Castles of the Conquest
William the Conqueror knew that the castle was going to play a vital role in his task of subjugating England in the year 1066. This conquest was no doubt a large gamble for the duke of Normandy due to the fact that it entailed a relatively unknown countryside, a fierce and brave people defending the island, and in the event of a loss – a reputation of a poor war leader and consequently seen as a failure as leader of Normandy. The gamble paid off even though the Anglo – Saxons and the Normans were of relatively equal military prowess. The Norman victory was secured in large part due to the implementation of a settlement strategy of architecturally superior buildings that could successfully retain territory, also known as the Norman castle.
A castle can be best defined as the fortified and defensible home of a member of the feudal nobility. It could control the surrounding territory and check the advances of any invasion attempts. The castle became William’s signature in his course across England, without which the lands he had conquered could not have possibly been retained in full. This is evident from the very start of the conquest on the morning of September 28th, 1066 when duke William immediately called for the temporary fortification of the town.
On the shores of the Sussex coast, near a ruined fort from the times of the Roman occupation, William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, landed with a small force that included both mounted knights and men-at-arms which would set out to conquer an entire country with a fighting force of no more than 5,000 men. Five thousand men pale in comparison to the number of people that was traditionally thought sufficient to subjugate an entire kingdom. A single Roman legion consisted of 5,000 men, and several times throughout their history a battle might include two to three legions of men at once. Therefore, Duke William had to immediately undertake a well-planned strategy in order to defeat the Anglo – Saxons on their own soil.
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According to William of Poitiers, the Conqueror’s first orders were to “enclose a corner of the fort (old roman fort of Anderida) and convert it into a castle”. This temporary castle built at the town of Pevensey was erected for the primary to be a base of operations or a fighting hub with which to conduct the Norman campaign into England. In addition, the dominating presence of the castle (the first construction being of timber) was a physical symbol of the Norman’s authority In a sense, the overawing structure served as the landmark of changes to come. The castle building did not end there, but quickly moved its trail eastward along the coast to the town of Hastings. Hastings, as William knew full well, was in an excellent position for the purposes of harboring his fleet. The small harbor would be over the course of the next year one of a few main ports supplying the conquest with things such as additional troops, siege machines, and building materials. One might ask how the castles at these particular sites were constructed in such a relatively short amount of time?
Duke William knew that his success relied on the speed with which he could entrench himself in the English island. Respective to other kingdoms, the Normans were a fairly wealthy duchy at the time. Money gave them a great advantage in the number of workers that they could recruit. The Normans conscripted heavily from the resident Anglo – Saxon people, overseeing the building of the castle at Hastings. It was imperative for Duke William to establish a strong base of operations practically as soon as he and his men arrived so that there could be no chance of the English dislodging them from the coast. That is why William, after eventually winning the hard-fought Battle of Hastings, moved along the coast again and built a third castle in Dover. Now, there was a string of three castles (Pevensey, Hastings, and Dover) that protected a small portion of the coast for Norman supply ships. It was between these castles that William would organize his forces before a daring march into the interior and determine the best route to the city he desired the most – London.
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London’s eventual fall and the subjugation of England to the invading Normans on Christmas Day one year after landing on the island is proof that duke William’s strategy must have been highly effective. Orderic Vitalis states this same principle quite clearly saying that, “The English, though brave and warlike, had very few of those fortifications which the French call ‘castes’ in their land. It was this that had made their resistance to their conquerors so feeble.” True, the general landscape of the area was not the best for constructing castles, but even after the English realized that a large reason for the Norman’s success was because of the architectural ingenuity of the castle, they still did not adapt their defense plans to include them. Duke William on the other hand “rode into all the remote parts of his kingdom and fortified strategic sites against enemy attack. For the fortifications, called castles by the Normans, were scarcely known in the English provinces, and so, the English, in spite of their courage and love for fighting, could put up a weak resistance to their enemies.” Unfortunately for William, the uphill battle of subjugating England was just beginning.
Because the people under the Anglo – Saxon rule were not very centralized, many of them considered themselves never conquered by anyone and thus, still very much independent. This and the fact that the Normans were not the only group of invaders that wished to own lands on the English island, led to the problematic issue of holding onto the territory that William had just conquered. The internal problems that this would create, along with other invaders along the coast and the western Welsh border, made it difficult for duke William to begin as ruler. The solution as William saw it was to build a web-like infrastructure of castles. During his reign as duke of Normandy, it is said that he built himself, or ordered to be built, around thirty-six castles (seventy percent of these lying within or up against a town).
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These castles, as William of Poitiers says, would “protect the king from the fickleness of a large and wild (ferus) population.”
When the Normans originally arrived in England, almost all of the castles built were in a sense more similar to a campaign fort – designed primarily to defend a large body of men for a short period of time. It would be a year later in 1067 that William would return to build more castles extensively across the countryside. It was after the conclusion Battle of Hastings that fortress architecture began to take off and flourish because of Duke William’s need to strengthen his position in the new territory. These new castles would be much different with respect to the purpose that they would serve. The new castles were even sometimes referred to as donjons – the low Latin word meaning dominatio or sovereignty.
Castles were now being converted to stone so that they would be more of a lasting presence than the ones that were previously made of timber. Many of the castles, such as at York where only charred remains of wood have been found on an artificial mound, were destroyed after the temporary use of fortification. Wood rot and the absence of prime building stone, led the Normans to re-use former Roman fortresses that had been long abandoned as their supply for brick stone. Within the decaying ramparts of a Roman fort or the ruins of an old town, castles could more easily and more quickly be built. These castles were spread out over the entire countryside, but not at random.
As stated previously, one of the main reasons that William the Conqueror felt the need to erect a multitude of castles overlooking towns was to deter any thoughts of local rebellion, but castles were built as the need came up or the opportunity presented itself. Some of the more common purposes for castles to be built were to guard a pass, secure a river crossing, control a road, dominate a town, and to eventually provide a Norman earl with a headquarters to govern lands. At first, the castle was the device that William used to tighten his grip on the English after his presence was originally established by overwhelming forces of Calvary against English foot soldiers. These fixed points of control is where entire garrisons of knights on horseback could ride out and dominate all the land around it. The castle functioned only in the military sense, lending itself to be a base from which a small body of mounted soldiers could range over the area under a single leader and to which they could take shelter in if in the event that they were attacked. Then as the Conquest came to an end, the castle was utilized as a tool that would provide security for trade between towns, protecting them by force if need be by outside threats . The extensive building of castles continued after the Conqueror with William II. Between the two of them they constructed eighty-four castles in all across England, seventy-one of them being the motte-and-bailey type, and forty-three of them either in the center of, or connected to, a town.
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The castle took on other functions, besides the military purpose that it was originally designed for. It became a residence for an earl, a treasury for the town, a center of administration and authority, and of course the basement was sometimes used as a prison. The English had long had something similar to what the Norman castles were quickly becoming. In just the form of the building, the castle was very much similar to what the English called burhs. A burh was a homestead fortified or protected by a high wooden fence (and in some cases stone) and a ringwork of packed earth. Both in function and effectiveness, the Norman castle differed from the burh in that it defended the focus of feudal administration. These castles can be set apart from the English burhs in that they were evolving from the basic fortified tower and becoming palaces.
At the end of the conquest of England, the castle was now a symbol of lordship. Within the walls of the castle were all the accommodations that one would expect to see of a normal palace of the period, but instead of being laid out horizontally along the ground, it was stacked vertically. It was completely self-contained, with a storeroom, service rooms, a great hall used for banquets, sleeping chambers, and also in some cases a chapel was included. By the year 1214, R.A. Brown estimated that there were around ninety-two royal castles and 179 baronial castles.
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The reason for so many baronial castles is that the general rule of these estates given by the king was that the occupants would be then obligated to serve the king. William the Conqueror could not be spending all of his time in England assuring that the countryside would remain peaceful, when in fact he was the Norman king. The institution of a feudal society of loyal people would ensure the continuance of Norman control. The castle, which the higher nobility from the 11th century onwards now took as their family name, was an extremely powerful weapon for the aristocracy to exert their influence over the peasantry of the town. The Domesday Book records that around 1105a.d., twenty percent of the land was owned by the king, fifty percent was now held by the baronage, and the remaining tracts of land were given to the church. The growing number of castles, most of which were being converted entirely to stone, would serve to dominate the English landscape for decades to come.
To overawe the population, the castle would have to be built on a grander scale than what was originally planned. As expected during William’s campaign, many sites were hastily built or never entirely finished, but less than a decade later these same sites would be firmly entrenched in the town. The most abundant type of castle was the motte-and-bailey design. This kind of castle included a gigantic earthwork underneath it, many of which can still be seen today, so that it would have the advantage of higher ground in the event of an attack. All the dirt that was dug up from the surrounding motte was heaped into the center of the ringwork, was then leveled off by using some of the rock layers of the beaten earth, and finally was smoothed over with a clay crust to ensure that there would be no slippage during construction or uneven settlement once the castle was finished. This mound of earth was built around the stone base of the castle to help bear the tremendous weight that ran through its core. Then, a slab of stone was placed over the surface to serve as a platform from which construction could begin.
The bailey (a high timber or stone fence that usually went around the perimeter of the motte and also included the drawbridge or gatehouse of the castle) was never too far from the tower, or sometimes called the keep of the castle, because if invaders broke past it the whole site would be within bowshot of the motte. The keep of the castle was by far the most important feature and thus was the strongest and most carefully planned part of the defenses. It was the “focal point of a castle to which, in time of siege, the whole garrison retired when the outer works had fallen.” Because of its significance to the castle as a whole, the keep had to be self-contained in order to be able to sustain a long siege.
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In the tower there was its own water supply, which was welled directly through the earthwork below it. Everything imaginable was included in the design of the tower. Some of its advantages included: a formidable wall of considerable height and strength, its breach only led to solid rock and was consequently useless to the enemy, the waste produced could be discarded without contaminating their water supply, and the inhabitants could literally outwait the invaders due to the large store room full of provisions. One keep in England that is considered by many as William the Conqueror’s crowning architectural acheivement is the White Tower of London.
Orderic tells us that “after the submission of London to William the Conqueror, he stayed for a few days in Barking while certain fortifications in the city were being finished, to curb the excitability of the huge and fierce population.” Work on the castle began in the year 1079ad, approximately a decade before the Conqueror’s death. Gundulf, the Bishop of Rochester (1077-1108), oversaw the building of the White Tower and even had a contribution in some of the design aspects. He was described as “competent and skillful at building in stone and was the principal overseer and surveyor of the building of the White Tower of London.” The tremendous work force required to erect such a magnificent building in a relatively short amount of time meant that many of the shires that owed works to the city of London were greatly oppressed in its making.
The general design of the White Tower is consistent with a majority of the stone keeps built before the end of the 12th century with its square shape, a projecting apse and round stair turret, and four pilaster buttresses to each wall to ensure its strength under attack. The White Tower is one of only a handful of castles in England without a motte. Because in the original design the keep was to be made of stone, there was no need for a motte at all. The one-foot stone cubes bound together with the sand and lime mixture mortar used in the construction of the Tower is consistent with other Norman architecture at the time. The imposing structure of the White Tower stretches upward four stories (the basement and the three upper floors) some ninety feet with its walls varying between twelve and fifteen feet thick at the base. The wall’s thickness varies because it has a plinth at the bottom – a wall that has a thicker base to better resist battering ram techniques. The Tower exceeds all other English keeps in size measuring some 118 by 98 feet at the base.
The walls are interesting because they are not solid stone all the way through. Ashlar stone is used in the outer shell of the walls, then rubble and other broken pieces of stone are dumped in between them, and finally the two parts are bound together by pouring mortar down in between the walls making it stronger, not to mention it is more efficient in its use of stone. After its completion, the entire keep was coated in plaster and whitewashed – the reason for how it acquired its name.
The entrance to the keep was originally on the first floor (twenty-five feet above the ground floor) contained within a forebuilding protecting the staircase leading up to it. This of course made it incredibly difficult for the enemy to fight its way into the actual building. Inside the Tower, the great hall was the centerpiece of activity. It was a large room used for the castle’s common life and occupied the middle of the first floor. This is also where it is commonly assumed the guards of the castle’s garrison occupied. On the second floor is William’s chapel with the eastern end of the White Tower carried outward in a rounded apse to contain the oval room. The third floor is nothing more than a mural passage going around the top of the chapel with several windows looking outward. The White Tower was built to withstand prolonged punishment by invaders, but how did it defend itself?
One of the main features of defense is the gatehouse of the castle. The gateway was the only way in or out and was defended by the heavy porticullis (a sliding metal gate that dropped over the front of the gatehouse), the machicolation (holes formed in the roofs of gateways through which boiling pitch, stones, darts, and other missiles were thrown down on the heads of the enemy, and also used to quench fires trying to burn the main gates down) and small angled slits on the side through which arrows could be shot. The gatehouse had to be well defended because it served as the best advantage to attackers. Once the gatehouse fell, the keep was all that would protect the inhabitants and so instead of being able to fight back, the mentality changed to waiting and the hope of surviving. Unfortunately for the owners of these castles, advances in siege techniques made it more and more difficult to counter invader’s advances on the castle.
One of the most common devices for breaking down the gatehouse was the battering ram. An entire trunk of a tree would be cut down and hauled by as many as twenty men. It would then be covered with rawhides or steel so that they could not be burned by debris and finally capped with a steel head to better break down wooden doors. Siege towers of multiple stories enabled the enemy to wheel the structure up to the walls and fight on an even plane, thus negating any advantage by the defenders. Often times, soldiers would resort to mining underneath the wall and destroying the foundation of the bailey. The only way to defend this was by countermining in hopes of connecting the two tunnels. Lastly, and my own personal favorite device, were the projectile machines. The catapult (sometimes called scorpions) was the most mobile and primarily cast small stones, darts, and firebrands. The ballistae was a larger version of the scorpion, casting much larger stones. The petraria was the most powerful of the three projectile machines; able to launch huge stones over castle walls. To give an idea of the power behind this particular weapon – King Richard of England killed twelve men with the launching of a single stone shot. The king of France in 1189 –1191 affectionately called his petraria “Bad Neighbor” because of its ability to destroy entire city walls and also its infamous reputation of tossing horse carcasses and other carrion into fortresses. So as one can determine, it was absolutely necessary to construct a stable and well-defended castle in order to endure a long and tumultuous siege.
William the Conqueror was victorious over the Anglo-Saxons for a variety of reasons, but few people can dispute the effectiveness of the Norman castle and the vital role it played in securing the newly won territory. The two reasons that the empire survived were the creation of grants of land of a class of men with a vested interest in Norman settlement and the introduction of the castle as a fortified home and military base. Without these two aspects of the Norman conquest of England, it is at best doubtful that William would have been as successful as he was.