Tuesday, 17 Jul 2018

The Castle in History

The Castle in History

Although this book is intended as a kind of architectural handbook which he who runs may read – and others even in motor-cars may glance at – there is in fact little or no point in looking at buildings divorced from their proper history. All buildings reflect the society which produced them, and none can be understood without some knowledge of that society. The effort required is richly rewarding, moreover, for architecture is itself a part of history, direct evidence of, and immediate access to the past. The contemplation of historic buildings thus sets up a two-way process in the mind of the beholder: the more one knows about the society which created them, the better they will be understood; and the more informed one’s contemplation and inspection of them, the deeper and more appreciative will become one’s knowledge of the period from which they derive.

The Castle in History
The Castle in History
The Castle in History
The Castle in History

The Castle in History

The need to make the effort is particularly true of castles, for they are probably at once the best known and least understood of medieval monuments. Everyone has some notion of the purpose and function of a church or a great house even if his actual knowledge of, let us say, the liturgy and theology of medieval Catholicism, or the lifestyle of an eighteenth-century aristocrat, is sadly scanty. With castle it is otherwise, and even worse, and they suffer especially from that near-universal ignorance of the so called ‘Middle Ages’ which is characteristic of our philistine age and concomitant educational system. Nowadays, to call anything ‘medieval’ is itself an insult, while to call it ‘feudal’ is ten times more offensive; and if castles are not seen merely as vaguely romantic ruins, they are seen through an idiot haze of bold, bad barons, deep and dismal dungeons, and boiling oil. At best their context is thought to be almost exclusively military, and that too is against them, since in our time one must be against warfare as one used to be against sin.

The Castle in History
The Castle in History

The Castle in History

Let us therefore devote a few pages to a brief pursuit and capture of the truth. The first thing to say and insist is that the castle was always a residence as well as a fortress, that its residential role was at least as fundamental as the military and at least 50 per cent of its purpose. The cased, in short, if we wish to define it (and we must), was a fortified residence and a residential fortress and this duality is essential to it and to our understanding of it. The fact that a great man, for whatever reason, wished to live or spend part of his time there, may, for a start, go a long way to explain why any given castle is where it is, as well as more obviously explaining the abundance of grand residential accommodation that will invariably be found within it, or the fact that the fortunate few still do live in castles.

Words as well as buildings comprise history, and in France and the French language the word chateau has come to mean any large house of a certain pretension. In the long, complex process of the decline of the castle in the so-called late ‘medieval’ and early ‘modern’ periods, what actually happened was that the military importance of the castle faded away, to leave it either increasingly ruined and abandoned or as a stately home, obsolete but with a particular claim to ancient nobility. The castle in the days of its dominance was the fortified residence of a lord – any lord, by no means necessarily the king or prince – and we must add that it was seriously fortified, able to withstand armies, for there were always those half-way houses lightly or moderately defended for the sake of domestic security but not regarded by contemporaries as proper castles. We as historians call such places ‘fortified manors’, and their spirit is that of Patrick Forbes before rebuilding the plundered Corse Castle in Aberdeenshire in c. 1500: ‘Please God, I will build me such a house as thieves will need to knock at ere they enter.’

The Castle in History
The Castle in History

The Castle in History

As the fortified residence of a lord, the castle had what we can only call a private as opposed to a communal function: it sheltered not a community of many families like a town or city, but one man, albeit a great man, his family, his guests, his household and retainers. It is, as we shall see, above all a center of lordship, but meanwhile it is its private as opposed to communal nature, and its residential function, which set it apart from all other known types of fortification in the history of the West, both earlier and later.

To dismiss the latter first, all modern fortifications – in England, let us say from the Tudor coastal forts of the sixteenth century onwards – are purely military fortresses and have no residential function in the domestic sense. Similarly in earlier periods Roman fortifications are public military works with no domestic residential function, and their walled cities, towns and camps obviously communal fortifications, as are Iron Age fortresses, Anglo-Saxon burghs, Henry the Fowler’s derivative fortresses in Germany, and Viking camps.

The Castle in History
The Castle in History

The Castle in History

Often the difference is still visible to the naked eye since the difference between private and communal must often be one of scale, as when, for example, in England the Normans planted their relatively small castles within the preexisting and far larger Roman and Anglo-Saxon fortifications of Pevensey or Portchester or London, or within the Iron Age ramparts of Dover or Old Sarum. The domestically residential role of the castle is fundamental to it, and equally fundamental – but not more – is its military.

That military purpose is well known but seldom fully understood. While even body knows about the castle’s defensive function in resisting a siege, that is only half at most, and probably less then half, of its military role. It is true that considerations of defensive strength determine the castle’s plan, form and architectural development, for it is a stronghold which must successfully resist attack as necessary; but the fundamental military purpose of that stronghold is offensive rather than defensive, to control the surrounding countryside by means of the mounted men within it. This explains the high proportion in garrisons of knights and other mounted men-at-arms who obviously do not need their horses to defend the castle’s walls and towers (though they may make sorties and forays since the best defense is not always passive), and the range of the castle in this respect is the range of the war-horse earning an armoured rider – say ten miles if you wish to return before nightfall and more if you do not.

The Castle in History
The Castle in History

The Castle in History

Warfare was and is about the control of the land, and in the feudal period he who would control the land must first hold, or take, the castles. Hence all those sieges, and the castle dominates the warfare of the age because it dominates the land. One may thus begin to see the supreme military (and therefore political) value of the castle, achieved, moreover, with an important economy of manpower. Because of the developing strength of fortification, because throughout the period of the castle’s ascendancy defence was in the ascendant over attack, garrisons could be and were comparatively small; yet that small force could and did hold the district in which it was based unless it was locked up by a full-scale and prolonged investment involving a far greater force, which it was difficult to bring to bear and still more difficult to sustain. In the event, it took King John, who was no mean soldier especially in the art of siege-craft, almost two months in October and November 1215 to take Rochester castle, vitally placed to command the crossing of the Medway and the south-eastern approaches to London.

In the siege of Kenilworth in 1266 – a last-ditch affair of honor and despair on the part of the defenders – the castle held out for no less than six months, and then only yielded upon terms, against all the force of his father’s kingdom which the young Lord Edward, son of Henry III, could muster. In its military role as in its residential role, and still more in the combination and total integration of the two, the castle demonstrates its feudalistic. The warfare of the feudal period in the West, from the tenth and eleventh centuries, let us say, to the fifteenth, was dominated by heavy cavalry and castles. The elite of the former, especially in the earlier centuries, were the knights), superbly mounted and equipped, with the full-time training and dedicated horsemanship (both from youth up) necessary to fight effectively on horseback, and Av hose specialist shock-tactic of the charge with couched lance (locked under the arm, all momentum of heavy horse and rider focused at the point) was expected to earn- all before it in the field and usually did.

The Castle in History
The Castle in History

The Castle in History

Feudalism in the beginning was all about knights, the provision and maintenance of this highly expensive military commodity. Knights and castles go together, as we have seen, and doubly so: for while castles were the fortified bases from which the mobility of knights might operate, yet also they were in themselves an answer to cavalry which otherwise dominated warfare. Anna Comnena, daughter of the Eastern Emperor at Constantinople, in the early twelfth century, much impressed by what she had seen and heard, declared in striking phrase that the charging Frankish knight would pierce the walls of Babylon; but in reality one could not take a castle by a cavalry charge. Further this military elite, riding proudly in the full panoply of war, were a social elite also, exclusive because expensive.

The knights constituted the secular ruling-class of feudal Europe, for if not all knights were great men, all great men were knights. And great men – kings and princes, earls and counts and barons, with other knights in their train – were the lords of castles. The castle is surely the appropriate setting for this military aristocracy whose members were required to be both lords and mounted warriors, and never shows its feudality more than in that combination of noble residence and fortress which is unique to it. The feudality of the castle may also be demonstrated by date; that is to say, the period of its dominance in peace and war coincides with that period in the history of the West which for other reasons we call feudal. The earliest surviving castles in Europe, at Doue-la-Fontaine and Langeais, both in France and in the area of the Loire valley, date from the second half of the tenth century, the time of the establishment of feudal society and of the formation of those new feudal principalities into which France was to be divided (in this case the counties of Blois and Anjou respectively), created by the imposition of new lordship by means of knights and castles and the bonds of vassalage.

The Castle in History
The Castle in History

The Castle in History

At Doue-la-Fontaine, indeed, we may see from the recent spectacular excavations the origin of the castle before our eyes, as a previously unfortified late-Carolingian lordly residence, burnt out in war, was fortified and made into a strong tower about the year 950 by Theobald, count of Blois. At the other end of the spectrum the decline of the castle coincides with the decline of feudal society itself- in England, let us say, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – and is to be attributed to that, and not to the introduction of gunpowder three centuries before. The residences of kings, princes and magnates, the centers at need of their military power, the centers also of social life and of much local government, of rents and sendees and the nexus of feudal obligations there is no doubt that castles stood for lordship in men’s minds and were the expression as well as much of the substance of lordly power and control.

‘You shall have the lordship in castle and in tower,’ said the envoys of Henry IPs rebellious son, seeking to win over the King of Scots to their enterprise by the offer of the northern counties of England. The contemporary word applied to the architecturally dominant feature of a castle – often, but not always, a great tower – is donjon; the word still survives more or less unsullied in France (cf. The baseless connotations of close confinement and durance vile now attached to the English ‘dungeon’) and is derived from the Latin dominium, meaning lordship. Castles tend to be ignored by medieval architectural historians, presumably on the ground that as purely functional buildings they have nothing to do with art.

The Castle in History
The Castle in History

The Castle in History

Setting aside the facts that churches are functional also, and that castles contained individual buildings, including chapels, as fine as the age could make them (e.g. St George’s Chapel, Windsor) we may urge that medieval military architecture is as deliberately symbolic as ecclesiastical, and for that and other reasons deserves to be taken as seriously.

“The Architecture of Castles”

Allen Brown

 

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