Castles in Britain

Following the Society's Annual General Meeting, Peter Gale provided us with a whistle stop tour of the history of castles in Britain. Peter reminded us that the word 'castle' comes from the Latin 'castellum' meaning a fortified enclosure. By the 9th and 10th centuries such fortified enclosures made provision for outer defences of banks and ditches with a wooden tower often placed on the innermost and highest point or mound within the banks and ditches. In many cases this becomes a defensible residence for the family which controlled the immediate area - including the adjacent town or village. However these wooden structures supported by earth fortifications were very primitive compared to the more sophisticated constructions built from Norman times onwards. Indeed there are no pre-Norman castles remaining in Britain.

The first Norman castles had a military purpose. They were there for accommodating soldiers and also to operate as a watchtower commanding views of the immediate area. To do this they were often established on prominent sites or on a raised central mound - a 'motte' - surrounded by an outer wall or 'bailey'. Increasingly stone came into use as the demands for sophisticated fortifications became even greater. The central tower, known as the 'keep' or 'donjon' often came to dominate these castles. It was a safe place for the lord and his supporters, even a place to imprison captives, and the lower floors were often used for storage together with a well for water supply.

Entrance was usually afforded at first floor level by a ladder or stairway which ensured a further protection from any potential incursion by invaders. The central 'keep' often also accommodated a chapel and a hall which doubled up for a variety of uses including public business, eating and other events when it was necessary to gather people together.

Castle building started with the Normans but continued for over 400 years and many changes took place in the design of castles over that period. Fortifications became more sophisticated; entrance gates or 'barbicans' made an appearance to make the most vulnerable point of the castle, the entrance, more secure and more difficult to penetrate by invaders.

Britain truly has a wealth of stone castles. William the Conqueror alone started the construction of 54 and we can only imagine the impact that this scale of building activity had across the country. New quarries would be opened up and transportation of stone from distant locations might have to be arranged. Castle building did not slow down after William I's death; his son William II built 38 castles in 13 years and another 34 came along in the 35 years of Henry II's reign. Of course these rulers also had continental possessions so that whilst castle building was moving apace in England they were also commissioning castles in their dominions across the channel.

With the advent of gunpowder in the mid 14th century the role of the castle was set to change. No longer were they seen as the impregnable fortresses of earlier years but they could nevertheless still exert a dominant hold on the population of their area - an assertion of the strength of the local Baron. Consequently castle building continued but the blank impenetrable walls of the earlier castles were more frequently pierced by windows.

Detail design became more delicate and less rugged as the local lords sought to incorporate beauty with functional design in their castles. After a brief introduction Peter took us through many colour slides of castles; far too many to mention in this brief summary. Some that he mentioned had been developed on Roman foundations - like Exeter Castle which incorporated the Roman town walls. Porchester Castle, built in the 12th century, boasts a fine Keep but a marked absence of windows; reflecting its military role in this period. Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire was built in the mid 12th century but its Keep was subsequently converted to a more benign residential usage and has so many extensions that one can hardly imagine the prime reason for its construction! Castle Hedingham was also built in the 12th century with a magnificent stone Keep over 110ft high. The castle at Colchester, now much reduced, was based on the podium of a Roman temple. Hever Castle, constructed in the 13th century, has been heavily restored and is now used for conferences and similar activities. Berkhamsted castle, built in 1086 just 20 years after the Norman conquest, provides us with a clear example of 'motte' and 'bailey'. Ludlow Castle, commenced in 1085, is sited dramatically on a cliff overlooking the River Teme. Stokesey Castle, again built in the 13th century, is essentially a fortified manor house - designed to repel raiders from Wales.

Peter turned to Wales and reminded us of the major castle building program of Edward I which was designed to subdue his new Welsh conquests. Peter took us to Raglan; then on to Pembroke which dominates the town which surrounds it and and is famous for its 66ft high round Keep. We moved on to Criccieth, Caernarvon and Conway before heading north to Scotland where castle building was no less frenetic than that in England. Hermitage Castle in Roxburghshire looms over the landscape with a blank face showing few outside windows. Urquhat Castle overlooks Loch Ness. Cawdor Castle is dominated by its 15th century tower house.

In the time available Peter brought home to us the rich inheritance that we have here in Britain - one which many of us take fro granted - but one which can still provide for us an interesting insight into the way of life in medieval times.

Roger Hockney
February 2002