Castles in Britain have always served as symbolic displays of power and wealth, but their military purpose cannot be overlooked.
Castles have traditionally been viewed as heavily defended strongholds designed to protect inhabitants from marauding foreign armies or peasant uprisings. Literature and art have emphasized the castle’s role in withstanding sieges. However, the concept that nobles primarily built castles to defend those inside from the masses has fueled the misperception that they were solely defensive. To the contrary, their defenses—gatehouses equipped with moats, movable bridges, murder holes, arrow slits, and iron-grated barriers known as portcullises— supported the castle’s primary role, to impose control.
At the same time, castles were generally home to lords. R. Allen Brown, one of the fathers of British castle studies, saw castles as a combination of fortress and residence, built during the Middle Ages by men who wielded considerable power. Military historians, medievalists, and archaeologists have generally assumed that “real castles” fortified by such defensive structures as gatehouses, towers, ditches, battlements, and drawbridges existed only during the Middle Ages. Recent studies, however, have called into question the role and function of every ancient castle.
Archaeological and antiquarian surveys of surviving castles and historical documents such as the Bayeux Tapestry and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle once led historians to conclude that Britain’s castles evolved from simple earth and timber fortifications into increasingly complex fortresses fit for the most powerful leaders in the kingdom. They did not.
Evidence further suggests that castles declined at the end of the Middle Ages because their owners became obsessed with comfort and ostentation. They increasingly rejected militarized structures in favor of weakly defended or even unfortified but comfortable residences. Others abandoned their castles or let them decay when maintenance grew too costly or the accommodations were no longer adequate.
Traditionalists see the demise of the castle coming with Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Rather than building new castles, Henry began erecting gun forts—such as Deal Castle, Sandown Castle, and St. Mawes Castle—positioned to defend England’s southern coastline from a French invasion. Soldiers garrisoned these fortified structures, but they were never residences of nobility (with the exception of Walmer Castle, which held accommodations for the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports). These were castles in name only.
Elizabeth I reputedly hated castles, considering them drafty and uncomfortable. Her preference for more elegant accommodation spawned a completely new style of architecture. No new castles were built after she became queen, but many remained in use, including Windsor (still one of the monarchy’s official residences). For example, Elizabeth’s favorite courtier, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, revamped Kenilworth in Warwickshire so the queen (and the hundreds of attendants in her court) could live in style during a nineteen-day festival in her honor.
The last gasp of castle construction came during the English Civil War. Royalist supporters of King Charles I opposed the Roundheads, supporters of Parliament and the New Model Army, who overthrew the monarchy in the 1640s. Many refortified medieval castles played significant roles in that conflict. After defeating the Royalists, the Parliamentarian leader, Oliver Cromwell, ordered the “slighting,” or demolition, of virtually all Britain’s castles.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, stately homes that looked like castles and were so christened began to appear, including Penrhyn Castle, Cyfarthfa Castle, and Lulworth Castle. Entrepreneurs who made their fortunes during the Industrial Revolution built structures bristling with battlements and towers that harkened back to the Middle Ages. In fact, the structures were purely residential, built to glorify their owners’ achievements—and symbolically recalling the days when lords lived in castles and lorded over minions.
A new group studying castles is beginning to view early examples in a similar light, challenging traditional assumptions about Britain’s medieval fortresses. They rely not only on architectural and archaeological evidence but also on artwork, primary sources such as household accounts, and other analyses of life in the Middle Ages. From studying these sources, some now question whether lords ever constructed castles mainly for military purposes, let alone for defense. Some historians conclude that lords built their battlements more for dramatic effect than to thwart an assault.
Archaeological and historical evidence conflicts with that view, however. Castles indeed served a variety of purposes, but to deny their military utility is grossly misleading.
The history of British castles traditionally begins with the Norman Conquest in 1066, which the Bayeux Tapestry depicts. Created shortly after the defeat of the Saxons, the seventy-foot-long series of skillfully woven panels chronicles the Norman invasion of Britain and the Battle of Hastings. It even depicts the death of Saxon King Harold II, when an arrow pierced his eye. The tapestry also shows the construction of several castles, including Hastings, which was built near the site where the Normans defeated the Saxons.
History and archaeology bear out the tapestry’s story. William the Conqueror and his Norman followers built castles for conquest, not because they feared the Saxons (or later the Welsh) and needed refuge from them. In the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, the Normans primarily constructed castles for offensive purposes.
Shrewdly choosing a site at the remains of a Roman fort at Pevensey, near where the Norman fleet landed in 1066, Duke William built his first castle in England, a crescent-shaped earthen embankment known as a partial “ringwork,” in one of the corners of the ancient rectangular fort. Such sites provided ready-made defenses, but perhaps even more important, they symbolically placed the Normans on a par with the Romans. Some seven hundred years earlier, Rome had controlled much of Britain. Normans had the same intention.
The standard ringwork (or earthen enclosure) castle featured a circular or oval mound of low to moderate height surrounded by a ditch. The summit was scooped out so that the mound’s interior was lower than the outer perimeter, which supported timber palisades. Ringworks ranged from seventy-five feet in diameter to well over two hundred feet. The central enclosure at Castle Rising in Norfolk measures 210 feet by 240 feet and has a circumference of 1,050 feet. The entire site covers almost thirteen acres.
The motte castle consisted of a flat-topped earthen mound initially supporting a timber tower that served as the lord’s residence and an observation post. Workers created mottes by piling up earth excavated from the surrounding ditch and/or by modifying a conveniently shaped and well-positioned hillock. To prevent collapse, builders often revetted (faced) the slopes with timber and stone. The average motte varied from as little as five feet high to well over fifty feet; summit diameters ranged from twenty feet across to almost 380 feet (as at Norwich Castle in Norfolk). Only two castles are known to have had two mottes, Lewes Castle in East Sussex and Lincoln Castle in Lincolnshire.
Typically, workers attached a bailey, a round or oval area enclosed by an earthen embankment crowned with timber ramparts (a series of pointed logs held together with leather or iron straps), to one or more sides of the motte or ringwork. The bailey protected timber workshops and homes, and livestock roamed inside it. At many motte castles, including Windsor, large baileys flanked both sides of the massive mound and acted as defensive barriers against an assault on the motte.
William the Conqueror built an impressive number of castles, a program his son, William (Rufus) II, continued. They soon spread earth and timber castles—easy to construct and inexpensive— throughout England and Wales. The Normans found mottes essential for completing England’s conquest, particularly as local populations began to resist.
Almost immediately after their victory at Hastings, the Normans erected ringwork castles at Dover and Londinium, both on sites the Romans had held, and also built motte castles at Canterbury and Berkhamsted, former Saxon settlements. Their sudden appearance served as a visible reminder that the Normans had become the region’s new overlords. The castles also provoked resentment and revolt.
William also constructed castles atop Saxon settlements. At Lincoln the Normans demolished 166 out of 970 Saxon houses, building part of their castle over a Saxon cemetery. Building new castles atop earlier sites symbolically established the Normans as England’s supreme rulers.
Many Saxons resisted the Norman overlords. Rebellions erupted throughout England, prompting William to respond in 1068 with his “pacification” of the Saxons, known as the “harrying of the north.” The Normans spent three years ruthlessly destroying crops and torching homes of suspected rebels. Meanwhile, castles sprang up in and around London, Warwick, York, Huntingdon, Cambridge, and Nottingham—all strategic sites the Romans and/or Saxons had previously occupied.
The Saxons finally gave up significant resistance in about 1075. Lords then transformed many motte and ringwork castles into much grander and more durable stone fortifications that could better withstand a siege. The owners of timber castles began replacing them with stone versions known as shell keeps almost as soon as they were completed. These typically enclosed the summit of the motte. Inside, stone walls divided chambers, such as the great hall from the lord’s quarters. Though most shell keeps are now in ruin, as at Wiston in Pembrokeshire and Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, owners have maintained or modernized several, including the Round Tower at Windsor Castle.
In addition to Windsor and Arundel, Warwick and Alnwick Castles in England and Caernarfon Castle, Edward I’s headquarters in North Wales, also incorporated mottes. Fine examples of ringworks reinforced with masonry structures remain at Castle Rising in Norfolk, Restormel Castle in Cornwall, and Coity Castle and Ogmore Castle in Glamorgan.
Normans built scores of castles in the Welsh Marches, the border region between England and Wales, not only to restrict Welsh movement into England but also to demonstrate Norman superiority. (The Welsh constructed their first castles only after the Normans occupied Wales. Even then, the total number of Welsh-built castles was a fraction of what the Normans—and later rulers—constructed there.) Numerous earth and timber castles survive throughout the Marches, as do many substantial stone fortresses. These include Goodrich Castle, erected by William FitzOsbern, Earl of Hereford, in Herefordshire; Wigmore Castle, begun by Fitz – Osbern but completed by the Mortimers, Earls of March; and Montgomery Castle, built by Roger de Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury, which superseded an impressive motte castle, Hen Domen, a mile or so to the north.
Although most Norman castles built in the first few decades after the conquest were originally earth and timber strongholds, the invaders also erected notable stone fortifications. Examples include Colchester Castle (1075) in Essex, the White Tower (1077) in London (now the focal point of the Tower of London), and Chepstow Castle, built for William FitzOsbern in Monmouthshire. To keep the Welsh from threatening England, FitzOsbern positioned his castle to overlook the Wye River, a vital crossing point into Wales. Chepstow’s earliest building was the mammoth hall-keep, a hulking rectangular structure that still dominates the castle’s interior. Archaeologists have recently revised the construction date of the keep from 1067 to the 1080s.
Well before the eleventh century ended, masonry castles had come to stay in England and Wales, but stone structures never completely replaced earth and timber fortresses. Several, such as Owain Glyndwr’s castle at Sycharth in Denbighshire, continued to function as fortified private residences well into the early fifteenth century.
The Welsh not only resisted the Normans but also Britain’s later rulers, most notably the Plantagenet kings, Henry III and his son, Edward I. It took two intensive campaigns for the English to defeat the Welsh—and even then, rebellion continued for well over a century.
Like William I, Edward I used castles to subjugate his neighbors. A masterful warrior who honed his skills during the Crusades, Edward ordered a series of stone fortresses constructed to keep the Welsh at bay after he defeated them in 1277. Impressive castles arose in Flint, Rhuddlan, Aberystwyth, and Builth, in northeastern and mid Wales, pressing home the futility of further rebellion.
In 1278 Gilbert de Clare II began what was arguably Britain’s finest fortress, the concentric castle at Caerphilly in southeastern Wales. There, a series of lake-sized moats augmented stone walls within stone walls. An enemy who made it past the outermost layer of defenses was confronted by another set of defenses, including higher towers and a more powerful gatehouse manned by even more defenders.
As Lord of Glamorgan during the late thirteenth century, de Clare frequently fought the Welsh, who assaulted so many of his castles that he apparently decided to erect the ultimate for – tress. Inspired by the stone and water defenses used at Kenilworth in 1266, de Clare began Britain’s first concentric castle built entirely from scratch two years later. The Welsh continued to revolt but never attacked Caerphilly.
In 1282, when another Welsh uprising came to a head, Edward led his army into North Wales. After defeating the rebels, he ringed North Wales with four of the greatest castles built during the Middle Ages: Conwy, Caernarfon, Harlech, and Beaumaris. Many consider Beaumaris, which was never completed, among the finest examples of a concentric castle. All four featured huge mural towers, twin-towered gatehouses, impregnable curtain walls, and seaside locations. Edward also enclosed the towns of Conwy and Caernarfon with formidable stone walls that had battlemented towers and gateways. In many ways, these town walls were extensions of the castles.
Like William I, Edward recognized the power of psycho- logical warfare. He officially designated Caernarfon Castle as his headquarters, imbuing it with visual elements befitting a king. He modeled its unusual polygonal towers and the banded effect of the masonry after walls the Roman Emperor Constantine had erected at Constantinople in the fifth century.
In building his most important fortress at Caernarfon, Edward chose the location for its association with the Roman fort at Segontium, built on the town’s outskirts during Constantine’s reign. The carved eagle perched atop the largest of Caernarfon Castle’s great towers, now known as the Eagle Tower, symbolically associated the English king with his Roman predecessors. Everything about Edward I’s great castles, particularly Caernarfon, emphasized power, control, and ego. They visually established the English monarch’s superiority.
Yet all the effort Edward put into building his state-of-the-art fortresses did little to deter Welsh resistance, which erupted again in 1294 after he turned his attention to Scotland. Edward left the Welsh rebellion to his subordinates. His castles, and countless others built by lesser lords, have stood the test of time. Even in ruin, they remain constant reminders of conquest and control.
Well past the fourteenth century, Britain’s medieval castles continued to play a vital role in subjugating the populace. Whether simple structures built from earth and timber or complex concentric stone fortresses, these castles were primarily built to impress, allowing a lord to maintain control of his domain, albeit with enough defensive capability to protect against invaders. Castles ensured the survival of the lordship—and the monarchy. The mere presence of a castle not only confirmed what particular lord was in charge regionally but also subordinated lesser lords to him.
Castles functioned as centers of local government. It was there that the king or the lord, the king’s representative, administered justice, collected rent and taxes, and dealt with matters of state.
Many castles reflected the significant power of major lords, such as Castle Rising, William d’Albini’s marvelous ringwork in Norfolk, or Pembroke Castle, the Earl of Pembroke’s great stone stronghold in West Wales. More modest castles served as administrative centers for minor lords. For example, the Lord of Glamorgan used his main base, Cardiff Castle, as the seat of regional government. During the late eleventh century, Cardiff Castle was a “comitatus,” serving as the county court, exchequer, chancery, prison, and probably the mint as well. Maurice de Londres, Glamorgan’s subordinate who erected the ringwork castle at Ogmore, also conducted some local government functions at his own castle.
Lordship castles performed myriad functions, each in some way related to projecting control. Some castles were built to incorporate specific government functions. Pembroke Castle, for example, had its own courthouse and prison tower. Other lords adapted existing castle facilities in governing. Trying court cases in the great hall not only provided ample space for onlookers but, as it was the finest chamber in the castle, also flaunted the lord’s wealth, taste, and authority.
By accumulating enormous estates or meting out justice unfairly, some lords threatened the king’s authority. Occasionally, the monarch and the lord might come to blows. Alternatively, the king might erect a new castle nearby to remind an overly ambitious feudal subject just who ran the country. For example, in the late twelfth century Henry II built Orford Castle in Suffolk to reassert his authority over the Bigods, Earls of Norfolk, who controlled several castles in southern Norfolk and northern Suffolk, and also over William de Blois. The latter was the son of King Stephen (himself grandson of William the Conqueror, who ruled from 1135-1154) and later the fourth Earl Warenne, who held castles in Norfolk.
Henry II was an unforgiving man with a long memory. During the Anarchy (1139- 48), when Henry’s mother, the Empress Matilda, fought King Stephen for the English crown, the Bigods and Blois had supported the king. When Henry II became king of England in 1154 after the Anarchy, one of his priorities was to reconfirm monarchical power. However, rivalries continued to threaten him. Eleven years later, Henry began building Orford Castle—only about 13 miles from Framlingham Castle, one of the most important Bigod properties. Erecting a new royal castle reestablished the king’s authority, and Orford’s grandiose great keep drove the point into the ground.
Henry II built Orford Castle for both practical and symbolic purposes. It was a private residence serving military and administrative functions. The castle boasted a variety of defensive features— not just the great tower but also a towered curtain wall, a gatehouse, and an enclosing ditch—and dominated the landscape. King Henry clearly intended it to keep the Bigods and Blois under control.
According to castellologist T.A. Heslop, the unusual layout of the great tower had considerably more to do with Henry II’s needs to demonstrate his supremacy in East Anglia and live in comfort than with any real expectation of being besieged. Heslop maintains that the flamboyant design visually validated the king’s authority, while allowing for comfortable chambers and conveniently placed amenities (such as latrines). The imposing round keep rose six stories high (about ninety feet). Measuring forty-nine feet across, it had twenty-one sides. Three massive rectangular towers, laid out in specific geometrical ratios, buttressed it. Each buttress held additional living space that included two kitchens, a chapel, and at least two small living chambers or solars (private withdrawing rooms for the lord).
Hamelin Plantagenet, Henry’s half-brother, may have modeled his own imposing keep at Conisbrough Castle in West Yorkshire on the great keep at Orford. Doing so would have visually associated Plantagenet with his much more powerful sibling.
Castles exuded symbolism. Unlike the modest residences of the populace, they were huge, unique structures intruding on the landscape. If the Normans originally built castles to reinforce their conquest and to remind passersby that outsiders ruled, in time those who owned castles came to consider themselves socially, genealogically, militarily, and politically superior. They started to adorn even the exterior castle walls with their heraldic emblems and coats of arms, as at Warwick, Alnwick, and Bodiam. Visitors could not help but notice. Even if villagers did not know the exact meaning of the heraldry, they knew that the carvings projected the lord’s pedigree or pretensions.
During the latter part of the fourteenth century, as warfare strategy moved away from besieging castles to armies engaging on open battlefields, castle owners began heaping more attention and money on domestic comfort. Obviously, the lords had always occupied the most lavish castle quarters. Private apartments, at least one hall, and a solar were common. At many castles, the great tower was the lord’s primary residence. This great keep normally enclosed the most elaborate chambers, and was both self-sufficient and heavily defended.
For a time, the emphasis in British castle design shifted from the great keep to building enormous gatehouses. These became exceedingly complex structures laden with a variety of defensive devices and spacious residential chambers. Nonetheless, with the late medieval trends toward ostentation and comfort, new keep designs began to appear, as at Raglan Castle in Monmouthshire, South Wales. William ap Thomas, Raglan’s builder, displayed his status in virtually every structure, from the powerful Yellow Tower of Gwent (the octagonal great keep) and the machicolated twin-towered gatehouse (the two structures visitors would notice first) to the vast residential ranges. The gatehouse was constructed so that defenders on its wall could fire arrows or pour liquids through murder holes (openings in the floor) on enemies seeking entry. Both state and guest apartments encompassed the inner bailey (courtyard).
In the late fourteenth century, medieval lords increasingly demanded more space for their own living quarters as well as for their growing households and other essential staff. Building new keeps solved part of the problem. Providing living space for all permanent employees of the household and their families was expensive, but filling a castle with buildings for domestics demonstrated the wealth and power of a lord who needed—and could afford—a large staff.
Many rulers remodeled their castles to accommodate these and other requirements. Each new monarch, for example, expanded the royal fortresses at Windsor, the Tower of London, and Edinburgh, Scotland, seeking to leave their personal marks. Likewise, many lords added to existing castles, extending available living space while enhancing their prestige as men of the times.
Noblemen also introduced new castle designs, most notably the “quadrangular castle,” to the British landscape. As R. Allen Brown observed, “Though not to be compared in sheer power and size with, for example, the Edwardian castles in Wales, in many respects these quadrangular castles of the late fourteenth century can be regarded as the last and most logically satisfying development of the castle proper, combining to perfection its twin roles of residence and fortress.”
Builders specifically designed the internal layouts of new castles such as Bolton in North Yorkshire and Bodiam in East Sussex to accommodate not only the lord’s family but also his household employees, other permanent staff members, and all their families. Different ranges of buildings housed staff in accordance with their social rank.
Bolton Castle, begun by Richard le Scrope, lord chancellor in the 1370s, is an excellent example of how space divisions in a quadrangular castle recognized social status. Each of its four enormous rectangular towers rose five levels. Three-story residential ranges filled the curtain walls between each pair of corner towers. The ground level provided rooms for storage, stables, a bakery and brewhouse, and lodgings for lowly workers. Senior members of the household occupied private apartments in the northwest and southwest towers and the first and second stories of the western range between them, while military personnel lived in the eastern range.
The castle also featured an unusual set of eight completely self-contained residential suites, each with its own hall, and an additional set of twelve individual lodgings. Mary, Queen of Scots, reportedly stayed in the southwestern tower in 1568.
Scrope presumably flaunted his position through interior furnishings, for Bolton Castle’s exterior is plain, belying the grandeur of a lord chancellor. However, he did ensure it was at least moderately defensible. The passage through the gatehouse had a portcullis (the timber and iron grilles raised and lowered by winches that could bar access to the castle’s interior) at both ends, and portcullises protected every doorway into the interior buildings. Machicolations over the doorways (projections from the walls that were not only decorative but also safeguarded defenders while they poured boiling liquids down on attackers, or threw missiles at them) kept outsiders from entering the private chambers. Huge towers dominated each corner of the quadrangular castle.
In 1385 Sir Edward Dalyngrigge received a “license to crenellate” from King Richard II, giving him permission to build a castle at Bodiam “for the defence of the adjacent county, and the resistance to our enemies [the French].” This was a legal but largely ceremonial document signed by the king, granting official permission to fortify a residence by erecting crenellations or battlements. Granting such a license proved that the monarch acknowledged a lord’s place in medieval society—and that the honoree had attained sufficient wealth to erect a castle. Many castle builders never bothered to obtain a license, however, confident that they had enough political and social clout to keep the king from interfering with their project. The king granted other licenses well after castles were actually completed.
Dalyngrigge’s castle boasted all the most prestigious accouterments: battlements and defended gatehouses with portcullises, massive towers and machicolations, and moats spanned by drawbridges. He filled the great gatehouse and towers with living quarters and lined the inner courtyard’s walls with residential ranges. Each of the four ranges contained a hall, living chambers, service rooms, bedrooms, and provided access to adjoining corner towers. Dalyngrigge and his family occupied the eastern range, featuring the great chamber, the lord’s hall, the chapel, a secondary hall, and two other chambers. The east tower had two more living chambers, garderobes, and fireplaces, and gave access to the wall-walk as well as the adjoining corner tower. Dalyngrigge housed important visitors and members of the household with high status, such as his steward, in the other corner towers. Retainers occupied the range of buildings on the western side of the courtyard and the adjoining tower. Even servants had at least modest accommodations.
Bodiam is arguably Britain’s most photographed castle, but not because of its interior, which is in ruin and unexpectedly compact. Visitors are generally impressed as they approach what appears to be a fairy tale castle. The dramatic, multitowered stronghold seems to float on the waters of its lake-like moat; grassy grounds highlight the castle, and the pathway lures visitors toward the main gatehouse. Heraldic emblems and a strange-looking ruined barbican (an outwork positioned to defend the gatehouse and keep attackers at a distance) on the islet in the moat all create expectations that the interior will be just as grand.
Even during the Middle Ages, that wasn’t the case; the lord’s excessive residential requirements appear to have been squeezed into the limited area of the square structure. Its placement in the midst of the wide-open landscape, enclosed by the large moat, produces an illusion that the castle is much grander than it ever was. Regardless, Bodiam is for many people the image of the ideal castle.
A revolution in castle studies began in 1990, when Charles Coulson, a specialist in medieval fortifications, and researchers from England’s Royal Commission on Historical Monuments took a fresh look at Bodiam Castle. Citing its allegedly flimsy defenses and complex landscaping, they wondered whether it was a real castle or a castellated residence designed to emphasize a lord’s status.
These studies continue to challenge both traditional thinkers and revisionists. Some now deny that castles ever had any significant military function. Others claim that any military purpose castles may have had was, at best, of secondary importance to their residential role and their symbolic display of power, wealth, and position. They suggest that all lordly residences simply conformed to an aristocratic architectural style, while their castellated features such as battlements and towers had little practical use.
Influenced by Coulson, who has been writing about castles and their symbolism since at least 1979, revisionists search for the “meaning” of medieval castles and find them largely symbolic displays of power rather than defendable fortresses or even residences. The Bodiam debate largely sparked this new way of appreciating medieval castles.
Now an honorary research fellow at the School of History at the University of Kent, Coulson concluded that despite its towered walls, two towered gatehouses, barbican, and enormous moat, Bodiam’s defenses were in fact too weak to have been worth much during a siege. He further speculated that Sir Edward Dalyngrigge built the military features primarily to visually link himself to the earlier grand age of castles. Coulson believed that the nostalgic design was intended to associate the lord of Bodiam symbolically and emotionally with the mighty Edward I. Doing so emphasized Dalyngrigge’s superior status among his peers and his lordship over his subordinates. Accordingly, Coulson concluded Bodiam was not truly a castle but merely a fine manor house with defenses that were symbolically impressive but not militarily functional.
The Royal Commission’s documented findings seemed to support Coulson. Commission members determined that the elaborate manmade landscape indicates that Dalyngrigge never intended the site to aid in defending Great Britain. Rather, he was manipulating the countryside to advertise his personal achievements.
Visitors originally approached Bodiam Castle by an intriguing series of paths and bridges that forced them—and attackers—to turn at angles to reach the gatehouse. Today the angled bridges no longer survive, but their role in protecting and showcasing Dalyngrigge’s castle remains obvious. This creative design not only would leave attackers with their unshielded right sides exposed and vulnerable to retaliation from inside the castle, but also steered visitors to the best vantage points, displaying the castle’s best profile, as it were.
Coulson, the Royal Commission, and more recent researchers such as Matthew Johnson have shown that Bodiam and other castles were visual treats with vital symbolic components. However, Bodiam Castle’s design and dimensions are comparable to the average medieval castle, as were its defenses. The structure itself measures 150 feet by 135 feet. Its battlemented walls are six feet thick and stand forty feet above the surface of the moat’s water. The round corner towers measure approximately twenty-nine feet in diameter and reach sixty feet above the water. The moat is 540 feet long (north-south) by 350 feet wide at the south end.
Adorned with decorative shields displaying Sir Edward’s pedigree, the twin-towered main gatehouse was defended by a barbican and accessible only over drawbridges. Three sets of portcullises and double doors barred unwanted visitors from the castle. Defenders could fire arrows or pour boiling liquids down onto besiegers—or fight fires—through a set of decorative machicolations or through the murder holes over the gate passage. Gun loops positioned in the gate towers and arrow slits in the walls allowed defenders to fire at attackers in relative safety.
The postern gatehouse on the opposite side of the castle contained similar defensive features, but not the twin-towered façade. It served primarily as a secondary gateway, positioned to receive supplies from the Rother River, not far south of the castle.
As a rule, medieval stone castles had battlemented walls, towers, gatehouses, and a moat or ditch. Their curtain walls generally varied from seven feet thick, as at Conisbrough, to more than twenty feet, as at Dover Castle. Edward I’s ten-sided Eagle Tower at Caernarfon Castle measured internally about thirty-five feet across, and its walls were eighteen feet thick. The average wall height was about thirty feet; some castle walls, as at Framlingham in Suffolk, Knaresborough in North Yorkshire, and Bodiam measured forty feet or higher.
Topping the battlements, crenellations protected the wall-walk that ran along the top of the curtain wall and towers. (Crenels were wall openings some two to three feet wide, providing a firing point. The intervening merlons, toothlike projections, provided cover for the defenders. They generally stood three to seven feet high and were about five feet wide.)
Gateways varied in complexity from the simplest archway to those heavily laden with defensive devices and twin-towered facades, as at Harlech and Warwick, the latter fronted by a well-preserved, twin-towered barbican. Moats generally ranged between three and thirty feet in depth, and were typically well over twelve feet wide.
Although its walls were slightly thinner than average, Bodiam meets the criteria to classify it as a castle rather than a manor house with delusions of grandeur. The moat, for example, far surpassed the dimensions of the average water obstacle (with the exception of Caerphilly’s great lake-like moats). Despite being ornamental, it would have challenged besiegers.
Some have argued that the gun loops (slots shaped with rounded openings through which muskets could be fired) near the base of the main gatehouse must have been decorative rather than defensive, given their low-lying position. However, the structure overall fits well within the parameters associated with medieval castles. That fact and the order in Dalyngrigge’s license to crenellate “to defend the adjacent county” justifiably categorizes Bodiam as a castle, albeit one replete with symbolism.
Dalyngrigge was certainly not the first lord to design a castle to physically manipulate visitors. At Castle Rising, built well before Bodiam in the twelfth century, the forebuilding routed guests to specific parts of the castle. Two wide flights of stairs filled the enclosed staircase on the outside wall of the fifty-foot-high keep. About midway up, the lower flight stopped at a door that could be secured to prevent passage to the rest of the keep. The upper set of stairs led guests to an entrance vestibule into an elegantly decorated great hall. Like Dalyngrigge, the d’Albinis, lords of Rising, wanted to impress their visitors. They did so with a grand entrance into their hall.
Yet despite its finery, Castle Rising is among the most impressive examples of Norman military architecture. Its great keep and the powerful embankments of the original ringwork were its most imposing—and most functional—features. Medieval attackers would have had to scale Castle Rising’s steep-sided defenses just to reach the inner ward, let alone the keep.
These same observations apply to Dover Castle, which Coulson and other revisionists also claim was built more for its symbolism than for military purposes. Further, they suggest that more than nine hundred years ago Henry II built the great keep at Dover Castle, above the white cliffs overlooking the English Channel, merely to demonstrate his importance to approaching fleets—and his own subjects.
Erected during the 1180s, Dover’s mammoth rectangular keep is indeed one of the finest and largest of its type. A castle unto itself, the great keep measures some ninety-eight feet by ninety-six feet and stands ninety-five feet high. Its walls, varying from seventeen to twenty-one feet in thickness, support not only the battlements but also the royal apartments, the great hall and a lesser hall, and many other interior rooms.
Guests passed through a huge forebuilding, also one of the most impressive of its kind, to gain access to the keep. Flights of stairs opened into a vestibule that led to a lavish chapel on the first level. Then they passed across a drawbridge pit before approaching the main residential chamber and upper chapel on the second story. On the next level above, the mural gallery enclosed a fighting platform and provided access to the rooftop, each corner commanded by a battlemented turret. Vents supplied air to the king’s chambers below.
Once construction was complete, Henry began enclosing the keep with a towered curtain wall punctuated by ten square wall towers, two twin-towered gatehouses, and two barbicans. The entire complex formed the central core of the great medieval castle, which Henry’s heirs, Richard I and John, enclosed with a towered outer curtain wall and additional buildings.
Given that the keep was a royal residence with powerful fortifications and that Dover has played a strategic role in British history, the castle’s military role seems obvious. Certainly the great keep did reflect the king’s outsized ego, but it was at the center of an even more imposing complex of fortifications. Like the prehistoric peoples and Romans who had previously fortified the site, Henry strategically positioned Dover Castle where he could detect an advancing enemy fleet. In fact, Dover Castle continued in active military use during World War II and the Cold War.
Unlike Bodiam Castle, which remained untested when the French failed to invade, Dover Castle twice withstood attack. In the early thirteenth century, Dover repulsed two assaults by Prince Louis, the French dauphin who brought the first trebuchets to England. Enemy sappers breached the outer curtain wall but could penetrate no farther.
Henry II certainly emphasized Dover Castle’s visual symbolism. Its strength attested to the English king’s ability to protect his realm. Henry had already built Orford Castle, largely to reassert his authority in East Anglia. At Dover, he demanded more. The enormous keep emphasized not only the power of Britain’s monarch but also his supreme position. Henry and his heirs ensured that Dover Castle was a stronghold from which the monarch could establish and defend preeminence. Dover performed that military function throughout medieval times.
On the Web site of the Thoroton Historical Society of Nottinghamshire, Sarah Speight, an associate professor of archaeology and medieval history at the University of Nottingham, states: “Our working definition is that castles are residences with pretensions: pretensions to defensibility and to status. Castles are built either by the elite, or by those who aspire to join the elite. Today we apply the term to postmedieval buildings as well. Nottingham always has been a castle, even though from its eighteenth century phase onwards we talk of the Ducal Palace. A nineteenth century terraced house can be called ‘Castle Villas.’ On the other hand, Wollaton Hall is never Wollaton Castle, despite the fact that its design is very ‘castle’-like with its central tower and surrounding turreted curtain. We cannot assume that all castles conform to any one definition.”
One of the burgeoning group of revisionists who aim to change the course of castle studies, Speight correctly points out that castles had more than one purpose, but she completely rejects that they had any military role, and she appears to have extended the time frame. Under her working definition, such modern-day sites as William Randolph Hearst’s grandiose home at San Simeon, California, better known as the Hearst Castle, qualify.
To reject the military role that castles performed ignores work produced by archaeologists, medievalists, and military historians who have painstakingly recorded the physical evidence and endeavored to understand castles in their context. British castles have always been used to enforce power and suppress revolt—simultaneously asserting the lord’s supremacy. The castles erected in Britain between 1066 and the fifteenth century (and even later) all had an innate military role. From his castle, a lord could command and oppress the populace, if only psychologically. While serving as administrative centers or fortified private residences, castles played a military role that was more about retaining power and control of the lordship than about protecting villagers from invaders. From Norman times throughout the Middle Ages, British rulers used their castles to effect and then solidify conquest, both by force and psychological control.
The builders of late medieval castles increasingly designed for residential comfort, eschewing bulky, unattractive defensive structures. Nevertheless, the majority of Britain’s castles were, in the words of John Kenyon, author of Medieval Fortifications, “seriously fortified residences, with towers and gatehouses designed to keep an enemy at bay, as well as to provide a variety of accommodation within.”
While Bodiam Castle’s elaborately designed landscape forced people to move around the site in a particular pattern, the structure itself possessed all the basic defensive features of earlier castles. If its surroundings make Bodiam little more than a “modestly magnificent house masquerading as a castle,” sites such as Raglan Castle in Wales and even Corfe Castle in Dorset must be reclassified. Both featured lavish gardens and are visually splendid—but they were also strong enough to withstand sieges during the English Civil War in the 1640s. Beauty did not detract from their military capabilities.
Rather than classifying castles as strictly military structures, rejecting the term altogether, or ignoring the fact that castles always had some defenses (while claiming they were merely a form of aristocratic architecture), a more appropriate view might consider all castle uses. Just as many revisionists have claimed that nineteenth and early twentieth century attitudes about castles arose out of a biased Victorian imperial view of the world, perhaps the current trend toward multiple viewpoints reflects our times and our growing discomfort with the notion of militarism and warfare in general. The fact remains that just as castles always performed an essential residential role for a lord and his family, they have also been used to oppress, subjugate, and control.
Originally published in the Summer 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.