Britain’s Medieval Castles

Lecture Five—The Great Tours: England, Scotland, and Wales

Like the medieval castles, Britain’s cathedrals are astounding sites and an absolute must for any visitor to the island. Here, Professor Allitt explores the major milestones in cathedral architecture, from the Romanesque style of Durham Cathedral to the gothic style of Canterbury. He also takes you to the world-renowned Westminster Abbey.

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Early Castles of Britain

William the Conqueror used castles right from the outset, to assert his authority and create strongpoints in his new kingdom.

The earliest were motte-and-bailey castles, in which a wooden keep, or stronghold, was set up on a mound, or motte, sometimes man-made. An area around the motte, known as the bailey, would be fenced in with a stout palisade, and would contain barracks, stables, a well, a chapel, storehouses, and the other necessities of a garrison.

Ideally, a ditch or moat outside the palisade would create added difficulties for potential attackers. No such wooden castles survive, but Britain still has several in which the original wooden keep was later replaced by a stone keep. At Cardiff Castle, for example, in the grounds of a much later building, stands the circular motte with a strong stone tower, or “shell keep,” on top.

The next stage in castle design was the square stone keep. Several built in the 1100s survive, including those at Dover, Orford, and the Tower of London.

Designing Stronger Castles in England

The logical next step was to build an outer wall, or curtain wall, around the keep, making it all the more difficult for attackers even to approach it. This development is visible in many of the great fortifications of the 1200s.

The Tower of London, for example, was made safer and stronger by having the keep enclosed by an outer wall during the reign of King Henry III . When a second wall, outside that one, was added by his son Edward I, it became stronger still. The Tower is one of many places where you can see the development of these stages and where, in general, the outer layers are more recent than the inner.

The superiority of multiple defensive layers led to the development of concentric castles, designed from the outset to present attackers with a succession of obstacles to overcome, and making it likely that any who broke through the first ring would be subjected to devastating fire from the second. Concentric castles also included refinements such as towers bulging out from the line of the curtain wall, so that attackers would never find shelter from defenders’ fire.

Probably the greatest concentric castle in Britain is Caerphilly Castle, in Wales. It was built not by the king but by an extremely powerful baron, Gilbert de Clare, struggling in the 1270s to assert his power against the Welsh rebel Llywelyn ap Gruffyd.

Edward I was England’s castle-builder par excellence. He consolidated his grip on Wales in the 1280s and 1290s by building four massive ones: Conwy, Caernarfon, Harlech, and Beaumaris. They were built for strength, to overawe Welsh onlookers, to assert Edward’s claim to the throne, and to provide him with places to live safely and comfortably when he was in the area.

Visiting Medieval British Castles

Medieval British Castles
Did you know? Dover Castle is the largest castle in England.

Most of Britain’s castles are ruins today, and for nearly three centuries, owners and visitors have enjoyed seeing them in that state.

Castles that are not ruins today are well-preserved either because they were converted into aristocratic dwellings, or because regiments of the British army continued to use them as military bases. Edinburgh and Dover Castles, for example, were working military bases until the 1920s and 1950s, respectively, before being turned into full-time visitor attractions. In fact, part of Edinburgh is still in use by the army, and off-limits to visitors.

Bamburgh is phenomenal. Just a few miles south of the Scottish border, and perched on high ground overlooking the North Sea, it has a magnificently romantic profile. Founded by the Normans on the site of a much older fort, it was besieged by King William II in 1095 when its owner, Robert de Mowbray, rebelled. The castle was bought by William Armstrong in 1894 and restored to more than its former glory.

One of the biggest castles in Britain is Dover Castle, at Dover, and it is also one of the best to visit. It sits atop the White Cliffs of Dover where the English Channel is at its narrowest. Dover Castle looks superb if you’re approaching England on a cross-channel ferry from France.

The high central stone keep, the “Great Tower,” comes from the reign of Henry II and was built in the 1180s. It is now displayed by its owners, English Heritage, as if for a king’s visit.

The walls are 20 feet thick in places, several “mural rooms” are contained within the walls, and two spiral staircases run from top to bottom of the tower.

Beneath the castle, there’s a honeycomb of passages and chambers, which also served different duties through the ages. At one point, they were a prison for French soldiers and sailors captured during the Napoleonic Wars. Later, they became a wartime hospital, where underground operating rooms provided safety against potential aerial attack.

Warwick Castle is another great crowd-pleaser. Right in the heart of the kingdom, it looks like a child’s drawing of a medieval castle. Like so many others, it started as an ancient defensive site, on which a Norman motte-and-bailey castle was built by William the Conqueror. The motte is now called Ethelfleda’s Mound. Extensive fortifications were added in the 1300s and 1400s.

Visiting the Tower of London

Visiting the Tower of London
The Tower of London is a historic castle located on the north bank of the River Thames in central London.

Moving south, let’s return to the Tower of London. Great black ravens hop about the battlements and lawns at the Tower. According to tradition, if they ever leave, the kingdom will fall.

A full history of the Tower could constitute a pretty good history of England itself over the last millennium, with an emphasis on its more violent elements. It was a royal residence until the 1600s; often an arsenal; a mint where the national coinage was made; a safe-house for the storage of the crown jewels; a zoo (the “Royal Menagerie”); but above all, a prison. Most of London’s Jews were imprisoned there in 1278 on trumped-up charges of degrading the currency. Edward I then expelled the whole Jewish community from England in 1290.

The Tower of London is where King Henry VI was imprisoned and where his death occurred. Two of the wives of King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, were imprisoned in the Tower of London and both executed. Also, King Henry VIII’s former minister, Thomas More, was imprisoned there and executed, as superbly fictionalized in Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

Lady Jane Grey, who had been only 17 years old and briefly asserted a claim to the throne in 1553 before being ousted by Mary I, was also imprisoned in the Tower. Sir Walter Raleigh spent enough time in the Tower between imprisonment and execution that he wrote a history of the world.

Visitors have been coming to the Tower since the mid-1500s. And it is currently, almost entirely, used as a tourist attraction.

Interactive Map of All British Castles Mentioned in This Lecture

Suggested Online Reading About British Castles

The History of Castles
Medieval Britain
10 of the Best: Castles
Medieval Castles