Monday, December 2, 2019

Exploring English Castles

by Debra Brown
A true castle has a heady mix of violence and decadence, bloodshed and splendor, which is why, almost by definition, no real castle can ever be boring.

Framlingham Castle where Mary Tudor was proclaimed Queen

As I sat down to lunch today to write this post, a lovely lady offered to trade tables with me to accommodate the large book on castles I’d brought along to read—and she said she had read it, too. Castles are indeed a source of awe and inspiration, a draw for people everywhere. Perhaps you have visited many, stayed overnight in a time-share castle, or married in a castle courtyard. Or like some of us, castles are too far from home, and the best you can do is to read a book on the topic.

…some English buildings that look distinctively castle-y can be a bit of a trick. Quite often a social aspirant built what was really a grand house, and with pretensions of greatness, disguised the outside with a few features of architecture to add a touch of ill-gotten grandeur.

Who can blame them?

The first castle ideas arrived “from France, always a place of cutting-edge fashion”. They were mere motte and bailey fortifications, earthen mounds with wooden structures, humble in comparison to what exists today, but according to author Edd Morris, nothing like them had been seen in medieval England, and their appearance would have been like the landing of an alien spaceship in the countryside today.

The first castle quickly followed the Norman invasion and conquest. The Norman poet Wace wrote, “The carpenters… threw down from the ships and dragged on land the wood which the Count of Eu had brought there, all pierced and trimmed. They had brought all the trimmed pegs in great barrels. Before evening, they had built a small castle with it and made a ditch round it.” (The Bayeaux Tapestry shows them roasting chicken, likely plundered, first.) One fortress, of course, was not enough. “They wrought castles widely through this country, and harassed the miserable people; and ever since has evil increased very much. May the end be good, when God will!” The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1066-7.

Within about two months, William the Conqueror was crowned King in Westminster Abbey, London, and he quickly set about consolidating his control by building the White Tower now at the heart of the Tower of London. And in the next twenty years, it is believed that the Normans built around five hundred motte and bailey castles.

The book I am using as a resource, Exploring English Castles: Evocative, Romantic, and Mysterioius True Tales of the Kings and Queens of the British Isles by Edd Morris, is full of details about the early structures and pictures of stone castles that followed on some of the motte and bailey locations.

It goes on to discuss several castles on the Isle and has beautiful color pictures on nearly every page. I will mention but two.

Goodrich Castle

The 1086 Domesday Book catalogs a certain “Godric’s Castle”, now red sandstone ruins in Herefordshire. Though many evolved over time, Godric’s was planned and built in one go around 1280. It is therefore cohesive, defensive areas flowing into cozy residential sections.

The Goodrich standing today was built mainly for one man, the dislikable William de Valence. Though a good friend of Henry III, he was distrusted by the English as an alien having been born in France in 1225 to the Lusignan family. Though he was impetuous, violent, and quick tempered, Henry III liked him; he was skilled in tournaments and adept at warfare, and Henry quickly knighted him.

The Lusignans had fallen from favor in France, and once granted lands in England they became arrogant and would stop at nothing to increase their holdings. They employed strongmen to collect taxes and tithes their new tenants owed. They came to be above the law when Henry decreed that no writ could be served against them, and the Court was split into factions for and against them. For a time William was exiled to France, but he returned, and though now subservient he assisted Henry and his heir, Edward I, in their conquest of Wales. Edward rewarded him with workers sent to improve Goodrich, but William died the same year after a skirmish where he was injured after a failed diplomatic mission in France. His widow, Joan, carried on in his stead caring for what became her properties.

Everything you might (not) want to know about medieval toilets is included in Dr. Morris’ discussion of Goodrich Castle including how to enter a castle undetected.

Dover Castle – “the key to England”

Dover Castle was built to resist medieval siege and adapted to survive a nuclear war. It’s physically and symbolically the strongest castle in the whole of England and has defended the realm for more than 950 years. Of course, its formidable defenses have adapted over time—morphing from a medieval stronghold to an army control center during World War II, and, most recently, to a nuclear bunker, should a third world war break out.

Seven days after the Norman success at Hastings they arrived to take Dover. Only 21 miles from France over the English Channel, it was important for them to secure this port to keep a ready supply of men and equipment coming their way. After building his fortifications there, possibly upon Roman remnants as he did in other locations, William left the castle in the hands of his half-brother Bishop Odo, an unpleasant man who came to be second in command to William over all of Norman England. Harsh and unjust, he came to be hated by the people, and when he was gone to London they rebelled.

The Kent locals asked Count Eustace, who had previously attacked Dover and killed twenty men, and who had fought on the Norman side in the battle of Hastings, (yes, him,) to come to England, take over the castle, and become England’s king. And he tried. But even with most of the defenders gone, the castle could not be taken. Its men unexpectedly poured out through one of the gates, caused panic, and took many lives. Eustace fled back to France, though his nephew was taken prisoner. This is just one example of the importance of the Norman castles in putting down uprisings of the Anglo-Saxons.

Over a hundred years later, Henry II built the Great Keep of the Dover Castle. His standing as the country’s monarch devastated by the affair with Thomas Becket, Henry had to find a way to elevate his position in the eyes of his people, but also in the eyes of foreign dignitaries. A Count of Flanders and later King Louis VII of France came to England to pay their respects to the tomb of Becket, accompanied by Henry.

Henry had little to offer these grand men in the way of accommodations in Dover. He later built the Keep to provide luxurious hospitality, and its construction rendered everything the monarchy stood for: order, grandeur, glory, and ceremony right there at the gateway to England. But in a stroke of genius, he built in Thomas Becket. He built a small chapel dedicated to the man which bears great similarity to Canterbury Cathedral with its grand, ribbed, vaulted ceiling and decorative chevrons that run across the chancel. It boasts a tiny nave and an adjacent alcove likely designated as a Royal Pew—demonstrating the piety of the country’s King and subsuming Becket and the Church to him.

Why is Thomas Becket often called Thomas a’ Becket? Please comment if you know. Otherwise, you might want to read about it in Exploring English Castles.

The book has much more to say on Goodrich and Dover Castles as well as many beautiful pictures. There are also sections on Tintagel and the legend of King Arthur, the siege of Rochester, the puzzle at the heart of Bodiam Castle, the siege of Corfe Castle and the might of Lady Mary Bankes, the fall of Earl Thomas and the ruin of Dunstanburgh Castle, Framlinham Castle and England’s first Queen, and Kenilworth Castle with its very Elizabethan love story. It is a beautiful 10 by 10.5 book that deserves a place on your coffee table and will command the attention of your guests.

All quotes in the post are from Exploring English Castles. Photos are copyright Edd Morris.

An Editor's Choice from the EHFA Archives, originally published April 21, 2015.

Dr. Edd Morris has been on many adventures around the world, and his blog is the result of days out in Europe, and his interest in History and Geography, alongside his passion for photography.

He calls himself a tragic, suppressed academic with a BA, an MA, a CertHe, and a MBBS (meaning he’s actually a Doctor working in the National Health Service in England).

Edd enjoys the outdoors, travel, and reading fiction on his Kindle.

Besides the book shown to the right, Edd has books out, also, on Scottish, European, and Welsh castles.


Debra Brown is the founder of the English Historical Fiction Authors blog and enjoys the perks—such as free books from Edd Morris and 1819 newspapers with news about Jane Austen.

And wouldn’t this be a good time to mention the audiobook version of Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors narrated by Ruth Golding on Amazon, Audible, and iTunes? If you are not an Audible member, you can receive two free audiobooks on a 30 day trial. See for details. The Kindle version and paperback remain available, as is the Volume 2 anthology and audiobook.


  1. I enjoyed your post immensely. Living in Canada and having never visited the British Isles, I suppose I have a rather romanticized version in my head of castles but to visit one in person is on my bucket list!

    1. Donna, thanks for your comment. If you never get to Britain, which I hope you do, perhaps you can go south to Castello di Amorosa in Napa Valley, California. It's a real medieval castle (but it's only about ten years old).

  2. "Before evening, they had built a small castle with it and made a ditch round it." That is just amazing. What an informative post all the way through.

    I have yet to spend a night in a castle, but I certainly would love the experience.

    1. I was amazed reading that, too! I know you'd love the book. Edd really has interesting information there.

      I hope you get that experience!

  3. Wonderful post, Debra and your opening paragraph was an amazing hook! They are all so beautiful. I am a native Californian and when I first went to England and saw how magnificent - and old - some of the structures were, I was in absolute awe.

    1. Thank you, Mimi! The opening paragraph is a quote from the book--I hoped I'd given that impression with the block quote, but maybe not.

      I feel in awe of the age of these castles though I've never been there. It really gets to me, lol. Thanks for your comment!


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