Origins of the English Castle

I fell off the blogging wagon these past few weeks, but I’m back, continuing on with a series of posts on Castles. Part 1 is here.
Until the Norman Conquest in 1066, the majority of English fortifications consisted of wooden structures built on top of earlier sites of power: hill forts, Romans garrisons, and walled towns or burhs.


Hill Forts


“Pre-Roman fortifications frequently consist of massive earthworks, and the visitor is usually astonished at the huge ditches and embankments which were created on hill tops by humans labouring with primitive tools” (Warner, page 15).
An example of these Iron Age forts includes Maiden Castle in Dorset.



Roman Garrisons

“During the third and fourth centuries, the Romans built a chain of forts along the south-eastern English coast, with the intention of repulsing Saxon invaders.” (Warner, page 18).
“[T]he Roman constructions were not really castles in the sense of the later day. They were forts built to be manned by large professional garrisons, and consequently they were not required to have great intrinsic defensive strength” (Gies, page 11).
Pevensey Castle is an example of a Roman fort that was converted into a castle in later years.



Walled Towns

“The burhs built by the Romans’ Saxon successors were similarly fortifications but not castles—communally owned, walled enclosures protecting towns, each encompassing a much larger area than that of the castle, and defended by a large garrison” (Gies, page 12).
According to Wikipedia, many burhs were founding during the reign of Alfred the Great. You can see a map of burh locations here. A copyrighted rendering of a burh can be found here.




As with any generalization, there were exceptions.  “Norman chronicler Ordericus Vitalis made the highly significant observation that in Anglo-Saxon England there were ‘but few of the fortresses which the Normans call castles.’” (Gies, page 9). The exceptions included:


Dover Castle


Dating back to the Iron Age, Dover Castle sits along the English coast and has long had fortifications of varying types over the course of its storied history.



It was held by King Harold of England until the Norman Conquest, when it was set on fire by the Normans. Much of the castle has been remade or reconstructed since, but you can see the Roman construction in the castle’s lighthouse:


The Welsh Border


Hereford is a region of England that shares a border with Wales. For much of England’s history, the Welsh border was a fiercely contested area, and the fortifications built in that area reflect that.
During Edward the Confessor’s reign, Normans were invited to England to build stone fortifications along the Welsh border. One example is Ralph de Scudemer and Ewyas Harold Castle of which only the motte is still visible:



“Edward the Confessor, who had been brought up in Normandy, had introduced a number of Norman lords into positions of power in the Borderland in the 1050s. One of these Norman lords, called Osbern, established the lordship of Ewyas Harold in the Black mountains, where he built one of the first castles in England. Another Norman lord appears to have built a castle at Richards Castle, a little to the south of Ludluow, and […] Edward the Confessor’s nephew Ralph built himself a castle at Hereford” (Rowley, page 89).
Next Time: Motte and Bailey Castles.
Works Cited:
Gies, Joseph and Frances. Life in a Medieval Castle. Harper Colophon Books.  1974.
Rowley, Trevor. The Welsh Border: Archaeology, History and Landscape. Tempus. 2001, revised edition.
Warner, Philip. The Medieval Castle: Life in a Fortress in Peace and War. Penguin. 2001, reprint.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s