The Medieval Period, or Middle Ages, is a period in European history which lasted from the 5th to the 15th centuries. This period came to an end with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the beginning of the Renaissance. It is also known as the Dark Ages because it was a time of cultural and economic deterioration. Also, compared with other periods in history, historians don’t know much about this time period. Many important records have not survived.
What has survived from medieval times, though, are castles. These were primarily built for protection during times of war and to ward off invaders. They originally started out as simple wooden buildings on top of a mound or hill, which was surrounded by a ditch. If the land was flat, a moat was dug around the castle. Hills and moats made it more difficult to invade and conquer the castle. All that remains of these early castles are traces of earthworks.
As time went on, castles became bigger and stronger and were made of stone. Sometimes they were built at the edge of a cliff or on the bend of a river so the surrounding area could be seen. Castles first appeared in England in the 11th century and reached a peak of military sophistication in the late 13 century. By the 14th century, the construction of castles was already in decline.
Here are some of the most famous medieval castles in England:
Less than 100 miles from London, situated on a cliff overlooking a bend in the River Avon, this magnificent fortress was built by William the Conqueror in 1068. Originally a wooden structure, it was rebuilt in stone in the 12th century and has undergone many structural changes. Traditionally known as the home of the Earls of Warwick, it served as such a home for generations, up until about 25 years ago. The castle changed hands several times during its history and often was used to hold prisoners. When under the ownership of Richard Neville in the 15th century, the castle was even used to imprison the English king, Edward IV.
Today, Warwick Castle houses armor and weaponry from the Middle Ages. The tower, dungeon, and torture chamber allow visitors to see the darker side of Medieval England. Six Hundred years ago, the Earl of Warwick was Europe’s most famous jousting champion, and during the summer visitors can see jousting exhibitions and visit festivals and craft demonstrations.
Tower of London
An imposing structure on the north bank of the Thames in the center of London, the Tower of London is actually a complex of buildings surrounded by two concentric rings of walls and a moat. On one side is the River Thames. The original structure, the White Tower, was built by William the Conqueror in 1078.
Serving primarily as a fortress, prison, and royal palace, down through the centuries the Tower has also been used as an armory, a treasury, a zoo, the Royal Mint, an observatory, and a public records office. It was also a place of public execution and torture, and high profile prisoners were kept there. In fact, the phrase “sent to the Tower” became synonymous with being imprisoned. Hundreds of names of prisoners can still be seen in the Book of Prisoners at the Tower including Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Raleigh.
Among those executed in the Tower were Thomas Cromwell and three queens of England, two of whom – Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard – were wives of Henry VIII.
Executions were carried out by beheading and hanging; beheading was reserved for important prisoners or those of noble birth. Many were held on Tower Green in public view. Traitor’s Gate, the entrance to the Tower from the Thames, was known as the last stop for those on their way to being executed.
Since 1303, the crown jewels of the United Kingdom have been kept in the Tower, and they are on display for tourists to see.
The Yeoman Warders, better known as Beefeaters, can still be seen at the Tower. They are its ceremonial guardians, give tours, and relate to tourists the interesting and checkered history of this famous castle.
This has the distinction of being the largest and longest inhabited castle in the world. It is one of the principal residences of the British monarch and has been since the time of Henry I (1068-1135). The original castle was built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, and has been changed and expanded over the centuries; the castle’s floor space is now an astounding 484,000 square feet. Edward III’s (1312-1377) rebuilding and expansion of Windsor Castle is said to be the most expensive secular building project of the entire Middle Ages in England. The grounds occupy 13 acres and include several homes, a large church, and the royal palace.
William the Conqueror built a ring of fortifications around London, each being within about a day’s walk (20 miles) from the city and the next fortification. Windsor Castle was part of this ring, and was strategically located near the River Thames, which was an important entryway into London in medieval times.
The castle has often reflected the state of the country: during times of peace and prosperity, the castle has been expanded. During times of war and unrest, it has been heavily fortified.
A good example of a late medieval moated castle, Bodiam Castle was built by Sir Edward Dalyngrigge and most likely completed by 1392. The story goes that Richard II requested that it be built to protect the area from French invasion. However, recent research suggests that it was built more for show than for defense, and the thickness of the walls – only a couple of feet – seems to support this conclusion.
Unlike other castles which were expanded and changed for centuries, construction of Bodiam Castle was completed in one phase, so most of it is in the same architectural style. Archeological findings indicate that it was probably built quickly because of the French threat.
Bodiam Castle changed hands several times through the centuries. The Dalyngrigges occupied it until their line became extinct, whereupon it was passed by marriage to the Lewknor family. Descendents of the Lewknors lived there until at least the 16th century. It eventually fell into disrepair, but was restored in the 19th century. The National Trust took ownership of the castle in 1925, and additional restoration work was done.
Bodiam Castle is located in Sussex, southeast England, not far from the English Channel.
Called the “Key to England” because of its strategic position on the white cliffs of Dover, this castle played an important role in England’s defenses for centuries; this is England’s closest point to continental Europe. Secret tunnels were dug in medieval times, and these tunnels were used as late as WWII as a command post for Allied forces.
The castle was founded in the 11th century by William the Conqueror, and it began to take on a recognizable shape during the reign of Henry II (1133-1189). Modifications continued though the next few centuries. In 1642, during the English Civil War, it was held for the king but taken through a Parliamentarian trick. Remarkably, not a shot was fired. The castle was thus spared the extensive damage that many other castles suffered.
Today the castle and surrounding land are owned by English Heritage, and the spot is a popular tourist attraction.
Over 800,000 people a year visit this medieval castle. It is located in Alnwick in the county of Northumberland in northeast England.
The first parts of the castle were built in 1096, and the first historical mention of it dates to 1136. It was already being described as “very strong.” It changed hands several times and was finally purchased by Henry Percy, 1st Baron Percy (1273-1314). It was still a rather modest structure, but Percy set about turning it into a major fortress along the English-Scottish border. Although he didn’t survive to see the project completed, his son continued the work. The Abbot’s Tower, the Constable’s Tower, and the Middle Gateway survive from this period.
The construction at Alnwick Castle took into consideration both military requirements and the family’s residential needs and set a pattern for castle renovations in northern England in the 14th century. Several palace-fortresses from this period have been described as “extensive, opulent, theatrical.”
The castle is in good repair and still serves as a home for the Duke. It also houses offices for Northumberland Estates, which manages the property and farms of the Duke. It has been used as a setting in many films and television shows, including Robin Hood, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Downton Abbey, and two Harry Potter films.
On the Welsh coast, 250 miles from London, is the medieval fortress Caernarfon Castle. A modest castle of timber and earthworks occupied the site from the 11th century to 1283, when Edward I, marching through Wales, captured several important castles. He began replacing the existing structure with a stone one. Because the town of Caerfarnon was the administrative center of north Wales, the fortress was built on a grand scale. This, along with other castles built or rebuilt by Edward, helped establish English rule in Wales. The exterior of Caerfarnon Castle is complete, but many of the interior buildings were never finished.
There were two main entrances to the castle: the King’s Gate, which was accessible from the town, and the Queen’s Gate, which allowed access without passing through the town. The King’s Gate was never completed, but its plans were formidable; entrance to the castle would have been across two drawbridges, through five doors, six gates, and a right-angle turn into the lower enclosure. Overhead along the route were arrow loops and murder holes.
Until the mid-15th century, the castle was besieged and changed hands several times. By the late 15th century castles had lost some of their importance, and Caernarfon Castle fell into disrepair. Even so, it was held by the Royalists during the English Civil War (1642-51) and besieged three times by the Parliamentarians. That was the last time the castle saw battle, and it was neglected until the 19th century when the state began renovations. Although the walls and towers are mostly intact, only foundations remain of the interior buildings that once existed.
A castle has occupied this site since 1119, although more modest structures had been there since the 9th century. It is in southeast England, about 40 miles from London. Robert de Crevecoeur is credited with building the first stone structure on the site. It remained in his family for the next century and a half, until it was bought in 1278 by Queen Eleanor of Castile, Edward I’s wife. Edward I liked the residence and invested heavily in enhancing it. He is probably the one that built the lake that now surrounds the castle.
The castle was not destroyed during the English Civil War because its owner, Sir Cheney Culpeper, sided with the Parliamentarians. During the war it was used as both an arsenal and prison. Other members of the Culpeper family sided with the Royalists. John, 1st Lord of Culpeper, for example, assisting in helping the king’s son escape, and was rewarded with 5 million acres of land in Virginia, part of the American colonies. Thomas Fairfax was born at Leeds and later moved to America to oversee the Culpeper estate, strengthening the relationship between Leeds Castle and America.
The last private owner of the castle, Lady Baillie, left it to the Leeds Castle Foundation upon her death in 1974. It was opened to the public in 1976, and over a half a million people visit it each year.
Another of William the Conqueror’s accomplishments, Lincoln Castle, in Lincoln, England, was built on the site of a Roman walled fortress. It was completed in 1068, probably as a wooden structure and later replaced with stone. Lincoln Castle is built on two earthen mounds, or mottes, and is only one of two castles in the country to have this distinction. It played a role in both the First and Second Battle of Lincoln in the 12th and 13th centuries. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was used as a prison for both criminals and debtors.
Executions were carried out there, and on the castle grounds are graves of those executed; only the initials of the condemned and date of execution are noted on the markers.
William Frederick Horry, convicted of killing his wife, was the first person executed by Victorian hangman William Marwood by long drop at Lincoln Castle. Marwood developed the “long drop” technique of hanging, which ensured a quicker death than the “short drop” method. Horry’s grave marker at Lincoln Castle simply says “W.F.H. April 1, 1872.”
Now owned by Lincolnshire County Council, parts of Lincoln Castle are open today as a museum. One of the four surviving originals of the Magna Carta, sealed by King John, is in Lincoln Castle. It dates to 1215. An exhibition center focusing on the Magna Carta was opened in April 2015 to coincide with the 800th anniversary of its sealing.
Located in West Sussex, Arundel castle was established by Roger de Montgomery on Christmas Day 1068. It served as the home of the family of the Duke of Norfolk for over 400 years. The castle and earldom have passed through generations almost directly since 1138, with only occasional transference to the crown or other nobles.
Prior to Queen Victoria’s visit in 1876, the castle underwent renovations. Some had complained that it was dark, cold, and unfriendly so a new apartment block was built and lavishly decorated. The queen was favorably impressed and commented on the beauty of the castle and the friendly reception she received. The suite of rooms built for her is still living quarters for the family, but the furniture made for her is on display. More restructuring was done to the castle in the latter half of the 19th century.
Today the castle remains the principal seat of the Dukes of Norfolk. The current dukedom is held by the 18th Duke, the Earl Marshal of England. Most of the castle and grounds are open to the public.
The End of Castle Building
By the 14th century, the golden age of castle building was coming to an end. With the advent of gunpowder, castles were no longer the impregnable fortresses they had once been. The pounding of cannon fire could breach the walls and leave the castle vulnerable and open to attack. Hastening their decline was the policy adopted at the end of the English Civil War to slight all English castles, rendering them useless as fortresses. And once left in a state of abandon and disrepair, local people often pillaged them for their stones and other materials. Once proud citadels were quickly reduced to rubble. But these massive monuments of stone still dot the English landscape, silent witnesses of a bygone age.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Medieval Castles" https://englishhistory.net/middle-ages/medieval-castles/, February 16, 2017