Mary of Guelders and Ravenscraig Castle

Amidst the tower blocks and industrial landscape of Kirkaldy in Fife is an unexpected sight. Perched on a triangular promontory overlooking the Firth of Forth stands the crumbling ruin of a fifteenth-century fortress. Now fiercely guarded by an abundance of resident seabirds, Ravenscraig is one of Scotland’s lesser-known medieval castles, yet it deserves a closer look, not least because it is a rare surviving example of a castle commissioned by a woman, in this case Mary of Guelders, queen of Scotland (d.1463).

Mary of Guelders and James II

Mary of Guelders first arrived in Scotland on the 18th June 1449 when she stepped onto the shores of Leith ahead of her marriage to James II at Holyrood Palace. Born in Guelders (today the province of Gelderland in Holland) and raised at the Burgundian court, Mary brought illustrious connections to her new home. The match, it seems, was met with approval on both sides: in 1457, Mary’s uncle the Duke of Burgundy sent James the gift of Mons Meg, the famous cannon which can still be seen at Edinburgh Castle today. James’ love of artillery, however, was to also be his downfall. Three years later at the Siege of Roxburgh the 29-year-old king met an untimely end when another of his cannons exploded and killed him. Mary, as this previous blog post has shown, was present at the siege, and following her husband’s tragic death, the newly widowed queen ordered for Roxburgh to be razed to the ground. From 1460 until her own death three years later, Mary acted as regent of Scotland, ruling on behalf of her young son, James III. It is also from this point that she becomes visible to us in the historical record as a prolific patron of architecture.

Mons Meg, Edinburgh Castle. Photo by Lee Sie, licensed CC-BY-SA 2.0.

The nature of the evidence means that we don’t know too much about Mary’s actions during her marriage, but the few glimpses we can glean suggest that she played a relatively active role as consort, including at her husband’s first parliament in 1450. She was also present at the siege of Blackness Castle in 1454 (which James afterwards gave her as a gift to celebrate the Scots’ victory), and she appears to have been the driving force behind the couple’s foundation of a hospital at Fale near Glasgow. It is during her brief stint as regent, however, that Mary’s enthusiasm for building projects really becomes apparent: she not only commissioned Ravenscraig, but also Trinity College Kirk in Edinburgh, as well as improvements to Falkland Palace, which included the first recorded instance of a gallery in Scotland. Recent dendrochronology carried out by Dr Coralie Mills and Hamish Darrah on the tower of St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh on behalf of Historic Environment Scotland has also revealed Mary’s likely involvement in the fifteenth-century alterations there. Ravenscraig was therefore one of a number of works which Mary undertook during her regency.

The Apse of Trinity College Kirk, Chalmers Close, Edinburgh. This is all that remains of Mary’s foundation, which once stood on the site of Waverley train station and was partially rebuilt in its new location during the nineteenth century. Photo © Rachel Delman.

Shortly before his death, James II had gifted the estate of Dysart to Mary, after which she funded her major works at Ravenscraig entirely from her own revenues. We know from the Exchequer Rolls that she spent 600 pounds Scots on the castle, but it could have been considerably more, as the accounts of the queen’s lands for the first term after the king’s death are missing. Building began in the east, but Mary died before she could see the castle finished, at which point the regular flurry of works ceased altogether. Part of the castle was inhabitable before her death, however, as in 1461, the queen’s steward was able to stay there for 25 days along with several of her servants.

A view of the east range of Falkland Palace containing the sixteenth-century royal apartments of James V and Mary of Guise. Mary of Guelders’ apartments and gallery are no longer visible, having been demolished to make way for the current buildings. Photo © Rachel Delman.

From the outset, Ravenscraig appears to have been intended to have a strong military appearance and is believed to be the first castle in Scotland designed to withstand cannon fire. For this reason, it has been treated as something of an enigma by historians and heritage professionals, who often regard the military design as being at odds with its supposedly intended use by Mary as a dower or “retirement’’ house. Yet the two are not necessarily incompatible. Mary’s decision to fortify the castle and to protect a vulnerable piece of coastline made perfect sense given the changeable nature of relations with the English at this point.

Ravenscraig Castle, looking north. Photo © Rachel Delman.

It was also not unusual for women elsewhere in Europe to be involved in military endeavours at this time. Mary’s contemporaries in Renaissance Italy, for example, frequently acted as military managers, fortifying towns and cities and supplying provisions and resources. Closer to home, Margaret of Anjou, with whom Mary negotiated terms in 1460, was also commissioning works on several English castles around this time, including the refurbishment of the keep of Pleshey Castle in brick. Equally, Mary’s aunt, Isabella of Portugal, in whose court the queen of Scots had been raised, was a politically active and energetic architectural patron. Mary therefore came from a tradition whereby architecture was commonly adopted as a language of female power. It is also possible, particularly given the circumstances of James’ death, that Mary intended for Ravenscraig to be part of a larger commemoration project for her husband, which also included her mausoleum at Trinity College Kirk in Edinburgh.

The termination of the works at Ravenscraig upon Mary’s death in 1463 suggests that she was very much the driving force behind them. James III showed little interest in his mother’s project, instead granting the castle to the Sinclair family, who completed the building. Nevertheless, the remains stand as a testament to the ways in which Mary chose to materially express her authority as regent. They also pose a challenge to the overwhelmingly male narrative that has long dominated castle studies, reminding us that women could, and did, play active and sometimes innovative roles in shaping the physical and social life of late medieval castles.

Ravenscraig Castle is now owned by Historic Environment Scotland. It is free to visit and open all year round. For updates from the Castle Studies Trust, subscribe to our quarterly newsletter.

Carreg Cennen in the Wars of the Roses

The striking ruins of Carreg Cennen Castle in south Wales have a rich history, bound up in power struggles between the Welsh and English and the Wars of the Roses. Dr. Dan Spencer takes us on a journey through its past.

Carreg Cennen Castle on a limestone crag. © Dan Spencer

Carreg Cennen was most probably founded by the Welsh prince of Deheubarth, Rhys ap Gruffydd, in the late twelfth century. It is situated in a prominent position on a high limestone crag overlooking the River Cennen. Carreg Cennen was later captured by the English during the conquest of north Wales in the late thirteenth century. Edward I granted the castle to John Giffard, Lord Giffard of Brimpsfield, who extensively rebuilt the castle. Carreg Cennen was acquired by Henry, duke of Lancaster, in 1340, and thereafter by marriage to his son-in-law, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, son of Edward III. The duchy of Lancaster subsequently passed into royal ownership, upon the accession of Henry IV, Gaunt’s eldest son, to the throne in 1399. Carreg Cennen was captured by the rebels of Owain Glyn Dŵr in the early fifteenth century, with repairs carried out during the reign of Henry V.1

The main approach to the castle © Dan Spencer

In 1455, Welsh landowner Gruffydd ap Nicolas seized the castle, taking advantage of a power vacuum in south Wales, where many of the principal royal offices were held by absentee officials. This move was not welcomed by the government of Henry VI. Gruffydd subsequently came into conflict with Edmund Tudor, earl of Richmond, a half-brother of the king, in the following year. Richmond eventually emerged victorious from the struggle in the late summer of 1456, at which time it appears that Gruffydd relinquished control of Carreg Cennen.2 The earl died of the plague later that year, with the task of maintaining royal authority in southern Wales thereafter entrusted to his brother, Jasper Tudor, earl of Pembroke.

In 1459, civil war broke out when the Yorkist lords, Richard, duke of York, Richard Neville, earl of Salisbury, and his son Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, attempted to seize power. This development prompted Jasper to install a garrison in the castle, which remained in place until at least the following year.3 It is not known how large the garrison was, and Carreg Cennen appears not to have seen any military action at this time. This is not surprising, as potential attackers would have been deterred by its strong defences. It was also in a relatively isolated location, far removed from the main areas of conflict.

One of the towers, with buttresses at the base © Dan Spencer

Instead the fate of Carreg Cennen was decided by events elsewhere. The decisive clash of the conflict took place at the Battle of the Towton on 29 March 1461, the largest engagement of the Wars of the Roses. The Yorkists led by Edward IV were victorious, with Henry VI and his remaining supporters forced to take refuge in Scotland. Later that summer, Edward delegated the task of subduing Wales to some of his trusted supporters, who included William, Lord Herbert.4

By the end of 1461, the Yorkist commanders had succeeded in conquering almost all of Wales (with the main exception of Harlech in the north-west), and Jasper Tudor fled overseas. This left Carreg Cennen as the last remaining Lancastrian fortress in the south. In the spring of 1462, Lord Herbert instructed his half-brother, Sir Richard Herbert, and another member of the gentry, Sir Roger Vaughan, to take control of the castle. They set off from Raglan Castle, Herbert’s ancestral seat, with a force of 200 gentlemen and yeomen and soon reached Carreg Cennen. The defence of the latter was led by Thomas and Owen ap Gruffydd, sons of the recently deceased Gruffydd ap Nicolas. It is unclear whether they had been given this responsibility by Jasper Tudor, or if they had exploited the situation to take control of the castle. Either way, the brothers were said to have a large force under their command and had a strong defensive position. Nevertheless, the futility of the Lancastrian cause prompted them to surrender under terms. They were pardoned in return for pledging allegiance to Edward IV.5

The view from the castle © Dan Spencer

On Lord Herbert’s instructions, the castle was provisioned, and a garrison was installed for its safeguard. This consisted of a small force of nine men, who served there from the beginning of May until mid-August. These men each received 4d. per day in wages, the standard rate for footmen or archers at this time, as well as 1s. 10d each per week to pay for their expenses.6 The garrison was required, as is explained in a surviving letter from Edward IV, because ‘the said castle was of such strength that all the misgoverned men of that country there intended to have inhabited the same castle and to have lived by robbery and spoiling our people of the country’. However, as the letter went on to explain ‘we soon after were advised that the said castle should be thrown down and destroyed’ to avoid the inconvenience of expending money on maintaining its defence. The source of this advice is unspecified, but it could have been from Lord Herbert, who, as chamberlain of south Wales, was acutely aware of the financial burden of paying for its garrison. This was an extraordinary decision, as no other castle was slighted  by royal command at this time, which may have reflected Yorkist concerns about its potential as a formidable fortress in an area with Lancastrian sympathies. It could also have stemmed from more general unease about law and order in the region. The king therefore issued orders to Herbert to oversee its destruction. A labour force of 500 men was recruited who used a variety of tools to ‘break and throw down’ the castle.7 The extent of the destruction is unclear, but at the very least the labourers made the place uninhabitable, with Carreg Cennen thereafter falling into ruin.

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Dr. Dan Spencer is the author of The Castle in the Wars of the Roses, published by Pen & Sword, which is due for release on 30 October: https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/The-Castle-in-the-Wars-of-the-Roses-Hardback/p/18426


Footnotes

[1] J. M. Lewis, Carreg Cennen (Cardiff: Cadw, 2016), p 1; H. M. Colvin, The History of the King’s Works, volume 2 (London: H.M.S.O, 1963), p. 602.

[2] For Gruffydd’s seizure of the castle and conflict with Edmund Tudor see, William Rees, ed., Calendar of Ancient Petitions relating to Wales (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1975), pp. 184-6; PL, I, pp. 392-3.

[3] For the garrisoning of Carreg Cennen by Jasper see, TNA, DL 29/584/9249; DL 29/596/9558.

[4] For an overview of these events see, Anthony Goodman, The Wars of the Roses (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1991).

[5]. For the occupation of the castle by the sons of Gruffydd ap Nicolas and its surrender see, TNA, SC 6/1224/6; SC 6/1224/7.

[6] TNA, SC 6/1224/6.

[7] Quoted from TNA, SC 6/1224/7, whose Middle English text has been modernised.


Slingsby Castle: 3D reconstruction illuminating the lost

Bethany Watrous of Experience Heritage examines how her digital reconstruction of the Jacobean manor house at Slingsby Castle sheds light on its original form when first built in the C13.

The ruins of Slingsby Castle, Yorkshire

The mysterious Slingsby Castle in Slingsby Village, North Yorkshire, is a ruin of a 17th century manor built on the site of a 13th century moated castle which survived, at least in part, into the early 17th century. The manor was built for Sir Charles Cavendish II, grandson of infamous Bess of Hardwick, by John Smithson. An earlier design for a manor on the same location was created for Sir Charles Cavendish I by Robert Smythson, father to John (who changed the spelling of the family name). Original architectural sketches for both versions of the manor still exist in the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Smythson Collection.

It was with this evidence, as well as further historical record, that I set about reconstructing both versions of the manor in digital 3D. The intention of this project was multifaceted. The ruins of Slingsby Castle have long been left to decay and the local community was in discussion about whether to put funding into refurbishing the site or allowing it to continue to be reclaimed by nature. Interactive digital models would help to engage the public in the conversation. However, the digital reconstruction would also provide further research about a site with a greatly confused historical record. It would help to tell a story about a significant phase of British architecture and give better insight into the original medieval castle.

The little we know about the original medieval castle comes from historical writings and archival material. A royal license was granted in 1216 for a manor or castle on a site owned by the Wyvilles. It was sold to Ralph de Hastings in 1344 and in the same year, a license was sought to crenellate a structure there1. In 1475 William Lord Hastings was granted permission to “build, enclose, crenellate, embattle and machiociolate”2 and it’s believed that this was the time of the creation of the moat. In 1619, the historian Dodsworth visited the site and described seeing the Hastings’ crest over the gates and a “church within the castle walls”3. The Jacobean manor was likely built on the site soon after Dodsworth’s visit.

There are many theories as to whether the Jacobean manor reused original parts of the castle. The site has not been inspected by modern archaeologists and we were not able to gain access for the purpose of this study. Modern historians disagree on the topic. Some believe no part (including the moat) of the Jacobean manor is medieval, while others have found evidence suggesting otherwise.

3D model of Jacobean manor, by Experience Heritage

19th century historians described what then still remained of the 17th century manor including a wall running along the inside of the moat and “turrets at each angle”4 which some believed to be remains of the medieval bailey walls3 or following the original footprint. Another theory suggests that the original structure was either incorporated in or influenced the development of the basement vaults. On multiple floor plans, attention has been drawn to the irregular nature of the northwest room’s west wall.

1700 plan of the Jacobean design, highlighting the northwest wall ©Hovingham Hall Estate

The earlier, Elizabethan floor plan may give us insight into another piece of the medieval castle. The plan contains all the symmetrical balance of a typical Elizabethan design except for the off-center placement of its gatehouse. During the digital recreation and movement through the 3D model of this plan, the sharp curve of the path from gatehouse to main house was too jarring to ignore. Furthermore, when studying the plan, it became apparent that the manor’s only gatehouse was not meant to be the main entrance. On the opposite side, the main entrance leads over a stepped bridge to a raised terrace, whereas the door into the manor from the garden is hidden to the side of the portico. This suggests that the gate’s real purpose was as a reused medieval ornament for exhibition during progression around the estate. Therefore, Smythson’s floor plan may capture the outline of one part of the original castle.

View of the off-centre gatehouse as part of the 3D model of the Elizabethan design, by Experience Heritage

Bethany Watrous is the director of Experience Heritage which combines her archaeological and digital backgrounds to create engaging, authentic and interactive digital displays, 3D models, film and mobile apps for the heritage sector. Learn more at www.experience-heritage.com.

Featured image copyright of All Sainst Slingsby

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Marlborough Castle: the missing keep

Over the last two decades, the Marlborough Mound Trust has carried out extensive conservation and investigations on the ‘mound’ in the grounds of Marlborough College. The origins of the mound were uncertain until recently. It was known to have been part of Marlborough Castle, but there had been persistent speculation, on the strength of its resemblance to neighbouring Silbury Hill and the discovery of antlers in the early twentieth century (now lost) that it was of prehistoric origin. In 2008, when Silbury Hill was being investigated, the opportunity of taking cores from the mound to obtain comparative dates presented itself. After a precarious operation involving a very large crane, the necessary drilling rig was hoisted to the top of the mound. The resulting cores, as a paper published the following year by Jim Leary and his colleagues showed, supported a date in the second half of the third millennium BC, broadly contemporary with Silbury Hill.

The drilling rig for the coring operation is hoisted into place (copyright Marlborough Mound Trust)

Jim Leary has subsequently carried out a survey of some fifty castle mottes, looking for other sites where prehistoric mounds could have been reused as the base for a castle, and has found only one other rather uncertain case. This means that Marlborough may be unique in being a prehistoric structure recycled into a medieval castle.

But we now know more about the prehistory of the mound than the supposed castle keep. The only possible sighting of masonry on the mound is uncertain in the extreme. H. C. Brentnall, a master at Marlborough College, in one of his many contributions to the Proceedings of the College’s Natural History Society on the the history of the castle, had this to say in 1936:

Excavations necessitated by building operations at Marlborough College in the course of this summer have revealed several traces of the medieval castle which perished gradually between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. What little remains above ground (if the elevation justifies that expression) is to be seen on the summit of the motte, where a buttress of the keep was laid bare some years ago.

The note implies that the buttress was visible in 1936, but recent geophysical surveys have not found it.

The problem is further compounded by the subsequent use of the mound. It became a garden feature in the seventeenth century, and a spiral was cut into the side of it to give access to a summerhouse at the top. Stukeley’s engraving of the countess of Hertford’s gardens in 1723 shows only the summerhouse, and no traces of masonry.

Stuckley’s engraving of countess of Hertford’s gardens.

About the same time, a water tank was installed to supply the Hertfords’ newly built mansion. This was enlarged by the College after its establishment in 1843, and adapted over the years, until the top of the mound was graced by a large iron tank surrounded by a spoil bank, concrete steps, and substantial pipework. This meant that in effect most of the original top of the  mound had been destroyed.

This raises the question of what we are looking for. The earliest mentions of the site, in 1070 and 1110, present the king’s establishment as a place of imprisonment and a site where a royal court was held. In the 1140s, Marlborough castle is first mentioned as such. It is described ‘very defensible’ in The Deeds of King Stephen. It was held by John Marshal, who used it to control the surrounding countryside, and there is no record of it ever being attacked.

The only entry in the plentiful records for the castle under Henry II and Henry III is in the context of payments in 1222 for work designed to create a substantial royal residence there. This is a single sum for the building of a lime kiln ‘for the Great Tower’, which must therefore have been of stone. There is no indication where this tower was sited, and it may well have been part of the lower bailey. It has simply been assumed that it was on the mound.

An inconclusive exploratory dig was carried out by Wessex Archaeology for the Mound Trust in 2019, and at the time of writing, it is still hoped that a follow up to this will be possible in 2020. The present assumption is that the mound was among the hastily erected timber forts from immediately after the Norman conquest, and that this was replaced by a stone keep after 1222. It would be good to be able to find some actual evidence as to the nature and even the existence of the keep at Marlborough.

Richard Barber is a trustee of the Marlborough Mound. He would welcome any comments, particularly on the replacement of timber with stone, and the nature of ‘great towers’: email rwbarberuk at yahoo.co.uk.

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Eleanor of Aquitaine’s impact on English Castles

Sara Cockerill, author of the recently published biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, looks at her role in English castle development.

One of the areas which has stayed slightly “off-camera” as I have written about Eleanor is the question of her relationships with the castles of her era. The headlining castles built under Henry’s aegis show no signs of Eleanor’s input. More intriguing however, is her relationship with those castles which pre-dated Henry’s reign and which found themselves in need of a bit of TLC – not necessarily from a military point of view, but in order to function as homes as well as defences. Where this sort of work is concerned there seems to be some ground for tracing a link between Eleanor’s regencies and the initiation of refurbishment programmes.

To start with the most obvious example – the Tower. On Eleanor’s first arrival in London the Tower was uninhabitable, and the royal couple had to stay instead at Bermondsey Abbey. While it is clear that Henry II put Thomas Becket in charge of refurbishing the equally run down Palace of Westminster, money does not commence to be spent on the Tower until 1166 – during Eleanor’s regency, suggesting that she had some hand in the decisions as to its refurbishment. Quite what these were is of course a matter of some debate, but they included as well as defensive works, quasi domestic features, such as work to the chapel and living accommodation.


Tower of London Chapel of St John, By Slowking4 – Own work, GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34675029

Another castle which came under Eleanor’s review is Berkhamsted – initially given to, and refurbished by Becket, it was transferred to Eleanor,  who held the barony as part of her dower assignment, during the course of Henry’s quarrel with Becket, with the royal family spending Christmas of 1163 there; an event which involved numerous items of plate being sent from Westminster to dress the rooms to best advantage. In the years which follow, again during Eleanor’s regency, there is regular work noted in the accounts, on the “Kings houses” there, at the granary, the bridges – and the lodgings. Her interest in the property is further evidenced by her travelling to stay there as soon as she gained a greater measure of freedom in 1184, with the advent of her daughter Matilda, then in exile from Saxony. Eleanor and Matilda’s family seem to have spent the whole summer there. And finally – work stops on the castle just at the period when Eleanor departs to her retirement in Poitou. However even in retirement her steward for the Berkhamsted estate would travel to visit her at Fontevraud….

Berkhamsted Castle bailey from the motte including remains of buildings built in Eleanor’s regency

Other places where Eleanor was particularly at home and where her interest can be traced are Old Sarum (Salisbury) and Winchester – her main locations during her captivity. But everything suggests that she was sent there not because she disliked them, but rather the reverse. Both are places she positively chose to visit on more than one occasion as regent in the 1150s and 1160s. Winchester, of course, was Henry I’s main residence, and had benefitted from a constant programme of renewals ever since. Interestingly however its domestic architecture was thoroughly overhauled from the year after Eleanor arrived in England. In 1155–6 £14 10s. 8d. was paid for making the king’s house and the next year another £14 10s. was spent for work on just one chamber in the castle. In 1170 £36 6s. was paid, and in 1173 £56 13s. 1d. was paid for work on the king’s houses at Winchester and £48 5s. for work on the castle and provisioning it. Large sums of money were, interestingly paid for the King’s chapel, in the years when Eleanor was a frequent resident there in confinement.  To this period too can be traced the first indications of development of the gardens. Old Sarum for its part had a residential area which was modern, having been built as recently as 1130 under the aegis of the then bishop. During Eleanor’s residence at Salisbury in the 1170s and early 1180s, there was consistent expenditure including £47 on the houses in the year Eleanor came to live there. That Eleanor positively liked Salisbury is shown by the fact that after her release she chose to organise the wedding of André de Chauvigny to the heiress Denise of Déols there; and Winchester too was a voluntary stop for her more then once in her later years.

Old Sarum from the west in C12, (Model: John B. Thorp. Photo: Kurt Kastner)

In a similar category is Windsor castle. Though predominantly a project of Henry’s – the defensive remodelling smacks of his planning – Eleanor spent considerable periods of time here – bearing Matilda here when the castle must have been a building site, and visiting repeatedly both as regent when she may well have had a hand in the development of the domestic buildings, which were to form a family base for her descendant Henry III’s family. Again it is a castle she seems to have positively chosen to visit with Matilda on Matilda’s return, and again following her release.

Although of course Berkhamsted has fallen into disrepair, one can perhaps therefore trace Eleanor’s hand in creating a core of castles which could double as homes, which was to influence the lives of generations to come.

Featured image: Aerial photograph of Old Sarum site, on departure from Old Sarum airfield by Mark Edwards.

More Medieval than Ever: Rebuilt Castles in East Central Europe

This is an edited version a talk given by Béla Zsolt Szakács gave at the Leeds International Medieval Congress in July 2018 and published in the Castle Studies Group bulletin.

Since the political changes of 1989/90, the countries of East Central Europe have been trying to overcome the century-long lagging behind Western European regions. An important element of the rebuilding of national identities in these territories is the ‘glorious’ medieval past. Understandably the visual expression of this medieval past is a focus of political and cultural interest. Castles are primary objects – so to say, victims – of this interest.

The year 2000 was celebrated in Hungary with a special pomp since it was not only the second millennium of Christianity, but also the 1000- year anniversary of the Hungarian kingdom was established by King Saint Stephen (c.1000–38). As a result of this, there was a great need of memorial sites, however, practically all important royal monuments and residences had been destroyed during the Ottoman wars and the Baroque period.

One of them is the royal castle of Esztergom, the former capital of the Hungarian kingdom and centre of the Catholic Church. Excavations of the surprisingly well-preserved Romanesque castle started in 1934 and the first phase was finished by 1938. By 2000, further elements of the royal (later archiepiscopal) castle had been identified.

Castle Hill in Esztergom in 1955. It was the site of the medieval castle and now the basilica. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Following the plans of Tibor Gál, a renowned Hungarian architect, a postmodern reconstruction was carried out at the site. The new building complex incorporated the Romanesque and Gothic remains of the palace with additions designed in a style that recalls, but does not imitate, the medieval past of the site. The courtyard was closed with a gate that never existed in the Middle Ages. Around the courtyard, remains of the Romanesque palace and a Gothic audience hall are standing. Although some of the windows were partially preserved, they were fully reconstructed, in other cases they were imitated by modern steel constructions. The results of the whole work were harshly criticised for being confusing and totally alien to the medieval original.

Esztergom Castle in 2013. Photo by Krystian Cieślik, licensed CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Another historic monument extensively rebuilt in 2000 is the Royal Palace of Visegrád. This romantic site – near to Esztergom and Buda, capitals of the kingdom – was a royal residence in the 14th century and an important hunting lodge of King Matthias (1458–90). It was destroyed during the Ottoman wars, and excavation of the remains began in 1934 and are still continuing. The most spectacular part is the north-eastern palace with its courtyard. The corridors around the courtyard were vaulted, the imprint of which were discovered during the excavations. With the help of the in-situ corbels and the excavated ribs a reconstruction of the east wing was carried out in 1952. This was continued with smaller additions in 1970, resulting in a complicated architectural complex of terraces, ruins and reconstructed building parts. In 2000 the palace was extensively rebuilt incorporating all the previously discovered and reconstructed elements. This was not a full reconstruction as the additions stopped where no information was available.

The Royal Palace of Visegrád in 2013. Photo by Allexkoch, licensed CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Nevertheless, this resulted in a still ruinous palace with many unverifiable details. The whole concept was based on the studies of Gergely Buzás, archaeologist and art historian (later director) of the local museum. His pioneering monograph published in 1990 contained a possible reconstruction. However, while the drawing is a scholarly attempt of a theoretical reconstruction, the building work in 2000 made permanent the understanding of the castle at a particular point in time. The vaulting reconstruction of 1952 has already proved to be erroneous, but has been never corrected. The present, much bigger volume of the reconstructed loggiaa (a covered gallery) is still debated.

The reconstructed loggia. Photo by EtelkaCsilla, licensed CC-BY-SA 3.0.

These actions, in 2000, were strongly connected to the memorial year and were supported generously by the government which needed representative sites for political purposes. They represented different methodologies: the postmodern reconstruction which did not imitate medieval forms but was inspired by them and a scientific reconstruction which claimed to be authentic. Visegrád was the most extensive but was followed by many other examples in the next decades.

One them was the castle of Diósgyőr in Northern Hungary, now part of the modern city of Miskolc. This important site was a royal castle built by King Louis the Great of Hungary (1326–1382) in the second half of the 14th century. Later it became the property of the Hungarian queens who made some modifications during the 15th and 16th centuries. Beside its political significance, this castle is regarded as an outstanding monument of Hungarian secular Gothic architecture.

Since the 18th century the building has been in a ruinous state: only the four towers standing on the four corners have been preserved more-or-less intact (but without the uppermost floors and the roofs), all the palace wings have been destroyed. The state of preservation of the ruins deteriorated during the last decades of the twentieth century.


The castle in 1933. From Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Shortly after 2000, plans were drawn up by architects in order to preserve the existing walls by new additions, which led to the idea of a radical reconstruction. The reconstruction was partial, keeping one of the towers in its ruinous state, and leaving the western wing unfinished However, many details were totally reconstructed which provoked heated debates.

The castle in 2016. Photo by CivertanS, licensed CC-BY-SA 4.0.

One of the reconstructed rooms is the knights’ hall. The vaulting system is authentic, but the form of supporting piers is not known. The present room has two windows and two portals on the south façade, although according to an 18th-century drawing, there was only one window and one portal. The additional portal is based on a stone-carving, but its shapes were not followed precisely and it fits better to the chapel rather than the knights’ hall. The windows’ shape follows its presumed 14th-century form, consequently the original late-medieval additions were removed. The reconstruction resulted in the destruction of one of the latest original elements of the medieval building in order to return to an earlier phase; unfortunately, the original form of this earlier window is not known: the present form is purely hypothetical.

The Knights’ Hall in 2018. Photo by ArBePa, licensed CC-BY-SA 4.0.

All the other wings were rebuilt with Renaissance windows, again without any archaeological evidence. In other cases original elements were destroyed because in their survived form they were not strong enough to support the modern reconstruction. Modern functions were also destructive, e.g. the royal apartment was replaced by an elevator. The amateurish furnishing of the interiors needs no further criticism.

So far we have seen some example of the recent castle reconstruction from Hungary. Nevertheless, such reconstructions can be found easily all over East Central Europe. I will limit myself to three well-known examples.

The first is from Croatia. The castle of Medvedgrad is situated above Zagreb and is a popular destination. It was probably built by the bishop of Zagreb in the mid-13th century. One of the most spectacular elements of this reconstruction is the chapel. This was totally reconstructed using the original carved stones of the supporting and vaulting system, the rose window and the portal. The lower castle ended in a keep which unfortunately collapsed in 1954. Thus the present building is a total reconstruction.

Medvedgrad’s reconstructed chapel (left) and keep (background). Photo by August Dominus, licensed CC-BY-SA 4.0.

The reconstruction works intensified after 1993, in a period when Croatia was fighting for its independence. The castle of Medvedgrad became a national monument, and a memorial was built there for the victims of the war of 1991–95. Although the castle itself never played an important historical or military role, its position above the country’s capital and the national ideology connected to it, predestined it to be the subject of an intensive and controversial reconstruction.

Medvedgrad

Similar national feelings inspired the reconstruction of the grand ducal palace in Vilnius. It was constructed in the 15th century and rebuilt during the subsequent centuries. During the Russian wars of the 17th century, the castle was heavily damaged and then stood abandoned for more than a century. After Vilnius was incorporated into the Russian Empire, the palace was destroyed in 1801. After long debates, the parliament decided in 2000 to reconstruct the palace as it was before 1801, although precise information was lacking and practically no original part was standing. Parallel to the building campaign, excavations continued which resulted in modifications of the palace project. By 2009 significant parts were ready and the whole complex was finished by 2013. Since then the palace is often used as the site of representative political venues.

A third example can be taken from Poznan, Poland. The castle was situated in the north-west corner of the town. Its medieval shape is practically unknown. The earliest depiction of the town is from 1617 and though it shows the town walls and some palaces, but the donjon is not represented. The whole complex was destroyed in 1945. During the years of 1959–64, the post-medieval buildings were partially reconstructed. The idea of reconstructing the medieval part emerged around 2000. Remains of a medieval tower were discovered which served as a basis for the rebuilding which process started in 2010 with the building complex being finished in 2013. During these works a tower was erected which dominates the façade and is connected to wings imitating medieval houses. As the medieval form of the palace is practically unknown, the entire reconstruction is extremely hypothetical. While the rebuilding lacks scientific basis, it evidently inspired political motivation, creating a new visual highlight in contrast to the towers of the cathedral and the town hall.

The reconstruction of Poznan Castle in 2012, close to completion. Photo by Kapsuglan, licensed CC-BY-SA 3.0.

The presented importance of the reconstruction in what is presently one of the most prosperous modern towns of Poland, is far from historical reality. Although Posnan was the early capital of Poland, it never played such a role after 1300. Rebuilding medieval castles is more popular today in East Central Europe than ever, however, motivation and methodology may differ considerably. In some cases the scientific background is more solid, although in all cases scholars needed to accept compromises. In other examples pure fantasy dominates the reconstruction, sometimes combined with modernist or post-modern architectural solutions.

Some of the reconstructors argue that the idea of the medieval castle is more important that its material originality. However, the medieval ideas are usually lost and when modern architects, archaeologists, or art historians try to recreate them, these will be certainly not authentically medieval. What they sell to the visitors is the memory of the medieval past; but this memory is a falsification. Whilst reconstructors usually admit that some parts of their work is uncertain, this is rarely manifested at sites, where visitors will believe that what they see is the real (or at least authentic) Middle Ages. That’s how present day reconstructions falsify our memory creating castles that are more medieval than ever.

Appleby Castle: Gracious Living on the Wild Frontier

This guest post was written by Erik Matthews, Fieldwork Officer for the Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland.

Appleby Castle in Cumbria (formerly Westmoreland) is much less well known and certainly much less studied than its neighbours at Brougham, Brough or Carlisle. Yet it is substantially intact with masonry elements from at least three periods (12th, 13th and late 15th centuries) together with an extensive area of possibly earlier earthworks.

The castle’s early history is tied to the kings of England: it is mentioned in the  Pipe Roll of King Henry I in 1129-1130 and then it was seized by King Henry II as part of his re-occupation of the area from the Scots in 1157. Later the castle was held by the Viponts in the 13th century and then by the Clifford’s in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Along with Skipton, Pendragon, Brough and Brougham it formed a major element of the former Clifford landholding in the North West in the later medieval and early post-medieval periods. As such there are clear parallels between the 12th-century keep “Caesar’s Tower” and the great tower at Brough as well as between the late 15th-century hall range and the work of the Henry Clifford the 1st Earl of Cumberland at Skipton.

The 12th-century great tower. Photo ©Erik Matthews.

The site has recently re-opened after a protracted period of closure since the 1990s and is the centrepiece of a Heritage Action Zone recently designated by Historic England as a means of attracting investment into the area following on from the devastating floods of winter 2015. This gives a welcome opportunity to undertake a fresh study of the site which was last seriously examined by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England back in the 1930s. Further study of “Caesar’s Tower” is particularly over-due as recent research into similar structures in the UK, Ireland and France have changed our understanding of them.[1]

Historic England are funding consolidation works on “Caesar’s Tower” and the associated curtain wall. It is hoped this will include a photogrammetric survey of and a geophysical survey of the area between the curtain wall, the tower, and the later 15th-century hall range. Further detailed building recording surveys may be possible in the long term to disentangle the later 15th-century and mid 17th-century work associated with Lady Anne Clifford from earlier work within the Hall. The presence of what appears to be the remains of a postern gate with portcullis groove within the north wall and a curious bottle shaped tower at the western end give a hint of what might readily be identified.

Part of the castle earthworks. Photo ©Erik Matthews.

The curtain wall is of a characteristic early form with a low un-crennelated wall walk without towers. Rather than curving, it has angular changes of alignment and may have been built at the same time as the keep. It is unclear how the keep was arranged inside when it was built, but a drain from a sink or laver at third floor indicates there may have been a chapel or oratory. We also are uncertain where the original entrance was. The two earthwork baileys run roughly north to south and north-west to south-east and cover a large area. Investigation may reveal evidence of earlier structures from amongst the ephemeral remains of more recent activity.

This section of the curtain wall may have been built at the same time as the keep on the right. Photo ©Erik Matthews.

The project if successful holds out the prospect of answering a whole range of interesting questions about this fascinating and presently poorly understood site.


[1]  “Some thoughts on the use of the Anglo Norman Donjon” Pamela Marshall. Pgs 159-176. Castles and the Anglo Norman World. John Davies, Angela Riley, JM Leveque, Charlotte Lepiche eds. Oxbow 2016.

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.

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.

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.  DOI: 10.1080/00665983.1963.10854241.
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.