Britain’s castles and their role in the Middle Ages

Dagmar Janíková

All of you have surely visited many castles. However, have you ever thought of their function? Writing the thesis has helped me consolidate my beliefs about castles, particularly what functions they had. I could explore adventures, struggles and ambitions of characters like William the Conqueror, Henry II and Edward I, whose ambitions are reflected in the castles they built. Their castles, unlike most other buildings, were built for more than one purpose and I would like to introduce you to the most significant ones.

It is widely known that the Norman invasion caused enormous change in castle architecture. After conquering England, William I built the very first castles in England the design of which was brought from the French lands of Normandy. These castles, called motte-and-bailey castles, were William’s most powerful tool for exerting authority over his new subjects. Not only were these castles significant, because they reflected the presence of the Normans in their new kingdom, they were also a key element in establishing feudalism in England. Since the motte-and-bailey castles were made of wood, the speed at which they were built was really astonishing. Nevertheless, their usefulness was temporary and therefore they were later reinforced. Changes in architecture involved building stone keeps. The first ones were built at the Tower of London and Rochester. The new stone keeps and reconstruction of former Saxon homes must have had a psychological impact on the new subjects, since they were seen for miles around, which was very unusual for people who were used to low wooden buildings. The castles of the Normans became an impressive symbol of their dominating power. They served primarily as a base from which a lord could attack his enemies; moreover, they functioned as an administrative and tax collecting centre.

After the death of William’s grandson Henry I, Stephen and Empress Matilda both claimed the throne as their rightful inheritance, with the result that the 12th century, known as the Anarchy, was full of sieges. During this period, castles proliferated mainly due to the barons, who could build and occupy castles without the permission of the crown. The castles were built anywhere, serving as headquarters for either Stephen’s or Matilda’s supporters. Understandably, all the baronial castles became a threat to the monarchy. Therefore, when Henry II succeeded to the throne he confiscated baronial castles and granted them to his men, which meant that all the castles in the country were under royal control again. This period proved the fact that he who built a castle gained considerable power thereby.

The reigns of Henry II and Henry III are regarded as one of the most important stages in the development of castle architecture. Fighting in the fields had become less popular and warfare was more focused on the siege. Castles, of course, had to respond to this with more sophisticated defence. Since square towers were susceptible to being battered or mined, new tower shapes were designed. The function of defence was fulfilled by massive walls, gatehouses and drawbridges.

The castles of the Plantagenet kings marked the transition from a simple stronghold to a grand, comfortable castle the function of which was to guarantee their inhabitants an effective protection against their foes. Although a castle had to be militarily strong, by the 13th century attention was also being paid to its appearance. Towers offered luxurious accommodation, their furniture, walls and fireplaces were now colourful, and they were richly ornamented with carving.

After conquering Wales, Edward I began a castle-building programme on his new territory. His castles did not offer as much luxury as Henry II’s and Henry III’s castles had, but they had not been intended as luxurious residences. Magnificent castles such as Caernarfon, Beaumaris and Conwy were built to establish and maintain Edward I’s supremacy over the Welsh. Edward I managed to conquer Scotland, too, where he started to build new castles and strengthen the Scottish ones. However, when Robert the Bruce, the king of Scots, defeated the English king, he ordered the destruction of all the castles, even Scottish royal castles such as Stirling and Edinburgh, so that no English king could use them again. Observant readers may wonder how it is possible that these castles are still in their places, and without any considerable harm. I can assure you that Robert the Bruce tried to destroy them, but Stirling and Edinburgh Castles were so strong that they proved to be indestructible.

As you can see, castles served several important functions which changed with different periods and kings. William the Conqueror used his castles as offensive strongholds and administrative centres, whereas Henry II and Henry III built them for defensive purposes or as grand residences. Edward I’s castles were used as tools for conquering Wales and Scotland, which explains their rapid destruction following his death. All these castles are tangible evidence of a remarkable, not altogether peaceful past. In addition, the fact that the castles have endured centuries of warfare is a testimony to the great skill of the medieval builders as well as to the power of their owners.