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

Announcing our grants for 2016

The Castle Studies Trust is delighted to announce the award of two grants for 2016:Pembroke Castle keep

  • Pembroke Castle – geophysical survey of the castle’s interior. Best known for its massive round keep built by William Marshal, the greatest knight of his age, little else is known about what exactly was in the castle’s interior. Dyfed Archaeological Trust with the guidance of well-known castle expert Neil Ludlow will use the latest geophysical techniques including ground penetrating radar to try and reveal some of the secrets.
  • Caus Castle – earthwork, geophysical and photogrammetric survey of the castle. Frequently referenced in medieval research as an example of a Marcher castle and associated failed borough on the Welsh borders, nobody has done any proper analysis of one of the most important medieval sites on the Anglo/Welsh border. This first detailed archaeological analysis will be carried out by Dr Michael Fradley who has previously undertaken ground breaking surveys of castles at Wallingford (Oxon), Sudeley (Glos), and Newhall (Ches) and Giles Carey. The focus of the project will be on the outer bailey where the medieval borough was situated.

Donate to Have Opportunity to Visit the Selected Projects 

Within the next year the Trust will be organising exclusive visits the selected projects during the initial research stages or at completion of them. These visits are only open to those supporters who have donated to the Trust.

If you would like to be invited to a site visit you can donate in a variety of different ways:

Not only will you have the chance to visit the sites you will also be increasing the amount we can give away to more exciting projects like the ones above next year.

2016 grants: who has applied?

The deadline for grant applications passed on 15th December. We’re going through the various projects now. Altogether the nine projects are asking for £38,000. If you have been following us on social media you will have seen which sites have been proposed. For a little more detail, here are the applications we’ve received:

  • Pembroke Castle, Wales – a geophysical survey of the wards. The castle was once owned by William Marshall, one of the most famous knights of his time.
  • Lochore Castle, Scotland – post-excavation analysis of finds. The site was excavated in 2015, but the team need funding for specialist work on their finds.
  • Lancaster Castle, England (1) – wall penetrating radar of the walls of the castle’s Norman keep. The castle was used as a prison until 2011, so until recently there has been little opportunity for investigation of this sort.
  • Lancaster Castle, England (2) – creating drawings and 3D models to help present the site to the wider public.
  • Caus Castle, England – geophysical and photogrammetic survey of the earthworks of this motte and bailey castle. Caus was one of many such castles while can be found in the Marches of the border between England and Wales.
  • Laughton en le Morthen, England – geophysical survey of the earthworks of a motte and bailey castle. This castle may have been built on top of an earlier Saxon hall.
  • Wressle Castle, England – an examination of the evidence for the slighting of the castle in the 17th century and comparing it to other slighted castles in Yorkshire.
  • Codnor Castle, England – create a virtual reality tour of the castle showing how it once would have appeared.
  • Dunamase, Ireland – remote sensing and landscape survey. Like Pembroke was also owned by William Marshall at one point.

The applications have been sent to our expert assessors who will go over them. In January the blog will have more information on the assessment process, so be sure to visit again.

However there is not enough money to fund them all and so if you would like to donate to help us fund more and gain a chance for an exclusive visit to the chosen projects go here: https://mydonate.bt.com/charities/castlestudiestrust