Are fantasy castles real fighters?

This post was written by David C. Weinczok.

For many people not fortunate enough to grow up with a castle in their proverbial backyard (like me), books, video games, films and television shows are the first places they will encounter castles. Such images often stay with people for life and inform their view of what the medieval world would have looked like. I see this as an asset for historians and heritage professionals rather than a hindrance – sure, pop culture doesn’t have a great track record with getting the historical details right, but if it sparks an interest in castles where one might never have arisen that, to me, can only be a good thing.

I’m using the world of fantasy and fictional castles as way to discuss the real deal in a talk for Previously…Scotland’s History Festival on Nov.19th in Edinburgh. My aim is to put the defences of famous fictional castles to the test – would, for instance, Mickey be able to withstand a siege if he holed up in the Disney castle? Do the fortresses of Game of Thrones actually make sense or are they all show? How hard would it be to rescue a princess from the Super Mario castles?

To find out, I’m applying several criteria to each that can just as easily be used to assess the battle-readiness of real castles. For instance, are their turrets, crenels and wall-walks actually capable of bolstering their defence, or are they in fact just for aesthetic flair? Is their architecture specifically tailored to the demands of their environments? Are there multiple layers of defence, or do all hopes rest on a single strongpoint?

Let’s take Game of Thrones’ Winterfell as an example. I hate to challenge the might of a castle that has famously been untaken for ‘thousands of years’, but for that to be the case they can’t have had a single decent winter in millennia. Take a look at many of the tower roofs in the image below. Notice anything peculiar about their design?

Image ©HBO.

That’s right – a castle specifically designed to resists winter employs flat roofs on many of its towers. Why is this a problem? Because those roofs need to bear weight, and accumulated snow is immensely heavy. So, unless the towers are upheld by some ancient magic, their roofs will come crashing down with the first heavy snowfall. Perhaps the name ‘Winterfell’ is actually an architect’s very reasonable warning about the weather!

The first castles I probably saw outside of Alan Lee’s illustrated version of The Lord of the Rings were the castles in the original Super Mario. Now, I know they weren’t designed to be overly scrutinised by nitpickers like me and the graphical limitations of early 1990s video games meant simplicity was key. But let’s take a look.

Image ©Nintendo

Credit where credit is due for having functional wall walks with crenellations and merlons that are actually high enough to fully shelter an archer. But we really need to talk about those windows. As a general rule of thumb, more windows means less defensive capability, and the larger the window the further that defence is compromised. The windows on Super Mario’s castles are clearly exaggerated, but it’s not hard to find real-life parallels. Take one of Scotland’s most famous castles, Kilchurn on the banks of Loch Awe.

Image ©David C. Weinczok

Often thought of by visitors as an impregnable fortress, its western face leaves much to be desired. Kilchurn was never, in fact, a true fighting fortress but more of a domestic seat with castellated features. No stronghold hoping to stand against a determined foe would dare give them so many openings through which to fire and breach.

These are just a few examples of what I’ll be discussing, and there will be some surprising winners as well as losers out of it. It is my hope that talks like this will get people who have already been exposed to castles through pop culture to think more critically about them, all while having a bit of fun.

David is a writer, presenter, and castle hunter, and you can find more from him on Twitter, Instagram, and his website.

Piecing together Lathom Castle

I’d heard of Lathom House, but the familiar reconstruction of this principal monument of Tudor England is a Victorian engraving that may bear little relation to historical fact. Those engravers never saw it, as it had long gone by then. No drawings survive, but enigmatic descriptions of nine (or was it eighteen?) towers, the space they occupied now thin air and branches.

Lathom House is in a garden – or rather, here lay its site. This garth is isolated, bounded by a sandstone wall and a ditch in a flat Lancashire landscape that in winter stretches the concept of fallow into a deeper somnolence. In summer its shrubs and trees burst into colour and scent, and you may be caught off-guard by the cry of its peacock strutting in the remnants of a nineteenth-century planting scheme. There is no sign at all of the medieval house, but for the occasional scrape of a trowel blade on revealed cobbles and footings.

Fifty yards from this lost garden is the rump of the last Lathom House, built in the 1720s to the designs of Giacomo Leoni. After two centuries, this Palladian mansion was demolished in 1925–9. It had provided a replacement for a house that was also ravaged – but not totally destroyed – during the civil war, and whose central ‘Eagle Tower’ was the principal monument of the Stanley family, kingmakers at Bosworth Field in 1485. After the battle brought Henry VII (1485–1509) to the throne they built to the scale expected for a residence of Margaret Beaufort as the Lancastrian king’s mother, and Thomas Stanley, the last King of Mann who presided over Lancashire and Cheshire with a view across the Irish Sea. Lathom was so grand it was termed ‘The Northern Court’ in 1572, with the claim Henry VII, who visited in 1495, had based Richmond Palace on its turreted skyline. It has recently been demonstrated that the king left his marriage bed here, having executed William Stanley his Lord Chamberlain on charges of plotting. It inspired the basis of a school of joinery centered on Lathom. Much of this furniture survived the civil war, as heavy beds were propped against the great gates against cannon fire, whereupon the chattels escaped with the family.

The comparison of Lathom and Richmond is hard to substantiate, and so completely lost was this grand house that its location has been hotly disputed. In the last twenty years, the occasional archaeological investigations in the garden and at the dilapidated remains of the Georgian house have revealed a wide array of footings and salvaged cut stones. The Lathom Park Trust and latterly the Kingmaker 1485 project led by Steve Baldwin with Dr Rob Philpott, Dr Clea Paine and George Luke have championed a deeper understanding of the site and brought public access and involvement in archaeological discovery, training and recording.

The involvement of diverse groups at separate digs has resulted in the need for a collation and analysis of discoveries, which have not hitherto been catalogued in one place nor attributed with an original context. The Castle Studies Trust funded a project to analyse the scattered masonry and identify it as far as possible through comparative evidence. After several months of looking, measuring, thinking, discussing and researching, the results have set the diverse stones within a timescale stretching from the fifteenth century – some perhaps earlier – to the Jacobean age, exactly as expected if they were the remains of Lathom House.

The most diagnostic features include chimney caps, early seventeenth-century window mullions and sills, carved stones with oak leaves compatible with the Stanley arms, and the tantalising possibility of a medieval memorial slab. These offer a clear picture of the waves of construction, which peak at the era of Bosworth, and the turn of the seventeenth century. The latter may tally with another royal visit, that of James I in 1617.

I write this ahead of giving a talk on the findings to the local community. The biggest realisation is that Lathom’s Eagle Tower was almost certainly based on the polygonal Eagle Tower at Caernarfon – Edward I’s fortress – for which the Stanleys became responsible in the 1480s just at the time they rebuilt Lathom to represent their role as kingmakers. The internal area of this building and the number of stories tally closely with Caernarfon, allowing us to begin to reconstruct lost Lathom and – as importantly – appreciate its significance in the minds of those who knew it.

We don’t yet have the full picture, but understanding the masonry undoubtedly establishes the building blocks for the years of archaeology that lie ahead.

Jonathan Foyle will be speaking about his work at Lathom on Wednesday 25th October.

Clifford: investigating one of England’s oldest castles

The Castle Studies Trust’s supporters and trustees, joined by castle experts from far and wide, were hosted by Keith Hill, owner of Clifford Castle, Herefordshire, to hear the results of the recent work funded by the Trust at the castle.

Clifford Castle is a large motte with remains of a stone castle on top, a vast bailey with elaborate stone gatehouse on the one side, and a mysterious earthwork known as the hornwork on the other, standing beside the river Wye. Originally founded in the first years after the Norman conquest Clifford became home to a baronial family whose wealth allowed them to erect the substantial stone structures now visible. The new work led by archaeologist Tim Hoverd and Nigel Barker has made it possible to confirm that these were almost certainly built at the end of the twelfth or in the first decades of the thirteenth century.

It was suggested that what has always been described as a great hall was probably a chamber block over a basement, reinforced by comparison with the structure at nearby Grosmont castle. Excavation recovered a door as well as the end wall of this block, which turned out to be very close to the external curtain wall. Pottery found on the motte confirmed a date of late twelfth/early thirteenth century. The arrow loops in the surviving mural tower are of the same era. The curtain wall also contains a large number of latrine chutes discharging down the motte side facing the long-abandoned earthwork on the far side and cut off by a man-made ditch. What it was remains a subject for speculation, as does the presence of buildings in the outer ward, because a post-medieval orchard was found to have removed most of the evidence.

The Trust is delighted that its funding has significantly improved our understanding of an important castle of the Welsh Marches. A full report will be made in due course.

Conclusions from an almost-thesis

Research on castles has outgrown the walls of architecture, sprung from the rubbly tangle of archaeology and taken flight from the pages of law texts, charters and literary exposition. In the hands of an adept writer, these are small bumps on the road to timely completion. Presently, however, I find myself in the camp of the almost-complete thesis writers (PhD fourth-yearers: here is fellowship!). It is a credit to castle studies that there is so much to think and write about and, perhaps, get lost in. This post shares some of the most interesting conclusions from my work looking at early stone castles in two polities in medieval Scotland, the Earldom of Orkney and the Lordship of Galloway. Among the themes I examined was the transition from timber to stone architecture, the relationship of castle to landscape and the political context for castle construction in these areas.

Why Orkney and Galloway? To begin with, we cannot be certain why castles appeared in non-‘feudal’ Orkney in the first place. Secondly, one of Orkney’s early castle sites, according to accepted wisdom, is the prototype for a larger group of early castle sites in the earldom – and has influenced larger debates on castles in Scotland more generally. Cubbie Roo’s Castle, this foremost plank of Orcadian castellar wisdom is, I believe, a little younger than widely believed. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests Orkney was probably home to a stone castle founded around the middle of the 12th century, decidedly early for this part of the world.

Figure 1. View of site of Cubbie Roo’s Castle, Wyre, Orkney, in the distance atop the highest hill on the small island. The farm on the right may represent the 12th-century home farm. The ruined building on the left in the distance is the chapel site. ©William Wyeth.

If the castle site (but not the surviving architecture) is genuine, then the attendant landscape must be examined too, for Cubbie Roo’s and other Orcadian castles. Following a conventional model of castle as the centre of lordship, one would expect to find churches and important farm sites close to suspected or documented castle sites. This was simply not the case in Orkney. Cubbie Roo’s and the other castle sites I examined were, on present (chiefly place-name) evidence, sited on marginal lands of indifferent quality. Some preserved evidence of associated chapel sites, which fits with the conventional model of early castellar lordship.

The disconnect between terrestrial wealth and castle location opened three possibilities about the origin and siting of castles: firstly, were these defensive sites? If defence included a consistent grasp of the surrounding area, including major seaways through the Earldom, then the answer is no. Secondly, were these sites connected to maritime wealth? It is entirely plausible: recent research has demonstrated the wealth of the earldom derived massive fisheries exploitation. Thirdly, were these sites connected to ‘new’ arrivals to the Earldom? The political upheavals in the Kingdom of Norway (to which Orkney belonged) saw magnates appear in the Earldom with no obvious familial connection. The lack of obvious relationship with good farming land may be taken to suggest the castles were built on land acquired more for the purposes of castle building (and architectural showmanship) and maritime exploitation than the inherent wealth of the soil. The new men’s power derived from proximity to the Earl, not a direct ancestral claim to a portion of Orkney’s economic output. Orkney’s earliest castles, whatever their form, were the product and reflection of a shift in how comital wealth and power operated.

Figure 2. View from the top of Cubbie Roo’s Castle, overlooking the possible home farm. The island in the distance on the right (Egilsay) is home to the Church of St Magnus (visible by its distinctive round tower mid-way along the island’s profile); the cult of St Magnus was instrumental in the formation of distinctly Orcadian political identity in the medieval period. ©William Wyeth.

Galloway’s castles present a different challenge; though as a group they are more numerous than their Orcadian counterparts, the evidence for them is drastically more erratic. The exquisite (and displaced) Loch Doon Castle is more clearly understood than the hummocky mound of Castledykes outside Kirkcudbright, for example. On a cursory examination of both sites’ landscapes shows that Castledykes is much easier to understand. Kirkcudbright was the centre of the powerful Lordship of Galloway.  Its hinterlands feature no fewer than three monastic foundations by the Lords, and the probable extent of demesne estate concentration in the area around Kirkcudbright is one of the highest in the Lordship.

What of Loch Doon Castle? Any modern visitor will appreciate the eponymous loch is remote and difficult to access from the big towns of Scotland’s south-west. However, it was originally built on an island in the Loch and later dismantled and reconstructed on the shore. It initially sat on a substantial route-way between the Glenken in Galloway – another demesne area of the Lords – and the Scottish coastal royal burgh and castle of Ayr. Another route south of Loch Doon offered access to the southern area of Carrick and, via the River Cree, the Wigtownshire portion of the Lordship of Galloway, with its probable administrative centre at Cruggleton Castle. Though its landscape is presently dominated by fishing holiday cottages and forestry, place-name evidence suggests in the medieval period the area was exploited for its pastoral suitability, and analogous documentary evidence from monastic sources hint at mineral wealth too. Doubtless Loch Doon Castle also formed an upland centre in Carrick in counterpart to the lowland, maritime-oriented centre at Turnberry Castle (also surveyed during this project).

Figure 3. Loch Doon Castle, view from wall-top towards loch. The castle was moved stone-by-stone before the construction of damming schemes in the mid-20th century. It was originally located on the partially submerged island in the loch visible here. ©William Wyeth.

Lastly, an overview for all of Scotland. A small, prefacing section of my thesis examined the monuments record for all possible castle sites in Scotland, including the sites above and less conventional secular power centres in the 12th-14th centuries – palaces, enclosures, crannogs (artificial islands in lochs), duns and brochs. A growing body of evidence in Scotland suggests many sites typically understood as prehistoric (chiefly the last three aforementioned categories of sites) were re-occupied during the broad medieval period. One conclusion from this country-level study suggested that there were more medieval power centres (e.g. bearing evidence for occupation) per square kilometre in the western counties of Scotland than the east. This likely reflects the underlying patterns of early medieval lordship in Scotland over which the culture of castles was overlain. This may act as another, belated, nail in the coffin of the military-architecture thesis of castle studies in Scotland.

The framework of understanding castles through landscape as much as architecture and archaeology is one I hope to apply more widely to Scotland and, as I engage more fully with English castle studies in my new job, in the wider medieval world.

William Wyeth – Properties historian, English Heritage; PhD candidate, University of Stirling & Historic Environment Scotland. english-heritage.academia.edu/WilliamWyeth

Bodiam Castle and the exploration of space

Bodiam Castle is well known in castle studies; whether it was a fortified structure or built to display the status of the owner. This debate has been explored elsewhere, particularly by Professor Matthew Johnson[1]. Traditionally the building has been considered from the exterior, with a few notable exceptions[2], further until recently only ground floor plans of the building have existed. As part of the Lived Experience in the Later Middle Ages project we undertook a survey of the building and created plans of each floor level and some elevation drawings[3]. To undertake the survey we used a Leica reflectorless Total Station linked to download in real time straight into AutoCAD using the software TheoLT. This allowed us to view the survey data as work progressed and to record the building in three dimensions (3D).

Having the results of the building recorded in 3D allowed us to start thinking about the space beyond the traditional drawings, we had generated and we could think about the building in a number of new ways. The 3D data was used as a basis for creating models of the building in the medieval period; rebuilding the fallen walls, reroofing the apartments, and furnishing the rooms. These models can be used to create beautiful illustrations of the spaces, but they can also be used to tell us about living in those spaces.

A visualisation of part of the private apartments at Bodiam Castle

This can be seen when considering the private apartments on the eastern elevation. Previous interpretations[4] see them described as comparable; they lie one above the other and appear to consist of a similar layout of rooms; an unheated outer chamber, an inner chamber with fireplace and window seat, and a further inner chamber with fireplace. However, in 3D they begin to look very different; the roof converts the upper apartment; making the space much more open and the slightly different arragements of windows on the curtain wall combined with the position of the Great Hall will affect the outer chambers.

Comparison between the upper and lower apartments when considered in three dimensions

We can also use the models to consider the lighting of the spaces over the course of a day. A lighting analysis demonstrates how dark these rooms are and how they change over the course of the day.

A lighting analysis of Bodiam Castle showing the changing conditions in the upper apartments over the course of the day

Finally, in furnishing the rooms we can consider movement through the spaces. Floor plan can allow us to see how spaces connect and their size. But in furnishing the rooms the movement through that space can be considered within the frame of reference of an inhabited building.

A visualisation showing a fully furnished room, a different space to negotiate than the empty spaces depicted in floor plans

These examples show just some of the ways to consider how we are thinking about the use of space; in this case at Bodiam Castle and how it is beginning to raise new thoughts on the experience of living within the building.


[1] These drawings and the results of the project have recently been published Johnson 2017 available http://www.oxbowbooks.com/oxbow/lived-experience-in-the-later-middle-ages.html
[2] Faulkner, P. A. (1963). Castle Planning in the fourteenth century. The Archaeological Journal, 120, 215–35.
Simpson, W. D. (1931). The Moated Homestead, Church and Castle of Bodiam. The Sussex Archaeological Collections, 72, 69–99.
[3] Johnson, M. H. (2017). Lived Experience in the Later Middle Ages. (M. H. Johnson, Ed.). St Andrews: Highfield Press.
[4] Faulkner, P. A. (1975). Domestic planning from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. In J. T. Smith, P. A. Faulkner, & A. Emery (Eds.), Medieval Domestic Architecture (Vol. 115, pp. 84–117). Leeds: The Royal Archaeological Institute.
Goodall, J. (2011). The English Castle. London: Yale University Press.
Nairn, I., & Pevsner, N. (1965). The Buildings of England: Sussex. London: Penguin Books.

A Study of Hay Castle

This guest post was written by Mari Fforde.

Hay Castle, in Hay-on-Wye, is undergoing a major restoration which will result in an exciting visitor destination and a centre for culture and arts. The Heritage Lottery Fund granted nearly £5 million toward the project. So far, a substantial amount of archaeology has been undertaken to help inform planning applications, conservation management plans and structural engineering solutions.

The site, a Scheduled Ancient Monument, embodies an astonishing array of architecture, including a Norman keep, an important medieval gateway, a Grade I listed Jacobean mansion and later Victorian and Edwardian additions. The keep was probably incorporated into a late medieval domestic building and then this was retained within the double-pile mansion built in the first half of the 17th century. The mansion was itself subjected to alterations in the 18th and 19th centuries and twice partly gutted by fire in the 20th century. The gate and curtain wall were retained and appear to have been repaired as garden features.

Fifteen archaeological test pits have enhanced our knowledge of the site in a variety of ways. Digs were undertaken within the derelict mansion to establish where the new lift could be situated. Just below the surface runs a medieval stone structure, at least 3.5 metres wide running along the north face of the mansion. The angle and relationship with the keep suggests that this is the 13th century curtain wall. A glimpse of the underground stonework will remain visible in the restored mansion.

Investigations also revealed that much of the site comprises about two meters of infill. Two boreholes were drilled giving results of approximately 2–3 metres of made up ground, 2–3 metres of sub soil and then at 7 metres the Raglan mudstone bedrock. It is thought that this infill was brought in when the Jacobean mansion was constructed, thus heightening it from the lower medieval ground level.

On the north face of the keep, facing town, a test pit revealed a wall of tufa. Large regular well-cut blocks measuring around 40cm long by 20cm high appeared to extend below the level of excavation. In his report, lead archaeologist Peter Dorling stated: “This finding appears to support the interpretation of the tower as the original castle gateway. The west side of the tufa forms a straight edge, which at this level was perhaps associated with a seating for a bridge/drawbridge”. This is an exciting find as freshly quarried tufa around a gateway arch would have been very striking and certainly would have had a strong visual impact.

Volunteers from the community have helped on a dozen or so of the digs. The Hay History Group and the Young Archaeologists Club have taken part. Further archaeological exploration will be undertaken, mainly in the derelict mansion to establish locations of new footings. In addition, it is hoped that ongoing archaeology will help determine the existence of the earlier gateway within the keep.

Construction is expected to begin in October and will take two years, when Hay Castle will be fully open to the public for the first time in many centuries.

Visit Hay Castle’s website for updates on their upcoming work.

Visiting Dinas Bran

Standing out in the landscape

Every year we organise visits to the projects we’ve supported. These visits are open to our donors and typically involve a guided tour and a sneak peek at the results. In May we journeyed to Castell Dinas Bran near Llangollen in North Wales.

The Welsh built the medieval castle on the site of an Iron Age hillfort and it dominates the surrounding area. It’s a steep climb up, making you appreciate the effort involved to bring in building materials or even everyday supplies. And the higher you get, the stronger the winds are. Now in ruins, it must have been an imposing site visible for miles around in the landscape.

Fiona Gale, County Archaeologist for Denbighshire County Council, lent her expert eye to the guided tour. She explained the important consolidation work over the past few years as well as the recent archaeological fieldwork. The castle is mostly built from slate, and in many places the weathered walls have needed modern intervention to make them safe and prevent further collapse.

The castle might owe its present condition partly to slighting (deliberate partial demolition) and archaeologists noticed patches of scorched stone before ramps were added to mitigate erosion.

The survey at Castell Dinas Bran

With funding from ourselves and CADW, archaeologists could carry out a geophysical survey of the castle, using resistivity and magnetometry to peer beneath the surface. The report is nearly ready, and when signed off will be shared on our website. The results are tantalising, and give us more information about the use of the castle, while leaving some questions which might have to be answered by excavation.

Castell Dinas Bran is an important Welsh castle, and one of the better surviving examples. After important steps to preserve the site and keep it open to the public, we have been able to add to our understanding of the castle.

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Keeping up with Pleshey

If you visit Pleshey Castle on one of its open days, you are struck by the size of the place. The castle was probably founded by Geoffrey I de Mandeville in the late 11th century, and while no buildings survive above ground the earthworks are impressive. Excavations at Pleshey in the 20th century uncovered a tower or keep on top of the motte, and buildings in the south bailey. The Castle Studies Trust and Chelmsford Museums Service are working together to interpret the results and make sure they are publicly available.

The castle is laid out in three segments: a north bailey, a south bailey, and a motte in between. The northern bailey, which contained a small market place, has been built over, but the motte and the bailey to the south still survive. A timber keep probably stood on top of the mound, and was modified over the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries.

The keep had a courtyard at the centre, with ranges along the north, west, and south sides, and a forebuilding to the east. The south range contained a hall (important for entertaining guests) and a kitchen (important for keeping the guests fed!). It was probably built after 1167, which was when William II de Mandeville was given permission to refortify the castle after it had been slighted.

Plan of Pleshey Castle’s keep. Drawing by Iain Bell, ©Chelmsford Museums Service.

In the mid-13th to mid-14th century, the keep on the motte was clad in flint, and the hall refurbished. In the late 14th century the living accommodation on the north and east sides of the keep was renovated, and fireplaces and garderobes (privies) were added.

Starting in 1458, the keep was clad in brick, replacing the flint walls. The work was ordered by Queen Margaret of Anjou and records from the Duchy of Lancaster (researched by Pat Ryan) mean we know a lot about how the work was carried out. A new bridge over the inner moat was built entirely in brick in 1477-80, and the gatehouse to the forebuilding was reconstructed in brick in 1482–83. Brick castles are not very common in England, but you can see an excellent example at Tattershall in Lincolnshire.

The chronology of the mid-15th-century changes to the castle should be understood in the wider historical context of the Wars of the Roses. The major refurbishment of the keep in brick was ordered by Queen Margaret of Anjou, but the outbreak of civil war in 1459–61 led to the usurpation of Henry VI by the Yorkist Edward IV, and Margaret went into exile. Edward IV ordered a refurbishment of the castle buildings when he married Elizabeth Woodville in 1464-5 and Pleshey was granted to her as part of her jointure. However, Edward IV was hard-pressed in the 1460s and had to fight to regain his throne in 1470–71, and most of the building works in this period appear to be routine repairs. The rebuilding of the bridge and keep gatehouse in brick in 1477–83 after an interval of 20 years appears to be the completion of Queen Margaret’s scheme of building works in quieter and more prosperous times.

This blog post was prepared by Patrick Allen and Richard Nevell. The photograph of the bridge is copyright Patrick Allen.

Tudor Castles and the Use of the Past

This post was written by Dr Audrey Thorstad, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Bangor University.

As castle scholars and enthusiasts, we enjoy learning about history, exploring how the remains of the past can teach us about the lives of people who came before us, and perhaps what we might learn about ourselves through their experiences. Did those in the past feel the same way? How did they view their own history? How did they embrace or even manipulate the history of the landscape in which they lived?

The physical and material remains tell us a story of a layered history. Any given castle can have centuries of history layered and intertwined with one another. For Tudor castle owners, builders, and renovators, the past played an important role in how they used and interpreted the building and the landscape.

An interesting example, though just one of many, is Cowdray House or Castle in West Sussex. The building that survives today had two main phases of construction during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The first phase started by Sir David Owen from around 1492 and saw the completion of the eastern and northern ranges. The second phase began when Sir William Fitzwilliam, later earl of Southampton bought the estate in the late 1520s and completed the southern and western ranges. Although it appears that the surviving physical remains depict a completely new build, thirteenth-century floor tiles indicate there may have been an earlier residence on the site.

The placement and building of Cowdray was no mistake. To the west, the residence looks out onto the town of Midhurst; to the north and east the castle looks out onto parkland. Fitzwilliam received a licence to impark and crenellate in 1533 from Henry VIII. The licence allowed him to impark 600 acres of land, meadow, pasture and wood.[1] To the south of Cowdray is St Ann’s Hill, the location of a Saxon cemetery dating from the fifth and sixth centuries as well as a Norman castle owned by the Bohun family until the 15th century.[2] These views were meant for those in the castle as well as those approaching the castle. The town and parkland scenery evoked lordly privilege and status, while the closeness of the newly built Cowdray and the old Norman castle gave the observer a sense of historical significance.

Map detailing Cowdray Castle and St Ann’s Hill. Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right (2017).

By rebuilding the castle not on the original site of St Ann’s Hill, but approximately 400 meters away, the Tudor builders were using the past in very interesting ways. The new build broke away from the Norman past and the Bohun family tradition, yet kept the site as a physical memory of that history. Cowdray does not have a completely new history starting in 1492 when Owen started building the castle, but an intertwining and connected history to the town and historical sites around it.

Owen and Fitzwilliam were not alone in their endeavour to create their own legacy by shaping the past. John de Vere, thirteenth earl of Oxford renovated his familial stronghold at Hedingham Castle making the Norman great tower the central building of the inner bailey with his late-fifteenth-century brick towers surrounding the twelfth-century great tower like a monument to his ancestors. It was not just castle building that allowed the Tudor nobility and gentry to use the past. Sir Rhys ap Thomas, for example, used the coat of arms of Urien of Rheged as his own, claiming descent from the sixth-century king of Gower. The use, and arguably manipulation, of history by the sixteenth century elite was nothing new. The nobility and gentry throughout the Middle Ages were interpreting and adopting the past. What sets castles apart is the constant, and at times, unbridled incorporation of structures, materials, landscapes, and histories that came before.

Eastern range of Cowdray including the great hall and chapel. ©Audrey Thorstad

 


[1]  Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII Vol. 6 p. 44 No. 105.25

[2] For more information on the castle, see Bill Woodburn and Neil Guy, ‘St Ann’s Castle’, Castle Studies Group Journal, 19 (2005-6), 28-30.

Castle Studies Trust Awards Five Grants to Advance the Understanding of Castles

The Castle Studies Trust is delighted to announce the award of five grants, totalling £21,000.

Castle Pulverbatch, Shropshire, England

©Shropshire County Council

Geophysical and photogrammetric surveys of this motte and bailey castle. Abandoned by c.1200 this has the potential for us to advance our understanding of early castles along the Welsh border.

Clifford, Herefordshire, England

One of the earliest castles in the UK and one of the most important along the Welsh border the geophysical survey and excavations, along with separately funded building analysis, will help understand the morphology of this little understood site. The CSG visited it as part of the 2016 annual conference. Please note this is a privately owned site and not accessible to the general public.

Dinas Bran, Denbighshire, Wales

Photo by Eva Mostraum, CC-by-NC-SA

Co-funding with Cadw a geophysical survey of the most complete, but little understood, native Welsh built castle to discover what structures lie beneath the surface.

Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire, England

Photo by Iain Simpson, CC-by-SA

With almost nothing left above ground the geophysical and earthwork surveys will help shed light on the form of castle with strong royal associations, in particular the C15 palace associated with the House of York and birthplace of Richard III. Please note this is a privately owned site and not accessible to the general public.

Lathom, Lancashire, England

Analysis of castle masonry from the completely destroyed late C15 castle built by Thomas, Lord Stanley either found via excavations or reused in the current building. This will help understand what the castle looked like and early Tudor palaces around London, like Richmond.  Please note this is a privately owned site and not accessible to the general public.

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