A quick history of English castles

The world–which doesn’t include you and me, of course, since we’re way too smart for this–thinks it knows about English castles. They have big walls, lots of stones, men in tight pants, women in pointy hats, and Walt Disney off to one side saying, “Make the tower higher. And narrower. No narrower. And the moat–make that wider.”

Then you go stomping around England, you get your shoes muddy, and you follow some little sign that points toward a castle and find not a building with a high tower and a moat clean enough for ducks (and possibly a wandering hero) to paddle in, but a big mound of earth encircled by a dry ditch, and maybe a bit of wall but maybe not. You slog back to the sign and read it again just to be sure.

Yup, it said castle.

Welcome to castles before the Norman invasion.

Relevant photo: A bit of ruin from Corfe Castle, complete with tourists.

For centuries, whoever the British were at the moment (layers of invasion and migration meant the British weren’t always the same people and didn’t always call themselves British, but let’s keep things simple and pretend they did) had been using fortified hills to defend themselves against the enemy of the moment. They’re sometimes called hill forts and sometimes called castles.

Take Maiden Castle (from the Celtic Mai Dun, Great Hill), in Dorset, by way of example. It dates from 3000 BCE–the late Stone Age–and was extended and enlarged during the Iron Age.

An article on the BBC’s history website says that Bronze Age and early Iron Age hill forts don’t show much sign of having been permanent settlements. It speculates that they might have been used for gatherings, for trade, or for (the archeologist’s fallback explanation for anything that doesn’t make some other kind of sense) religious rituals.

By 450 BCE, many hill forts were going out of use but the ones that weren’t got rebuilt with multiple banks and ditches and complex entrances to make them harder to attack. And–big change here–the  settlements inside them became permanent. Around 100 BCE, in parts southern England, more hill forts were abandoned. The reasons aren’t clear but one possibility is that the tribal states has become more stable.

And then the Romans came and all the cards were shuffled and dealt out again, only this time the Romans got to make up the rules. I haven’t been able to find any information on whether the hill forts were any of any military use in fighting the Romans. One source tells a tale of Roman troops fighting a bloody battle against the Britons at Maiden Castle, but another source says it’s complete bullshit, although it’s maybe a little more diplomatic than that. What seems clear is that the Romans destroyed some hill forts (presumably because they still had a military value) and recycled others. At Maiden Castle, they built a temple. To the goddess of outdated military strategies.

In more or less 60 CE, when Boudicca led a rebellion, she took the battle to the Romans instead of plonking herself down on a hill fort and yelling. “I double dare you to come get me.” Not Boudicca. She burned London, Colchester, and Verulamium before they defeated her. She went down in history as a hero to Britons, to women who like a kick-ass heroine, and to people who admire names with multiple spellings. A short chat with Lord Google yielded not just Boudicca but also Boudica, Boudicea, and Boadicea. You almost can’t spell it wrong.

A few hundred years later, the Romans toddled off back to Rome and someone struck a gong to mark the beginning of the medieval era. Lord Google tells me that by 410 the last Romans had left England. He also says the medieval period started in the fifth century, neatly coinciding with the last Roman splashing his or her sandals through the surf to board the last ship, and ended in the fifteenth.

Thank you, Lord Google. I have left the usual offering of data at your door.

Would anyone living through the shift have known that the era had changed? Of course they would. Not only was there that gong, Walt was off to the side calling for costume changes. Shuck off those togas and the feathery helmets. I know, they do suit you, but they’ve got to go. Put on some chain mail and–oh, hell, it’s still early in the medieval period so throw in a bearskin or two. With the Romans gone, these people are half barbarians anyway.

The women? Oh, if tf they’re young, give them something floaty and long with about a six-inch waist. If they’re old, it doesn’t matter. Got any bearskins left?

So yes, the costumes changed and so did the military situation. The Celts, Angles, and Saxons looked at those hill forts and thought, Hmm, we could do something with those. For the Celts, they became a place to defend themselves against Anglo-Saxon invaders, For the Anglo-Saxons, they became a place to defend themselves against Viking invaders. For the Vikings, they became a damn nuisance.

The Anglo-Saxons also built walls around their towns, but they still weren’t anything Walt would recognize as a castle.

In the eleventh century, before the Norman invasion and when the Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor was still on the throne, a French-style castle, or possibly two, was built. A chronicler wrote in 1051, “The foreigners had built a castle in Herefordshire, and had inflicted every possible injury and insult upon the king’s men in those parts.”

What the insulting foreigners built was new enough that the Anglo-Saxon chronicler had to borrow a French word for it.

You wouldn’t think an eleventh-century chronicler, writing with a quill, would have a website, would you? Follow the link above, though, and you’ll see how wrong you were.

Then the Normans invaded and built castles all over England. Or if you want to think of it this way, they introduced a new, French technology: the castle as those of us who saw too many Disney movies know it.

Sort of. Because these places weren’t the elegant palaces of Disney dreams. They were heavy on military might and short on romance, especially at first. William granted land and lordships to his followers and the new lords built castles to solidify their hold on their land and to keep their subjects subjected.

Their subjects? They were at the very least grumbly about the change and in places were armed and dangerous.

A lot of the earliest castles were no more than wooden stockades on earthen mounds, and the mounds were sometimes borrowed from an existing hill fort. The Normans were a few thousand fighters in a country of 2 million conquered people and they faced multiple rebellions. They didn’t have time to build anything elaborate. 

Within a couple of generations, the Normans had built between five hundred and a thousand of castles. And within roughly the same amount of time, the rebellions were over.

When time allowed, the wooden castles were rebuilt in stone.

Much later, when England conquered Wales, it followed the same pattern: Conquer, plant a castle, water it with fighting men, and when the inevitable rebellions grow, cut them down.

But let’s go back to the ways the new castles on English soil were different from what came before. HIll forts covered a large piece of land and were meant to defend a whole community. The French castle was smaller and taller and was meant to filled with fighters. Not only didn’t they defend the community, initially at least they defended against the community.

They were often built on important roads and rivers, where they could protect trade as well and, just incidentally, allow the lord to control and profit from it.

They were also symbolic, saying, I can build big and I can tower over everything and who do you think you are, you ant? That symbolism was meant to be taken in not only by the Britons but also by other Norman lords–the castle builder’s rivals for power–and by the king. A lord wouldn’t convince anyone he was powerful unless he had a powerful castle, and to prove that his was bigger than everyone else’s he had people pile rock on top of rock to create a cold, giant shell where he could dispense what passed for justice to the lower orders and entertain (which is to say, impress) his near-equals.

That is as depressing as it is predictable. It reminds me of high school. If you didn’t have the right clothes, you were no one. Fortunately, no one in my school had a castle. Or a sword. Those of us who were of the female pursuasion did have tights, using either the British or the American definition. 

What’s the difference? What the British call tights, Americans call pantyhose. They’re sheer things that you wear over your feet and legs and they get runs (which the British call ladders) when you most want them not to. And they go up to the waist. Also (at least as I remember from a hundred or so years ago, when I last wore them) they’re a perfect match for the world’s least comfortable clothes.

What Americans call tights the British also call tights. They’re the same thing but not sheer, and they’re heavier an usually black. They don’t run. Because they’re more practical, they’re less acceptable in formal situations, because formality demands misery. If you don’t want to wear them but sill need to impress someone, just build a very high stone wall around a patch of land the king’s given you.

Nobody who lived in a castle ever wore tights because the fabrics that makes them possible and technology to do something with it hadn’t been invented.

If you’re interested in castles April Munday, of A Writer’s Perspective, has a series of posts on the various elements of the castle–the gate, the hall, the tower, and so forth–covering not only what they looked like but what role they played. They’re well worth your time. The link is to one of them. From there, you’ll have to wander around and find the others. I don’t think she has a separate post on tights, but she did once tell me, in answer to a comment I left, that men of the period wore tight–I think they called them hose. Tight trousery things over their legs, which Americans would call pants-y things. And yes, movies aside, they would’ve bagged at the knee.  

71 thoughts on “A quick history of English castles

  1. A fascinating piece, and a very enjoyable read. Having been born and brought up in Dover I was introduced to an English castle from an early age. As you say, earlier earthworks on high ground often gave way to a castle, as in Dover’s case. At least all those early tourists who had been arriving uninvited for centuries left us something worthwhile!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, Ellen! Castles… you start off with one of my favourite romantic ruins (when seen from a distance, preferably at sunset or in a light mist, not close up in the rain!), move on to the last place I ran downhill at great speed without being terrified. You don’t detail all the other castles I’ve ever visited because that would be TOO MANY! Especially if you covered North Wales because that’s where the man who wrote this (link below) book (and illustrated it and did the cover artwork) a VERY long time ago) took me during the school holidays. He was a schoolmaster then headmaster in his spare time. Oh, and my dad :-) https://www.amazon.com/DISCOVERING-CASTLES-Walter-Earnshaw/dp/B0028UJU5Q

    Liked by 1 person

    • Now that’s the way to see castles, with someone who loves them. And you. And who knows about them.

      You’re right of course: The only reason I didn’t cover all the ones you’ve visited is because the list’s too long.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve always been interested in ancient castle origins — not interested enough to do research myself, mind you — so imagine my appreciation at your taking it on. And with such formality and seriousness to boot. Which makes me think of the tights and hose and leggings worn under those castler’s boots.
    Really enjoyed this post, Ellen!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I just love walking the dog up at the earthworks bury not far from us Ellen, at Warbstow. Fantastic views from up there and the history of the place strikes me every time I’m up walking on the man made banks/walls. If anyone was on their way to have either a quiet, or noisy, word with you could probably see them coming for about a week before.

    It is definitely one of those that Disney would have no interest in though, so far back in history that I don’t think they had worked out much more than how to push all the earth up into roughly wall shaped piles.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve been enjoying April’s posts, but you’re right, nothing about tights. Setting out to see s castle and finding a heap of dirt ands dry ditch would be disappointing to say the least. I can find those things here in the states. Maybe I should find one, name it and charge admission

    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. My understanding, from a History Channel episode, is that tights were originally developed to prevent chafing from riding horses. They more resembled nylons than tights as they were two separate legs with nothing to attach them (technology thing), held in place by what could most be called a tourniquet, because it was tied tight to hold them in place (no elastic bands).

    When I was in England (Midlands) I did a hike advertised as passing by on of Robin Hood’s hideouts. Most American’s would be surprised (though I doubt Brits would (hope Brits isn’t a derogatory term, no offense meant)) at what it looked like, though seeing it it made a great deal of sense. Little more than a cove inside an outcropping, but with a good command of the land below, and plenty of time to skedaddle if the good Sheriff’s men came in sight.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You just solved a puzzlement I’ve had since I can’t remember when:
    “formality demands misery”. In three simple words you summed up why I was subjected to so much misery for far too many years.
    Magnificent post, as usual.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I love castles, the older and more ruined the better. I recall on my first visit to the UK (from Canada) in 1977 when we drove by a pile of stones and rubble and I squealed with delight and asked my soon to be (British) father-in-law to stop so I could take pictures. He said, “Oh, that’s just a ruin. No need to stop. We have better things to show you.” I was so disappointed. This was a great post. Found it on Senior Salon.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. There are more, fallen or pushed castles than we could shake a stick at. I was led to believe that leg covering; like we wear as tights, came in to stop horsemen chaffing and armour was cold ao kept them warm too. A very informative post. I came from Esme Salon nice to connect with you.

    Liked by 1 person

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