Authors: Marc Morris
Tags: #History, #General
About the Book
From the author of
A Great and Terrible King
The Norman Conquest
comes a sweeping and surprising history of some of the most magnificent buildings in Britain.
Beginning with their introduction in the eleventh century, and ending with their widespread abandonment in the seventeenth, Marc Morris explores many of the country’s most famous castles, as well as some spectacular lesser-known examples. At times this is an epic tale, driven by characters like William the Conqueror, King John and Edward I, full of sieges and conquest on an awesome scale. But it is also by turns an intimate story of less eminent individuals, whose adventures, struggles and ambitions were reflected in the fortified residences they constructed. Be it ever so grand or ever so humble, a castle was first and foremost a home.
To understand castles – who built them, who lived in them, and why – is to understand the forces that shaped medieval Britain.
About the Author
Marc Morris is an historian and broadcaster. He studied and taught history at the universities of London and Oxford, and his doctorate on the thirteenth-century earls of Norfolk was published in 2005. In 2003 he presented the highly acclaimed television series
, and wrote its accompanying book. Following the success of his biography of King Edward I (
A Great and Terrible King
, 2008), he has written a new history of the Norman Conquest.
Also by Marc Morris
The Bigod Earls of Norfolk in the Thirteenth Century
A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain
The Norman Conquest
To my parents, who took me to a lot of castles
THIS BOOK WAS
written to accompany a TV series, and it is far richer as a result. It was a real gift to be given the time – days rather than the usual hours – to contemplate the castles described in the following pages, and be granted unrestricted access to explore them. Castles, as I’ve indicated elsewhere, got me into the history business. Early visits with my parents sent me to my schoolbooks, my schoolbooks sent me to university, and my university lecturers directed me to the great libraries of London and Oxford. You can, however, get lost in libraries. Making the TV series helped me find my way back out. It was a wonderful opportunity to get back to basics, to revisit the scenes from my childhood, and to be reminded what made history so exciting in the first place. My thanks to everyone who made it all possible.
THE COUNTY OF
Kent has more than its fair share of castles, and my parents and schoolteachers conspired to ensure that I was familiar with most of them from a young age. Not, you understand, that I needed much encouragement – trips to castles were always my favourite. Around every corner, through every doorway, there was the promise of fresh excitement. An over-imaginative little boy could easily picture knights in shining armour, damsels in distress, sieges, feasts and tournaments. Whether ruinous or restored, castles were magical places.
Or at least, most of them were. Some of them, I’m sorry to say, I found a bit boring. Certain castles, I noticed, had lots of cannon, but nowhere for the king to eat his dinner. Others, by contrast, had plenty of fancy bedrooms, but nowhere for the soldiers to sleep. Either way, one or two of the castles I visited as a child seemed to lack certain important things, and I would return home a little disappointed, though for reasons I couldn’t quite fathom. Clearly these buildings didn’t measure up to my idea of what a castle should be.
So what is a castle? Is there a good definition? The
Oxford English Dictionary
helpfully tells us that the word itself derives from the medieval Latin word
, and ultimately from the classical Latin word
, meaning ‘camp’. A castle, it goes on to say, is ‘a large building, or set of buildings, fortified for defence against an
a fortress, stronghold’. Many people, I think, would find nothing to disagree with in this statement. The word ‘castle’ tends to conjure up images of boiling oil, bows and arrows, catapults and battering rams.
But is that all there is to it? Are castles just about fighting, or even self-defence? Haven’t the dictionary compilers missed an important point? On the outside of a castle, we expect to see drawbridges and battlements, portcullises and arrow-loops; but what about on the inside? There, surely, we expect to see evidence of luxury and creature comforts. There are great halls for banqueting, and huge kitchens to prepare lavish feasts; bedrooms, chambers and chapels, all once sumptuously decorated; stables, granaries, bakeries, breweries – everything, in short, that was necessary to make them perfect residences for their owners.
So a castle might be a fortress, but it is also, crucially, a home. This was the definition famously offered by Professor R. Allen Brown in his ground-breaking book,
. From the moment it was first published almost sixty years ago, the book established itself as the most influential work on castles, and it is still required reading today for anyone even remotely interested in the subject. A castle, to quote Professor Brown, ‘is basically a fortified residence, or a residential fortress’. Castles were not simply buildings into which people retreated when the going got tough; they were places where people spent time willingly. When I read the book for the first time, I realised why certain castles had bored me as a boy; the less interesting ones had been either entirely military in purpose, or else they had no defensive capability at all. These so-called castles, it turned out, were really nothing more than forts, and mere stately homes. According to Brown’s definition, a real castle was a fortress and a stately home rolled into one.
For many medieval historians – myself included – this textbook definition of a castle seemed to fit the picture perfectly. It also
why we love castles so much. For how can a building be warlike and homely at the same time? Luxury demands more space, thinner walls, bigger windows. Security, on the other hand, says keep everything crammed inside thick walls, and make the windows small. For castle designers, the major challenge was reconciling these two apparently contradictory imperatives. For castle enthusiasts, the ingenious ways in which they did so is part of what makes castles so endlessly fascinating.
Recently, however, castle experts have begun to question this definition. The problem with deciding that a castle is a fortress and a home, they say, is that this excludes a lot of castles from the club. Take, for example, the subject of Chapter Four – the gorgeous Bodiam Castle in Sussex. There is no doubt at all that this was once a classy home for a rich aristocrat. But did its owner ever intend to use it as a fortress? Most of the exterior features (as we shall see) seem to be just stuck on for effect. The moat, the battlements and the portcullises, all of which might suggest we are dealing with a formidable stronghold, are in actual fact all highly suspect. If Bodiam had ever ended up in a really serious fight, chances are it would have been quickly clobbered into submission.
So does this mean that Bodiam, and other similarly weedy castles, are not really castles at all? The answer must surely be no. We can call Bodiam a castle because… well, because it plainly
like a castle. And, more importantly, the people who were around when Bodiam was built also called it a castle: it would be very arrogant of us in the twenty-first century to disqualify Bodiam on the grounds that we knew better than they did. Clearly it is not Bodiam Castle that is the problem – it is our definition. None of the castles I’ve visited recently seem to be having an identity crisis, but some of the experts I’ve encountered have grave doubts. Professor Matthew Johnson has just concluded his new book by confessing that he is ‘less certain than ever about what castles “really are”’.
And yet, in spite of the uncertainty among historians, there still seems to be a general consensus about which buildings are castles, and which ones are not. What we no longer have is an easy, no-nonsense, one-size-fits-all definition. This, of course, makes it tough if you find yourself writing a book on castles, because, as R. Allen Brown rightly said, ‘Any book about castles should begin by saying what they are.’
So, with this advice in mind, here’s what I think. A castle was first and foremost a home to its aristocratic owner and his or her household. That, I believe, must be our starting point. Down to the end of the thirteenth century in England, and slightly later in Wales and Scotland, these noble residences were also strong, defensible buildings that we can reasonably describe as ‘fortresses’. Some of the castles in this book were – indeed, are – tremendously tough buildings, designed to withstand the most deadly assault weapons of the Middle Ages. From 1300 onwards, they could afford to be less effective at keeping people out, even to the point of not being defensible at all. But, as with Bodiam, what made a castle was not how tough it was, but whether or not it
like one. In order to be considered a castle, a building had to have at least some of the physical attributes that contemporaries associated with castles, such as battlements, portcullises, arrow-loops and drawbridges. Whether they actually worked or not was irrelevant. They were still essential, because they had come to symbolize something – that the people inside were important, that they had a right to rule others, and that they expected deference, obedience and respect.
Of course, it is the portcullises and the drawbridges that we all love, especially as children, and I was no exception. The older I get, however, it is the thought that castles were homes that really provides the attraction. As residences, they possess a richness of historical association that mere fortresses can’t even begin to offer. Naturally, as great strongholds, some castles were absolutely decisive in determining the course of British history. But other castles, perhaps less strong
warlike, were decisive in other, subtler ways. As the homes to kings, queens and nobles, they were the places where plots were hatched, marriages were consummated, and murders were committed. As places of work, they were important to scores of others: clerks, cooks, farriers, stable lads, travelling players and troubadour poets. And even for those who lived outside their walls, castles were a central part of their lives. It was to the castle that people would come to pay their taxes, or to stand trial in their lord’s court. Whether royal or noble, castles were the administrative hubs of the Middle Ages, and were important to every rank of society.
What follows is not a guide to castles, nor a comprehensive gazetteer. It is certainly not the final word on the subject, which is currently attracting more scholarly interest than ever before. It is simply my version of the castle story, and an invitation to readers to think further about these magnificent buildings. I hope it will encourage people to reflect on the motives of the men who built them, the experiences of the families who lived in them, and the pain of the people who died defending them. Most of all, I hope it will incite people to visit the castles themselves. To stand on top of the battlements of Rochester in the middle of winter, whipped by the wind and the rain, is enough to make you sympathize with those knights who were trapped inside during King John’s great siege of October and November 1215. To gaze on the massive walls of Caernarfon, one can only wonder what on earth drove Edward I to construct such an undeniably impressive, but colossally expensive and ultimately unsustainable demonstration of power. To walk around the moat at Bodiam in the early morning sunshine, and see the reflection of the castle shimmering on the water, is a sufficient reminder, if any reminder is necessary, of just how splendid and beautiful these buildings can be.