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A History Of Castles

Stand on a beach and draw a magic circle around you in the sand, and you have a castle. Visit the Imperial War Museum London and you will see copies of Cold War era publications Protect And Survive, and Domestic Nuclear Shelters . Both books have a logo showing a family within a circle. In the face of nuclear war where little can be done to protect most people, we need as much magical protection as we can get. The circle design on Protect And Survive harks back to the earliest attempts by people to find security.

5000 years ago it seems that life in what is now Britain became more difficult. Geoffrey Wainwright in his book The Henge Monuments suggests that during those desperate days formerly cultivated land in Norfolk, Suffolk and Wessex became infested with weeds and scrub. It is possible that a preceding period of success in agriculture had led to soil exhaustion. Fighting over scarce resources became more common, and in some areas it seems a new trend in castle building began, by surrounding hilltops with ditches and banks. In other areas a different approach was taken. At places like Stonehenge and Avebury sacred sites were constructed, consisting, once again, of circular earth banks and ditches, often with representational circles of wooden uprights or standing stones. Many interpretations of these mysterious structures have been attempted, but thinking about them as part of the history of castles might, I suggest, be instructive. These spiritual sites sought security just as powerfully as castles. This is true even though symbolic circles of standing stones or ditches offered little more physical security than the circle on the cover of Protect and Survive. So many aspects of ritual sites mimicked castle sites. They both used circular banks and ditches. Castles would often have a palisade of wooden uprights on top of their earth banks. Ritual sites would mimic these uprights in their own symbolic wooden, or later stone, uprights.

The hill on which fortifications were built was also important in a religious sense. Hills had long been associated with refuge in times of crisis. They had also been long seen as spiritual shrines. The Hindus had their mythic Mount Meru, the Japanese revered the goddess Fujiyama, who dominated the landscape from Mount Fuji. And the Christians had Mount Sinai where Moses was given the ten commandments. With hills and mountains being spiritual places, it made sense to build artificial hills to celebrate the gods. The Egyptians did this with their pyramids, the people of Mesopotamia with their ziggurat, and the Maya with their temples at Uxmal and Chichen Itza. In England neolithic people built their own ritual hills, and a dramatic example can be seen as a huge mound built close to Avebury stone circle, known as Silbury Hill. Silbury mimicked hilltop fortifications in being nothing less than a hill itself in a stylised form. The close relationship of a ritual hill and a hilltop castle was demonstrated millennia after Silbury Hill's construction by its use during Saxon times as a fortification. Post holes on the top of the hill indicate that this stylised fort actually took the short step towards becoming an actual fort.

The final way in which ancient religious monuments mimicked castles was in the provision of processional ways leading towards them. Processional ways can be seen at Stonehenge and Avebury. In the words of walking historians Nicholas Rudd-Jones and David Stewart, the act of walking in a large group of people towards a monument would have been an "expression of togetherness and resolution" ( Pathways P31). What this really means is that the procession mimics an army on the move.

 

 

Maiden Castle

As circular sacred sites were developed and embellished, so the similar hilltop castles became more elaborate. This is particularly true of the Iron Age, around 500BC, when the advent of iron resulted in production of more formidable weaponry. Maiden Castle in Dorset, which began its history in the Neolithic period, became a huge castle in the Iron Age, and is a remarkable survivor from this time. It was at Maiden Castle that ancient Britons made one of their last stands against Roman invaders. And it was the Romans who were to change castle architecture, with their expertise in the use of masonry. One of the most impressive remains of a Roman Castle can be seen at Pevensey in East Sussex. But even after this great change the parallel between physical and spiritual security in castle building remained. The Romans established their first city in Britain at Colchester in Essex, and a vast Temple of Claudius was built there. During Boudicca's rebellion against Roman rule in AD60 the Roman population of Colchester barricaded itself inside the Temple of Claudius and used it as a castle. They held out for two days before their defences were overwhelmed.

 

 

 

 

 

Exeter Cathedral, with its castle-like towers and battlements

Once Christianity came to Britain, first during the later Roman period, and then after 597AD with the arrival of St Augustine, church architecture continued to take its lead from castle architecture. Early Saxon churches were built within the confines of Roman castles at Reculver and Richborough. In appearance the new Christian churches were nothing less than stylised castles. Have a look at virtually any church, and you will see towers, battlements, slit windows in the shape of a cross, through which people seeking spiritual security could fire their metaphorical arrows. Following on from the Saxons, the next great castle builders in Britain would be the Normans, who built castles all over Britain following their invasion in 1066. Initially there were strong echoes of the past in Norman castle design. Working quickly the Normans threw up huge mounds, called a motte, with a wooden fortification on top. The entrance at the bottom of the mound was defended by its own wooden fortification, called a bailey - echoes of Silbury Hill and the hilltop forts here. Norman mounds can still be seen, at Tonbridge, Oxford, Old Sarum, Arundel and Windsor amongst many others. The original wooden fortifications have of course gone, but an example has been recreated at Mountfitchet in Suffolk. A few of the earliest Norman castles were built in stone, such as Chepstow and Monmouth. And it wasn't long before the original wooden motte and bailey castles were all replaced by stronger stone structures. Interestingly some of the most important builders of castles at this time were also builders of churches and cathedrals. Bishops often played major military roles. Bishop Gundulf of Rochester, known to his contemporaries as "very competent and skillful in building in stone," built the royal castle at Rochester in Kent, beside the river Medway. He also built neighbouring Rochester Cathedral. Possibily Gundulf was also builder of the White Tower at the Tower of London, and the massive Colchester Castle in Essex, built, fittingly on foundations of the Temple of Claudius where Colchester's Roman inhabitants made their last stand against Boudicca in AD60.

 

 

Bodiam Castle, East Sussex

Castles then became more sophisticated. The late thirteenth and early fourteenth century king Edward I brought many dark secrets of effective castle building back from the Holy Land where he had been on Crusade. Edward built a number of castles in north Wales during his campaign to subdue the Welsh, and these were among the most advanced of their time. Some, such as Harlech were built as efficient fighting machines, whereas others, such as Caernarvon, were more symbolic in nature, demonstrating the impressiveness of Edward's power. It wasn't long before this symbolic impressiveness took over, to a large degree, from the actual military value of castles. Only a few decades after Edward I's death, castles were generally being built for their looks. Leeds Castle was valued for its beauty, and rather than being involved in any unpleasant fighting was given as a gift to a succession of medieval queens. In a similar vein, Sir Edward Dalyrigge, a soldier and a statesman, wanted an impressive house to reflect his status. As a loyal supporter of Richard II he was given permission to fortify his manor house at Bodiam in East Sussex. Once he'd got this permission, Sir Edward decided to build a completely new house down the hill from his old mansion, and this building became Bodiam Castle, completed in 1385. It was designed primarily to look beautiful and impressive, and it is rather like the gated, fortified mansions of today's Hollywood stars. Meanwhile further north the powerful Neville family had built lovely Raby Castle in County Durham. Raby was not a fighting castle, but a symbol of the family's power and wealth. This wealth was gained mainly in wars against the Scots. Fortifications involved in the actual business of warfare were utilitarian pele towers built further north. Raby is far too beautiful to have battles spoiling its romantic peace. As usual with castles there is an ambivalence about Raby. Religious buildings still shared architectural features with castles, and the peaceful, spiritual purpose of a church is not very far from the emotions that a beautiful castle like Raby can evoke. The similarities between the earliest circular ditch and earth bank castles, and the earliest ditch and earth bank religious sites, are still with us in castles like Raby.

 

 

Walmer Castle

Then into Tudor times in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the military, symbolic and religious nature of castles became ferociously intertwined. These were years of religious strife. To allow his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII had switched the religion of England from Catholicism to Protestantism. This led to short lived fears of invasion from catholic France and Spain. Although the threat of invasion was short lived, a huge building programme of shore line defence began in 1539. A chain of forts built along the south coast included Camber Castle in East Sussex, Walmer Castle, and Sandown Castle in Kent, Southsea Castle at Portsmouth, Hurst Castle and Portland Castle in Dorset, Calshott Castle at Southampton, Yarmouth Castle on the Isle of Wight and the sister fortifications of Pendennis Castle and St Mawes Castle in Cornwall. The functional appearance of these castles belies their largely symbolic role. The threat of invasion was brief, but the effect of changing a religion was explosive, and indeed aftershocks remain with us today, most clearly in Northern Ireland. Religions are designed to hold people together and maintain hierarchy and discipline. With a change of religion and the possibility of division, England needed to feel itself pulled together by the illusion of imminent invasion, which apparently could only be countered by building huge forts. The symbolism was taken further in the way stone from demolished monasteries was used to build Henry VIII's forts. The solid walls of these forts, almost all of which survive, is the physical manifestation of a struggle of ideas and beliefs. The south coast castles were not really built to face an external enemy. Instead they were designed to create a symbolism that would prevent religious divisions appearing from within.

 

 

Corfe Castle

Castles were also important in the next great age of national division, during the seventeenth century. The seventeenth century saw civil war as Parliament took on the royalist supporters of Charles I. Following the Civil War Parliament went to great lengths to destroy many castles. They did this because of what castles stood for, as much as to neutralise any military threat they now posed. Castles were the symbol of an old world of divinely appointed monarchs, which had now apparently passed. Windsor Castle was saved by only a single vote in Parliament, while beautiful castles such as Corfe in Dorset were systematically destroyed with explosives. And in many ways the age of the castle had passed. The rich were no longer building castles as symbols of their power. Since the reign of Elizabeth I society had been sufficiently stable for rich men to spend their money on beautiful houses, such as Longleat. Castle technology now seemed to have moved to the utilitarian. During Charles II's reign a huge fort was built at Tilbury beside the Thames east of London. And yet even in this rather bleakly utilitarian fortification there are same strange echoes of ancient spiritual sites where we started this journey: Most of the fortifications at Tilbury consist of earth banks.

 

 

 

 

Castle Drogo

Then as we come towards the modern age, with the concrete gun emplacements of twentieth century wars, we find even this type of architecture reflected in the fairy tale sentiment of castles. It is often said that the last castle to be built in Britain was Castle Drogo on Dartmoor. Castle Drogo was built not to protect any territory, but as a home for Julius Drewe, who retired a very wealthy man after running the Home and Colonial Stores. He wanted a castle to reflect his wealth, and hired a reluctant Edwin Lutyens to design it for him. Lutyens wanted to build a house, but Drewe insisted on a castle. So in 1910 land was purchased and work began. The design included traditional elements of castle design, such as towers and battlements; but it also included some modern concrete bunker chic, as can be seen in this photograph. Castle Drogo of course had no use as a military building, and was simply a show piece. But this was nothing new in castle design. Castles have always existed on a spectrum from functional fortification, to fairy tale kingdom. From the earliest castles symbolism has been as important as physical presence. Fascinatingly the "last castle in Britain" stands across a Dartmoor gorge from one of the very first castles in Britain. Drewe is supposed to have looked at the earth banks and ditches of the Iron Age Cranbrook Castle on Dartmoor, and decided that it should have a sister castle on the other side of the gorge. In this way he decided on his site for Castle Drogo. Ever since Cranbrook Castle was built thousands of years ago, castles have been contradictory structures. They have been places of war, and yet their architecture is reflected in the peaceful places we design in seeking spiritual security. Cathedrals have borrowed from their architecture. Bishops have found themselves building both cathedrals and castles. People have taken refuge in cathedrals, using their symbolic security, in just the same way that others have taken refuge in castles. Castle Drogo is no less a real castle in simply appearing as one.

 

 

View of the entrance to Dover Harbour from Admiralty Casement beneath Dover Castle

Seemingly castles are no longer useful to us. In the face of modern war their symbolism, and their physical defensive capabilities, seem pointless. During the twentieth century politicians and leaders began to take cover underground in hidden bunkers, such as the Cabinet War Rooms in London, or Scotland's Secret Bunker near St Andrews. At Dover Castle, a site of fortification since Roman times, an underground Cold War command centre was built. The rest of us meanwhile have had to make do with silly government publications with a cover picture showing a family inside a circle. And yet we still value castles. We visit them, feel romantic about them, spend money maintaining them. This is because, like churches, castles are spiritual symbols. The oldest building at Edinburgh Castle is not the huge castle building, which has been destroyed and rebuilt a number of times, but tiny St Margaret's Chapel. This nine hundred year old building was protected by its symbolism, expressed in tiny, stylised battlements on each end of its roof. The chapel used the symbolic power of the magic circle, and outlasted impressive castles around it. This might be reassuring for that poor little family in their circle on the front of Protect And Survive. And in the end, as we saw with St Margaret's Chapel, symbolism has a power that outlasts simple physical security. Perhaps I shouldn't feel so bad that while VIPs bury themselves in underground bunkers, I have a magic circle.

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