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In Keep and Donjon: the Medieval Castle


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In a previous chapter it was shown how the Norman keep, or donjon, was the chief distinguishing feature of the typically Norman castle; and it was intimated that with the disappearance of the keep at about the beginning of the thirteenth century the Norman castle also disappeared. This disappearance is associated with a picturesque historical episode.

By the Treaty of Louviers, in 1196, the great border fort of Gisors, which had previously been strengthened by the erection of a menacing new "Juliet," was finally ceded to Philippe Auguste. Richard Coeur de Lion immediately retorted by building Chateau Gaillard ("Saucy Castle") on its steep, chalk bluff above the Seine. Still essentially Norman, though with all the latest devices, Richard was inordinately proud of this beautiful "child of a year." In reply to Philip's threat: "I will take Chateau Gaillard even though it be made of iron," he retorted that he would hold it, even though it were made of butter.

After Richard's death, however, and in 1204, its outer defences were mined, and the stronghold was taken by storm. On this occasion it was noted that "the defenders, in despair, did not even attempt to resort, as a final resource, to the keep." They thus realized themselves, and taught the lesson to others, that the strength of a medieval castle was best concentrated in a single line of defence. On the development of this single line was subsequently lavished all the zeal and inventive genius of the military engineer. It is important, however, to note that these qualities were not expended solely on the construction of new castles, but also on the strengthening of old. Though the Norman pattern was out of favour, yet in many instances the actual Norman castle survived. It remained to make the best of it - to eradicate its weaknesses and to remodel its defences gradually in the light of better knowledge.

First among these improvements - it is not perhaps possible to treat the subject altogether in strict chronological sequence - ranks the development of the gateway and the addition of the barbican. Between such simple, early Norman gate-houses as Tickhill, or those on which the subsequent rectangular keeps were reared at Richmond and Ludlow, on the one hand, and the splendid later piles at Denbigh, Dover, Warkworth (c. 1200), Newcastle (1247), Warwick (fourteenth century), Saltwood (? 1342-96), Carnarvon (1315-22), Lancaster (c. 1405), Tonbridge (thirteenth or fourteenth century) and Raglan (c. 1465), on the other, the gulf is at once apparent and profound.

The Constable's Gate at Dover, "one of the grandest gateways in England," was added to the castle in the fourteenth century. In plan it is a triangle, with one angle to the field; and this is capped by a lofty, oblong tower that is rounded at either end - much like the curious castle at Dinan, in Brittany - whilst each of the inner corners has a drum. In the centre is a fourth, still loftier tower, through which passes the entrance passage. It is hard to grasp the meaning of such extreme elaboration; and when we pass to the late thirteenth century gateway at Denbigh, an entirely new castle, wonder at its "perverse ingenuity" is altogether lost in amazement. Here we enter between two octagonal towers into a large, central, octagonal hall, at the back of which is a smaller octagon, the angles between the two last being occupied by yet two further towers of similar shape. If the architect were not actually playing with his design - and the almost ecclesiastical ornament of his facade suggests that he certainly did not confine himself to mere military necessity - at least we have here travelled very far from the primitive simplicity of Lewes.

Other gateways, though less extravagant, are beautiful or curious, such as Berry Pomeroy, with its portcullis chamber and two hexagonal flanking towers, and Pembroke (1260-1323), Llawhaden (? fifteenth century) and Neath, with their remarkable flying arches, built at Pembroke alone on the inner face, but in the other cases externally, and probably intended to facilitate, at moments of actual warfare, the erection of a wooden gallery, or breteche. As to the barbican, the principle of this, which was utilised by the Normans in the fore-buildings to their rectangular stone keeps, but apparently never applied by them to the defence of outer gateways, is really as old as some Neolithic hill forts, as at Blackbury Castle, Devon. This was nothing more or less than to compel invaders to advance through a narrow passage, from the sides of which defenders, themselves ensconced in safety, might annoy them from above. At the entrance to this passage was perhaps another gateway, as occurs in the grand examples at Lewes, Warwick and Alnwick. Smaller refinements of defence, such as the portcullis, which, though not unknown to the Normans, was employed by them but little, loops through which to shoot arrows, posterns through which to make sallies and escapes, and machicolation, or corbelled out parapets, with open spaces between them and the main wall, through which stones might be dropped, or powdered lime - the use of molten lead is probably a fable - on the heads of those who tried to mine the base, can only be touched on lightly. A magnificent example of a postern, of supreme elaboration, may be studied in the so-called "Underground Works" at Dover; whilst at Denbigh is an instance that exhibits no less than three right-angled turns, that simple but singularly effective device, perhaps as old as human ingenuity - it is found in a prehistoric hill-fort at Chun Castle, near Penzance - for the arrest and consternation of sudden onsets, which would thus lose their momentum.

As to machicolation, though used constantly above gateways and on towers, it was perhaps never applied in England to the defence of whole lengths of curtain, as was often the case in Brittany - e.g. at Sucinio Castle, and conspicuously on the walls of Avignon. At Compton Castle (c. 1420), Devon, it is employed, perhaps uniquely for the defence of single windows.

The above is a brief and imperfect catalogue of those devices and later improvements that are common not merely to the new post-Norman type of castle, but also, by way of addition, to the Norman castle that preceded it. The best examples of this new, post-Norman type of castle are found in Wales, but as the Welsh castles have already been dealt with, only a brief reference can be given in the present chapter.

In this newly conquered territory the same conditions now repeat themselves, during the reign of the first Edward, that had formerly been present in England during the reign of the first William. Again an alien power was driven to secure itself in the midst of a barely subject population. Celt now takes the place of Saxon, and Englishman of Norman, but the underlying pressure is the same.

In this new type of castle, whether consisting only of a single ward, as at Rhuddlan (c. 1277) and Beaumaris (c. 1295), or of two, as at Con way (1285) and Carnarvon (1285-1322), attention, as already said, is riveted on a single line of outer defence. This is even true in the case of that subdivision, called concentric, in which this outer line is apparently duplicated. Here for a single wall we now find substituted two, parallel with one another at only a slight interval; and of these the inner is the higher, so that those who manned its battlements could shoot above the heads of those below, and thus confound an enemy simultaneously with a double flight of missiles. In essence the two are homogeneous, and constitute together a single and very formidable bulwark.

Of this concentric type of castle the first and largest is Caerphilly (1267-72), in Glamorganshire, which, with its hornwork to the west, and its flanking outwork to the east, probably occupies more acres, even apart from the lake in which it stood, than any other ruin in the kingdom. The hornwork, however, and the outwork are concessions to old ideals; and though Caerphilly is strictly concentric, yet it is only timidly concentric, and relies for half its protective properties on adjuncts that are extraneous to its proper genius. Kidwelly (reconstructed c. 1270), in Carmarthenshire, is also flanked by outworks, and is otherwise imperfectly concentric. True concentric castles, that are concentric and nothing else, are found, in North Wales, at Rhuddlan and Beaumaris, and, to a large degree, at Harlech (1285). Aberystwith (1277) and Criccieth (1285) also were apparently of this pattern, though the most shattered and least instructive of the group.

The hint for the concentric system may have been brought to England by the Crusaders, who had adopted it - perhaps from the triple walls of Constantinople - as early as 1202, in rebuilding their great Syrian castle of Le Krak des Chevaliers. Not only was it used in building new Castles in Wales, but ancient Norman castles in England, e.g. Dover, Kenilworth and Middleham, were also remodelled, superficially at any rate, on the new design. None of these, however, is technically concentric, since in none do the outer and inner enceintes constitute in unison a single line of defence. This, however, was really the case at the Tower of London, as recast during the reign of Henry III.

In addition to the castles already named other good examples of the fortified enceinte type are found, in the Welsh Marches at Whitecastle (remodelled 1239-50), one of the famous Monmouthshire "trilateral" - the other members were Skenfrith and Grosmont; in Wales itself at Carreg Cennen (late twelfth century), Manorbier and Llanstephan (c. 1267); and in Northumberland at Dunstanborough (1315). At both the latter, it should be noted, gatehouses of importance were subsequently converted into keeps. At Knaresborough, also, a remarkable keep-gateway (? 1307-27) was planned as such from the beginning, and is unique. These notable reversions to a long-abandoned type may be looked on as exceptions that prove the rule.

From the beginning of the fourteenth century the purely military value of the castle was less and less, its residential value more and more. The introduction of firearms - the decay of a military caste - the rise to power of civilians - must all have operated concurrently to modify and refine. It is not without significance that Bolton Castle, Yorkshire, was built by a Lord Chancellor, though he had fought in earlier days at Neville's Cross. Bolton (1379) is a good example of a largely new type of castle that frequently appears during this epoch, and principally in the North of England.

In Northumberland, where border raids were a factor that had always to be reckoned with - counting castles of every size and description, it has more than half-a-dozen other counties put together - instances occur, more or less perfect, at Chillingham (1344), Etal (1341) and Ford (1338); in Durham we have Lumley (1392); and in Yorkshire, in addition to Bolton itself, Danby-in-Cleveland (before 1339), Sheriff Hutton (1382) and Wressle (1380-90). Briefly it consists of a rectangular "house," with a square tower at each corner and a central courtyard. "House" is said advisedly; the curtain and bailey have disappeared; and in place of the fortified enclosure, with a residence in the middle, the residence itself is now fortified.

From the older type of castle, whether Norman or Edwardian, we have passed to the defensive manor-house. The defensive features, however, are not merely pictorial reminiscences, like the crenellation at Cowdray (c. 1530), or the Elizabethan reproduction of the destroyed Norman keep at Bolsover. Bolton, for example, is really strongly fortified: not only is the entrance into the courtyard protected by two portcullises, but each of the four doorways from the court into the house is similarly protected by one.

The fourteenth century defensive manor-house is found elsewhere in England - modified and disguised, yet identical in essence. Thus at Bodiam (1385), in Sussex, the square towers are replaced by round, and there is also a massive gateway; but otherwise the pattern is the same. Bodiam, like Leeds, in Kent - though Leeds is a castle of different stamp - is surrounded by a lake, in this case beautiful with water lilies. Broughton (c. 1300) and Sherburn (1377), both in Oxfordshire, are also situated in small lakes, and also members of this family - Sherburn with round towers and Broughton with rectangular, though Broughton has been altogether altered out of type. At Chirk (c. 1282), in Denbighshire, all are round. Chirk is an exceptionally early instance, whilst Hurstmonceaux (c. 1446), in Sussex, is exceptionally late. This last forms an enormous rectangle, roughly 200 feet square, with an octagonal tower at each angle and several on each face, and was originally divided into two larger and two smaller courts. It is thus only externally that it resembles Bolton or Ford. Here the sole defensive feature is the magnificent gateway, with portcullis grooves, loops for arrows, and heavy machicolation.

In Cornwall, at Restormel, is a very curious castle, which externally resembles a shell-keep. Parts, indeed, perhaps are really Norman; but in the end it has come to look like an annular manor-house: it is Bolton, or Ford, converted to a circle, and with the angle towers left out. Still more curious is the nearly annular house, with seven projecting round towers and a strongly projecting gate-house, that was built by the Percys on the top of the old Norman " motte " at Alnwick (c. 1309), but is now mostly nineteenth-century reconstruction. Ince, also in the Duchy, and Nunney (1373), in Somerset, are at the other extreme from Hurstmonceaux, for here, in place of four internal courts, there is none at all, though the angle towers remain. Ince is a very late example (1540), without, any defensive properties. With its picturesque tent roofs and Renaissance doorway with an outside stair, it recalls a small French chateau, and seems strangely stranded in Cornwall, where it stands without analogy or peer.

In addition to this mostly fourteenth-century, post-Edwardian type of "castle," we must note two further species. The first is the so-called "tower-house," which is almost a reminiscence of the Norman keep, and is mostly found in Northumberland, though, oddly enough, the two most majestic examples are at Borthwick, in the Lothians, and at Tattershall, in Lincolnshire. In Northumberland, at any rate, it was probably a development from the small fortified towers, commonly, though perhaps inaccurately, called "peels," which range in date, over an immense number of instances, from the thirteenth century example at Simonburn to the late occurrence at Doddington (1584).

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Pictures for In Keep and Donjon: the Medieval Castle

RAGLAN, A SPLENDID MEDIEVAL CASTLE OF MONMOUTHSHIRE
RAGLAN, A SPLENDID MEDIEVAL CASTLE OF MONMOUTHSHIRE >>>>
KEEP OF GOODRICH CASTLE
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BODIAM WHICH STANDS, LIKE A CASTLE OF LEGEND, IN A POOL OF WATER LILIES
BODIAM WHICH STANDS, LIKE A CASTLE OF LEGEND, IN A POOL OF WATER LILIES >>>>
FIREPLACE OF ONE OF THE RUINED ROOMS OF BODIAM
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MOATED CASTLE OF BROUGHTON IN OXFORDSHIRE
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BOLTON, A PRISON OF MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS: LUMLEY CASTLE
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MAJESTIC TOWERS AND BATTLEMENTS OF ALNWICK, THE NORTHUMBERLAND HOME OF THE PERCYS
MAJESTIC TOWERS AND BATTLEMENTS OF ALNWICK, THE NORTHUMBERLAND HOME OF THE PERCYS >>>>
WALLS OF GOOD RED BRICK AT HURSTMONCEAUX ON THE PEVENSEY MARSHES
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ONE OF ENGLAND'S FINEST PIECES OF MEDIEVAL BRICKWORK: TATTERSHALL
ONE OF ENGLAND'S FINEST PIECES OF MEDIEVAL BRICKWORK: TATTERSHALL >>>>
TWO CASTLES OF CORNWALL: RESTORMEL AND INCE
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BERRY POMEROY, DEVON'S MOST PICTURESQUE RUIN
BERRY POMEROY, DEVON'S MOST PICTURESQUE RUIN >>>>
COMPTON, A FORTIFIED MANOR HOUSE NEAR TORQUAY
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DARK EMBRASURES OF BERRY POMEROY
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TALL TOWERS THAT DEFEND THE CASTLE GATES OF RAGLAN AND WARWICK
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ANGLESEY FORTRESS OF BEAUMARIS AND THE CASTLE AT KNARESBOROUGH
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