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The remains of Corfe Castle on the Isle of Purbeck near the Dorset coast from the west. Once considered so safe a stronghold that King John established the roayl treasury here.

The word 'castle' is derived from the Latin 'castellon' meaning 'fortress'. It is believed that the first castles were built in France.

Mediaeval government was, more often than not, incapable of guaranteeing peace and order. The feudal landholder, whether lord of the manor or a great magnate, had to ensure the security of his own family and his tennents. The local landholder might erect a defensible manor house but the property of the great magnates was spread throughout the country and necessitated the establishment of several bases, most frequently these took the form of castles.

A wide variety of castles remains to be seen today, from the tiny motte and stone keep of Twynham or Christchurch Castle in Dorset to the great sprawl of Corfe. The larger examples, certainly those like Corfe which attract many visitors, are the product of several centuries of modification and rebuilding as new forms of defense were devised to counter new means of attack.

It should be remembered that, in the rare times of war, the castle would be garrisoned by the lord's armed tennants and the parafinalia of war. For the vast majority of the time however, the castle would be the family home of the Lord much in the way the later country house would have been. When he and his family were away (which was a frequent occurence, particularly as the lands of the magnates were fragmented and they possessed several castles) it would be occupied by only a caretaker (a 'constable') and a few servants.

BibliographyCastle BuildingCastle LifeDesignEdward I
Henry VIIILinksLocallyRomanSaxon Fortifications
The Demise of the CastleThe NormansTime-Line
Iron Age

The Iron Age inhabitants of England lived in hilltop settlements known as 'forts' such as Maiden Castle in Dorset. These were surrounded by massive defensive earthworks consisting of one or more ditches and ramparts surmounted by a palisade.

There is considerable discussion as to whether these huge sites could be effectively defended by the population living within them.

BibliographyCastle BuildingCastle LifeDesignEdward I
Henry VIIIIron AgeLinksLocallySaxon Fortifications
The Demise of the CastleThe NormansTime-Line

The Romans built many military encampments throughout the British province. The Saxon raids of the 2nd and 3rd centuries caused them to build the 'Saxon Shore Forts', huge enclosures covering many tens of acres as at Pevensey in Sussex and Porchester in Hampshire to protect their maritime communications with the continent. The Normans considered these to be impossible to defend without large numbers of men and built their own keeps within the ancient Roman eclosures.

BibliographyCastle BuildingCastle LifeDesignEdward I
Henry VIIIIron AgeLinksLocallyRoman
The Demise of the CastleThe NormansTime-Line
Saxon Fortifications

Throughout much of Britain's Saxon history, the dominant social and political force was the defence against Norse and Danish raids and attempts at invasion. It was thus in Saxon times that the present pattern of villages, more readily defended than isolated homesteads, and counties was established. The sacking of towns, small by modern standards, by the raiders was faught by the establishment of 'burghs' - fortification of entire towns behind defensive ditches and earthen ramparts topped by wooden palisades and sometimes with masonry walls and with restricted access through a small number of gates. The danes also built walls around their towns.

The Saxon 'burgh' is the origin of our word 'borough' and highlights the difference between them and the later castles - the burgh was a communal defense, encompassing the whole settlement, while the castle was the rsidence of the lord and his family, in the years after the Norman conquest, as much for protection from the Saxon town as for any other function.

The English earls and thegns lived in undefended settlements surrounded by palisades or fences designed to keep domestic stock in and wild animals out. The burghs, providing defensible refuge for the Saxons from the raiders, date from the time of King �lfred the Great and his successors.

Examples of Saxon burghs may be found at Christchurch and Poole (where none of the defensive walls remain) and Wareham in Dorset and Cricklade in Wiltshire.

The first few castles in England made their appearance as defensive structures during the reign of Edward the Confessor under the influence of his Norman friends whome he brought over from the continent. They were built either within, or close to the burghs. The Norman conquest of 1066 saw the wholesale building of castles throughout England by the new king and his barons, as much to subdue the Saxon population, as for defence (the Norman writer Richard Fitz Nigel records that '. . . the English lay in ambush for the suspected and hated race of Normans and murdered them secretly in woods and unfrequented places as opportunity offered.').

BibliographyCastle BuildingCastle LifeDesignEdward I
Henry VIIIIron AgeLinksLocallyRoman
Saxon FortificationsThe Demise of the CastleTime-Line
The Normans

The Normans built the first few castles in England during the time of the Confessor but it was after their conquest (they brought pre-fabricated castles with their invasion fleet) that castles sprung up throughout the country.

Ordericus Vitalis records that the Conqeuror ordered the building of castles at Cambridge, Huntingdon, Lincoln, Nottingham, Warwick and York almost immediately after his victory at Senlac.

Under the following year, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that, while Wiliam was in France attending to affairs in Normandy, the co-regents he left in England, Bishop Odo of Bayeux and Earl William Fitz Osborn, wrought castles widely thoughout the kingdom and oppressed the poor people.

BibliographyCastle BuildingCastle LifeEdward I
Henry VIIIIron AgeLinksLocallyRoman
Saxon FortificationsThe Demise of the CastleThe Normans

The primary function of a castle was defense; to be able to concenrate maximum fire-power on any point surrounding the castle and, wherever possible, every advantage was taken of natural features in the landscape when siting a castle.

In flat country, a moat would be constructed. Wet, filled with water, or dry, the moat ensured that attackers were forced to make an uphill attack on the structure while being subjected to a hail of projectiles from the defenders. Frequently the moats was filled with an array of sharpened stakes.

To the Norman invaders, the castle was both safe haven from attack by the local populace and a secure base from which to strike outwards. So valuable were castles to them that the Conqueror's invasion fleet carried prefabricated castles which could be erected speedily.

As soon as an area had been conquered, then the Normans raised a castle from which they could control all within riding distance of it. These early structures were wooden and of the 'motte and bailey' type, nowhere near approaching the huge and complex masonry-built structures which attract many a visitor today.

The first Norman castles were crude and temporary affairs. They were erected as and when needed and just as readily abandoned or dismantled when no longer required. A defensive ditch was first dug and the spoil from this piled up and compacted within it a mound, an artificial hill giving command of the surrounding area, known as the 'motte'. The edge of the mound was protected by a palisade to form a protected area known as the 'bailey' used to house both men and horses. In the centre of the bailey, a tower (later known as the created 'keep') was raised to provide storage with the accomodations of the lord above.

Many of the original wooden 'motte and bailey' castles were abandoned in time but those which remained were rebuilt in stone. Some of the stone castle were modest replacements of their wooden predecessors, as at Christchurch in Dorset, but more usually the masonry replacements where much larger and more complicated such as the huge complex which is Corfe Castle about a dozen miles to the west.

As the king's permission was required to erect a castle, many early castles which had been built without the monarch's permission were ordered to be pulled down.

Initially built to protect the 'new' Norman lord and his followers from the local population, as the Normans became 'English' and accepted as an inevitable part of the community, the castles became a refuge for not only the lord and his followers, but the local population as well.

The earliest of the stone-built keeps were square in plan but it was soon discovered that the corners were vulnerable to mining. A tunnel would be dug by the attackers until the foundations of the corner of the castle were reached and then, piece by piece, the foundations would be removed while the walls were supported with timbers. When ready, a fire would be started to burn the timbers and cause the collapse of the walls. It is these medieval tunneling operations to capture castles which have left us with the modern words 'mining', 'miner', etc. Castles were soon built with corner towers which were not only less susceptible to mining, but also allowed the firing of missiles at attackers along the exterior of the castle walls.

BibliographyCastle LifeDesignEdward IHenry VIII
Iron AgeLinksLocallyRomanSaxon Fortifications
The Demise of the CastleThe NormansTime-Line
Castle Building

To prevent them being breached, the walls of the castle were thick, as much as six metres (20 feet) at the base, tapering to 2.5 metres (7-9 feet) at the top. To save time and expense, double walls of masonry blocks were built and the space between was filled with unshaped masonry and rubble. As the walls rose above the height where the mason could reach, wooden beams would be inserted into the wall, to create a scaffold. When the scaffolding was removed, a series of small holes in the wall would be left which are known as "putlogs".

The masonry of the walls was 'cemented' together with lime mortar. The mortar was made of quicklime mixed with sand and water. To make the quicklime, limestone was crushed and burnt with charcoal or coal.

The lime mortar was vulnerable to being washed out of the joints over time by rain so the castle would have been rendered with lime mortar outside and in. Then, the whole structure, already an imposing feature of the local landscape, would be whitewashed to stand out for many miles around.

BibliographyCastle BuildingCastle LifeDesignHenry VIII
Iron AgeLinksLocallyRomanSaxon Fortifications
The Demise of the CastleThe NormansTime-Line
Edward I

The greatest builder of medieval castles was Edward I who, having conquered Gwynned in Wales, and built a series of castles like Conway (built in on 4.5 years), to overawe and from which to subdue the Welsh. Edward's huge castle-building programme left the monarch near-bankrupt for almost two decades after its completion.

BibliographyCastle BuildingDesignEdward IHenry VIII
Iron AgeLinksLocallyRomanSaxon Fortifications
The Demise of the CastleThe NormansTime-Line
Castle Life

originally, the lord and lady would eat and sleep in the great hall, warmed by the hearth at its centre, with their household. By the latter part of the 13th century, the lord and lady had gradually withdrawn from the great hall to their own apartments.

BibliographyCastle BuildingCastle LifeDesignEdward I
Iron AgeLinksLocallyRomanSaxon Fortifications
The Demise of the CastleThe NormansTime-Line
Henry VIII

To defend the country against the danger of invasion from continental Europe and particularly from France, Henry VIII built some twenty castles along the South Coast. Examples are;-

Poole Harbour
Brownsea Castle

On the southern extremity of Brownsea Island, to command shipping entering and leaving the narrow mouth of the harbour between Sandbanks and the Studland Peninsula. The castle burnt down in 1896 and was subsequently rebuilt.

Portland Castle

Portland Castle (1539) to the north of the headland, protecting the great natural harbour which is part of Weymouth Bay, cost less than £5,000 to build and is still in use. Designed for ordnance in times when archers were still important in warfare, it comprises a two-storey tower, a casement for the main battery and wings for garrison quarters.

Sandsfoot Castle

Built in 1539 to protect the great natural harbour which is part of Weymouth Bay from the north, is now a ruin.

Hurst Castle

Protecting the Solent.

Deal Castle

nr. Deal.

Sandown Castle

nr. Deal, now washed away by the sea.

Walmer Castle

nr. Deal, the official residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.

BibliographyCastle BuildingCastle LifeDesignEdward I
Henry VIIIIron AgeLinksLocallyRoman
Saxon FortificationsThe NormansTime-Line
The Demise of the Castle

The castle with its high walls remained the supreme defensive structure while the pricipal weapons of the time were hand-held. The invention of gunpowder and the canon allowed the defensive walls of the castle to be easily breached and they soon lost their defensive function.

Another factor in the demise of the castle was the emergence of strong centralised governments throughout Europe with monarchs frowning on potentially rebellious subjects possessing castles.

BibliographyCastle BuildingCastle LifeDesignEdward I
Henry VIIIIron AgeLinksLocallyRoman
Saxon FortificationsThe Demise of the CastleThe Normans

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Castle BuildingCastle LifeDesignEdward IHenry VIII
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The Demise of the CastleThe NormansTime-Line

Timber Castles
  by Robert Higham + Philip Barker, publisher
Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA, 1992

Medieval Fortifications
  by JR Kenyon, publisher Leicester University Press, Leicester and London, 1990

Castles of England, Scotland and Wales
  by Paul Johnson, publisher First Harper, New York, 1992

Piers Plowman
  by William Langland, C14th

Life in a Medieval Castle
  by Joseph and Frances Gies, publisher Harper and Row, New York, 1974

Castles of Britain + Ireland
  by Plantagenet Somerset Fry, publisher Abbeville Press, New York, 1997

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