The English Castle in Early Medieval Times

Term Paper, 1999

18 Pages

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The English Castle in Early Medieval Times

Fortifications in England before 1066

The Iron Age

The earliest military defences erected in Britain are the hillforts of the Late Bronze and Iron Age. These were built over a period of a thousand years before Christ in large numbers, 1420 sites south of the Hadrian’s Wall and 1100 north of it are still known today. Hillforts were massive earthworks, built on high ground or hilltops around a single enclosure, surrounded by ditches and sometimes fortified with timber and drystone. The size varied greatly. The majority was just big enough for one family and it’s dependants, slaves and cattle and contained only few buildings, but the biggest ones housed entire villages or even towns and were used as trading bases and for mass tribal gatherings.

The Romans

When the Romans started their campaign in Britain the earth-and-timber fortifications of the hillforts could not withstand the roman army for long. The Romans were so unimpressed by the defences of the Britons that they didn’t even bother to slight the native forts after the surrender of its inhabitants. The newly built towns were obviously attractive enough to wean the people away from their traditional refuge and by the first century AD the majority of the hillforts was out of use.

The Romans introduced for the first time elements of a centrally directed and uniform military system with professional soldiers and standard defences. Their fortresses were rectangular with rounded corners, buildings being laid out within in a regular pattern1. The usage not only of stone but also of concrete cores and bricks allowed the construction of massive walls, incorporating towers and gatehouses. (Wall at Colchester 8 feet thick)

The Angelo-Saxons

After the Roman withdrawal from the British Isles the resulting power vacuum encouraged attackers from the continent. The Romano-British neither had the weapons nor the army to make use of the Roman military structures and fell back on the traditional hillforts of their race but were ultimately not able to stop the German advances.

The Angelo-Saxons and Danish founded several Kingdoms in England, but since they were predominantly peasants and forest dwellers they preferred earth and timber structures to stone and in general didn’t take over Roman forts. They fortified their villages and towns with earthen banks and timber palisades, so called burhs, and constructed massive earthworks along the borders of their kingdoms (Offa’s Dyke is the best preserved, built in the eighth century between Wales and Marcia over a distance of 77 miles and up to 20 ft high and 60 ft wide).

The Saxon Kings of Wessex were the first to experiment with a new system of defence, which was developed by the Frankish Kings: timber and stone forts at the mouth of important rivers. King Alfred improved the technique and built twin forts (one on each riverbank) on rivers that served as Danish entry routes, and his successors continued his work in the early 10th century.

The connection between the Angelo-Saxon Kings and the Normans in the late 10th and early 11th century was not very strong and basically limited to ad hoc alliances against Viking Raiders. This changed under Edward the Confessor, who was very interested in the Norman culture and married a member of the Norman gentry. Richard, the king’s brother-in-law was invited to England and made Earl of Hereford and the stronghold he built on his land was actually the first castle on English ground.

The Feudal Society and Castles

So, if there had been fortifications and forts in England before the Conquest, what distinguished the Norman castle from these and why, if the castle was so superior to other defensive buildings, didn’t the Angelo-Saxon kings adapt this form of architecture?

All structures discussed in the previous chapter where either in communal or royal hand and their sole purpose was to provide protection against enemies. But the castles of the Norman times were not all in royal possession; actually most of them were erected and held by the barons and lords of the realm. And even though the castle was primarily a military structure, it served as well as a private residence to a noble family, a legal court, an administrative centre and sometimes even as a prison. These are the two distinctive features that set the Norman castle apart from other kinds of fortification, they are privately owned and combine a multitude of functions.

Ordericus Vitalis, one of the early chroniclers, insists that the Saxons were defeated and conquered because they had not adopted the castle. If they had, William’s campaign after Hastings might have degenerated into a lengthy affair of sieges, during which he might well have run out of time and cash, and seen his army disintegrate. As it was, most of the English burhs fell without a fight or after a perfunctory defence. This raises the question why didn’t Edward the Confessor and his predecessors built castles to defend their kingdom?

But the Norman castle was not just a new form of military architecture, it was the product of a complex military society which was created in Europe during the 9th and 10th centuries AD and which reached its most developed form in Normandy in the 11th century. This period is called the Age of Feudalism, deriving from the medieval Latin ‘feodum’, meaning a fee or payment, but in the form of land rather than actual money. The system was an acknowledgement of the difficulty of running and defending a large country without a well-developed administrative system, without efficient communication, and without a standing army. These deficiencies were made good by granting land, in greater or lesser quantity, to barons in return for services. In theory at least, all land belonged to the king and was held as a fee or payment from him in return for various political, administrative and military services.

The system in broad terms workedlike this: the king retained a large section of the country under his own direct control; the rest he parcelled out among his barons in return for agreed services to the crown. In turn, the barons, or tenants-in-chief, retained a certain amount of land for their own use and distributed the rest among their followers, who thus became subtenants. At the lowest level of the system were the peasant, the people who actually worked the land. They held what may be termed smallholdings, in return for which they worked so many days on the land of the lord from whom they held it. The system can be linked to a great pyramid embracing the whole of society, with the king at the apex and the peasantry at the base.

Castles were an integral and essential part of the feudal system. Without a castle (or castles) no baron could exercise the power placed in his hands by the king, and if he could not exercise power then the whole system could break down into anarchy, as indeed it did from time to time. The castle was the local base, which provided law enforcement, justice, defence, and all the functions which in another system would be provided by the central government. As can be imagined, the system was wide open to abuse. Many of the great barons behaved at times like independent princes and carried on petty warfare against each other, extending their land and power as they saw fit. Weak kings, such as Henry III (1216 -72), had endless trouble with them. Strong kings, like his son, Edward I (1272 -1307) kept them firmly under control and then the system worked as well as could be expected. When under the Tudor kings (from 1485 on) strong central government came to England, the day of the feudal castle was finally over.

The development of the Norman castle

1. Earth and timber castles

If we talk nowadays about Norman castles we think of massive stone keeps and fortified towers and gatehouses like Dover Castle or the White Tower of London. But the early English castles built under William I where predominantly a much more humble affair. They were so called earthwork castles, but even though they were built mainly from earth and timber, the basic plan was already showing the typical features of the Norman castle. The most common form of these early castles was the motte-and-bailey castle.

Motte and bailey castles

The motte was a steep cone of hard-packed earth, flattened at the top 2. The trench left around its base by the removal of earth for the mound became itself a part of the defence as a dry or wet moat, to which the word motte©was later corrupted and transferred. The level summit of the mound was encircled by a stockade of sharpened stakes, and some form of tower would be raised inside, originally of wood but in due course of stone. A wooden bridge over the ditch joined the motte to its bailey, an enclosure within a double defence of banked-up earthwork and a further loop of ditch. This loop usually connected with the motte ditch to make a figure of eight 3. Within the bailey were stables, barns, stores and bakehouse, armourers’ and farriers’ workshops, and living quarters for the lord and his retainers 4. Access from the outer world was by means of a drawbridge. If enemies nevertheless succeeded in penetrating the bailey, the defenders fled to their last refugee on the motte, demolishing the inner bridge and wooden steps behind them.

Roughly 2500 of those early earthwork castles have survived, but they were probably not all in use together. Many of them were short-term structures and destroyed or abandoned after some years. Nevertheless, at any one time there must have been many hundreds of motte-and-bailey castles in use, making them by far the commonest type of early medieval fortification, even if their present-day earthwork remains are relatively insignificant as compared with the remains of the less numerous but more striking stone castles.


The other type of earthwork castles are the ringworks. They could vary in form, but were generally circular, consisting of a bank and ditch, or D-shaped where a natural scarp formed part of the defences. Ringworks didn’t have a mound, the tower stood on the same level as the other buildings, and the whole area was surrounded by a rampart. This form of castle was preferred when the site of a Roman or Angelo-Saxon fortress was used and existing structures were to be incorporated.

Eventually the motte and bailey castles outnumbered the ringworks by far, which seems logical since they offered much better defence with the double structure of bailey and mound, both surrounded by palisades and ditches. But for reasons of speed, it is not altogether surprising that several motte and bailey castles had ringwork forerunners. Especially in the immediate post-conquest period, when the outcome was still uncertain and time precious, one would expect the ringwork to be preferred to the motte and bailey type. It is assumed that many of the first castles in England, especially those which are viewed as campaign castles, were ringworks, often on the site of an earlier fortification.

2. From Timber to Stone

Timber motte-and-bailey castles were cheap and quick to construct. But they were temporary. When timber is in contact with earth it soon rots. The next stage, therefore, was to follow the Roman custom of raising timber buildings on stone sleeper-walls. The third stage came when the keep was entirely rebuilt in stone. Stone castles were still rare in William I’s day, but the Tower of London and Cholchester Castle were of stone from the first, as some others in areas where timber was scarce and stone plentiful. It is certain that no Norman king or lord built in timber if there was time, and material to build in stone, for the great destroyer of early castles was fire, and a stone keep could be made virtually fireproof.


The stone equivalent of the timber castle on a motte is the so-called shell-keep, which likewise surmounts a mound. Shell keeps are, in fact the stone counterparts of the palisade around the top of the motte. The arrangements did not include a stone replacement of the timber tower, possibly for structural reasons, a massive stone tower probably considered dangerously heavy on top of an artificial mound. Instead, accommodation was provided in one- or two -storey buildings against the inner face of the stone curtain, leaving an open courtyard in the centre. These buildings were, in most cases, originally of timber but some were later rebuilt in stone. The bailey accompanying the shell-keep was also now defended by a stone curtain wall 5a,b,c.

The great round tower of Windsor Castle, Berkshire, dating from the reign of Henry I, if not earlier, is probably the finest example of a shell keep. Although its outer wall was refaced and heightened at the beginning of the 19th century, it retains the original layout of internal timber buildings.

The Tower Keep

There is no doubt that the most impressive and durable Norman stronghold are the great rectangular stone towers or keeps which formed the centrepiece of so many castles build, or rebuilt in the twelfth century. Because of their sheer size and weight stone keeps were not normally sited on mottes unless these were largely or entirely natural and could therefore withstand the thrust of such massive structures. The largest were 100 ft or more square in ground area and up to 1120 ft high, with massive walls, 12-20 ft thick and often stood on a colossal, solid stone foundation to make undermining by an attacker more difficult. 6a,b,c

The entrance was usually at first-floor level via a flight of stone steps, often protected a forebuilding, and the upper floor of this often formed the chapel. The lower storey was in effect a capacious cellar used for storage and often for keeping geese, pigs and other small animals. It was customary for the great hall, in which the lord and his retainers spent a large part of their time, to be on the first floor. Sometimes there would be one or two more levels above; but equally often the hall itself would rise the height of two storeys in the centre of the building, with a gallery halfway up from which smaller rooms opened out. Stairs spiralled tightly upwards in one corner of the keep, bit into the thick wall. There were few windows, and as a protective measure, these were little more than narrow slits.

The roof was a weak point. It was built first of thatch, later of wooden shingles, clay tiles or stone slates. But thatch and shingles could be fired; and heavy missiles could crash through tiles and slates. So walls were carried up above the roofs, to protect them from siege-engines, and the resulting parapet provided with a wall-walk, so becoming a fighting platform and developing into battlements.

Associated with the keep was a stone-walled bailey, the same sort of arrangement as in a timber-built castle. In some cases the keep stood entirely within the bailey, in others it straddled the wall, half in and half out, so that if the bailey were captured by an enemy and the keep looked as if it might fall also, the defenders could still make their escape beyond the castle walls.

There are many surviving examples of stone keeps, some large, some of more modest size. Two outstandingly preserved examples of large keeps are the Tower of London and Dover Castle. Although the majority of keeps were built in the 12th century, the Tower of London was started very soon after the Conquest as a fortress, palace, and seat of government for the new king. Dover, on the other hand, was not built until about a century later and was one of the last of such structures to be built. Between them, the Tower and Dover bracket the main building period of the rectangular stone type, which lasted for about a century from about 1080 to 1180. So, by the end of the 12th century, the English medieval Castle was beginning to adopt the form that we recognise as a castle.

3. Improvements in the Defence

There was a constant battle between the techniques of besieging castles and the design of their defences. By 1100 the simple tactic of rushing or starving out a castle had become elaborated, but with the introduction and constant improvement of the tower keep during the 12th century the balance of advantage had swung again from attack to defence. This resulted in the invention of more and more powerful siege engines and the development of new strategies. In essence there were three ways of forcing entry into a castle. One could climb over its walls, one could knock those walls down or one could tunnel under them! The scaling ladder had been replaced by siege towers and all kinds of missiles like the petraria, a stone throwing engine, or the catapults for firing iron bolts.

However, accounts of medieval sieges make it very clear that the most effective means of capturing a castle was by sapping and mining. Sapping involved attacking the base of a wall or the corner of a keep or tower to dislodge the lower courses of stone so causing the wall above to collapse. Mining required the digging of a tunnel below the foundations of the castle wall. A large chamber was created underneath the foundations, temporarily supported by wooden props. Between these props the miners placed flammable material and once the chamber was sufficiently large it was set on fire. The supporting props eventually burned through and the wall collapsed into the chamber.

At the same time new ideas in fortification from the eastern Mediterranean were brought back to western Europe by the crusaders and changed the design of the traditional Norman castle.

The Keep - from Square to Round

The rectangular keeps and towers that had been built in England during the 11th and 12th centuries had the great disadvantage of presenting vulnerable corners to the attackers. Not only were the corner stones easier to remove than those in a flat wall but the corner sheltered the attacker, limiting attacks on him to one direction only. The answer lay with the round tower or keep.

A very good example is Rochester Castle, which was besieged in 1215 by King John. Its splendid Norman keep was originally built with four square angle turrets. A successful mining operation caused the whole south-east turret to collapse. Even though the garrison finally surrendered only when they ran out of food, a chronicler wrote later ‘men no longer put their trust in castles’, and when King John had the south east turret rebuilt, it was a round one in place of the original square one. 7

The change from rectangular to cylindrical keeps begins in England in the late 12th century. But the transition is by no means immediate and there are several versions of the polygonal keep, that is a tower having many sides but presenting no sharp angles to invite attacks. Orford, built around 1170 by Henry II, is the earliest of these polygonal sites, and the most unusual. It has, in theory at least, twenty faces, so that there be only the shallowest of angles, and internally it is entirely circular. 8

Circular keeps were never as numerous as the rectangular type, partly because they were built during a shorter period, about half a century, and partly because they were in competition for popularity with other types of castles without keeps. Castles with the circular keeps form a transitional group between the traditional Norman castles, dominated by the rectangular keep, and the later, concentric castles in which the keep has been dispensed with.

Mural Towers

The Norman castle with its massive keep was based on the principle of the single strong point, emphasising the defence of the keep and neglecting the outer defences. But the turn of the century (1200) saw a shift away from the single strong point as the basis of defence towards making the perimeter the principle fortification, emphasising the curtain wall.

Curtain wall defence was based on two tactical principles. The first was the use of archery to harass the enemy and break up any concentration of troops. This was done by improving the crenallation, increasing the number of embrasures and narrowing the merlons. At the same time arrow slits were incorporated into the merlons so that the bowman could fire whilst remaining under cover. The second principle was to make it as difficult as possible to get close to the walls, either for people or machines.

Shooting men outside the walls, or dropping rocks on them if they came close, was no doubt a very satisfying thing to do, but in terms of the broader aims of defence it was better if the besiegers neither came up to the walls. A very effective way of achieving this was to put the castle either on a steep rock or into water, as for example Kenilworth castle, the most elaborate case of water defences in the early 13th century, where a great dam produced a lake to the south and west of the castle over half a mile long. But this obviously was much too complicated and costly to become a common feature. A different approach was to modify the curtain wall. The early castles had flat, continuos walls round the bailey with no or very few towers, providing a very poor defence. Once an attacker crossed the outer ditch and stormed the base of the wall, the only way the defender could prevent the attacker from sapping or battering the wall base was by leaning over the battlements, thus exposing himself to the fire of the attackers siege engines and archers.

Towers built at intervals along and projecting beyond the outer face of the wall enabled the defenders to enfilade the wall while themselves reaming under cover behind the battlements of the flanking tower. Also, if the flanking tower were built higher than the wall, it commanded the wall battlements. Should the enemy attempt an assault with scaling ladders or siege towers, he would face fire from several directions instead of just one. The flanking towers could be turned into strongpoints, dividing the wall into sections, so that the capture of one section of the wall did not inevitably mean the loss of the whole bailey.

The curtain wall of the inner bailey at Dover, built by Henry II, is the earliest example of a system of regularly-spaced wall towers, planned as such from the beginning. It stand at the head of a long tradition of regular curtain wall towers, even though it was not to continue for long in its Dover form with rectangular towers 9. Rectangular towers were to be superseded by the D-shaped type (as for example the outer bailey at Dover, built by Henry’s son John), the semi-circular part providing protection on the outside and the flat end making it easier to attach buildings in the courtyard. At Dover the inner curtain wall has fourteen towers in all, ten mural towers and two twin-towered gates, again one of the earliest uses of pairs of flanking towers.

The Gateway

The weakest point of the perimeter was the gatehouse. Initially the gate was not much more than a gap in the curtain wall, which was defended from the wall walk. Sometimes a single tower or stronger, higher walls in this section of the wall provided some additional protection, but basically the defence relayed heavily on the moat and the drawbridge. Once the attacker had reached the curtain wall and taken the gate, the defender would give up the bailey and retreat to the keep, the strong point of the castle.

In the early 13th century, when an increased attention was paid to the perimeter defence, the new ideas were also applied to the entrance. Four castles built in the 1220’s, Kenilworth, Montgomery, Beeston and Bollingbroke show the features that were to become the ideal gate house in England. All have the gate leading to a passage between two projecting towers, the three elements, towers and passage, being bound together into a single building, the gatehouse. The key to its defence was the gate passage with gate, portcullis and murderhole. These elements might all be used, and more than once; the King’s Gate at Caernarfon had six portcullises and five gates in succession down the passage.

In addition to the protection provided by its two towers, often an outer defence or barbican was added. A barbican is a small, curtain-walled enclosure built in front of a main entrance, so that and enemy breaking through the outer barbican entrance would find himself in a very confined space, under attack from the rampart walks on all sides, with the main entrance still intact. By the last quarter of the thirteenth century, gatehouses, far from being the weak point of the defence, were the most formidable points to attack. 10

Castles in historic context

1. The Norman Kings, William I, William II Rufus and Henry I

The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 introduced feudalism to England, and with it the castles. In fact, castles were the means by which William I (1066 -1087) secured his hold on England following their victory over the English army at the battle of Hastings. The chronicler Wace says that William brought over the materials for a prefabricated fort: that is, wooden sections already cut and drilled, together with the fittings. The fort was erected immediately after the landing at Pevensy, on the remains of a Roman fort, and was complete by the end of the day. Thus William moved to Hastings from a fortified base. Immediately after his victory at Hastings, William consolidated his position by building a castle, a work that is portrayed on the Bayeux Tapestry 11. After this, his first move was to Dover. There he found a rudimentary Saxon fort, but he was not satisfied, and spent eight days rebuilding and strengthening it. So William moved forward at each stage only when he had a prepared defence to fall back on. Later, after the formal surrender of the English clergy and nobility, William had the country surveyed; and, according to William of Jumièges, he ordered a vast programme of castle-building. In the years immediately after Hastings, the king’s aim was to put up as many of these small castles as he could conveniently defend. Between 1066 and 1071, Norman castles were built, among others, at Lincoln, Shrewsbury, Cambridge, Warwick, Oxford, Pevensey, Hastings and Dover. London and York 12 had two each. By time of his death, William and his men had set up 86 castles and his castle-building programme was continued remorselessly by his successors, Rufus (1087-1100) and Henry I (1100-35). Under their direction or patronage the first identifiable architects emerge. Thus William II chief lay castle-builder was Robert, Lord of Bellême, a warrior who was also described as a ‘skilful artificer’. Even more prominent was Archbishop Lanfranc’s protégé and master-builder Gundulf, promoted Bishop of Rochester. He was ‘very competent and skilful at building in stone’, and thus dominated the second stage of the Norman programme, when stone was replacing timber. Gundulf built the White Tower in London, the first rectangular stone keep in England, dating probably from 1079.

William I could not have conquered and held England without building castles in large numbers, and entrusting his tenants-in chief with their custody. Many more came into existence as his successors pushed into Wales and to the north. But this dispersal of power to feudatories necessarily posed a threat to the monarchy. The Conquer was well aware of this and introduced structural modifications in the feudal system to check baronial autonomy. He combined seven thousand small estates into less than two hundred major lordships, held by tenants-in-chief. This enabled a small occupying force of Normans to hold down a nation. And from William’s point of view a few large barons were easier to control than a multitude of small ones.

The system worked, albeit with some outbreaks of trouble, well enough under the Conqueror and his two strong-minded sons. But any medieval monarchy, however strong, was vulnerable to a failure of male heirs. The Conqueror, Rufus and Henry Beauclerk permitted the construction of private wooden castled in some quantity. Major works, especially of stone, were either royal, or held by tenants-in-chief under stringent safeguards. Then came the disaster of the White Ship in 1120, which drowned Beauclerk two sons; and it is significant that, after this mishap, which foreshadowed a disputed succession, we first hear of major castle works by individual subjects.

The Civil War, Stephen and Matilda

With Henry’s death 1135 and the subsequent struggle between Matilda and Stephen of Blois (1135-54) the great age of the ‘adulterine castle’ opened. Many of the adulterines were small and had very short lives. Thus Selby was captured within a week of the commencement of building and many others lasted only a few months or years. At times, and in various areas of intense struggle, church buildings, being stone, were involved. When the Earl of Chester sacked Lincoln, Stephen turned St. Mary’s Church into a siege-castle, and at Bampton in Oxfordshire, Matilda built a castle in the church tower.

Moreover, many important existing castles, including royal fortresses, fell into baronial hands. In a charter from 1146 Stephen bribed the Earl of Chester to support him by handing over to him 11 castles, Lincoln among others, some of them already powerful strategic stronghold. Five years earlier, Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex and one of the worst of the baronial ruffians, was given the hereditary constableship of London itself, plus the right to built a castle anywhere in his lands.

But from 1150, there is evidence that the greater barons were tiring of the struggle of ‘every man against every man’. By that date, it was guessed, there were some 1115 unlicensed castles. Incessant castle warfare posed grave problems to big landowners. If a surprise assault failed, the attacker settled down to starving out the garrison, meanwhile living off the neighbouring countryside. Forced to abandon the siege, they destroyed the remaining crops and food supplies, to deny them to the defenders. The barons might not care much about the sufferings of their peasants, but they hated to see their own revenues fall. Moreover, the greater lords found that their own vassals, by building castles which could stand up to anything short of a regular siege, were becoming uncontrollable. Hence the big men began to make private peace treaties among themselves. In 1153, the growing desire for peace found expression in the Treaty of Winchester, which composed the differences between Stephen and Matilda’s son, the future Henry II, and opened the way for the peaceful accession of the first Angevin.

The Angevin Kings, Henry II, Richard Lionhearted, John and Henry III

Henry II (1154-89) was the ideal sovereign to end a period of anarchy dominated by unlicensed private castles. He held strongly to the view that the powerful and properly controlled royal castle was the very foundation of civil law, and that private castles, except in the supervised possession of men absolutely loyal to the crown, were the enemies of order. Henry II’s first problem, when he assumed control in England was not to build but to destroy. Estimates of the number of castles he smashed to bits vary from 375 to nearly 1000. He commanded all baronial occupiers to hand over royal castles in their custody. When the Earl of York hesitated to comply, Henry moved swiftly and seized York, and the supposedly impregnable Scarborough without a fight.

As well as being a demolisher, Henry proved himself a great builder in his own interest. Royal exchequer records show him and his two sons, Richard I (1189-99) and John (1199-1216), spending so much on castle work that is was repeatedly the largest single item in their annual budget. Tower keeps went up all over the land: square as at Bamburgh, Appleby and Dover; multiangular at Orford and a number of cylindrical keeps, the most important probably that at Windsor. 13

In the ten years of his reign Richard I was to spend only ten months in his kingdom. He finished the work his father had begun on Dover Castle, but his own favourite castle was not in England: It was the superb Château Gaillard on a cliff commanding the Seine south of Rouen. When asserting his feudal right of armed backing for a campaign in Normandy against Philip Augustus of France, Richard took the custom of scutage a stage further by stipulation that each of his lords should send only seven knights and provide the balance in cash to help pay for the war. Glad to be left with the majority of their henchmen still on local call, the noble landlords gladly accepted the arrangement. Richard’s absences, however, laid up other trouble for the country. Such financial assets as he had left behind after satisfying his demands for support in France and the Holy Land were preyed on by his brother John, whose greed grew worse when he himself came to the throne.

Castle building went on, both by the new king and by barons no longer under the restraining eye of Henry II. King John lost his brother’s beloved Château Gaillard, and with it all of Normandy. At home he ordered improvements to the castle of Worcester, a town for which he had a particular affection and where by his own request he was ultimately buried. He seized private castles on the flimsiest excuses, such as those at Pontefract and Knaresborough; and also took over Kenilworth. The impressive outer curtain wall, with its towers and sturdy buttresses, was largely John’s work. At Odiham he ordained and entirely new castle with an octagonal keep.

Disgusted by John’s failures on the Continent and his rapacity at home, the barons had been complaining about sequestration of their properties and the loss of many old privileges. They swore at the high altar of Bury St Edmunds on St Edmunds Day 1214 that they would force from John a Great Charter confirming their feudal rights and settling their grievances. John was forced to put his seal to Magna Carta at Runnymede in June 1215.

John died in 1216 and his son came to the throne as Henry III (1216-1307) at the age of nine. In spite of an equal greed for extortionate taxation and the continuing problem of baronial strife, which his father had failed to subdue, Henry ruled for 56 years.

When Simon de Montfort, born into an ancient French family, came to England in 1231 to claim the earldom of Leicester, he soon became one of Henry’s favourites, married his sister Eleanor and was given the splendid Kenilworth Castle as residence. Appointed Governor of Gascony, he later served as one of the king’s most trusted ambassadors. But de Montfort came to deplore Henry’s shiftiness and incompetence. Resolute in urging that the neglected principles of Magna Carta should be implemented, he finally joined those barons who were once again preparing to defy the Crown.

In 1258 the Provisions of Oxford transferred most of the king’s administrative functions to a baronial council. But Henry appealed to the Pope, won his support, and worked against the barons now endeavouring to rule the country until civil war was inevitable. In 1264 Henry was defeated and captured at Lewes, together with his son Edward. The following year Edward escaped and, facing a de Montfort weakened by withdrawal of support of many disaffected barons, killed him at the battle of Evesham. Simon de Montfort’s son tried to hold on to Kenilworth, sending his men out on regular sorties for

food and loot from surrounding countryside. When a royal army came to lay siege to the castle, Simon fled to France in the vain hope of raising support there. The defenders he had left behind held out for six month, but then were forced to surrender rather than starve.

Reassertion of royal authority was so surprisingly successful that there were no serious upsets during the rest of Henry’s reign. Prince Edward not only deemed it safe to leave his father’s side and go off on a Crusade, but after Henry’s death in 1271 remained abroad for two years before returning to ascend his throne.

The End of the Norman Castle in England

The reasons for the disappearance of the Norman Castle with its prominent keep are twofold. The most important one is, that the military requirements led to an increased interest in the outer defences, and when those became strong enough there was no more need for a keep as a last defence. But on the other hand the idea of combining all the main accommodation and services in one building necessarily produced uncomfortable living conditions. The Norman keep was cold, dark and smelly. It was overcrowded at most times, housing the lord and his family, soldiers, servants and animals. And there was no privacy, not even for the King. In 1254, Henry III ordered a new staircase to be erected at Rochester Castle, ‘so that strangers and others might enter the chapel without passing through the king’s chamber as they were used to do’. During the 13th century the desire for more comfort and luxury grew, and the concentric castle allowed a ‘decentralisation’, with separate buildings like the Great Hall, living quarters for soldiers and servants, kitchen, stables and chapels.

During the 200 years after the Norman Conquest of England the castle constantly changed its appearance in order to adapt to military developments. Their dominant feature was the great rectangular stone tower or keep which is virtually the hallmark of Norman military building. Towards the end of the twelfth century new ideas of fortification led to new types of stronghold in which the keep had no place. It can be said that the Norman castle in its classic pure form built form was built approximately from 1066 - 1170/80, when the first signs of the ‘later’ castles appear. For about seventy or eighty years the two traditions existed side by side until the Norman type castles were finally were replaced by the new circular castles around 1250.

Works cited:

Brown Allan, English Medieval Castles (London 1954)

Burke John, The Castle in Medieval England (London 1978)*

Douglas David C., Editor, English Historical Documents, vol.II 1042-1189(Oxford 1953)

Forde-Johnston James, Great Medieval Castles in Great Britain (London 1979)*

Johnson Paul, Castles of England, Scotland and Wales (London 1989)*

Johnson Paul: The National Trust Book of British Castles (London 1978)

Kenyon John R., Meieval Fortifications (Leicester/London 1990)*

Tom Mcneil: Castles (London1992)*

Morgan Kenneth O., Editor, The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain, p. 1-166(Oxford 1984)

Saul Nigel, Editor, The Oxford Illustraded History of Medieval England (London1997)

Thampson M.W., The Rise of the Castles (Cambridge 1991)

Traill H.D., Social England, vol.I (Oxford 1893)


1 Plan of Hardknott Fort, Cumberland

2 80 ft high motte and defensive bank at Thetford castle, Norfolk, set on earthworks dating from the Iron Age

3 The surviving motte-and-bailey outline of Castle Hill, Leicestershire

4 Reconstruction of the motte-and-bailey at Rhuddlan

5 Shell keeps
a) Totnes castle, artist s impression around d1100
b) Totnes castle, the keep today
c) Restormel Castle

6 Richmond castle:
a) A reconstruction view as it may have appeared around 1100 before the keep was built
b) remains of the keep
c) remains of the Great Hall and bailey

7 Rochester Castle, south-east turret, rebuilt by John after the siege in 1216

8 Orford castle tower, built at a cost of about 1400 pound by Henry II over eight years

9 Dover, keep and inner bailey with square towers

10 An early gatehouse with barbican, Dover, built after the siege of 1215-16

11 A detail from the Bayeux tapestry showing the structure of the motte at Hastings

12 York castle, built in the early 13th century on the motte of the original Norman motte

13 The shell keep at Windsor Castle today

18 of 18 pages


The English Castle in Early Medieval Times
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English, Castle, Early, Medieval, Times
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Jan Peer Otto (Author), 1999, The English Castle in Early Medieval Times, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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