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Colonel John Birch (1615-91) could boast an impressive CV –
war-hero, politician, sometime wine-merchant – but he might well have failed an
interview with English Heritage, especially had he been quizzed about Goodrich
Castle. ‘I humbly conceive it is useless,’ he wrote to parliament in 1646, ‘and
a great burden to the country’. As his letter to the house made abundantly
clear, the colonel was all in favour of having the castle pulled down.

We may be thankful that his advice was not followed: Goodrich
still stands today, perched high above the banks of the River Wye in
Herefordshire, and is one of the finest properties in
care. At the same time, one has to sympathize somewhat with Birch’s destructive
urges, for in 1646 the castle had given him an awful lot of trouble. That year
had seen the conclusion of the English Civil War (the first one, at any rate),
during which the colonel and his Parliamentarian comrades had spent a great
deal of time and effort trying to wrest control of Goodrich, and other castles
like it, from the hands of their royalist opponents.

To tackle Goodrich itself, Birch had
not only been forced to deploy the usual array of trenches, tunnels and cannon;
in addition, he had also been obliged to have a new weapon, nicknamed Roaring
Meg, made especially for the occasion. A squat little tub of malevolence, Meg
was not a cannon but a mortar-piece, designed to lob 200lb grenades over the
castle’s walls and amongst its defenders. Unsurprisingly, once she had been
finished and brought out to play, the garrison at Goodrich soon decided it was
time to surrender.

Having gone to such lengths, Birch and
his colleagues were anxious not to have to repeat the experience, and saw
pulling down castles as the answer to their problem. Unfortunately for them,
however, but luckily for us, outright demolition also proved to be problematic,
owing to the time and costs involved. In the end the Parliamentarians had to
content themselves with partial destruction – a process they called
‘slighting’. Castles that were slighted had their defensible parts knocked down
or undermined so that they could not be held in future. Such was the fate of
Goodrich, which is why it still stands today, albeit in ruins.

Goodrich, of course, was not a new building when Birch and
Meg began smashing it up in 1646. Like the vast majority of castles, it was
established in the late eleventh century, in the wake of the Norman Conquest.
Unfortunately, little is known about its actual beginnings. How it came to
acquire its distinctive name is pretty clear: a documentary reference of 1102
reveals that this was once ‘
Castle’, and
himself is named as the local landowner in the
Book (compiled 1086). Who he was, however, and
what his castle looked like, is altogether more mysterious: this is
only brush with the historical record, and nothing
survives of the castle’s original structure. The mystery is rendered all the
more perplexing by the fact that name ‘
’ would
appear to indicate we are dealing with Englishman. Precisely how an Englishman
came to be holding a castle in Herefordshire in the immediate aftermath of the
Norman invasion would have been a story well worth hearing.

But no matter: whatever once stood at Goodrich, the building
that stands today is unquestionably finer and has better tales to tell. Apart
from its twelfth-century keep – a splendid building, but of uncertain
sponsorship – the castle is chiefly the work of William de Valence, one of the
most powerful and controversial magnates to have lived in thirteenth-century England.

owed his
existence, in a fundamental sense, to King John, who in October 1216 obliged
his wife Isabella of
and the rest of
subjects by dropping dead. No sooner was the king in his tomb than the queen
had abandoned England
and with it her children by her late, unloved husband. Isabella returned to her
homeland in France,
remarried and had more children – nine more, to be precise. Valence was one of the youngest.

As for his career in England,
Valence owed
that to King John’s son, Henry III. In 1247, Henry invited his young
half-brother to cross the Channel and gave him the hand of a rich heiress,
thereby making him the owner of vast estates – including Goodrich Castle.
Unfortunately, the king’s indulgence also extended to turning a blind eye to
Valence’s excessively violent behaviour, which so angered the rest of the
aristocracy that it eventually helped trigger a constitutional crisis – the one
usually associated with Simon de Montfort. It was, indeed, Montfort himself who
told Valence in
1258 ‘make no mistake about it: either you lose your castles, or you lose your

So Valence wisely chose to
forsake Goodrich Castle and go into exile, though only
for a short time. His saving grace was his close friendship with Henry
son, Edward, later to become the formidable Edward I,
who was able to make good use of his half-uncle’s penchant for violence. Valence fought with
Edward at the Battle of Evesham (where Montfort met his end), accompanied him
on crusade, and assisted the king in the most successful military enterprise of
his reign – the Conquest of Wales.

It is the Conquest of Wales that provides the most likely
context for Goodrich’s reconstruction, although not in the obvious way that one
might imagine. To subjugate his new territories, as is well known, Edward I
built a string of celebrated castles – Conwy, Caernarfon,
being the most spectacular. His leading
magnates followed suit, constructing new castles of their own or upgrading
existing ones. In many cases, though, this massive aristocratic investment in
stone was less about improving military security, and more about keeping up
with the Joneses. Goodrich shares many architectural similarities with its near
neighbour at Chepstow, rebuilt in the last decades of the thirteenth century by
Valence’s contemporary, the earl of Norfolk. Neither man was
really expecting much in the way of trouble from the already vanquished Welsh.
But, with everyone’s attention focused on Wales, they were anticipating
having to spend a lot more time in the region, with their great households in
tow. The pressure was on to outdo each other, to entertain each other, and –
occasionally – to entertain the king.

striking about Goodrich,
therefore, is not so much its strong stone walls as the wealth of luxury
accommodation crammed within them. You’ll find many more window seats,
fireplaces and toilets than you will arrow-loops. Indeed, with its
well-preserved ‘solar’ of private apartments, and its chapel, complete with
recently restored stained-glass windows, Goodrich possesses one of the
best-preserved interiors of any thirteenth-century English castle. It’s not so
much of a fortress; more of a stately home with attitude.

For those who demand their history grisly, however, Goodrich
can now boast an additional bonus. In 2003, having languished for many years
outside a local museum,
Meg returned. The last
surviving mortar-piece of the English Civil War, she sits today within the
courtyard of the castle she was specially created to ruin. To those unaware of
her past, she must seem an unassuming object, no more terrifying than a cement
mixer or a water-butt. But the ghosts of Goodrich Castle
know better, and remember the sound of her roar.


and the


If you want to imagine yourself in the
guise of a medieval warrior – and, let’s face it,
doesn’t – there are few better places to visit than
in Suffolk.
Approach as if to attack, and you are confronted with one of the most
impressive and impregnable-looking fortresses in England: a mighty ring of stone
walls, thirteen metres high, surrounded by a broad, deep ditch. Twelve
surviving towers stand taller still, and are amply supplied with arrow-loops.
Make no mistake about it: this is a fantastically tough old building, designed
in expectation of trouble.

To say that this is a veritable and
venerable fortress, however, is to tell only a small part of its story. Inside
those giant walls, the only structure that stands today is a
seventeenth-century poorhouse. Now home to the local museum, it’s a building
well worth visiting in its own right, with a harrowing history that once
reduced the normally flinty Jeremy
to tears.
Medievalists, meanwhile, lament the fact that it was ever built at all, for its
stones were salvaged from the castle’s original interior. As a result, the
casual observer now has a highly distorted view of
one which reinforces the traditional misapprehension that castles were all
about fighting, battlements and boiling oil. The reality was, of course, very

was established by the
, a family
who came to England with
William the Conqueror in 1066 and quickly established themselves as the most
powerful barons in East Anglia
– a position officially acknowledged in the middle of the twelfth century when
they were invested as earls of Norfolk.
A cursory glance at the history of these men suggest
that they liked nothing better than a scrap with England’s kings. Earl Hugh
(d. 1177), for instance, unsuccessfully challenged
Henry II, with the result that the original
Castle, a conventional earth-and-timber
structure, was torn down by royal command in 1174. The present castle was built
by Hugh’s son and successor, Roger (d. 1221), to proclaim that the
were back in business – and ready to challenge King
John, who laid siege to the castle in 1216. But in actual fact, the
, like most medieval magnates, almost always worked
in partnership with the Crown.
was hardly
ever used as a fortress (even the so-called ‘siege’ of 1216 lasted less than 48
hours). It was, on the contrary, a place where power was expressed in a very
different way – through benign local lordship, conspicuous consumption and
luxurious living.

Ironically, a fantastic snapshot of ordinary, everyday life
has been preserved because of the
desperate, extraordinary decision taken by the last of the
line. In 1297, at the end of a long but fairly unremarkable career, Earl Roger
IV led a movement of popular resistance against the indomitable Edward I, whose
government was widely deemed to have become unjust and oppressive. Although he
met with considerable success, the earl was bankrupted by this stand, and so
ended up having to cut a deal with the king. In return for an annuity for the
rest of his life, Roger agreed to make Edward his heir. Accordingly, when the
earl died a few years later, his vast estate in England,
Wales and Ireland –
Castle included – passed to the Crown.
And so too did all his estate accounts, some 650 neatly written
rolls of parchment, which survive to this day in the National Archives at Kew.
It is these documents which permit a unique
glimpse into the earl’s private affairs, and a window through which we can look
at life inside

Roger himself was only occasionally in residence. Medieval
magnates, like modern rock stars, were forever on tour. Nevertheless, in the
earl’s absence, the castle did not stand idle. It was from here that his
officials oversaw the workings of the entire
administration in East
Anglia, and it was to here that money
generated on other manors was sent to be kept in the treasury.
was also an agricultural centre in its own
right: the account rolls reveal all manner of produce being farmed, ranging
from the expected (dairy, poultry, sheep and cattle) to the surprising (regular
wages and robes were given to the earl’s vintner for tending his vineyards).
Periodically there were visits from members of the earl’s own household: his
knights came to hunt venison or to track falcons in the adjacent park; his
accountants to check every bushel and barrel, even as they themselves consumed
large quantities of fancy foodstuffs.

When the earl himself was due to arrive, the administration
went into overdrive. Roger typically travelled with around fifty people in tow,
and the castle had to be brought rapidly up to speed to cater for this
entourage. Produce and provender poured in from the outlying manors. Deer were
driven from the park, beer was brewed and bread baked. At Easter 1286 it was
even necessary to bring in extra crockery from
some twenty miles away. Equally as important, the buildings in the castle had
to be cleaned, repaired and, where necessary, rebuilt. The full extent of the
castle’s vanished interior stands revealed in the rolls. We read of service
buildings, such as the
, larder and kitchen,
and accommodation, including the chambers of the earl, his steward, his knights
and his servants.

The most important building of all was the castle’s hall. It
was here that the earl and his household were wined, dined and entertained.
Originally located on the eastern side of the courtyard, the hall was moved to
face west when the castle was rebuilt around the year 1200, and this move reflects
a corresponding shift in the
’ domestic
priorities. To the west of the castle, the ground falls away until it reaches a
great lake or mere. This
was a man-made
feature, a piece of medieval landscaping. Of course, it could have helped to
defend the castle, but its primary purpose was to provide dramatic effect. From
afar, the castle’s appearance is greatly enhanced by its own reflection. From
within, the views to the west are spectacular, which explains the relocation of
the hall. The mere also provides the backdrop to the so-called

Lower Court
, a
levelled area directly below the hall, almost certainly created as a private
enclosure for the earl and his family.
Whether in the hall or
the garden, the
and their guests could watch
the sun setting across the water as they dined and relaxed.

Such was the normal life at
during its thirteenth-century heyday. It was not a place that the
used to confront their kings, but rather to welcome
them. In 1256 Roger’s predecessor threw open his doors to Henry III, and Roger
himself played host to Edward I in 1277 (sadly, a year for which no accounts
exist). The earl died a peaceful death at
in 1306 and, under the terms of his agreement with Edward, his dynasty drew to
close. It seems only fitting, on the seven-hundredth
anniversary of the family’s eclipse, that we remember their main castle as it
really was. Mount the walls at
exercise your imagination, but bear in mind that the sight of an advancing army
would have been almost as surprising for the
as it would be for us today. Picture instead a ‘landscape of lordship’: men
fishing in the mere and felling trees, knights hunting in the park; carpenters
and masons, glaziers and gardeners, all seeking to beautify the castle and its
surroundings; carts creaking across the drawbridge, laden with building
materials, fine foods and bags of money. A peaceful panorama, but a busy one,
animated by the news that the earl was riding towards
eagerly anticipating the comforts and pleasures to be had within.

BOOK: Kings and Castles
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