How to build your castle

Review of: Charles Phillips, The Medieval Castle. Design, construction, daily life.  Haynes Publishing, 2018.  £22.99.

In the heart of a forest in Burgundy (France) a thirteenth century castle has been rising steadily from the ground since 1997. Guédelon castle was the subject of the BBC series Secrets of the castle in 2015 and, twenty years after construction started, is near completion. This new book describes what was involved in the challenge of creating a medieval castle using the Guédelon experience and relating this to the development of medieval castles in Britain.

The book is beautifully illustrated and succeeds brilliantly in demonstrating medieval building techniques, how the challenges medieval builders faced were overcome with the tools and technology at their disposal, how critical differences in types of soil, stone and timber determined what was used – in short, the great skill acquired by medieval craftsmen and now re-learnt by their modern successors (who operate under professional archaeological supervision). The tools used, the equipment created – such as enormous treadwheel cranes – how stones were cut and carved, mortar manufactured, vaults and windows installed, floors and roofs prepared and put in place: all are superbly explained in word and picture. Plumbing and heating were essential to survival and all are covered here. The daily life of those living in and around a medieval castle is superbly recreated by those working on the project (along with illustrations from medieval manuscripts, many of which will be well known to anyone already familiar with the subject).

One of the workshops where medieval techniques are used. Photo by Jean-Christophe Bruneau, Licensed CC-BY.

Working inwards from the ditch via gate, walls and bailey to the great tower and interior buildings (hall, chapel, chamber etc), Phillips takes the reader through the development of castles in England and Wales (with a rare skip across the Channel to France) between 1066 and the fifteenth century.  His descriptions are largely of well-known major castles (Dover, Tower of London, Chepstow, Edwardian castles in Wales) which are presented with clear plans and excellent photographs. But it is here that I have a problem.

Though the author states that castles were bases and symbols of power and status, he otherwise hardly acknowledges more than twenty years of castle studies that have turned traditional explanations on their head: everything, he states time and again, was done that way for military reasons. While the great tower (keep, donjon) was occasionally used as a last resort defence, it was not built for that purpose. The cross-wall in the keep at Rochester (for example) served as a defence in the final stages of King John’s siege of 1215, but that was not why it was put there. Round towers had (some) defensives advantages over rectangular towers, but that wasn’t the only reason they become fashionable, and even then mainly only in France and England. I could go on.

Despite this weakness, Phillips’ book presents an unequalled description of how thirteenth century castles were designed and erected. Guédelon was based on a style made popular by King Philip Augustus of France. If you can get to visit it, do (though you will compete with thousands of tourists and school visits). If you can’t, this book will tell you all you need to know about it.

Peter Purton (D.Phil, FSA).

Medieval Engineers: history’s forgotten builders

“King Henry II built the great tower at Dover Castle” is the kind of statement you will hear when visiting one of this country’s magnificent fortresses. But the King himself never lifted a single tool to get any castle built. While the hard manual work was done by labourers, and the finer details worked by master stone masons and carpenters hired because of their great skills, the general plan as well as the day to day running of the construction would have been overseen by an engineer-architect. Under Henry II, records survive telling us who they were (in this case, Maurice the engineer) but in most instances they are anonymous.

Dover’s great tower (the tallest building) was constructed by Maurice the engineer for Henry II. Photo by Mark Whibley, licensed CC BY-NC-ND.

This anonymity is not a surprise: the writers of medieval chronicles were interested only in the great who ruled society – kings, bishops, great lords. It was this gap that persuaded me to write my book The Medieval military engineer. From the Roman Empire to the sixteenth century (Boydell Press 2018).

Today, sappers and engineers form a key part of every state’s army, and was also true of imperial Rome. But in medieval times craftsmen were hired to carry out engineering roles and quite often the same people would have many skills, so that alongside building castles they might also design bridges, churches and cathedrals, or oversee the creation of, and sometimes operate, siege weapons. Because they were commoners, and with only a handful of exceptions, their names were not recorded throughout early medieval times. Often we only know them when (like Maurice) records start surviving showing what they were paid for their work. The great lords who also had hands-on military engineering skills were named in history, but were a tiny handful.

Many interesting questions become easier to answer as more records survive, such as how much did these engineers actually know, how they learnt their skills, how knowledge was transmitted across generations, and what part did they play as technology became more sophisticated?

The same skills that St Guthlac used to design and build a chapel (shown above) could be used to build castles.building a chapel. From the British Library’s ‘Guthlac roll’, made in the late 12th or early 13th century. Harley Roll Y.6.

Historians no longer see the years between the end of the western Roman empire and the European renaissance of the fifteenth century as one long period of ignorance, and we are more aware that change and improvement were continuous, witnessed with the development of ever more spectacular cathedrals and castles, but also mundane but vital skills such as bridge and ship building, irrigation schemes, and military equipment such as siege artillery – the trebuchet, taken up across Europe and the Islamic lands during the thirteenth century, was a game-changer, before giving way to gunpowder artillery during the fourteenth.

Change happened because people questioned existing conventions and came up with new ideas, but also because they developed the skills to put them into practice. It is time to give them the credit they are entitled to. Next time you visit a large stone castle, ask not just which lord lived there and paid for it, but who actually designed it, and admire their skills; and if despite its strength it was captured in a siege, who built the wooden engines that do not survive, or who undermined it, which decided the outcome?

Peter Purton, DPhil (Oxon), FSA.

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.

1066: castles and the Norman Conquest

The only date in British history everyone remembers is 1066, when, on 14 October, William duke of Normandy defeated and killed Harold, king of England, and began a new era in this island’s history. Those interested in the castle know that it was William’s followers who brought it with them.  950 years on, it may come as a surprise to hear that what we know about castles built by the Norman conquerors in the years after 1066 is less than what we still don’t know: castle studies still matter and the work of organisations like the Castle Studies Trust is vital in encouraging better understanding of these monuments, and our own past.

Before 1066 the only castles in England were a handful built by Norman nobles who had been favourites of king Edward the Confessor. English nobles used a different type of residence and we will never know if they would eventually have followed the continental trend.

The Norman conquest did not end on 14 October 1066, it only began. William had wiped out the English royal family and much of the aristocracy but the battle of Hastings (and subsequent surrender of Dover and London) only secured him control of the south east. He then faced and defeated resistance and rebellions including that of Hereward “the Wake” in the Fens, while the people of York destroyed the first castle built there by the invaders in 1068 leading to the infamous “harrying of the north” in 1069. To understand the building of early Norman castles it’s important to bear in mind that the conquerors could not relax and believe they were secure for a number of years.

Castles featured from the start.  From the quickly fabricated timber palisades put up to protect the army when it landed to the foundation of the new “Tower of London”, William ordered the construction of royal castles while also encouraging the bishops and nobles who had followed him to build their own. Many great stone castles standing today were originally put up as earthworks in the years immediately after 1066. In turn, the great lords who replaced virtually the entire English ruling class encouraged their own followers to secure themselves in their own castles.  We don’t know the reasons why each was built: sometimes sitting on the previous owner’s (unfortified) hall, the new castle was evidently a visual statement confirming change of ownership, but may also reflect concerns about security by the new landowner, living among and exploiting a much larger peasantry speaking another language.

The larger castles have been well studied. The lesser ones have not. There are probably at least a thousand earthworks in what was then England, most of which have never been excavated, never dated, their function only guessed at. Many are called “mottes” with no more evidence than that they look like one.  The old certainty that all Norman castles were originally of motte and bailey design has been replaced with awareness that the recognisable conical mound forming the motte was sometimes added later to a simpler enclosure defined by a ditch, rampart and palisade. The bailey too is proving more complex: why did some castles have two (or more), why are some so vast? Some now seem to have enclosed whole villages, others are too cramped for any but the smallest buildings. The CST-funded project at Caus (Shropshire) tackles this question.

950 years after William began the conquest of England, we are asking questions about Norman castles based not on old prejudices about what castles were, but on historical and archaeological study based in a better understanding of the reality of eleventh and twelfth century societies.

Dr. Peter Purton