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Daniel Taylor

Castle Wanted

A sumptuous history of the English castle.

"A man's home is his …." That the overwhelming majority of English-speaking adults can complete that sentence is testimony to the place that castles continue to hold in the Western imagination, centuries after they lost their utility as fortresses. (William Blackstone, in his famous 18th-century commentaries on England law, observed: "the law of England has so particular and tender a regard to the immunity of a man's house, that it stiles it his castle.") Castles become part of our imaginative and literal vocabulary when we are very young and remain potent symbols with wide-ranging associations thereafter. And then there are real castles (the definition of a Real Castle being rather controversial), which actually turn out to be more interesting and varied than our imagined ones.

One could not ask for a better guide to the theory, structure, and political and social milieu of the castle in the country that English speakers most associate with castles than John Goodall's The English Castle, 1066-1650. Goodall's sweeping overview—a combination of architectural, political, socio-economic, ecclesiological, and cultural history—is learned but not discouragingly academic, engaging recent scholarship (and frequently challenging received opinion) while at the same time offering a very accessible discussion of all things castle. While this seven-pound book would look good on a (sturdy) coffee table—a visual feast with its hundreds of superb photographs, maps, charts, cut-aways, diagrams, and drawings—it seeks to bridge the gap the author laments between the popular view of castles (perpetuated by "the heritage industry and television") and the sober treatises of narrowly focused scholars.

I write not as a castle scholar but as an unrepentant tourist who has been to roughly thirty of the several hundred castles and quasi-castles Goodall covers (many in detail) from a 600-year period. Like many of the lightly educated, I tended to lump most of them into a single large category—castle—thinking them primarily a matter of similar walls, towers, dungeons and a few too many spiraling steps. Seen one, seen them all. This book is a corrective for obtuse travelers like me, filled with illuminating discussion and delightfully queer facts.

Castles have always been linked to power and prestige, one reason they continued to be built long after the means had been developed to knock them down. That power was political and social, but also economic. Goodall wants to disabuse us of the notion that castles were primarily about war and battles. One definition of "castle" is a fortified residence of a lord, and of course fortifications were crucial. But, as today, the existence of an imposing fortification could discourage violence as well as elicit it, and castles were not primarily sites of battle but rather centers of social worlds.

Major castles required hundreds of skilled people to tend them, much like a great warship requires a large and experienced crew. These included the chamberlain (in charge of maintaining the appropriate ceremony and "magnificence" expected of a castle), the steward (the practical manager, seeing especially to the distribution of food), the clerics (attending to the celebration of the Mass and, as literate men, helping with records and accounts), guards and military personnel, and then a small army of servants of all kinds, each major room of the castle often having its separate staff (who usually slept in the same room at night that they served in the day).

Those were just the people who served mainly on the inside. Outside were stable workers, gardeners, field laborers, hunters, carters, and so on. If it was a royal castle with a monarch present, the staffs were of course much larger, with the addition of a chancellor (political advisor and chief of staff), a retinue of attending lords jockeying for favor, and all those necessary to arrange and execute hunts, tournaments, often extravagant entertainments, hosting of visiting dignitaries, and the like. When castles were built, villages and towns and sometimes cities grew up around them—and always religious establishments of some sort (bishops often built their own castles). A castle was the sun in a solar system, in a galaxy at the center of which sat the king (except Elizabeth I) in his own castle.

If you weren't on good terms with the monarch, you didn't get (or get to keep) a castle. (And "from 1066 to 1640 a nobleman without a castle was like a knight without a horse.") Kings handed out castles like kids' sports teams hand out trophies, only more selectively. More precisely, a king gave you permission to build a castle (at your own expense), because in the Middle Ages controlling who got to erect a castle and where was crucial to controlling a kingdom. (It also helped the king's pocketbook, because while he gave you permission, he sold you the license to build, often at a steep price.) Furthermore, if the king didn't like how you ran things (or perhaps thought you a threat), he could take your castle from you, because technically all castles belonged to the crown.

Though castles were crucial to the economic life of rich and poor alike, the common person did not always feel blessed by their presence, especially in times of great turmoil and conflict. As one 12th-century monk wrote:

[E]very powerful man made his castle and held them against the king; and they filled the land with castles. They greatly oppressed the wretched men of the land with castle-work; then when the castles were made, filled them with devils and evil men. Then both by night and by day they seized those men whom they imagined had any wealth, common men and women, and put them in prison to get their gold and silver, and tortured them with unspeakable tortures …. These things we suffered for nineteen long years for our sins and they said openly that Christ and his angels slept.

Castles could help bind a kingdom together; they could also help destroy it.

The abundant information on castle life, weapons, tournaments, heraldry, entertainments, and so on is a great strength of English Castles, but since it describes itself as primarily a book on architecture, I will turn to its treatment of the actual design and construction of castles. Goodall takes us from the familiar motte and bailey castle (estimating that it took around 24,000 man hours to heap up the dirt motte on which the fortified bailey could sit) through various major periods of castle design (often paralleling developments in church construction); then to the 16th and 17th centuries, when the line between castles and grand domestic homes using a castle architectural vocabulary became blurred (and even rich merchants could play in the game); and finally to the end of major castle building with the English Civil War of the mid-17th century.

Actually, castles usually weren't called castles in England in the Middle Ages (about a thousand had been constructed by the year 1200, mostly in timber, half in the decade after the 1066 conquest alone). Among the variety of words—almost all foreign—used to describe such imposing structures were burghe, castro, and, clearly source words, castelle and castellum. (Word lovers will delight in discovering many word histories in the book—from latrine/necessarium to donjon/dungeon to parlour to chivalry to diapering.)

The basic idea of all castle design was to keep attackers separated from defenders, while giving an advantage to the latter. Some of the most inventive minds in the kingdom devoted themselves to this ever evolving task, hence a continually developing panoply of ditches, moats, walls, towers, parapets, arrow loops, keeps, barbicans, and so on. One finds a similar ceaseless development in weaponry of attack and defense: longbows, crossbows, siege towers, catapults, muskets, cannons, and the like.

Because the evolution of castles was endless, there are great differences between castles of various periods—not at all "seen one, seen them all" (though they often structurally quote one another, as one writer quotes another). And Goodall not only describes these differences in detail, but shows them with the many excellent photographs and other visual renderings. We move from walls surrounding a single great tower to multiple towers embedded in the walls and anchoring its corners, from wood to stone to brick, from right angles to diverging angles (the better to deflect incoming stones or cannon balls), from layouts for the living quarters that have "a strict sequence" of one room opening to another (each one further removed from the outside) to more modern layouts in which a single room interacts with surrounding rooms with multiple connections (especially as the castle morphs into the grand house with castle-like features—such as Hengrave Hall at Bury St. Edmunds, a place I twice lived in for a few months).

Speaking of the domestic rooms of castles, Goodall makes clear (as others have) how little the idea of private space obtained in medieval castles, even for the nobility. There were withdrawing rooms that allowed one to get away from the often chaotic great hall, but these would usually have their own servants to wait on the lord or lady. Even bedrooms were places where meetings and audiences took place, sometimes with the lord or king lounging on his bed (the castle's single most expensive piece of furniture). One might not even be alone in the latrine, because in royal households the king would be attended by "the groom of the privy stool," a position filled by a nobleman and much desired, because he had the king's ear at a private time. Perhaps "the first truly private spaces in English domestic life" were small enclosures, called closets, with openings onto the chapel in which the head of the castle could sit alone and watch the performance of the Mass.

Goodall covers the developments in castle architecture and life from the pre-Conquest fortress (whether England had any true castles before 1066 is debated) through the Gothic and Perpendicular style to the Renaissance castle. He persuasively rejects the view that the importance of castles ended with the Middle Ages—that castles were more decoration than substance in the supposedly new world of the Tudors, especially Henry VIII and his heirs. Much in the new age was not new at all. Castles still carried enormous prestige and were integral to the machinations of crown and country right up to the English Civil War.

Another popular notion that Goodall wishes to debunk is that castles became almost irrelevant militarily because of technological advances in offensive weapons. The first great weapon that could threaten castle walls (along with undermining) was the catapult (an object of fascination to young boys and girls to the present day). Catapults were made primarily of wood, and not a single verifiable fragment of one remains. But we do have quite a few catapult stones, some of which measure twenty inches in diameter ("Heads up, incoming!").

As devastating as heavy stones (and later cannon balls) could be to defenses and defenders, they were effective in defense as well as attack. Castle defenders used catapults as much as attackers did—for instance at Kenilworth, where in 1266 defenders destroyed with a catapult an attacking timber siege tower big enough to hold 200 men with crossbows. More important, it was enormously expensive to own and operate such weapons and to conduct a prolonged siege. That a type of weapon could in theory, and in some instances did in practice, overcome traditional castle defenses did not mean that it happened very often. Most attackers did not have access to such weapons, and most castles that did capitulate did so for political reasons or from being conventionally overmatched rather than because of some superweapon.

This is not to say that people were not in awe of great weapons. Powerful catapults or cannons were given nicknames, such as "the Parson" and "the Vicar," and their use created a great spectacle. Edward I personally conducted a three-month siege of Scotland's Stirling Castle in 1304, building a viewing deck for the queen and her ladies to watch the action in comfort. He used many catapults and constructed a huge battering ram, but his great love was "the war wolf" (lupus guerrae), a "leviathan stone-throwing machine [that] took fifty men and five master carpenters more than a week to assemble." Unfortunately for Edward, the castle surrendered before assembly was complete. Undeterred, Edward refused to accept the surrender and ordered the Scots to stay in the castle until he could at least test-fire his wonderful weapon, after which he accepted their capitulation. (Boys and their toys.)

The English Castle is larded with such tasty bits, and Goodall is a fine, efficient storyteller. He deftly creates scene after scene in English political and castle history, from William the Conqueror arriving in England with a pre-fab castle to set up by the beach in 1066, to Edward III dressing up as a pheasant at a Christmas banquet in the 14th century, to the "blockbuster diplomatic" extravaganza surrounding the 1520 meeting of Frances I of France and England's Henry VIII (the latter housing himself in a temporary castle-like palace made of timber, brick, and canvas).

Some of the stories describe great violence (cutting off the feet of defeated castle defenders) or great extravagance, as with Elizabeth I's reception at Kenilworth Castle in 1575: picture a floating, torchlit island in the lake; the Lady of the Lake declaiming in verse that not since King Arthur had a royal figure enticed her to surface (English royalty was much taken by and eager to be identified with all things Arthurian, and created many a spectacle or tournament with that theme); eight-foot tall royal trumpeters (presumably on stilts) blowing five-foot-long silver trumpets; royal gifts laid upon the bridge to the castle with classical themes (a different gift at each of its 14 posts, supposedly given by Jupiter)—not to mention lots of singing, dancing, drama, music, artillery salutes, and fireworks. And this was only the initial welcome; things picked up a bit during the 17 days of Elizabeth's visit (300 separate dishes at one banquet). No wonder that entertaining a monarch at one's castle, as one was expected to do, could bankrupt a mere lord.

For all the stories of building and battle and politics and pomp, there is one story that I will let represent a pronounced feeling I had by the end of 500 pages and 600 years of English castles. That feeling was a mild melancholy at the uncertain outcome of enormous human effort and the brevity of strength and fame even of the most successful. Goodall cites a contemporary description (by Orderic Vitalis) of the scene following the moment of death of the greatest castle builder of them all, William the Conqueror:

[T]he wealthiest of them mounted their horses and departed in haste to secure their property. Whilst the inferior attendants, observing their masters had disappeared, laid hands on the arms, the plate, the linen, and the royal furniture, and hastened away, leaving the corpse almost naked on the floor of the cell.

Castles sometimes last for centuries (though most do not), but human lives are fleeting and much given to trouble.

Daniel Taylor's most recent book is Creating a Spiritual Legacy: Sharing Your Stories, Values and Wisdom (Baker). More information on him can be found at wordtaylor.com

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