Forget what you were taught at school about castles being military buildings: new research, pulled together in a massive new volume The English Castle by John Goodall, suggests that they are primarily residences, stately homes that used military references, such as moats, towers, and battlements, as statements of power and prestige; and that the architectural trappings of fortification continued to be used to define aristocratic dwellings right up to the eve of the English Civil War. It was then, ironically, that many castles saw the only combat they ever experienced, shortly afterwards to be decommissioned as part of a campaign of republican zeal.
Even in its ruined state, Dunstanburgh Castle is one of England’s most impressive and inspiring castles: sitting on a spectacular headland between the villages of Craster and Embleton on the Heritage Coast of Northumberland, Dunstanburgh presents a powerfully romantic vision of rock, sea, and castle turret silhouetted against the northern sky. Built on a massive scale, the castle fell into disrepair at the end of the Middle Ages, and was a popular subject for 19th century topographical artists. Turner painted it several times, against a background of storms at sea and ferocious waves dashing against the rocky headland from which the castle rises.
At almost the same time that Turner was painting the scene, the Gothic writer Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775–1818) produced an enduring myth for the castle, which he claimed was based on local folklore. His tale of Sir Guy the Seeker features a wandering knight who takes shelter in the castle gatehouse, and dreams of being led into a hall where hundreds of knights lie sleeping with their horses. In the centre of the room, a beautiful maiden slumbers on a jewel-encrusted bed, guarded by two dragons, one holding a sword, the other a horn. Sir Guy is told to choose which of the two objects will wake the maiden; he blows the horn, the sleeping knights arise and drive him from the castle. He spends the rest of his short life trying to find his way back to the maiden. Failing, he dies broken-hearted and lovelorn.
Turner’s paintings and Lewis’s tale belong to the 19th century Gothic taste for all things Medieval, so we tend to think of them as a relatively recent response to a building that has become romantic with time and ruination. Indeed, there is evidence that Dunstanburgh was made more romantic by 19th-century owners through selective demolition, designed to open up particular views and to give a more pleasing and sculpted appearance to the shape of the ruins. So it comes as something of a shock to discover that Dunstanburgh might always have been intended to look like a mythical fantasy castle: that when the castle was built in the second decade of the 14th century by Thomas Earl of Leicester and Lancaster (1278–1322), the wealthiest nobleman in England at the time (and leader of the baronial revolt against his own cousin, King Edward II), he might have had visual effect and literary allusion as much in mind as military necessity.
Indeed, one has to ask what exactly is the castle doing here at all, in an otherwise empty landscape, and what exactly is it defending? A team of archaeologists, led by Alastair Oswald, surveyed and excavated the site in 2003, and think they have an answer. They discovered that the earthworks surrounding the castle were not Medieval at all, but formed the ramparts of an Iron Age promontory fort, raising the possibility that these prominent prehistoric earthworks – quite possibly themselves the subject of Medieval speculation and myth, associating them with mighty rulers and warriors of the past – might have been the reason why Thomas of Lancaster chose the site for his castle.
The survey also discovered the true extent of the castle: at least twice the size of the currently visible remains – though much of the area inside the curtain walls has always been empty and unoccupied, suggesting that it was the appearance of strength and massiveness that was desired rather than practical utility. Soil cores taken by palaeoenvironmentalists revealed that the castle’s western approach had once been surrounded by a ring of freshwater meres. Too shallow to be of any defensive use, these would have made the castle look as if it were floating on an island, surrounded by sea and water.
Could it be, then, that Dunstanburgh Castle was built as a statement of continuity with some mythical past, for visual effect, and to evoke Arthurian myth? Jeremy Ashbee, the archaeologist and historian who wrote the Dunstanborough Castle guidebook for English Heritage, believes the historical record supports this hypothesis. One possible explanation, he says, is that ‘the design of the castle embodied a complex series of iconographic meanings, particularly associations with other castles, and with personalities, both real and mythological. The meres not only had the aesthetic effect of creating reflections for the walls and towers, they may have held other meanings, relating to Earl Thomas’s self-image. His career had similarities to that of the most famous baronial rebel of the previous generation – Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester (1208–1265). One of Earl Simon’s greatest castles, Kenilworth in Warwickshire, was distinctive for its meres. Perhaps Thomas was trying to create his own Kenilworth in the north’.
An alternative and even bolder hypothesis is that the castle was intended to allude to Arthurian legend. ‘If Dunstanburgh had any practical military purpose at all, it was as the safest and most remote stronghold in Earl Thomas’s possession,’ says Jeremy, ‘a place to which he and his supporters could retreat if his challenge to Edward II’s authority went wrong – as it did in 1322, when the baronial army was defeated at Boroughbridge, North Yorkshire, and Earl Thomas was captured. Thomas was so fanatically fond of Arthurian stories that he even adopted the code name “King Arthur” in secret correspondence with the Scots, with whom he hoped to forge an alliance – something that was used to humiliate him at his trial and subsequent execution for treason. Is it beyond possibility to suggest that Thomas saw Dunstanburgh as his Isle of Avalon, the place to which he and his supporters could escape to wait, like the sleeping King Arthur, for his recall to arms at the hour of England’s greatest need?’
Power, wealth and status
Such speculation might seem far fetched and beyond proof, if Dunstanburgh were an isolated example. Instead, it is seen as just one of the many castles that have featured in current debates about the variety of purposes that Medieval castles served, and the intentions of their creators. John Goodall and his contemporaries are keen to take castles out of the special realm of the military historian, and put them at the centre of architectural history, alongside churches and cathedrals, redefining the castle not as a workaday garrison but as ‘the residence of a lord made imposing through architectural references to fortification’. John and his peers seek not to deny that castles had a military function, but to put that in perspective by reminding us of some of the other roles that castles perform.
If one of the important roles of a castle is to symbolise power, wealth, and status, then what better way than to physically stamp the landscape by building your castles on top of the defences of the people you have defeated and now rule? It is generally accepted that castles came to England with William the Conqueror. True, a handful of castles were built before the Conquest by Norman supporters of Edward the Confessor to whom he granted land in the Welsh borders – at Richard’s Castle, Ewyas Harold and Hereford, for example – but their form is not known, and it is likely that they were modest timber structures.
The great towers of Dover, Chepstow, London, and Oxford are structures that speak a different architectural and metaphorical language to anything that had been built in Anglo-Saxon England. Even so, Goodall and others argue that the concept of the defended royal stronghold already existed in late Anglo-Saxon England in the form of the burh (defined as a king’s or thegn’s residence in the laws of King Ine as early as c.AD 700) and the burhgeat (‘burh gate’), a defended structure forming the entrance to the burh. There were also manor houses enclosed by moats and banks, such as those that have been excavated at Porchester (Hants), Sulgrave (Northants) and Goltho (Lincs).
The sheer number of castles that include burh as a placename element (Scarborough, Edinburgh, Bamburgh, and so on) indicates the extent to which the Norman conquerors appropriated Saxon enclosed and defended structures as a way of consolidating the power. Not only were Norman castles frequently built on the same site as an existing burhgeat – examples include the castles at Windsor, Dover, and Castle Acre – the Normans even erected those castles using forced labour under Saxon legislation whereby the local population was obliged to build and maintain the burh in return for certain freedoms and privileges.
The aim of eradicating Saxon culture and replacing it with Norman was not entirely successful, however. John Goodall argues that there is just the hint of an architectural legacy from the Saxon period in later castle building traditions in the prominence and scale of the great hall and the gatehouse. Both of these are features common to grand architectural design throughout Europe, but in no place are these as strong, as ambitious or as long-lived as in England, and, he argues, the later halls and gate towers can be traced back to the Anglo-Saxon traditions of the communal hall and the burhgeat. Indeed, at Exeter (Devon), one of some 33 castles known to have been founded in the four years immediately after the Conquest, the gatehouse, of c.1067, does indeed look just like a Saxon tower in stone.
There is also a remarkable correlation between castle sites and earlier defences, including Iron Age ramparts, as at Dunstanburgh, but also at Dover and Beeston, to name but two more examples. It could be argued that this is entirely coincidental, the Iron Age and the Medieval builders both independently recognising a strategically suitable site. At Colchester (Essex), however, there is archaeological evidence that the past was literally being built upon by the Norman castle builders to stress continuity.
Here, the great tower was long thought to be an experimental oddity, both for its unusual size and for its projecting apses, one of which encloses the chapel. Parallels have been sought in vain, leading architectural historians to conclude that Colchester Castle was modelled on a lost prototype. Archaeology proved otherwise when excavations in the 1990s revealed that the castle is built upon the Roman temple of Claudius, and that the chapel apse mirrors the foundations of its Roman predecessor.
To have built the tower in this way, apparently against the normal rule of four-square towers, must have been a conscious and symbolic decision, just as was the design of one of Wales’s most famous castles, at Caernarvon, built with banded masonry and polygonal towers in imitation of local Roman fort architecture, or the Tower of London’s White Tower imitation of the now-lost great tower of the Dukes of Normandy, at Rouen, symbolising continuity of a different kind.
If castles can allude to other castles and to earlier fortifications, they can also reflect the social and political order. This is especially true of the castles that began to be built in peacetime, once the uncertainty of the Conquest years began to give way to relative stability. In scale form and design, these castles were a long way from workaday motte-and-bailey fortifications; instead they are trophies of wealth and status, symbolic of outstanding political success, built by figures basking in the warmth of royal favour.
One of the reasons why we forget this, and why castles have slipped out of the mainstream of architectural history into the realm of the specialist, is that most of them are now ruinous and austere, giving not a hint of the rich furnishings that once decorated the interiors. The spartan military appearance also reflects the peripatetic character of the Medieval aristocratic household. Monarch and barons travelled continuously from residence to residence, taking their furnishings with them (as, incidentally, the Royal Family still does, in their annual peregrinations from Buckingham Palace, to Windsor, Holyroodhouse, Balmoral, and Sandringham). Castles were not permanent homes, but rather a series of stopping off points, each one providing as series of interiors that could be decorated as necessary to suit the purpose, theme, and occasion of the visit or the time of year – John Goodall compares castles to a modern theatre stage, ready to be dressed for different plays, which, he says ‘often makes it difficult to pronounce on the function of specific rooms within surviving buildings’.
To complicate matters, many rooms served a multiple purpose, being working chambers by day and dormitories by night, where junior members of the household slept on portable pallets. Even so, some rooms served a defined purpose. Throughout the period from the Norman Conquest to the 17th century, the houses of the nobility had four remarkable long-lived components: the communal space of the hall; the kitchens, administered by the steward; multiple chambers or withdrawing rooms, administered by the chamberlain; and a chapel, the realm of the clerical members of the household. Often, that function is implicit in the scale of the space and the relative positions of the rooms to each other. Over time, too, these different elements of the house developed their own distinctive architectural forms within the overall assemblage, most clearly seen in the different scale and type of window used to light the various spaces.
In many early castles, these rooms are stacked vertically, compressed within a single massive stone tower. Considerable ingenuity went into the design of such towers, which are often described in the older literature as if they formed a final redoubt, a place of last resort in battle, to which the defenders of the castle could retreat and continue to fight to the last when the outer defences had been breached. That, says John Goodall, belies the lengths to which castle builders went to ensure that the great tower was an architecturally imposing and highly visible structure, intended to be seen from afar and to dwarf surrounding buildings.
The masons who designed Medieval churches used mouldings and tracery to give the appearance of lightness and spirituality to their constructions, whereas the masons who built castles (and in the cases of Westminster Abbey and Clifford’s Tower, York, we know that church and castle design were the work of the same man, Henry of Reyns), the aim was to give the appearance of solidity, as if the tower were constructed from a single monolithic block of stone, rooted in the very rock of the earth.
Vastly expensive and labour-intensive to build, their height and appearance of impregnability stands as metaphor for the wealth and power of the builder, just as their interiors could symbolise hospitality and liberality. Recent work by English Heritage to furnish the rooms of the Great Tower at Dover Castle brings home just how opulent these apparently bare stone walls could be when dressed for a great court occasion with vibrantly coloured wall hangings and painted furnishings.
Location, location, location
Just as important as the interior glitter and the solid exterior was the landscape setting of the castle in symbolising lordship. Depictions of castles tend to emphasise their aloofness, perched on a ridge or the crest of a hill, partly protected by sheer cliffs that drop to a river far below. While some castles were undoubtedly built like this to defend fords, bridges, and strategic transport nodes, or to keep watch over disputed territory on the borders of Scotland and Wales, castles rarely existed in isolation. Instead, they rose from amidst the community that they built to protect (or dominate), sat at the head of the main street, with houses and a market spreading in one direction, and a park with fishponds, deer and woodland in the other.
Others were located at the centre of an estate, or at the geographic core of an interlocking patchwork of manors and estates; while some were associated with religious settlements, spawning monasteries or colleges of secular priests or even, at Old Sarum, standing alongside the cathedral, reminding us that bishops, as well as barons, were among the greatest castle builders of their age: Roger, Bishop of Sarum, Henry I’s chancellor and effectively the second ruler of the kingdom, not only built the castle at Sarum, his other castles included Sherborne (Dorset), Devizes and Malmesbury (Wilts), and Kidwelly(Camarthen). His ‘nephew’ (possibly his son), Roger, Bishop of Lincoln, built Newark (Notts) and Banbury (Oxon) castles, and Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, built castles at Wolvesey, Merdon, and Bishop’s Waltham (Hants), Taunton (Somerset), Downton (Wilts), and Farnham (Surrey).
That bishops, men of peace, could build castles is proof that some castles, at least, were palaces or stately homes that happened to incorporate military style architectural features, of which the battlements and gatehouses are among the most long lasting. Those who ordered the wholesale slighting of castles in the aftermath of the Civil War knew this, and their assault on the castles of England was aimed not just at rendering military strongholds untenable, they were also bent on destroying all the attendant symbols of lordship. So it was, for example, that the mere at Kenilworth Castle, on which the Lady of the Lake had once appeared holding King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur, which she had handed to Queen Elizabeth I during courtly entertainment, was drained and its dams destroyed; the timber of the parks and chase was felled; the interiors of the principal structures of the castle were stripped of panelling, timber, glass and furnishings, which were sold; and John of Gaunt’s once glorious palace was let to a pig farmer.
Such actions, argues John Goodall, were intended to disgrace and overthrow the castle-building social order, ‘the secular counterpart to the Dissolution of the Monasteries’. To contemporaries, the destruction of Kenilworth and other castles in the 1640s seemed as shocking and as iconoclastic as the demolition of Buckingham Palace would be to us. But there is no doubt that it succeeded, for, after the Restoration, few returning aristocrats sought to reclaim their draughty and uncomfortable fortified hilltop structures. The long history of the castle as an architectural expression of lordship was dead, and in its place we got the stately home.
Further information English Castle (2011), by John Goddall, Yale University Press Beeston, Dover, Dunstanburgh, Kenilworth, Old Sarum, Peveril and Sherborne Castles are all in the care of English Heritage and are open to the public: www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/
ALL photos: English Heritage Photo Library unless otherwise stated.