Castles of England/The Development of the Castle

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Introduction[edit]

A traditional image of a castle under siege, but was it really like this?

The traditional medieval castle has long inspired the imagination, conjuring up images of jousts, banquets and Arthurian chivalry. Even standing amidst thousand year-old ruins it is easy to bring to mind the sounds and smells of battles long gone, to almost hear the clatter of hooves on the cobbles and to smell the fear rising from the dungeon pits. But is our imagination based on reality? Why were castles built in the first place? How were they designed and built? Who lived in them? This book will try and answer those questions for you...

Historical Context[edit]

Mousa Broch, an early stone tower built perhaps 1,000 years before the first castles

Fortifications of one sort or another have been in use in England since at least the Iron Age (6th century BC) with remains of ditches, ramparts and palisades still in evidence. Scotland is scattered with brochs, stone towers built for defence, raised at least 1,000 years before the first medieval castles. Historians do not consider these structures to be castles - in this book the definition we use of a castle is that it was both the home of its owner, and a fortification designed to protect the owner's lands and holdings.

Where did the need for large, permanent, fortified homes come from? The answer to that lies in the feudal system.

The Feudal System[edit]

It was the development of the feudal system that led directly to the development of what we recognise today as a castle. Before about the 9th century, "kingdoms" were generally small and could be easily governed by one ruler. It was Charlemagne, the king of the Franks, who changed this. His empire, which stretched across much of central Europe in the 8th - 9th century BC, was too large for him to rule effectively. So he began the practice of breaking it down into small administrative units, each governed by a lord or nobleman. In return for being allocated land, each lord was required to provide soldiers to Charlemagne in time of war.

Charlemagne's successor, Louis the Pious, king of Aquitaine, had three heirs (Lothair, Pepin and Louis the German) who split the empire between them. These new kings were faced with the threat of war with each other, enemies outside the old empire and from unrest within their own territories. At around the same time the Franks invented the stirrup, allowing armoured men to fight effectively from horseback. This lead to the changes in social order we would recognise as typical of the medieval period with knights on horseback serving a lord.

The feudal system developed to support this military hierarchy, creating a social hierarchy with the king at the top, then the nobles, then the knights and finally the serfs or peasants. The king owned all the land, but "lent" it to those below him, who lent it to those below them in the system. In return a portion of the products of the land were paid to those higher in the system. The system was in effect providing an income to the warriors and nobles higher in the hierarchy to pay them for protecting those lower in the hierarchy.

The advantages of this system to the king are clear. Not only would he have forces available when required, and a constant income without having to administer all of the lands himself, he had also ensured no noble could individually afford a large enough army to threaten his rule. He has also ensured that every area of his lands would be constantly defended in the event of invasion.

To make this system work, each noble needed a home within their lands. As these were dangerous times, and the noble could not afford to have a large standing army, this home needed to have strong defences that could be manned by a relatively small number of soldiers. And, thus, the castle was born.

Origins of Castles[edit]

Leeds Castle, originally of Norman design it was modified extensively throughout its life

The word Castle itself entered the English language in the 11th century AD, being adapted from the Norman word castel, broadly meaning "fort". The word had earlier entered Old English in a different form as ceaster, and can be found in the name of many English town as the suffices "caster" and "chester".

The exact date when the first castles were built is unknown. However, it is likely that the first buildings with the main features associated with castles were built between 850 and 900 AD.

The earliest castles were constructed by local nobles to defend their home or hall and its associated buildings. The construction would have taken the form of a ditch dug around the hall, with the earth banked up inside the ditch to form a steep slope. At some point, fences or a palisade of sharpened timber may have been built on top of the bank. Further developments might have included a lookout tower and a separate fence to protect the hall independently from the other, less important, buildings. In this way the basic shape of the castle can be discerned - a gate tower, a keep surrounded by an inner wall, and an outer wall enclosing all of the protected buildings.

During the 9th century, the Danes began to arrive in England and construct their own settlements. To resist further encroachment on his lands, Alfred the Great fortified the towns that lay on the border with the Danes' settlements, using ditches and ramparts. Meanwhile, Viking invaders of what was to become France were given land around Rouen. This group grew rapidly in strength expanding into the area later known as Normandy.

When Edward the Confessor's cousin, William, inherited Normandy in 1035 the links between Normandy and England were cemented. On Edward's death, Harold Goodwinson (the strongest of the nobles of England) took the throne sparking William to invade England in 1066. With the invasion came the beginning of the construction of what we recognise today as a true English castle...