Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Little Castles That Could by Sharron Gunn

Please join me in welcoming Sharron Gunn back to History Undressed! Sharron is an genius when it comes to history! A go to gal for many writers with questions and presents various historical workshops. Today she's written a great article on Motte and Bailey castles. Enjoy!

The Little Castles That Could 
by Sharron Gunn

Windsor Castle

William the Conqueror knew that it was one thing to win a battle and that it was quite another to hold the conquered land. Controlling people from a stronghold is what does the trick. The bigger the castle the stronger, and a bigger, stronger castle could hold a larger garrison, and that should be what won England for William. Right? Nope. Not at first.

The castle William used to solidify his hold on England and Wales was called a motte-and-bailey: a pudding bowl turned upside down with a wooden tower on top and a palisade around the base of the bowl. The palisade looked like the forts of the Old American West (and Canadian too). Later one or two baileys, enclosed by palisades extended the amount of men a castle could accommodate. A more comfortable residence for the noble or monarch and was usually constructed in one of the baileys.

William built his first motte in England in the ruins of a Roman fort at Pevensey, then he moved to Hastings which was closer to a Roman road, and built another before the battle of Hastings. The advantage of the motte was that it could be built quickly and cheaply--less than 15 days for Hastings Castle--and provide a defensive structure on flat land which could easily withstand a cavalry attack.

The English chronicler Odericus Vitalis gives the lack of castles in England as a reason for the success of the Normans. 'For the fortresses which the Gauls (French) call castella had been very few in the English provinces: and on this account the English, although warlike and courageous, had nevertheless shown themselves too weak to withstand their enemies.' And he complained that they [the Normans] 'sorely burdened the unhappy people with forced labour on the castles, And when the castles were made they filled them with devils and wicked men'. (Rowley 1983: 59)

After the Conquest, William carefully controlled the distribution of land; only his most loyal followers received grants of land and permission to build a fortification. Hundreds of motte-and-bailey castles were built in Britain in the 11th-12th centuries. Many weren't long used, but they served their purpose admirably. The Normans preferred to fortify a hill if one were available. However, they made a motte, an artificial mound, when they wanted a defensive structure on flat land.

Building a motte from the Bayeux Tapestry
The Bayeux Tapestry (actually an embroidery) shows the construction of a motte on flat ground. The image shows men digging out a ditch and heaping the earth in the centre to make an artificial mound. The top of the mound was flattened, and a wooden tower or donjon was built on top. It could be used as a lookout tower or the last refuge in an overwhelming attack. The bailey was an enclosure which contained the residential buildings: a great hall, a separate kitchen building, chapel, stables and barns, a chamber block and at least one well--very important that last. Both motte and bailey were surrounded by a palisade of wooden posts, connected by a wooden bridge or gangway.

Seven hundred motte-and-bailey castles show that most of Britain was conquered; they are found all over England and are particularly dense in Wales as resistance to the Norman invasion was fierce. In Scotland, the Normanised David I gave land to Anglo-Normans in the Lowlands and the north-east of Scotland.

Chroniclers record an enormous flurry of building by the Normans. Odericus mentioned how castles were raised at Warwick, Nottingham, York, Lincoln, Cambridge and Huntingdon. Castles weren't meant to protect the inhabitants of English towns; they were meant to intimidate the English. They were:

…a forward base and refuge, the fighting the hub of an appropriated estate. Every castle in later years would have functions other than military; it would be a residence, a treasury, a centre of administration, and a prison. (Platt 1994: 1)

Motte-and-bailey castles were built until the 13th century and, by then, they were seriously out-dated. The disadvantages were many: the palisades could be pulled apart with picks or rammed; heaps brushwood could be piled up by its palisade and set on fire. They were abandoned or the wood was replaced with stone. At Duffus Castle, near Inverness in Scotland, a stone tower replaced a wooden one, resulting in a little problem with settling. One corner of the castle cracked open like an egg and is sliding down the motte to this very day. Oops.

The stone towers built on top of the artificial mounds were called shell keeps. They often required a stone wall or revetement built around the base to keep the ground from settling and the castle from falling apart. The picture of Windsor Castle shows a shell keep in the centre, the oldest part of the castle, and the upper bailey to the right and the lower bailey to the left.
Berkhamdsted Castle -- Motte

Once replaced with stone, some continued to be used. Berkhamstead was given to Edward the Black Prince in 1339. There were newer, better designed castles by the 14th century, but the prince did not say, "Uh, no thanks. It's a bit out-of-date." He gladly accepted it as his first command. And at Windsor Castle, the shell keep is used to house the Royal Archives. While visitors may prefer to view grander stone castles, the motte-and-bailey was William's equivalent to the Roman camp, and he successfully conquered England with them.

Note: The word motte (mound) shifted in meaning to become 'moat', the water-filled ditch surrounding a fortified structure.

Hearts Through HistoryRomance Writers will sponsor Castles ofBritain  taught by Sharron, from 4 February to 5 March 2013. The course describes the development of castles from the 11th to the 13th centuries and gives much information about life in a medieval castle. The writer has a degree in Scottish history and Celtic Studies and has lived in Europe for eight years.


Bates, David, William the Conqueror, 2004
Hogg, Ian, The History of Forts and Castles, 1989
Kaufmann, J.E. & H.W.Kaufmann, The Medieval Fortress: Castles, Forts, and Walled Cities of the Middle Ages, 2004
Platt, Colin, The Castle in Medieval England & Wales, 1982
Rowley, Trevor, The Norman Heritage 1066 - 1200, 1983
Wilson, David M, The Bayeux Tapestry, 1985, 2004

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