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3. The Castles of
the Conqueror


In 1066, as everybody knows, the Normans
invaded England.
That most engaging of all medieval sources, the Bayeux Tapestry, shows them
landing their horses at
in Sussex and racing
to occupy nearby Hastings, from where they will shortly set out to fight the
most famous battle in English history. Before that, however, they pause to have
an elaborate sit-down meal – barbecued chicken is on the menu – and attend to
their own protection. ‘This man’, says the caption above an important-looking
Norman holding a banner, ‘orders a castle to be dug at Hastings’, and to his
right we see nine other men, armed with picks and shovels, setting to do just

The Normans’
decision to erect a castle at the very moment of their arrival might not strike
us as particularly remarkable: after all, medieval warfare revolved around the
building and besieging of fortresses, and the English landscape of today is
liberally studded with their remains. But at the time of the invasion in late
September 1066 the Normans’ action was
startlingly novel, for prior to that point castles had been virtually unknown
in England.
The only exception was a tiny handful constructed a few years earlier by the
French friends of King Edward the Confessor. ‘The foreigners had built a castle
in Herefordshire’, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1051, ‘and had inflicted
every possible injury and insult upon the king’s men in those parts’. The fact
that he was reporting a new phenomenon is conveyed not only by the chronicler’s
palpable outrage at the Frenchmen’s behaviour, but also by his need to borrow
their word for the offending object: this is the first recorded use of ‘castle’
in English.

The Conquest that followed fifteen years later ensured it
would not be the last: the castle was the primary instrument by which the Normans stamped their authority on England. From
having almost none in the period before 1066, the country was quickly crowded
with them. According to one conservative modern estimate, based on the number
of surviving earthworks, at least 500, and possibly closer to 1,000, had been
constructed by the end of the eleventh century, barely two generations since
the time of the Normans’
initial landing.

Of course, England
had not been without defences before 1066: the pre-Conquest landscape
contained, among other things, Iron-Age hill forts, Roman legionary forts, and
the fortified towns built by the Anglo-Saxons themselves, known as boroughs or
. But all of these differed from what followed by
being large enclosures designed to protect large communities, including, in
some cases, non-military personnel. Castles, by contrast, were comparatively
small affairs, designed to be defended by a limited number of fighting men.
They had originated in France
around the turn of the first millennium as a result of the collapse of royal
and provincial authority, when power ultimately devolved to those who had the
means to build their own private fortifications and fill them with mounted

As well as being smaller, castles were also taller. Some of
the earliest French examples were great stone towers, such as the soaring
donjon at
on the River Loire, built by the
count of Anjou, around 1000 AD, and still impressive a thousand years on. But
the crucial thing about castles was that they could be created without the need
for such colossal investment. It was quite possible to obtain the same
advantage of height quickly and on a fraction of the budget by throwing up a great
mound of earth and topping it with a tower of wood. As every schoolchild knows,
such mounds were known from the first as ‘

The point about size and speed is reinforced by the Normans’ behaviour in England immediately after their
arrival. At
they created a castle by
adapting a Roman
and at Hastings by customizing an Iron-Age hill
fort, in each case hiving off a smaller section of the much larger original.
After their victory at Hastings, as they set
about crushing the remaining English resistance, they continued to act in
exactly the same manner, adding new fortifications to the ancient defences at Dover, and almost certainly creating the castle at Wallingford by destroying
a corner of the Anglo-Saxon borough. When, towards the end of 1066, the
citizens of London
at last submitted to William the Conqueror, his first thought was to plant a
castle in the south-eastern angle of the city – the site which would soon
become home to the Tower.

In the months and years that followed, the castle-building
campaign intensified. The Normans,
wept the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1067, ‘built castles far and wide throughout
the land, oppressing the unhappy people, and things went ever from bad to
worse’. Part of the reason for this intensification was the repeated attempts
by the English to throw off the rule of their conquerors. The southwest of England rose in revolt at the start of 1068,
apparently led by the surviving remnants of the
family, while in the summer of the same year there were similar risings in the
Midlands and northern England.
William methodically crushed them all, marching in with his army and planting
castles in major towns and cities. Exeter, Warwick, Nottingham, York, Lincoln, Cambridge and
Huntingdon all received new royal fortresses at this time, and further examples
were added in the years that followed: Chester
and Stafford in 1069–70, Ely in 1071 and Durham
in 1072. The northernmost outpost of Norman power was established in 1080 by
the Conqueror’s son, Robert, who planted a ‘new castle’ upon the River Tyne,
while William himself marked the western limit of his authority during an
expedition to Wales the following year, founding a new fortress in an old Roman
fort called Cardiff.

The foundation of castles, however, was far from being an
exclusively royal affair. William may have raised armies to quell major
rebellions, but the rest of the time he relied on other Normans to keep order in his newly conquered
kingdom. In the two decades after 1066, the new king rewarded his closest
followers with extensive grants of land in England, and the first act of any
sensible incoming lord was invariably to construct a castle. In some instances
it appears that these were planted on top of existing English
residences, so as to emphasize a continuity of
lordship. But in the majority of cases such continuity was lacking because the
process of conquest had caused the country’s existing
map to be torn up. Sussex,
for example, was sliced up into half-a-dozen new lordships, known locally as
rapes, which paid no heed whatsoever to earlier patterns of ownership. New
lordships required new castles, and the rapes were named in each case after the
fortresses that sprung up at Chichester, Hastings,
, Arundel, Lewes and

The reorganization of Sussex into continental-style,
castle-centred lordships seems
to have been a decision
determined by cold military logic. The county was the Normans’ initial beach-head, and also the
heartland. The rapes run north-south,
and their castles are all located near the coast, as if to keep the route
between London and Normandy secure.

In recent decades, however, the scholarly trend has been to
emphasize that castles had other roles beyond the military. The fact that they were
often sited so as to command road and river routes, for example, meant that
their owners were also well placed to control trade, and could both protect and
exploit mercantile traffic. We are also reminded that part of the reason for
building a castle could be symbolic. A great fortress, towering above
everything else for miles around, provided a constant physical reminder of its
owner’s power, a permanent assertion of his right to rule.

During the Conqueror’s reign, this was most obviously true in
the case of the three great stone towers the king himself is known to have
created at Chepstow, Colchester and (most famously) London. In each case these giant buildings,
the like of which England had not seen since the time of the Romans, have
strong Roman resonances, and were partially constructed using the stone from
nearby Roman ruins (not for nothing did twentieth-century scholars christen the
style ‘Romanesque’). Indeed, in the case of Colchester,
it is difficult to suggest a reason for the construction of so massive a
building beyond a desire to be associated with the town’s imperial past. There
are no reports of rebellions or military action in Essex at any point during
William’s reign; but the great tower he created in Colchester
was erected on the ruins of the town’s ruined Roman temple. The Conqueror’s
sycophantic biographer, William of Poitiers, draws frequent comparisons between
his royal master and Julius Caesar. To judge from buildings like Chepstow,
Colchester and the Tower
of London, it was a comparison
that the king himself was keen to cultivate.

At the same time, we need to guard against hyper-correction.
In recent years, it seems to me, the revisionist arguments about Norman castles
have been pushed too far, to the extent that some historians now come close to
arguing that they had almost no military function at all. Take, for example,
the castle that William the Conqueror caused to be built at Exeter in 1068. Its original gatehouse still
survives, and has been judged defensively weak because it was originally
entered at ground level. This may be so, but it takes a considerable leap to
conclude from this, as one historian has done, that the whole castle was
‘militarily ineffectual’. Much of the site has now vanished, but it occupied an
area of around 600 feet by 600 feet;
suggests that 48 houses were destroyed in order to make room for it. It was
built on the highest point in the town, and separated by a deep ditch and
rampart. Exeter fell to William in 1068 after a bitter three-week siege which
saw heavy casualties on both sides (and during which, if we believe the later
chronicler William of
, one of the English
defenders signalled his defiance by dropping his trousers and farting in the
king’s general direction). It beggars belief to suppose that the Conqueror,
having taken the city at such cost, would have commissioned a building that had
no military capability, and was concerned only with the projection of what has
been called ‘peaceable power’.

The notion that castles had little military purpose also
requires us to ignore the testimony of contemporary chroniclers. The
Conqueror’s biographer, William of Poitiers, repeatedly describes the castles
his master besieged on the Continent before 1066 using terms such as ‘very
strong’ or ‘virtually impregnable’, and such descriptions are borne out by the
fact that it took the duke months and in some cases years to take them. Yet
some scholars are curiously reluctant to allow that castles built in England after
the Conquest served a similar military purpose. The Conqueror’s great stone
tower at Chepstow, for instance, has been plausibly reinterpreted in recent
years as an audience chamber where the king or his representatives could
receive and overawe the native rulers of Wales. But the fact remains that it
was still a formidably tough building, situated high on a cliff above the River
Wye, and defended at each end by ditches cut deep into the rock. True, it does
not bristle with
, turrets and
machicolations, but then no castles did in this early period, because the
technology of attack was also primitive in comparison to what came later.
Without the great stone-throwing machines known as trebuchets, there was not
much an enemy at the gates could do, beyond mounting a blockade and trying to
starve a garrison into submission. In these circumstances, a well-situated and
well-stocked castle could be militarily decisive. In 1069 the people of Northumbria succeeded in taking Durham, massacring its newly arrived Norman
garrison who tried and failed to hold out in the hall of the local bishop. But
when the Northumbrians attempted to take the town for a second time in 1080,
they failed, because they were unable to take its new castle.

One of the remarkable things about the Norman Conquest was
how quickly the rift between the English and the Normans was healed. Within a
generation or two, it is possible to point to castles that did owe more to
ideas of peaceful living than military deterrence. But in the years immediately
after 1066, filled as they were with bloody rebellion and even bloodier
repression; when a few thousand Normans
lived among a population of two million English in the daily fear of violent
death: in these circumstances castles have to be regarded first and foremost as
military installations, introduced to subdue an unwilling population.
Unfashionable though it may be among castle scholars, there is every reason to
listen to the testimony of the half-English, half-Norman historian
, born in Shropshire within a decade of 1066,
attributed the success of Conquest to one factor above all others. ‘The
fortifications that the Normans
called castles’, he explains, ‘were scarcely known in the English provinces,
and so the English – in spite of their courage and love of fighting – could put
up only a weak resistance to their enemies’.


4. Castle
and the


Castle Acre, a wonderful little village in Norfolk, offers the most amazing
three-for-one deal.
A really splendid Norman fortress, so
impressive in scale that it could command attention all by itself.
A gorgeous priory, the best preserved example of its kind in England.
And, as if these two were not enough, there’s also a medieval town there too,
still discernible from the layout of its streets, its earth ramparts and a
well-preserved stone gate. As the new interpretative displays and audio tour of
the priory explain, it’s one of the best locations in Britain for
seeing how the forces of violence, religion and commerce combined in the Middle
Ages to shape the landscape that we see today.

We owe this concentration of quality sites to a family by the
name of
, so called because they originally
hailed from a town called
in Normandy. Like so many
men of those parts, the
backed the winning
horse in 1066. ‘My ancestors came with William the Bastard and conquered their
lands with the sword’, said one of
the their
some two centuries later, brandishing an ancient, rusty blade to prove his
point. It was
exclamation born of frustration with
the interference of royal government, but such conflict with the Crown was
exceptionally rare. The story of the
in fact, proof positive that the way to get ahead in
medieval England
was to swing a strong right arm in the service of the king.

The founder of the family’s fortune, and therefore putative
owner of the rusty sword, was William de
. One
of the Conqueror’s closest companions, he was at the front of the queue when
the spoils were being dished out. Extensive lands in Sussex
were given to him when he was barely off the boat, and he set about organizing
them around the town and castle
of Lewes. Other prizes
soon followed. By the time
Book was compiled
in 1086 William was the fourth richest individual after the king himself, and
owned estates in more than a dozen English counties. The overwhelming bulk of
them were concentrated in East
Anglia, and centred on what would become
known as Castle Acre.

Castles were, of course, one of the most striking innovations
that the Normans
introduced to the English countryside, and the earliest examples tended to be
built to a common-or-garden design. A great mound of earth raised the lord’s
residence high above its surroundings, and a larger, lower enclosure
accommodated his household and their horses. Such castles, as every schoolgirl
knows, we now call ‘

At first glance, the structure created by William de
at Castle Acre would seem to be a prime example of
this type. Initial appearances, however, can be deceptive. Archaeological
investigation has revealed that, whilst the bailey probably dates to William’s
time, there was originally no
at all. William
had instead settled for a much shallower, lightly defended enclosure, in the
middle of which he built a rather luxurious stone house (the foundations of
which can still be seen). It was only his later descendants, living through the
uncertainty of a civil war, who decided that a large mound of earth would be a
good idea after all. Castle Acre, therefore, presents a uniquely peculiar case,
-and-bailey without a
Curiously, and by contrast, William’s other castle at Lewes has not one
but two. One cannot help wondering if part of his
intention was to frustrate castle historians of the future.

Unconventional he may have been when it came to building
castles, but in all other respects William was a textbook Norman conqueror, a
warrior who carved out an empire for himself and ran it with ruthless
efficiency. Such men wanted not only glory but profit – hence, in part, the
need for a town at Castle Acre. They also needed to atone for a lifetime of
maiming and killing. In the 1080s William set off on pilgrimage to Rome, but in the event got no further than Burgundy and the great abbey of Cluny. Suitably inspired, he returned to England and founded two priories of his own, one
at Lewes, the other at Acre. As the earlier of
the two, Lewes had the greater claim on the
loyalties. When William died in 1088 – killed, appropriately, by an arrow-wound
sustained during a siege – he was buried there, as were all his later
descendants. But Lewes Priory suffered severely in later centuries, not least
from having a railway driven through its precinct. Castle Acre Priory, by
contrast, is a wonderfully well-preserved ruin, located in as serene a setting
as could be imagined. Visit on a fine day, and you’ll almost wish they were
still looking for new monks.

Shortly before his death, William de
was created earl of Surrey – a rare
distinction, and a final confirmation of his highly successful career. It was a
success replicated by his descendants who, over the next three centuries,
emulated his model of dynamic lordship and service to the Crown to maintain
their place at the top of society. But in the fourteenth century, the story
came to an abrupt end. John de
, seventh earl
of Surrey, was by no means incompetent either
as a soldier or as a politician, but his personal life was a disaster. His
marriage, forced on him by Edward I, was doomed from the start: he was not
quite twenty, his new wife not quite ten. But, since she was the king’s
granddaughter, the match proved hard to dissolve, and successive popes refused
to grant a divorce. The earl’s case was not helped by his notorious way with
the ladies: he had at least two mistresses, and later confessed to having had
an affair with his wife’s aunt, a decidedly loose-living nun. Earl John ended
his days living with
a certain
Isabella Holland,
referred to in his will as ‘my companion’. Through these various liaisons he
had at least six children, but none by his wife. Thus, when he died in 1347,
his vast estate passed by law to his legitimate but distant relatives. Castle
Acre, where generations of his family had kept company with kings, fell quickly
into ruin.
And so passed the
one of the greatest dynasties in medieval England, their fortune won with the
sword, but lost through lust and love.

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