This is not intended as a “these are the best” list or “these are the ones you should visit” list – they are just three randomly chosen sites that illustrate some of the phases of castle building in Great Britain.
We can thank the Normans for bringing the concept of castle-building to Britain, though impressive fortifications preceded their arrival – think of the Romans and their fort/wall building. William the Conqueror took the castle idea and ran with it after 1066, but no one was supposed to build a castle without his permission. A castle is not a house – it may have living quarters and a garrison, but it was designed, first and foremost, for defense. Good siting was the first concern – you want to see your enemies, and you want to be in a position to easily defend yourself.
It can be difficult to chronologically arrange castle designs, just as it is also hard to pinpoint architectural styles to a fixed time period – and castle architecture is not my specialty. To simplify things, there are three basic styles of castle building. The first is what modern historians now call the motte and bailey design, which consists of a fortification on top of an earthwork (the motte), within an enclosed courtyard (the bailey). This was then usually surrounded by a ditch or palisade. Some of the best well-known motte and bailey castles are Windsor Castle, Lincoln Castle and Oxford Castle.
Hill, walls – and what else? Contrary to the romanticized image of medieval castles, not everything was built of stone. Many early keeps were wooden, and were later rebuilt in stone. Designs varied from site to site, and successive periods of rebuilding sometimes dramatically obscure the original and earliest version of the castle.
The motte-and-bailey design persisted through the 13th century, when the keep (rectangular keeps and shell keeps) plan supplanted it. Keeps were built almost exclusively in stone.
During the reign of Edward I, castle building moved away from the keep, and concentric castles prevailed. Despite the choice of the word “concentric” this does not mean circular castles, as most were rectangular in shape. Think of a castle within a castle, with stone towers and a series of thick stone walls, with the inner walls higher than the outer walls.
Dover Castle was one of the first in Western Europe to be built using the concentric plan. The incredible site overlooking the English Channel was once an Iron Age fort, then a Saxon settlement, long before Henry II commenced the construction of his great stone castle in the 1160s. The inner and outer baileys date to Henry II’s reign, and the keep is attributed to Maurice the Engineer, Henry’s main builder. It was one of the last rectangular keeps built in Britain.
One of the earliest buildings at Dover Castle is St. Mary in Castro Church, which dates from the Saxon period (around 1000 AD), though it may have replaced an earlier structure. The layers of history at Dover are sometimes overwhelming – the tower at one end of the church? It’s a Roman lighthouse. The Victorians, in their well-meaning but occasionally destructive fashion, undertook two restorations of the church, which was used to store coal for a large portion of the 19th century.
The White Cliffs of Dover made for an incredible defensive position, but as equally impressive is Castle Hill, upon which Stirling Castle in Scotland was built. (My hometown is named after Stirling, Scotland.) One of Scotland’s most important and largest castles, the first reliable record of a castle being constructed here dates from around 1110. Most of the existing buildings, however, date to between 1490 and 1600, during a period when castles were being built more as the seat of royalty than as purely defensive fortresses.
James IV built the Great Hall, one of the largest in Scotland. It was completed in 1503. In the 19th century, the Great Hall underwent an adaptive reuse as it was used as barracks; it remained a military depot until 1964. During that time period, the roof was replaced, the interior subdivided and windows (including dormer windows) were added. Post-1964, a full-scale rebuilding of the Great Hall commenced, with the intention of returning it to its 16th-century appearance.
When I went back to look at my photographs from 1996, I wasn’t even sure that it was the same building. I don’t know if the work was controversial in professional circles; today in the United States, changes over time are typically treated as historic in their own right, and I generally encourage people to not “take it back to its original state.” (For example, taking all of the clapboards off of a log house and exposing the logs is a well-meaning act, but is not restoration. Most log houses were designed to be covered with wooden siding, and the well-intended restoration usually ends up causing a lot of damage to wood that was never intended to be exposed to the elements. Historic buildings change over time, and those changes are an important part of the building’s story.)
Although many castles have been preserved and delight tourists today, many more were destroyed. The evocative ruins of Corfe Castle (a National Trust site) remind visitors of the ravages of a country divided (the English Civil War), while managing at the same time to be one of the most scenic spots in Dorset. Built on a steep hill, the site has Saxon associations and might be the site of the assassination of Edward the Martyr in 978 AD. The castle itself was founded shortly after the Norman invasion, and unlike many of its 11th century contemporaries, was built in stone from the beginning.
Henry I undertook construction of a keep at Corfe in the early 12th century, while Kings John and Henry III continued building parts of the castle. In 1572, Queen Elizabeth I sold the castle to her Lord Chancellor. The castle’s most dramatic moments occurred during several sieges of the castle (unlike the rest of Dorset, it remained in royalist hands) by Parliamentarians between 1643 and 1646. The defender of the castle was Lady Mary Bankes, who held off the Parliamentarians for 6 weeks in 1643 and for 48 days in 1646. Eventually, betrayal from her own men led to the castle being taken; the Parliamentarians then commenced to blow up most of the castle with gunpowder.
There are, of course, countless other castles across Britain that illustrate patterns of defensive building, landscape siting, and the vagaries of history. Leeds Castle, for example, in Kent, fascinates me because of its “reimagining” and rebuilding in the 19th century, and interior remodeling in the 20th century. Edward I’s castle building expedition across Wales is another facet of history and architecture that begs for more attention (and more traveling!). And there are so many other castles that of which I’ve never heard…but until I win the lottery, I will daydream along the lines of Henrick Ibsen, who said: “Castles in the air – they are so easy to refuge in. And so easy to build too.”
Janie-Rice is an intrepid architectural historian with a double first name. She enjoys dark chocolate, old dilapidated buildings, and darting around English country houses in all sorts of weather. She’s a proud native Kentuckian and a farmer’s daughter. Janie-Rice is currently plotting her next trip to England and looking for a patron to sponsor it (landed gentry preferred.) Visit her at www.fhandfag.blogspot.com.