Castles are the most important architectural legacy of the Middle Ages. In terms of scale and sheer numbers, they outclass every other form of ancient monument. What’s more, the public has an enduring love affair with these great buildings. Every year, over fifty million people pay a visit to a castle in the UK.
But what is a castle? A thousand years after their introduction to Britain, you’d have thought the experts could come up with a straightforward answer to such an apparently simple question. But when it comes to castles, we live in uncertain times. At present, a satisfactory definition of what they really are seems to be more elusive than ever.
The Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, is not particularly helpful. A castle, it tells us, is ‘a fortified building, a stronghold’. But it takes only a moment’s reflection to work out that this definition will not do as a qualifying test. Plenty of other things besides castles could be described in this way: Iron Age hill forts, nineteenth-century Martello towers, and Second World War pill boxes are all ‘strongholds’ – but they are clearly not castles.
In fact, historians have been pointing out for a long time that a ‘true’ castle ought to have more than just military potential; it also had to function as a home. A real castle was a private residence for a lord and his family, not simply a stronghold for a garrison of fighting men. Accordingly, at a castle we should expect to find not just arrowloops, battlements and drawbridges, but also great halls, chapels, bedrooms, kitchens – all the things necessary for an aristocrat and his household to lead the medieval good life.
So historians eventually settled on a definition of a castle as a ‘strongly fortified, private home’, and this seemed to do the trick. It distinguished the earliest Norman castles from the communal defences of the Anglo-Saxons and the Romans that came before them, and it differentiated later castles from the purely military buildings that were constructed once the Middle Ages were over. Using this definition, we could point to places like Uffington Castle in Oxfordshire (really an Iron Age hill fort) or Deal Castle in Kent (one of a number of artillery bastions built along England’s south coast by Henry VIII) and knowledgeably expose them as castle frauds. For a long time everybody was happy with the idea that a true castle was a fortress and a private home rolled into one.
Recently, however, some bright sparks have politely pointed out that there is a tiny problem with this definition: a lot of the country’s favourite castles seemed to be useless as fortresses.
Take, for example, Bodiam Castle in Sussex. A late fourteenth-century creation, it belongs towards the end of the castle-building tradition in England. Nevertheless, its credentials as a castle seem impeccable. Indeed, Bodiam seems to strike a perfect balance between the military and the domestic – a beautiful, comfortable place to live, but also a supremely well-equipped fortress. Bristling with battlements and towers, protected by portcullises and gun-loops, and situated at the centre of a broad moat, Bodiam exhibits all the military hardware that the security-conscious medieval family could wish for.
The only snag is that none of these military features actually work. The gun-loops are ill-positioned, the moat could easily be drained and the battlements are small and thin. The castle’s main gate, which speaks loudly of military might, is contradicted by its back entrance, which would have been easy to access and weakly defended. Bodiam, in other words, is all talk and no action; in a real fight, it would have been almost useless.
The castle, however, is not weedy by accident. Its builder, Sir Edward Dallingridge, was an expert soldier – indeed, he paid for Bodiam using the profits he made in war. As such, he would have been the first person to spot whether or not a building was suitable for defence. But like the mason whom he employed to design the castle, Sir Edward was well aware that late fourteenth-century England (Chaucer’s England, if you like) was a peaceful place, where serious fortification was unnecessary. What he needed was not an impregnable fortress, but a splendid home, crammed to the rafters with accommodation. At Bodiam, you can still count around thirty fireplaces and a similar number of toilets. Dallingridge was a man rising rapidly through the ranks of society – his family came from humble origins, but he ended his days as a royal councillor. The castle he built was not intended to house a garrison of soldiers, but to provide hospitality for honoured guests.
At the same time, Sir Edward was a knight, not a hotelier. He needed a home in which to play the host, but it had to be a home that spoke of nobility. In short, it had to be a castle. Bodiam is decked out with portcullises, battlements, towers and a moat, not because they were necessary as defences, but because they were essential as symbols of aristocratic power.
It is this symbolic value of castles that has attracted the attention of scholars in recent years. They have been keen to point out that castles did not necessarily have to be built as functional fortresses, but as symbols of their owners’ right to rule. What’s more, this was true not only of late medieval castles like Bodiam, where defence was only a minor consideration, but also of earlier examples, where fortification would still have been high on the list of priorities.
Travel back a hundred years from Bodiam to the late thirteenth century, and leave the rolling hills of Sussex for the wild frontier of Wales. King Edward I, having conquered the country, has secured his hold on it by building the most remarkable string of castles in the world. The mighty structures that still stand at Harlech, Conwy, Caernarfon, Beaumaris, Rhuddlan and Flint are tribute to the iron will of the king, the genius of his master mason, and the enormous power of late medieval England as a state. There is no question that these buildings, as well as being luxury residences fit for a king, were also fighting machines par excellence. The technology of defence at each of Edward’s castles is absolutely state of the art.
But Edward also wanted his new castles to be symbols of his power. By choosing to build the greatest of them at Caernarfon, he was bringing to life an ancient legend. The king was an enthusiastic devotee of chivalric literature, and knew of an old Welsh story that told of a great castle at Caernarfon, ‘the fairest mortal ever saw’. The fortress-palace that Edward began to build was certainly worthy of such a description. But fulfilling the legend meant more than simply creating a castle that was big and beautiful. When they came to design Caernarfon, Edward and his architect made a radical departure from the features used at his other Welsh castles. At Rhuddlan, Beaumaris, Conwy and Harlech, the towers are round, and the walls were once whitewashed. At Caernarfon the walls are polygonal, and the masonry was left bare, in order to expose the different coloured bands of stone in the castle’s walls.
Why the difference? The answer is that Caernarfon was said in legend to be the birthplace of the Roman emperor Constantine, founder of the city of Constantinople. The ancient walls of this imperial capital had polygonal towers and banded masonry. Edward, by building his new castle to the same pattern, was delivering a powerful message to all who cared to read it. Welsh independence, he declared, was over; Wales was now part of a new English empire. As a finishing touch, stone eagles were perched on top of Caernarfon’s greatest tower, hammering the imperial message home.
Edward I was not the first English king to go to such elaborate lengths in order to make a political point. The greatest castle building king of the previous century, Henry II, was also responsible for creating castles in order to symbolise his authority. One of the king’s castles, Orford in Suffolk, has a great tower built to a highly unusual design. The body of the keep is round, and supported by three large buttressing towers. Traditionally these features have been explained as developments in military technology, but recently this analysis has been rejected; if anything, such novelties made the keep itself more vulnerable. Orford actually seems to be an intentionally whimsical creation, built as an exercise in geometry, and inspired by descriptions of circular halls in twelfth-century romances.
Likewise, Henry’s new keep at Dover, which is always interpreted as a stronghold built to guard the White Cliffs from some unspecified foreign menace, can be understood as the king’s response to a threat much closer to home. Just fifteen miles from Dover stands Canterbury Cathedral, then as now the administrative heart of the English Church. Thanks to Henry’s unintentional martyring of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170, Canterbury became an international destination for pilgrims. The keep at Dover, constructed just over decade after Becket’s death, was perhaps a royal response to Canterbury’s growing power – a reminder to all who saw it that Henry, although he was very sorry about Becket’s death, was still determined to be master in his own kingdom.
Even when we cast our eye back to the eleventh century, we find William the Conqueror, the builder of the first stone castles in England, using castles for propaganda purposes. The king’s contemporary biographer is forever comparing his royal subject to Julius Caesar, and likens William’s leading men to the Roman senate. Such flattery seems to have rubbed off on the king himself, to judge from some of the castles he built. Wherever he invested in stone, William deliberately invoked the Roman past. In his new capital, he began to build the Tower of London, making use of the existing Roman walls to form the outer enclosure. At Colchester, a similar great tower was erected over the foundations of the ruined Roman temple of Claudius. At Chepstow the king constructed a great hall using material from an old Roman town, and decorated throughout in an imperial style. With such grand castles, built in a ‘Romanesque’ style, William declared himself a conqueror on a par with Julius Caesar.
Even the humblest type of early castle – the kind made from earth and timber – could be built with attention to symbolic detail. Take a look at the castle at Bayeux as shown on the famous Bayeux Tapestry. The mound of earth, or motte, is topped with a very elaborate, decorated structure, complete with what appears to be a dragon’s head over the doorway. This image is a useful reminder that even castles made of wood were not constructed exclusively for reasons of defence and accommodation. They were built to proclaim loudly their owners’ authority, and to show off their strength. In England after 1066, such castles advertised the arrival of a new power in the land.
Such ostentatious castle-building was not confined to England and Wales. The distinctive type of castle that dominated late medieval Scotland, the tower house, had a symbolic importance that often outweighed considerations of security. This is especially obvious in the case of the very last examples, like Craigievar in Aberdeenshire (about as useful in a siege situation as the Disney castle it resembles). But it is also true of earlier models. Take Borthwick, near Edinburgh, the biggest tower house of them all. When the Scottish king James I licensed the construction of the tower in 1430, he gave the builder specific permission for ‘defensive ornaments on top’.
Kings and nobles at the time, in other words, were under no illusion that the castle they built made flamboyant statements about their own importance. It is only later, more imaginative generations who mistakenly interpreted the architectural embellishments on these buildings as serious military hardware. The main purpose of Borthwick Castle was the same as Bodiam – hospitality. Its suitability in this regard is perfectly underlined by its present day use as a fancy hotel.
So, the next time you visit a castle, and the guide talks exclusively in terms of crossbows and cannonballs, boiling oil and battering rams, ask yourself if you’re getting the whole picture. Remember, castles were homes to their owners, not just instruments of war. And ask yourself if the castle is really spoiling for a fight, or just wearing a military costume for eye-catching effect. Medieval society was steeped in symbols, from coats-of-arms to religious icons. A castle’s symbolic power was often the greatest strength that it possessed.