. They were often administrative centres, which was why their surrender was usually more important than winning or losing a battle.

Castles have been part of the English landscape for almost a thousand years. They have ranged in size from little more than a fortified house, such as Stokesay Castle, to huge structures, such as Kennilworth and Dover. In most cases even the ruins are impressive. I’m looking forward to visiting Guédelon when it’s complete to get an idea of what a functioning medieval castle really looked like.


Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages – Michael Prestwich

The Norman Conquest – Mar Morris

Inside the Medieval World – James Harpur

The Mediaeval World Complete – Robert Bartlett

Knight – Robert Jones

The Making of Europe – Robert Bartlett

The Medieval Siege – Jim Bradbury


April Munday lives in Hampshire and has published six novels set in the fourteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They include The Traitor’s Daughter, His Ransom, The Winter Love and the Regency Spies Trilogy. They can be purchased from Amazon. A novel set around the sack of Limoges in 1370 will be available early in 2017.

Her blog ‘A Writer’s Perspective’ arose from her research for her novels and is a repository of things that she has found to be of interest. She can also be found on Twitter (@aprilmunday)

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