“An Englishman’s home is his castle” as the old saying has it, and the phrase implies a multitude of meanings. Castles were defendable fortified buildings, increasingly strong as the dark ages moved noisily into the middle ages. They were invariably the homes of barons, those warlike ancestors of our modern aristocrats depended on by the King to help defend the realm and himself in time of civil or national wars. As wars were a constant menace castles were continually being built by the King and his nobles.
A castle was also the private residence of the baron who built it. If he was very rich he probably had a string of them. The De Retz or Rais family in Brittany had more than twenty-seven of them, all equipped with servants, a garrison and luxurious private chambers for whichever Retz was staying there. The Dukes of Lancaster before the Wars of the Roses had more castles than the King, plus fortified and unfortified mansions dotted about England. Edward I built castles along the borders with Wales and Scotland, and placed what were called ‘Marcher Lords’ with their families and their troops inside, ready to keep marauding Welsh and Scots out of England and well inside their own mountainous and darkly uninhabitable lands. Some of these marcher lords became ambitious and took the throne for themselves, by various, usually cruel means.
In Britain many of these castles still stand, maybe eight hundred years after being built. Early castles were of wood, mud and wattle, but these materials were soon replaced by local stone. Until the coming of gunpowder they were impregnable, but as Oliver Cromwell showed in the English Civil War, not even the thickest walls cannot withstand cannonfire.
The first castles were Celtic hill-forts, Roman camps and Saxon burghs designed to provide a comparatively safe refuge for the whole population of villages. Most English fortified private houses date from the 9th century, if they still stand.
The ‘motte and bailey’ design of the 11th century was a Norman conceit and consisted of a palisaded ‘motte’ (steep-sided mound made of beaten earth) and a ‘bailey’ enclosed courtyard or plaza, separated from the ‘motte’ by deep ditches. There were such ditches everywhere, and they came to be known as ‘moats’. The ditches were effective because both horses and men could easily drown in them during an assault. To add to the horror, they often hid sharpened stakes driven deeply into the ground below the muddy, green surface of the water.
The 12th century saw the addition of a stone tower called the ‘keep’, often in rounded form, which combined domestic quarters with strong defence. When it was felt there was a need to connect this to the courtyard a line of towers was built connected by ‘curtain walls’. As we can see, the image of a true medieval castle was emerging. By the end of this century the concentric castle consisting of a ring of defences enclosing another had been developed following the fashion of the Crusaders’ castles, which were themselves copied from the Saracens.At the end of the next century, the 13th, Edward I (q.v.) following his favourite policy of subduing the Welsh (and the Scots) built a whole series of castles of enormous size and strength, including Harlech, Caernarvon, Conway and Beaumaris. Rounded towers sprang up everywhere, difficult to undermine (another Saracen idea); machicolations enabled the besieged to drop stones or boiling oil on attackers, massive gatehouses, drawbridges (unwieldy objects difficult to control and many other refinements were added including crenellations along the top of all walls.
Much later, especially in Germany, Austria and Hungary, castles were built by the rich more for decoration and beauty than for defence. An insane king of Bavaria built Neuschwanstein in the mountains, looking as if it were designed by Walt Disney. Meanwhile in England and Scotland castles built seven or eight hundred years ago not only still exist today, but remain the private homes of the family that built them. Two prime examples are Anwick Castle in Northumberland, home of the Percies since the Conquest, and Berkeley Castle, home of the Berkeleys. Another example, though much reformed, rebuilt, re-designed and even saved from a disastrous fire in the 20th century – is Windsor Castle, one of the official homes of the British royal family. Carisbrooke and Pontefract Castles are in ruins, as are most of the castles of the marcher lords on the Welsh and Scottish borders, but Glamis, owned by the family of the late Queen Mother, is still a family home in Scotland.