The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
On Old English Castles

by C. Fortescue Yonge.
Volume 7, no. 7, 1896, pgs. 527-537

[Charlotte Fortescue Yonge, 1856-1940, daughter of the Rev. John Eyre Yonge, master at Eton, was cousin to the children's writer Charlotte Mary Yonge. She never married.]

                   "The castle court . . .
    He look'd and saw that all was ruinous.
    Here stood a shattered archway, plum'd with fern:
    And here had fall'n a great part of a tower,
    Whole, like a crag that tumbles from the cliff:
    And like a crag was gay with wilding flowers:
    And high above a piece of turret stair
    Worn by the feet that now were silent, wound
    Bare to the sun, and monstrous ivy stems
    Claspt the gray walls with hairy fibred arms
    And suck'd the joining of stones, and look'd,
    A knot, beneath, of snakes, aloft, a grove."

Of all the ways in which the mystery of long ago comes home to us, there are none so powerful as old historic castles. Enriched with the art of succeeding ages, they roll out for us a lasting panorama of the buried days. To find out the true story of the building and builders of a castle, taken from legends handed down from generation to generation, or from carefully cherished MSS.--what can be of deeper interest to anyone caring at all for history or romance? Or, where, as is of course usually the case, the true facts cannot be ascertained, probabilities can be weaved together and so the general history of its erection and early possessors can be arrived at, even if the actual individual ones cannot be perfectly "placed." A close study of any old building leads one into many paths, which throw side-lights on past ages, and on the people who lived therein. Sir Gilbert Scott says "The history of architecture is the history of civilization, for architecture unites and embraces the sister arts, and art is the visible exponent of civilization."

There are no counties in England and Wales which have not their grand old castles, though Monmouthshire is perhaps pre-eminent, so that, like Germany is termed the land of castles, Monmouthshire might claim to be called the county of them. The Duke of Beaufort alone owns sixteen, or more, among them one of the most beautiful--Raglan, or as formerly spelt, Rhaglan.

There are few existing castles, or ruins of them, standing now in our day, which are of a date previous to the Conquest, though some built at that time were erected upon the sites of Roman fortresses, or other buildings. Out of forty-nine castles enumerated in Domesday Survey, Arundel alone is mentioned as having been standing in the time of the Confessor. The old Saxon chroniclers speak of no castles, and when invaded, the Saxons and Britons did not retire to artificial strongholds, but to natural fortresses, such as marshes, woods, etc; as, for instance, King Alfred when attacked by the Danes, retired to the fen districts and to forests, and when he had gathered followers enough, sallied out to fight.

The old Roman stations--of which places the chief sign now oftentimes is the name--were built to guard the coast, or were fixed with reference to the lines of road throughout the country, so maintaining a general plan of communication between military posts; Brancaster ["Castle Rising" and its castle], in Norfolk, for example, fulfilled both these conditions, and was in Roman times garrisoned by Dalmation cavalry under a general designated Count of the Saxon shore. These Roman fortified stations must not be confused with castles; when Bea speaks of Putta as bishop "castelli Cantuari orum," some have taken it as a proof of there being a castle at Rochester prior to the Conquest; however, from the context, it seems evident that Beda means castellum as signifying castrum, i.e., a fortified station. As a fact such Roman stations bore no analogy to the isloated citadels erected in England during the Norman period, and later, except in so far as both naturally became in their respective periods nuclei of towns, owing to people thronging to spots which afforded protection; the reasons for building the former we have stated, and the latter were built with a view to the advantage of the owner, and the defence of his individual estate. [see Thomas Hudson Turner's "Domestic Architecture"]

[The "Brancaster Castle" of Downton Abbey is actually Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, and was also used in Harry Potter.]

One reason why William I found this country so easy to conquer lay in the fact that there were so few strongholds, or castles, to offer any resistance to his progress into the interior, and then he kept possession by erecting castles all over the land, in which he placed his favourite nobles. These nobles, in their independence, grew so turbulent and tyrannical that Matthew Paris, speaking of castles, says that they were nests of devils and dens of thieves; and things gradually grew so intolerable that in the treaty between Stephen and Henry II it was agreed that all the castles built within a certain period should be demolished, so as to lessen the number. At that period there were over 1100. The various parts of a castle usually included the following--moat, outer wall, watch-tower, entrance gate with portcullis and drawbridge, keep, hall, chapel, well, stables, kitchen, larder, buttery, bake-house, brew-house, slaughter-house, and cellar.

The moat, otherwise termed ditch, graft, or fosse, was, of course, the most simple and effective defence to a building, and a preventive to undermining which might be carried out were a wall the only outside protection to the castle grounds. When there was no moat, as in the case of a castle built on a hill, or cliff, like so many in Germany, there would sometimes be a covered way built round the base of the tower exposed to danger; on the top of this covered way, a walk, protected by a battlement which would serve also to protect the entrance and was an additional station for archery beside those which were above on the top of the tower: so should the outer wall be undermined, yet it would not affect the safety of the tower itself-- Rudesheim on the Rhine [probably Ehrenfels] is a good example of this, as its 15th century, lofty, round tower is thus protected.

The outside wall enclosing the castle buildings, was termed the ballium or bayley: if there were two, the inner and the outer bayley. It was usually built high, and flanked with towers.

The watch-tower, or barbican, was generally the highest point of a castle, to enable the inhabitants to descry the enemy at a great distance; it was sometimes situated beyond the moat, and when that was the case was connected with the ballim by a drawbridge, and formed the entrance into the castle: e.g. at Framlingham and Canterbury. For the repairing of these watch-towers, a tax called barbacanage was levied on certain lands belonging to the castle. The entrance into the ballium was commonly through a strong machiolated and embattled gate, between two towers, and secured by a portcullis. Over this gate were rooms originally intended for the porter of the castle; the towers served for the corps de garde. The keep was one of the, or we might say, the most important part of a castle; it was always very strongly built, with walls specially massive; it was sometimes surrounded with a moat, and had a drawbridge and machiolated gate. It was the citadel or last retreat of the garrison. In large castles it was generally a high, square tower of four or five stories, having turrets at each angle; in these turrets were staircases, and frequently, as at Dover and Rochester, a well, a good precaution, as in case a garrison took refuge in the keep, other wells would be shut off from them. The keep of the Tower of London is named the White Tower, a name dating from 1240, when it was white-washed; it is not quite a square, the measurements being 107 by 118 feet; it has two right angled corners and on the north-east is the great circular clock turret, and on the south-east the apse of the chapel projects. The original entrance was probably on the south side, and high above the ground, being reached, as usual in Norman castles, by an external stair which could be removed in time of danger. The Castle of Trematon, in Cornwall, has an oval keep, but the date is unknown, except that it is probably pre-Norman, as are other Cornish castles; e.g. Tintagel, Lestormel [more commonly called Restormel], and Launceston.
There was always a large hall, with one, or more, small private rooms attached: when it was frequently the case in earlier times, there was only one, it was the bedroom of the lord of the castle and his wife; this room would be on the upper floor, and called the solar (the sole one) or sollere; the chamber beneath it on a level with the hall, was called the cellar and used as such: the staircase leading to the bedroom might be inside or outside the hall, and sometimes across one end of the hall on a level with the solar ran a balcony, whence the occupants of the solar could look own on those of the hall. In a survey of Newcastle Castle, taken in 1335, we have a perfect description of such a hall, having two end gables, with a circular window in each, and an adjoining chamber which was over a cellar. The hall and chamber must have been quite distinct from the keep, because the latter is still entire, and no part of it corresponds to the preceding details. In regard to the flooring of these rooms, the upper one was generally boarded, but the ground floor was simply the natural soil well rammed down: there is a writ of Henry III ordering a room on the ground floor in Windsor Castle to be "boarded like a ship."

The Chapel was sometimes placed alongside of the great hall, occasionaly formed the upper chamber in a separate tower, or else stood out at a right angle from a corner of the hall as in Berkeley Castle [Chapel exterior; interior]. At Raglan the chapel was parallel with the hall, a staircase between their two walls leading up to a picture gallery. The chapel, erected within the precincts of a castle, was often a very sumptuous and much decorated building: for instance, St. George's, at Windsor, and in [John Henry] Parker's "Domestic Architecture" [a republication or continuation of T. Hudson Turner's book of the same name] are specially mentioned in the chapels belonging to Colchester and Ormsbro Castles (of the 12th century), of Beverstone (14th century) and of Igtham [pronounced "item;" chapel] (15th century). In some chapels the west end was divided into two stories by a wooden floor; this was probably to accommodate the tenants of different stories in the domestic part of the castle. Of the two chapels in the Tower of London that of St. John in the White Tower is nearly a century older than that of St. Peter, which was not build till towards the end of the reign of Henry II. St. John's, built by William the Conqueror, is a very complete example of a Norman chapel. It consists of a plain vaulted chamber, with a circular apse at the east end; surrounding the apse is a chevet, continued along each side to the west end, as an "ambulatory" or aisle, and divided from the body of the chapel by twelve massive columns, and two half columns, supporting thirteen arches; there is a gallery, which opens northward, near the eastern end, into the passage from the principal chambers of the White Tower. In 1550, the furniture used in public worship was removed, and soon after the chapel was made a depository for the public records, etc. [Text from The Authorised Guide to the Tower of London, 1894]

The situation of the well was an important matter, as in early times a frequent mode of taking a castle was by cutting off the supply of water, thereby compelling the garrison to surrender. The deep wells made often remain in use to this day, as at Carisbrooke. [Well-house] There was often a shaft over the well through every story of the tower up to the battlements at the top, with openings on each floor, so that the bucket might be stopped wherever wanted. Good examples of such may be seen in Rochester Castle [or here; well], in Red Castle, Shropshire [the Moreton Corbet Castle ruins, located in Hawkstone Park], and many others.

With regard to the stables, they had to be very roomy, as in war time horses could not be safely picketed outside the castle walls, and in civil times also great accommodation might be needed in the case of horses belonging to a guest, when it might have been considered inhospitable not to afford them stable-shelter. Some nobles used to travel with an enormous train of mounted retainers and attendants, e.g., in 1265 Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, is mentioned as having 162 mounted followers with him when he went to visit his Countess at Wallingford Castle: on his arrival there the number of horses in the stables amounted to 334.

The author Nequam [the scholar Alexander Neckam, 1157-1217, Abbot of Cirencester Abbey], temp. ["in the time of"] Henry II., Richard I., and John, in describing parts of a castle specially enumerates kitchen, larder, sewery or cellar. It was, of course, also necessary in war time to have means of making the various articles of food for a large number of people upon the spot, so breweries, baking houses and slaughter-houses would all be required. As for numbers, the garrison alone might amount to some hundreds, to say nothing of the people from the neighbourhood round, who sought shelter there. Raglan could support a garrison of 800 men. In the household rolls of the 13th century the daily expenditure is generally classed under the following heads:--1st, the amount of bread, wine, and beer supplied from the sewery and butlery; 2nd, the cost and quantity of provisions furnished from the kitchen; 3rd, the expenses of the stables, including farrier's work; and in some accounts there is a fourth item relating to the brewery ["Domestic Architecture"]. The kitchen was never at a great distance from the hall, and often they were connected by a covered passage.

The dungeons where prisoners were confined were often termed pits; not because of excavated in the soil, or rock; but from the fact that the prisoners were lowered into them through trap doors, or well-like shafts: the pits themselves were formed by towers built on the surface. It is rare to find underground chamber, or dungeons in the remains of mediaeval castles in this country: there are none in the Tower of London and it does not appear that there ever were any. Oubliettes [dungeon pit accessed via trap door], or places where they are supposed to have existed, are still seen in many of our castles, the word is, of course, from the French, oublier, to forget, and they were probably used far more in France and Germany, than in England: they were of various sorts; when inland, they were usually made with a wooden floor over a deep, dry pit, where, by drawing a bolt, the unhappy victim was precipitated to the bottom; afterwards quicklime would be thrown upon him, and he would indeed be soon "oublie." The oubliettes at the castle of Clisson, near Nantes, are chasms between the walls, and of great depth, the lower part which is worked down through the solid rock, being probably 60 feet, or even more. In the Castle of Chillon, the oubliette is in a turret, corbelled out over the lake of Geneva, and approached by a door-way from the torture chamber; it is simply a descending spiral staircase of three steps; a pinioned person descending this in the dark, found no fourth step, and would be hurled headlong into the lake far below.

A feature in many castles, especially in the 14th century, and later were the ward-robes, or garde-robes; they were apartments where the heavy and costly cloths and stuffs required for the apparel of the house-hold were kept, and where the tailors worked; sometimes these apartments were underground, and had no opening into them, except from above, which has often led to their being erroneously termed dungeons for prisoners. In some cases there were several rooms as garde-robes, and one of the principal towers is given up to them, as in Langley Castle, Northumberland, where are 12 chambers, four on each floor, with recessed arches in the wall, four in a row, and three rows, one over another; the floors and partitions being now destroyed, they have a very singular appearance. [Langley Castle is now a hotel.] In other cases, as at Broughton Castle, Oxfordshire, when neither turrets nor towers were conveniently placed for the purpose, the privy chambers are boldly corbelled out from the face of the wall.

We have considered the defences, the living rooms, the chapel, the domestic offices, etc.; we will now think of the amusements. Where sufficient space was found, a tilting ground was considered almost a necessary; at Carisbrooke it is a plot of level green sward, with raised turf banks all round it, which served a double purpose--of the enclosure of the lists, and a vantage ground from which spectators might see the sport. At Gawsworth, also, the ancient tilting ground still remains. [Aerial video clip] Later, bowling-greens sometimes took the place of tilting grounds, and are found in many castle grounds; e.g., at Dunster, in Somerset, which is a 15th century castle, built on the site of one dating from the Conqueror's time.

Before the invention of gunpowder, a castle strongly built was almost impregnable, and the only hopes of besiegers would lie in starving out the garrison, or in treachery. It is true, they could sometimes succeed in undermining the walls, under cover of a temporary pent-house, called a cat, or sow; William of Malmesbury thus describes the machine--"It is constructed of slight timbers, the roof covered with boards, and wicker-work, and the sides protected with undressed hides, to protect those who are within, who proceed to undermine the walls." Their opponents from the castle walls above, would hurl down stones upon the "cat," and pour down boiling oil, or water, hoping to kill their enemies below. Another mode of assault was to build a moveable tower; Froissart is very circumstantial in his account of one used at the siege of Reole, by the Earl of Derby, who had lain before that place nine weeks: he caused two towers, each three stories high to be built with large beams of wood, and each tower was placed on four small wheels, or trucks, and the sides towards the town covered with boiled leather, to guard it from fire, and to resist the darts. On each story were placed 100 archers. These towers were pushed by the force of men to the city wall, the moat having been filled up while they were building. From these towers the soldiers made such vigorous discharges that none of their opponents could show themselves on the ramparts, save under cover of shields. Other machines were made for hurling weighty missiles over a wall, and various were the objects thrown! Huge stones, dead horses, and sometimes living men: as was done by John, Duke of Normandy, a son of Philip e Valois, when he besieged the Count de Hainhault, in the Low Countries, and whom he thereby obliged to capitulate, on account of the infection caused in the town. Camden mentions it as done by the Turks, at Negropont. The boiled leather spoken of above, was also used as armour sometimes instead of metal, an account of its lighter weight. Chaucer speaks of it, under the usual appellation of cuirbouilly, in his description of the armour of Sire Thopas--

    "His jambeaux were of cuir-bouly
    His swerde's sheth of ivory,
    His helm of latoun bright."

[latoun: Latten-brass; brass hammered into thin sheets]

Having considered the general parts in the building of a castle, we will now speak of the special features of some particular ones, selected rather at haphazard.

Raglan [aerial video clip] is one of the most beautiful, in ruins, which is peculiar in being the effect, not of time, as are so many others, but of one special siege; it was built in the reign of Henry V, on the site of one of the Conqueror's castles, erected to command some passes into Wales. After the battle of Naseby, Charles I here found shelter for three months, in 1645: one of the prettiest of the upper rooms, with remains of three windows overlooking the park, is called King Charles' room. The year following, it was besieged by the late Parliamentarians, under Fairfax, its owner, the first Marquis of Worcester, then an old man of 84, only surrendered after a long and gallant defence, during which part of the south wall was blown up, and further resistance useless.

Among the castles dismantled by order of Edward IV during the wars of the Roses, was Grosmont, in Monmouthsire: tradition speaks of it as the "Castle of the Red Rose," and suggests that the Lancastrian party assumed the badge from the red roses growing there in profusion.

Conwy is very interesting, as an example,--almost the only one--of a castle, with its adjoining town very little unchanged since mediaeval times.

Cardiff is partly in ruins, including the old keep. Some rooms in one tower have some few years since been very elaborately decorated with wood-carving, marble-inlaying, and frescoes; the Chaucer room has a series of paintings from his poems. It is a very graceful way of blending the past with the present--wandering down from the ruined, ivy-covered keep, to the lawn with peacocks strutting to and fro, passing through the hall where is a tryptych of Hubert Van Eyck, to the rooms of modern paintings from old poems.

[YouTube has an 11-minute historical video of Cardiff Castle. You can see phtos of the castle interior as remodled by William Burges in the 1860's: start at The Victorian Web's page on William Burges and scroll down to Cardiff Castle (filed under "Homes for Rich and Very Rich"). There are seven pages (seven rooms) full of images. But no evidence of a Van Eyck tryptych.]

Colchester is evidently on the remains of an old building, from the quantity of Roman bricks all over it: indeed the eastern wall is chiefly composed of them. The former building is believed to have been the residence of the wife of Constantine for some time. It is very massively built, and some of the wall is 30 feet thick. It suffered a severe siege in the civil wars, and finally surrendered to the Parliament.

[The oldest tomb of a Roman soldier in England and other Roman era relics are in Colchester Castle's museum; view a 10-minute video on YouTube.]

There was also a castle at Rochester in pre-Norman times, as mention is made of the Danes besieging it in 884, when it suffered much, an it was afterwards re-built by William the Conqueror.

Warkworth, which was built in 1158-73, is described in the survey by Bellysys, in the time of Henry VIII, as a "marvellous proper dongeoun of viii towyres all joined in one howse together," which gives a very fair idea of it. The keep was re-built about 1435 by Henry Percy on the foundations of the Norman one.

Framlingham, in Suffolk, which was re-built or repaired about 1165, having been dismantled by Henry II, was a large and important fortress, of which a great part of the outer wall and square towers remain. The internal arrangements of the castle are entirely destroyed. The gable of the hall-roof can be seen against one wall. [5-min video tour of the ruins]

Carisbrooke Castle is a good study for many periods; the polygonal keep is Norman, the gatehouse, temp. Edward IV. The old well, the oubliette, the tilting ground, etc., can all be seen. [Brief aerial "postcard" and drone footage]

Tattershall is a 15th century castle, built by Thomas Cromwell, the Lord Treasurer whose arms occur in several places in the work; it is built of brick, as is the case with many old buildings in the Eastern Counties, where stone was not easily procured. Probably brick was never entirely disused from the time of the Romans downwards. The chief English quarries for stone used in the 12th and 13th centuries were at Pevensey, Corfe, Reigate, Folkestone, and at Egremont, in Cumberland; of course there were many minor ones, but these were of most note.

The latest edifice built in England with any show of being a strong hold, seems to be Longford Castle, which was erected in 1591. Some of the work that gives the fullest details of castles, and their building, are Turner's "Domestic Architecture," "Military Architecture" by [Eugene-Emmanuel] Viollet le Duc, [Samuel and Nathaniel] Buck's "Antiquities" [view their engravings] and [Francis] Grose's "Antiquities." Also histories of particular buildings, such as [William] Hepworth Dixon's "Her Majesty's Tower," and the various county archaeological and other papers. "The Middle Ages," by E. L. Cutts, has good accounts of mediaeval modes of defending and attacking castles. Of works in fiction "The Dove in the Eagle's Nest" (C. M. [Charlotte Mary] Yonge) gives capital descriptions of a German castle, and the life there in mediaeval times; Harrison Ainsworth dwells much on different parts of the buildings in the "Tower of London" and "Windsor Castle"; "St. George and St. Michael" gives a good history of Raglan Castle, and the manner of the siege there.

When exploring a castle, and hearing scraps of conversation uttered by other sightseers, we are often reminded of Besant's charming old Gilead P. Beck [from the novel "The Golden Butterfly"] and his hash of historical recollections, who jumbled kings, mixed up cardinals, and tried by the recovery of old associations to connect the venerable pile (Windsor Castle) with the past.

"From one of those windows, I guess" he said, pointing his long arm vaguely round the narrow lattices, "Charles came out to be beheaded, while Oliver Cromwell spurted ink in his face. It was rough on the poor king. Seems to me kings very often do have a rough time. And perhaps, too, that Cardinal Thomas a'Beckett, when he told Henry IV that he wished he'd served his country as well as he'd loved his God, it was on this very terrace. Perhaps"--but here his musings stopped, and so must this short paper.

Proofread by LNL, who had way too much fun finding castle image links, Oct. 2020