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When the Romans invaded British soil circa 55 and 56 BC Caesar took a navigational approach but by AD 43 their occupation was in earnest and if you take a look at the map above you’ll see that the northeast was used as a militaristic series of outposts (Hadrian’s Wall) and the entirety of Britain became a complex of roads and defenses. Roman forts were a prime force in keeping Britain under control during the period of Roman rule. It is interesting that the Norman invasion took advantage of this complex of roads and in some cases built over Roman forts or defenses which were invariably rectangular. One exception is Northumberland’s Whitley Castle (which I covered in June this year) because the natural form of the site prevented a conventional shape. I have placed an aerial photo of it in the Northumberland album if you’d like to take a look at it.
Romans built defenses to a standard which suited their military methods. York and Chester are two large examples and there are remains still evident today for visitors to see. These are remodeling in stone from forts that were thrown up as temporary camps originally. All were built with a rampart, several ditches, four gateways with the commanding headquarters stationed in the middle and were of clay, turf and timber- and making use often of stone or gravel foundations. Most of the Roman remains you will see today, however, were built with more durable materials. An example would be at Colchester where the walls are eight feet in thickness and boasts six gates. A portion of the Balkerne Gate remains there and I have placed a black and white photo of it in the Castles 101 album along with the fascia and (B & W) interior of a multangular tower which remains standing at the west corner at York.
Hill forts were the first castles in Britain, however; vast Iron Age defenses built by the original Briton tribes. Old Sarum is one of the most popular to tour by visitors at present. Maiden Castle in Dorset is a massive and impressive multivallate military earthwork. These can be found all over England and it has been determined that at least 1,420 existed south of the line of Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland with the highest concentration of them along the southern portion and on the south coast with the largest in land mass existing in the Southeast. These hill forts are testament to the process of how defense technique became more innovative as time advanced and before they were replaced by the types of castles with which I began this series- motte and baileys and concentric castles which dominated the Middle Ages.
After the Romans evacuated British soil many Britons returned to these ancient hill forts because they fared better militarily- being at a loss of how to properly man and defend the Roman structures. There is evidence of this at South Cadbury in Somerset and Castle Dore in Cornwall where it became apparent that they had been refortified where other older earthworks had remained abandoned. In addition, new hill forts were built.
The invading Saxons and the later invading Normans ( who rejected these hill forts as archaic ) took over Roman forts or built over or upon them. Porchester and Pevensey Castles are two such examples and there are more at London, Bath, Winchester, Chichester, Colchester, York, Leicester, Lincoln and Exeter. At Chester the walls were merely rebuilt. In Wales, Monmouth and Cardiff show evidence of Roman remains on their sites. From the fifth to the tenth centuries fortifications were repaired Roman defenses and since the Anglo-Saxons were peasants and forest-dwellers most of these additions were of timber but they also built in stone. Most medieval stronghold castles were the center of human settlements or towns built around them which reinforced the feudal system. Castles built outside of the urban centers were most likely privately held castles which was controlled, on and off, by the current Crowned Head of each era. It was a practice in many cases to clear not only land to place castles but existing residences were torn down and cleared off and in some cases even churches. At York the river Fosse was dammed to moat one of two royal castles which resulted in the flooding of agricultural property, two newly built mills and one of the city’s seven shires was destroyed for its use. In many cases, however, these towns with their markets and tradesmen thrived with their proximity during the middle ages and even now are thriving communities around the castles. Arundel Castle is a wonderful example. To read more about it, check out the title, “Arundel: A History of the Town and the Castle”, by Joseph H. Preston.
The Normans matched the Roman prodigious use of military strategy and used the strata which preceded them. Combining armored garrisons with fortified strongholds and later, the well-ordered organization of feudalism it is no wonder the Norman Yoke held sway for six centuries. They plowed over Hastings by sheer numbers and then erected prefabricated forts (materials for motte and baileys) with astonishing speed. They took their cue from the Romans who carried dismantled sections of their siege engines through the use of mule-trains. It was only when time permitted that Norman lords under William the Conqueror built in stone and that also depended on whether material was available or not.
The castles you will find in ruins today are as individual as fingerprints and quite fascinating in their array of configurations, use of stone or brick, defense mechanisms and actual architecture. I can honestly say if you’ve seen one castle- you’ve only seen one castle ! The concentric castle’s best and most important strongpoint was one of being perimeter defense. Most of the variations you’ll see in England and Wales are a result of the many centuries during which castles were built whether they were militaristic innovations or architectural styles currently in vogue at the time of building and rebuilding. Keep in mind that there are many exceptions to a so-called prototype. If you take a look at the aerial photos and diagrams of the castles I have put up on the various photo albums you can see for yourself how many different types of castles there are: Shell keeps (see Restormel in Castles 101 album), Rectangular, Quadrangular (courtyard-style), Round keeps, Square (Towers) and the intricately circular 16th century gun-forts which dot the Southern coast such as Deal, Walmer, Sandown, Sandgate, Camber, Pendennis and Southsea Castles. These gun fort castles were used as offensive military structures and were built with the use of big guns in mind. Southsea was definitely built on a plan by Henry VIII and Deal is attributed to him as well.
Those are the most prevalent designs of castles but there are more and there are quite a few unusual variations in Scotland. Foreign influences come into play with configurations and features of the castles of England including those of the Crusaders but the existing ruins you will find were primarily on old local building traditions, ecclesiastical and Norman by design. That being the case, the evolution of castle design in England, in general, depends upon when the individual edifices were originally built and in what times they were reconstructed. An added complexity is that some of these castles cannot be classified and each century brought forth something new, architecturally. (This does not include renaissance castles which are basically castles built out-of-context and are meant to depict an era in which the current building didn’t exist. )
William the Conqueror, who is responsible for the prevailing style of medieval castles in England came from a country which had erected nearly 40,000 strongholds during the Middle Ages ! The feudal fortresses which were built on Norman ground were duplicated in England but with the idea that this new monarch would keep control and power to himself through the use of vassals (lords he designated) and this system was much more effective in England than in France. This is how the donjon (or keep as it is called in England) became a symbol of supremacy and subjugated the country, which eventually made this system a machine of power. By the time of William’s death in 1087 his men had built or remodeled as many as 86 castles with a number of them being former Roman and Saxon sites!
Starting with the Tower of London’s rectangular White Tower ( built in stone from its inception in 1070 ), which was built in typical Norman style with pilaster reinforcements and narrow corner towers, by the 12th century, Hamelin, Henry II’s half-brother, was building round keeps such as the best example at Conisbrough. When Dover and Newcastle were built by Henry II, at this same period in time, their keep design was already old-fashioned. Circular and polygonal keeps proliferated from this time on but because Dover used strong mural towers for the enceinte ( baileys and outer defensive walls ) the importance of the keep waned and the projecting buttresses (which discouraged mining) were of greater concern. Square and rectangular keeps were easier to build and to make comfortable as residences but they were structurally weak because of their corners which could be easily sapped and vulnerable to the battering ram and siege engines. In addition, the enemy could be attacked from only one side of these corners, being sheltered visually by the corner itself, causing a blind side to those defending the castle. As these four-cornered keeps continued to proliferate during the passage of the centuries, the consideration became less and less those of military defense and rather as domestic buildings for obvious reasons.
Some polygonal and round keeps of note are Oxford which is a twelve-sided tower, Pembroke at Milford Haven in Wales (which was one of the largest and strongest Welsh Castles), Orford ( an unusual polygonal keep, being circular internally but multangular on the exterior), Pickering and even Tickhill once had an eleven-sided tower-keep on a circular plinth (projecting base) with pilaster buttresses. Any of the Edwardian Welsh castles are prime examples of the best made round towers. Skenfrith, a Welsh castle on the west bank of the River Monnow in Gwent, a substantial and well designed fortress with a round keep built late in the 12th century within a rectangular bailey and four corner round towers, was another castle strategically planned by Henry II. It joined two other nearby strongholds Grosmont and White Castles as an area of control for one of the main routes into Wales from England. Skenfrith’s round tower keep’s foundations were embedded into the motte to the natural soil beneath it. Most of it is in ruins with only the first upper floors remaining. Many medieval elements remain to inspect, however, including narrow loopholes, an exterior spiral stairway and original trap door. There are too many of these types of castles to mention in this entry!
The great square stone towers are those at Rochester, Hedingham, Sherborne (old) , Castle Rising, Kenilworth, Norwich, Scarborough, Clun, and Porchester where the keep is enclosed by Roman walls. Some late 12th century square towers can be seen at Bamburgh, Richmond, Newcastle and Dover. Immense thickness and height of the walls were the greatest features of these edifices and you will find many of them in magnificent condition. There are more examples than this such as Canterbury Castle built on the old Roman road between Dover and London. The principal features you will find are primary halls located on an entrance floor with ports leading to mural chambers along with a postern or sally-port providing easy escape for the inhabitants. It was to these magnificent towers that militaristic refinements were added such as portcullises, machicolations over entrances, meurtrières and arrow-loops. All of these were made to meet the advancement of siege-warfare.
Shell keeps in England are plentiful but some great examples are at Lewes, Arundel, Cardiff (in Wales ), Farnham, Berkeley and Restormel. An interesting polygonal shell keep exists, in ruins, within the keep on the west end of the bailey at Warwick Castle. They are distinguished from polygonal and round keeps because of the interiors. Restormel is the best intact, unaltered example of these keeps. Located in Cornwall (southwest England) it is sited on a hill above the River Fowey just north of Lostwithiel. Most likely the Normans built the first castle here but the stone construction you will see now is a 13th century stone replacement which once harbored the Black Prince at Christmas in 1362. It is 110 feet in diameter with walls 26 feet high and 8 1/2 feet thick. In the interior a series of chambers and halls were formed against the exterior wall, forming living quarters, a great hall, fireplace and kitchen, a chapel, a guardroom and more. To see the configuration and color photos of it look in the Castles 101 album. At Launceston, also in Cornwall, the shell is built on top of a high natural motte and a round tower keep was placed inside its circular wall in the 13th century. This castle was attributed to Richard, Earl of Cornwall who was also titular king of the Romans.
At the same time that these shell keeps were popular the quadrangular castles proliferated mostly in the north but also in the south with variations on the towers. Some of the best I have covered- such as Bolton and Danby in North Yorkshire, Wressle in East Yorkshire, Lumley in Durham, and Chillingham and Ford in Northumberland are the most typical examples. Baconsthorpe in Norfolk, Bodiam Castle in East Sussex, Farleigh Hungerford in Somerset and Totnes in Devon are four I have not covered since they exist in South England.
This type of castle incorporates the towers or ranges of buildings with the curtain walls and angle towers making an enclosed central courtyard with no inside keep and rarely a gatehouse but perhaps a forebuilding. This was a transitional period from creating defensive structures to the orientation of domestic strong houses. Most of these tower keeps had all residential components with some divided from top to bottom by a cross wall that gave structural stability overall and enabled roofing in some cases. By this time the enceinte had taken on more importance- as I said before- but this was most often in the case of direct threat of sieges.
An interesting variation of the central courtyard, Old Wardour in Wiltshire (south) is in ruins but it is intact enough to marvel at its construction. It is a hexagonal castle which was built in 1393 by Lord John Lovell the V. It was built from a French design that was popular at the time by William of Wynford and had a few defensive features built in to what was essentially a keep castle, including exceptionally thick curtain walls.
Clifford’s Tower, which I mentioned in my North Yorkshire entry on June 29, 2006 and revisited in a December entry in 2007, may be the most unusual keep rebuilt in the mid-13th century in England. It sits high atop a motte and its quatrefoil shape is said to resemble the French donjon Etampes. Its most unusual features are the tower walls and the meurtieres are blown out and widened. The floor of the upper storey and the roof, now gone, were supported in the center by a pier whose foundations were excavated nearly a hundred years ago. It has some corbelled turrets which begin at the upper floor level and give it a functionary look rather than decorative. It served as a more offensive than as a defensive military structure. A very strange castle indeed and its history during Stephen’s reign and after is nearly tragic.
The Plantagenet Castles which were built starting with King Edward the First and continued by his line for two centuries may be the most formidable ever built and there is much of them to see, particularly in Wales and along the borders between England and Wales. They also reconstructed older Welsh castles, such as Kidwelly, Caerphilly, Criccieth and Chepstow making true castle-making history. No amount of castle-building in England’s history can match this program which produced ten new royal castles, of which seven remain. They produced many lordship castles and those which were built for subjugation and to impress and over-awe the populous. The latter being Aberystwyth, Caernarfon, Conwy, Harlech, Rhuddlan, Flint, and Beaumaris Castles. Most of these made much use of the round or octagonal towers incorporated with high and impenetrably thick curtain walls for outworks, powerful gateways and at least two posterns.
By the latter part of the 14th to the end of the 15th century military and domestic elements became more distinguished one from the other since they were basically incompatible and mutually antagonistic. Decorative features began to appear- building on or around the earlier structures. No where is this more evident than at Warwick Castle which is a sizable enceinte still joined to the original 12th century shell keep on the west end with the shell partly outside the bailey. In the 14th century two powerful towers were added at the east end of the enceinte on the north and south corners. (Caesar’s Tower, a three-lobed six storey on the south end and Guy’s Tower, a polygonal five storey on the north.) Extensive living and service quarters were also built against the south curtain wall which overlooks the river Avon. Interestingly, the original 12th century shell was not restored but added to in the 17th century with battlements which match up with those along the curtain wall and two more turrets were added along the southern curtain wall.
Gateways, gatehouses and tower houses both decorative and defensive also came into prominence from as early as the beginning of the 13th century and on into the 14th and were refined by the 16th century. Castles under siege were shown, by experience, to be most vulnerable to invasion at the entrances so this was a natural evolution in military architecture history. Most defensive advancements to the curtain walls and entrances were made during the first half of the 13th century and by the second half of the 13th century they reached their full development. Pembroke Castle’s gatehouse of the outer bailey, which was built about 1250, was preceded by a barbican with the passageway using two systems of barriers- a portcullis, machicolations in front and additional machicolations beyond the inner door. Caerphilly sports one of the finest barbicans built during this period. If you’ll take a second look at diagram #7 in the Castles 101 album you’ll find an explanation of the double indemnity of a moated entrance and a pit plus machicolations beyond the entrance- an additional obstacle to those making a forced entry. At Denbigh a gatehouse was built in the latter part of the 13th century. The photo shows that it is in ruins but this was a well-built defense consisting of three towers which ranged in triangular form guarding a central hall. Two guarded the hall on the north and the third covered the south with a moat and drawbridge which worked on a pivot (like my previous illustration for So You Want to Know All About Castles? Sept 12, 2008 entry) and had a balance pit much like Caerphilly’s gateway. Here the gateway had two section, one leading to the north side of the central hall (which was a large octagonal enclosure in vaulted stone) and the other lead to the west side of the hall into the inner bailey. The passageway between was defended by two portcullises and two doors with the machicolations beyond this point at the hallway entrance. Five meurtieres greet any invaders from the surrounding walls and the south tower faces directly towards the entrance passage. The King’s Gate at Caernarfon, built early 14th century, is quite similar to Denbigh’s but has two passages at right angles to each other with the hall at the junction.
By visiting these structures personally you will be left with no doubt to which side of the dividing line each belongs concerning individual castles. The Warwick Castle barbican is an extension of the gateway with a forebuilding rising two storeys and two lofty walls which flank an open court between the forebuilding and the gatehouse. You can see the front and side view of this magnificent gatehouse in the Castles 101 album. Others, only one of which I’ve covered include Caerphilly, Leybourn, Denbigh, and the 1440 reconstruction of Tattershall in Lincolnshire of which the construction was for personal comfort rather than military strength and the final restoration of which was carried out as late as the 20th century! (You can read more about it in my Lincolnshire entry in my July 2007 archives.)
Medieval castles were no longer built with the advent of the Tudor reign and Tudor architecture shifted into the building of decorative timber manor houses or recreating existing strongholds into livable quarters since it was a time of relative peace. Henry VIII set about abolishing monasteries rather than refortification of castles against sieges. Many estates were sectioned and sold to prospective landowners and the mansions they erected reflected their financial status. At Kenilworth, Robert Dudley who was the Earl of Leicester, made a transformation of the castle buildings (the state rooms, outbuildings and a magnificent gatehouse in 1575) to suit Queen Elizabeth’s need for comfort and to suit her taste. At the same time, none of the original martial properties to the fortress were eliminated. Some prime examples of Tudor architecture include Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, Charlecote Park and Packwood House in Warwickshire, Moseley Old Hall in Staffordshire and there are many more examples in the Midlands and Cotswolds and throughout England. Some beautiful reconstructions occurred at Penshurst Palace, Hampton Court Palace, Hatfield House, Leeds Castle, Knole, Hever Castle, Burghley House, Gorhambury, Theobalds and Holdenby House (which I covered in September 2007). The great families of the Tudor era were the Wolseys, Bacons, Cecils and Hattons who built tremendous and beautiful houses with only a nod to militaresque architecture and that was with design in mind rather than defense, of course.
The existing royal castles originally built for defense, while allowed to decay and ruin, were retained simply as a part of an administrative machine. When Queen Mary’s title was disputed by the Duke of Northumberland, on behalf of Lady Jane Grey, the Queen’s response was one of flight to Framlingham Castle to amass safety and support with her army. Within a week the Duke abandoned his venture and Lady Jane lost her head, as so many did who defied the Tudors. During the Armada threat Queen Elizabeth the First had to be persuaded to go to Windsor because the military experts regarded it as the strongest castle of the Kingdom.
Otherwise, castles had become more a status and class symbol than a necessary way of life and feudalism was over. However, during Henry VIII’s reign new types of castles which were essentially gun forts were built in reaction to a rumored threat of French invasion. These castles stretch all the way from Hull (Yorkshire) to Milford Haven (Wales). Most of those I mentioned at the beginning of this entry are quite similar in basic design- being relatively low, wide circular tower forts with the express purpose of using guns and cannon from the full range ports of the towers. There are many more than I mentioned but all were built mid-16th century under Henry VIII’s directions. Deal Castle was and still is considered the most impressive and the best preserved with the present battlements dating from 1732. The prime armament was mounted on the outer ring but also from the top of the keep and the inner bastions ( also called lunettes because they are semi-circular) that were adjoined, altogether five tiers of (53) gunports and embrasures with 145 openings for firearms combining cannons, handguns and others. Walmer Castle was similar to Deal and Sandown and if you look in the Castles 101 album you can see what their actual configurations were in comparison to each other.
That should give you an overall view of the architectural progression of castle construction. This is certainly not complete but is a good solid basis for castle knowledge and I encourage one and all who have a deep interest in castles to check out my book list- specifically for castles- because I have added some books to that list which should help you tremendously. My next Castles 101 entry will cover more nomenclature on exteriors and also interiors. I have a fourth entry planned, as well, which will explain more about sieges, siege engines and tools and the particulars of the effects on castles during the Civil War in England.
http://ilovecastles.blogspot.com/2008/10/i-voted.html message for Oct. 31, 2008