Britain is strewn with ruins of castles, rubble from the centuries of her existence. Castles are tangible relics of a remarkable past, a lengthy heritage etched in stone, as well as with the blood and sweat of those who built, labored, fought, and died in their shadow. Ruins stir up in us a profound awareness of those past lives. Castles have a timelessness that is awe-inspiring. That they have endured centuries of warfare and the effects of weather is a testimony to the creativity and power of their medieval owners. How many of us will have such long-lasting success?
As with gardens castles have had innumerable books written about them quoting design, styles, ages and so on. I think that one or two notes are helpful in distinguishing the various types and the logical development.
The castles that we use as our standard are those built between the 11th and 16th centuries in Great Britain and Northern Europe. The English castle whose design was imported from Normandy following the Norman invasion of
1066 was essentially defensive. The Normans had to hold down a belligerent conquered people and their way was to build a network of castles. William the Conqueror has a ring established around London, including Rochester,
Windsor and Berkampstead. These in conjunction with the Tower of London - the White Tower then - acted as a screen around the capital.
As it was said these castles were essentially defensive, designed to protect the Norman families who were granted the land by William. They originally consisted of a mound of earth thrown up with a tower or 'keep' on top, possibly surrounded by a palisade around the bottom and in turn frequently surrounded by a moat. The palisade contained the bailey. The keep was not living quarters normally but a last line of defense in case of attack and the main living area was the bailey where the Lord had a comfortable hall and where there were houses for his soldiers and retainers and their families, stables for the animals as well as the various necessary service buildings, blacksmith, farrier, armourer, etc. In the case of sustained attack the whole countryside include villagers and their beasts could be taken into the bailey for protection and in dire necessity the whole would be withdrawn into the keep.
Originally because of the urgency needed to get them erected these structures were of wood but, as they were vulnerable to fire, quite soon the King insisted that they be built of stone. One of the first of these was the White Tower in the center of the Tower of London. These more substantial buildings soon became home to the Lord and his retainers. It is an axiom of military design that each improvement in design creates its own destruction as the attacker soon learns to overcome the latest technology.
Thus castle building became a never ending program of updating to create defensive protection. The keep had its own curtain wall with watchtowers.
These were originally built square but it was soon found that it was easy for an attacker to use the square shape to protect himself against defenders and also undermine the corners of the tower. A corner would be undermined and the whole area filled with wooden props to support it. Then pigskins filled with oil and fat would be placed in the cavity and ignited.
As the flames destroyed the props so the tower crumbled. An example of this can be seen at Rochester where the undermining of one square corner tower is quite clear before it was rebuilt as round tower.
Castle building grew apace and it became necessary to protect the original curtain wall with its own wall culminating in castles like the
Tower of London where there are several concentric rings. England became more settled and by the middle of the fifteenth century in Southern and
Middle England except for the King and powerful barons the smaller landowner had found that a more peaceful country made the castle unnecessary. He had had found the castle drafty, cold and uncomfortable and created 'fortified manor house'. This still had strong walls for defense but also had larger windows and more doors while the interior was of wood, rather than stone, to make the whole warmer and a less confrontational design. From then on we get the development of the 'stately home' and palace without any defensive capabilities and from these in turn produced the great Tudor mansions of which Hatfield House and Penshurst Place are typical and in which defense has no part. Peace was now assumed and the history of English castle building reached its end.
In the north of England it was not so easy and until the reign of
Henry VIII there were still border attacks. The castles remained strong and well defended until well into the sixteenth century. Thus for hundreds of years the Duke of Northumberland remained influential as much because of the soldiers he could muster as his personality.