Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Norman Castles: Built for Intimidation, Not Defense

Taylor Speer-Sims
July 27, 2011

Norman Castles in England:
Built for Intimidation, Not Defense

William the Conqueror, the bastard Duke of Normandy, stormed onto English soil with every intention of creating a dynasty for himself and his heirs. He was a man who believed that he had every right to enjoy the kingship of the British monarchy, but did not receive the crown as he expected. The Anglo-Saxon nobles of England did not intend for a bastard from the continent to rule their country. King Edward I left his crown to another, a man who had been born to British soil. The future William I of England did not believe that his deceased distant relative, King Edward I, would have forsaken him at death.  So William I set out to make sure that the English, both noble as well as peasant, understood that he was indeed their true king. This would be understood almost immediately not only by the brutality of the Norman knights that followed William, but by other intimidating factors as well. One of the most enduring of these factors of intimidation and brutality were the numerous castles that the Normans built in their wake.

William I, and his forces forced the locals to build forts throughout England, all while the Normans supervised production. The politics of the area were meted out inside the new, fortified walls, and those that defied Norman authority found that they did not have to go far when they were imprisoned. There were only a few steps to the new jail inside the main tower where the Normans kept the guilty, and innocent alike, from creating havoc for their conquerors. Troops were stationed at the castles to make sure that anyone in the outlying area would find that even if they may have thoughts about treason, their homes would have been destroyed immediately. Revenge for William, the Conqueror, Bastard King of England was brutal and immediate. There was no need for defensive building. These castles were built to make an intimidating statement that William I was now the King of England.

William, the Bastard inherited the Dukedom of Normandy from his biological father just as if he were a legitimate son. He sat upon his chair as if he were the king sitting upon a throne. Nobles from other areas of France, as well as England, visited and paid tribute to him for his protection. One such visitor was his distant cousin Edward I of England who was in exile due to warring factions in his homeland.  Duke William showed himself to be such a great leader, both militarily as well as diplomatically, that Edward decided to show his gratitude to William by making him the heir presumptive to the English Crown. [1]  In 1064 Edward made oaths[2] upon the sacred bones of two English saints[3] vowing that William would be the next King of England.  Another British visitor was Earl Harold Godwineson who was ”England’s most powerful and wealthy noble,”[4] who though not having Anglo-Saxon heritage, had been born and raised, and who also thrived greatly in that kingdom. While this powerful nobleman visited the Norman Dukedom, he pledged his support to William’s claim to his nation’s throne, creating what would become his most powerful enemy as well as his own doom.

The Earl, Harold Godwineson, was crowned King of England after the death of Edward the Confessor without the permission of the nobleman across the channel. King Harold was chosen by the Witan, who were the official “assembly of wealthy and powerful men.”[5] They had one basic requirement of the man who they would appoint as their new sovereign: the chosen must be worthy of sitting on the throne. This meant to these noblemen that the elected monarch must be of noble family and “he had to be English.”[6]  Harold was the son-in-law of Edward I and he was British by birth and also by deed. The rumor that the now deceased king had given the Crown to the powerful and wealthy Earl was supported, and even promoted, by the Witan. None of these men regarded the fact that the now-deceased Confessor had already promised the sovereignty to another. They also chose to forget or ignore the fact that Harold had pledged his allegiance to that legally inheritable person.

Duke William considered himself the rightful King of England because of the promise sworn on sacred artifacts by his cousin, Edward I as well as the covenanted fealty of Harold Godwineson. To William’s mind there was no way that Edward would have committed any type of deceitfulness. Edward was an old friend and family member who was considered one of the most pious men of his day. He was called the Confessor because he was like a priest to his men. Additionally, the oath that was sworn by the pious Edward was charged by the use of holy relics. This was a cover-up committed by the Witan and started by the two-faced Harold. The breaking of Harold’s oath to William gave “ the latter a just cause for war against a perjurer.”[7]

The Normans set foot on British soil and immediately began claiming property by building castle forts. To do this the fierce troops  rounded up all of the local citizenry and forced them to work. Everyone in the vicinity was forced into the building process while the Normans supervised. The British lords, if they were around, would not be spared the indecency of menial labor. They were, however, still given the benefit of their rank in that they were not forced into the lowliest of jobs. It was the lower classes that did most of the work, especially that which was most difficult. The yeoman farmers were all categorically moved in to work, while the peasants and slaves found that they were now working for new masters. Some found themselves in a worse environment, some were now in a better one. Because of this forced labor, the upper classes and upper peasantry fell into a lower class status. Strangely, the “British slave improved their lot significantly”[8] because they were now working along side others that were previously of a higher social status. The low classes were used to work, but working like a slave was new to most.

Castle building was a Norman specialty, and they took what they learned on the continent, and used it for the benefit of conquest on the British Isle. They had been building this type of military fort since the 9th century [9] and were absolute masters of the craft. Within a short time after the invasion there were castles built throughout Southeastern England. William, who was beginning to create the name “The Conqueror,” took no time for rest as he forced his way up toward London. The castles that he was building were being used as an intimidation propaganda tool. News of his building preceded his army. Castles were now a symbol of his might, and coming conquest.

They were built on enormous earthen hills created by digging out a circle, throwing it into the center and tamping it down. These castles, even though they seem to have been thrown up were absolutely enormous. The motte, which was the hill itself, was “230 feet around the base, and 49 feet around the flattened summit.” [10] The motte was extremely steep and covered in boards so that any attacker would slide down if they tried to climb up.[11] The ditch became a moat when it rained, creating another ominous barrier. At the top of hill, a fence wall was built by using pointed logs for the enclosure of the top bailey; another series would be around the bottom creating an additional bailey. More pointed logs were stuck out of the ground so that if anyone tried to make it to the top of the motte, they would have been impaled instead. Inside the uppermost fence, a large keep was built to house the new Baron who would govern the land, and troops that were to stay after the majority of the forces left to continue the fight. This tower was three stories high, certainly high enough to see anyone approaching. The strategy of these castles was that they were meant to be mean and ugly, which was an intimidation factor.

William of Normandy was a brilliant strategist. He did not choose his castle locations randomly. He had been fighting for his homeland since he was seven years old. His father was called “The Devil”[12] and he was the direct descendent of the Viking that had conquered Normandy.[13] The Devil chose William as his lawful successor because of the same warrior traits that were in him, were also in William,[14] even though William was only seven at the time. William’s inherited brilliance took him only so far. He repelled attack after attack, for many years and was so great at his war skills that the King of France called him to help with the King’s own troubles. Then because Duke William was such a strong military leader, the French King tried to abolish his Dukedom twice, to no avail. The victor was the man who would become England’s king.

Using those years of brilliant military strategy, William went to work securing the country that he believed was his by commanding the construction of castles with specific types of locations in mind. These locations had to have had either a previous military use, be within a short radius of another, usually within a days ride,[15] or be in an area that will be able to “overawe and govern”[16] the people, giving preference to river valleys and towns.[17] The use of wood as a tool was easy to access, but to be sure of getting the first one under construction quickly, the Normans brought a ready-to-build castle kit with them.[18] Their very first, after landing in England, was built attached to an old Roman ruined fort at Pevensey near the coastline,[19] and the next at Hastings.[20] They then continued their conquest, and claiming the English land, by building castles all the way to London.

One of those castles that were built during that march of terror toward London was the castle of Windsor. This location was ideal for a spectacular vision of Norman military might. It was only twenty miles from another castle that was being built at the same time that was the gate to the city of London, which was called The Tower of London. The location was on a chalk hill overlooking the Themes River. The river led directly into downtown London. The chosen hill was just two miles from the forest where wood and game was in abundance.[21] Another reason that this location was chosen was because of the implication that Edward I had approved the authority of his distant cousin, Duke William. The old Saxon Palace was located halfway between the chalk hill and the nearby town.[22]  It was here that Edward I held his court.[23] In fact Windsor was built directly adjacent to the previous regime’s hunting grounds.[24]  He reminded the English that they should not have rejected him as their King by forcing them to labor on his intimidating Norman fortress that was taking the place of the old Saxon palace. They would be reminded everyday because this castle would become the backdrop to their everyday lives, never allowing them to forget.

It has been argued that castles were built solely for the defense of William’s new territory, after all there were eighty-nine castles listed in the Domesday Book.[25] It is true that when the new castles were completed, the Normans stationed forces inside the fortified walls. Normans were great fighters and they could easily overthrow any force, especially local people that did not have any experience in warfare. The local British did not take their new overlords into their hearts just because they showed up. The people would constantly try to break their new fealty bonds by skirmishing, or just wreaking havoc. The Norman troops would ride out in full armor and destroy the outbreak, then quickly retreat to the safety of the castle. It was a safe base for the troops to regroup and continue to crush the rebelling locals.[26] What is forgotten is that even though William I did defend his territory by the use of the castle, the use of defense was just one of many applications, and not the only, or major, one. So even in the employment of defense, his troops continued to forcefully thrust his control into the minds of those around the castle.

When the locals did rebel, the armed knights immediately controlled them by either completely destroying their property, or by bringing them in to have the local Baron bring his justice. The perpetrators could not win, and would find that they were to become residents of the castle themselves when they were sentenced to jail on the first floor. It did not matter if they were guilty or innocent, what mattered was the continual authority of the new rulers. This was a statement of power that the British witnessed numerous times.[27] They were automatically guilty because of the fact that they did not accept the Bastard as their lawful king when they should have. They had to pay the price of their negation.

            William used power politics from his very first step into his new kingdom. He brought his most valuable military troops with him to secure the kingdom of England into his own kingdom that would include his Dukedom of Normandy. Even when there was no actual use of violence, the threat was there. The tale of his coming would always precede his troops so that people were afraid of him before he even got to the new location. Another use of power politics was the fact that the castles used the locals to build them. The Normans supervised as the English were forced into a lower society by becoming slave labor. After the fortress was built, those people were reminded of their servitude every day because there was one with a twenty-mile radius. These Norman strongholds were visible for miles and were always in the backdrop, implying the might of William was greater then that of the usurper Harold, and even Edward I. Knights were also used for the actual physical punishment of someone who would have revolted, and to round people up and bring to the Baron within the local castle for justice. The Baron would accommodate the wishes of William, not that of the citizenry by showing the people the might of the new king. At the institution of William I’s reign, he did not show as much mercy as he would later. He wanted everyone to pay for not choosing him, and understand that he was there to stay. His use of forcing the populous, and threat of force after they were built was the main reason that these castles were built. Another less obvious use of power politics was the fact that these castles were built on hills, then the motte was built upon that. These buildings were meant to have the people literally look up to William’s authority.

            Norman castles were built to intimidate the local people as the Normans continued their conquest of England to put the rightful heir, William, The Bastard, on the throne of England. When the locals erred in their ways, the Normans created havoc by using the castle as a base for their attacks, and also by meeting out William’s justice. The locations of the Norman Castles were chosen by design, to show that William would be called Majesty. William absolutely believed that he deserved the crown. Because the British gave their consent of kingship to someone who betrayed him, he felt that it was his duty to put those people in their place. To capture the throne, he would unleash his military might upon the English populace and force them to labor on the very buildings that would inspire awe and reverence. Castles were not built to hide behind and defend against an onslaught. This was nothing but power politics at play. Castles were built to make sure that everyone knew that they had better pledge their fealty to William I, King of England, or pay the consequences.


The Bayeux Tapestry. Image 12. http://hastings1066.com/bayeux12.shtml

Belloc, Hilaire. William The Conqueror. Edinburgh: University Press, 1933.

Bridgeford, Andrew. 1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry. New York:
            Walker Publishing Co., 2004.

Carr, Raymond. “A tapestry’s Rich Life” review of The Bayeux Tapestry by Carola Hicks

Chatto, The Spectator. June 3, 2006. http://www.lexisnexis.com.ezproxy2.
             apus.edu/hottopics/lnacademic/?verb=sr&csi=8406&sr=lni%284K43-0S50-0159-P274%29              (accessed July 1, 2011)

Gravett, Christopher. The History of Castles: Fortifications Around the World, 2nd ed. Guilford,
              CT: Pequot Press, 2001.

Hamilton, Janice. The Norman Conquest of England. Minneapolis: Twenty-First Century
              Books, 2008.

Hicks, Peter. How Castles Were Built. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2008.

Hill, B.J.W. M.A., The History and Treasures of Windsor Castle. London: Pitkin Pictorials,

Hilliam, Paul. Leaders of the Middle Ages: William the Conqueror, First Norman King of
               England. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2005

Somerset Fry, Plantagenet. Best Castles. Cincinnati, OH: David & Charles Books, 2006.

--- Castles: England+Scotland+Wales+Ireland, The Definitive Guide to the Most Impressive
            Buildings and Intriguing Sites, (Cincinnati, OH: David & Charles Books, 2001

Thomas, Edward. Windsor Castle. Boston: Dana Estes & Co., 1910.

Toy, Sidney. Castles: Their construction & History. Mineola, NY: 1984.

Wood, Harriet. The Battle of Hastings: The Fall of Anglo-Saxon England. London:
              Atlantic Books, 2008.

King William I of England, The Domesday Book. (1085) http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/

Williams Lewin, Alison. “The Norman Conquest: England after William the Conqueror” review
               of The Norman Conquest: England after William the Conqueror by Hugh M.
               Thomas, Saint Joseph’s University online article (2008).     

Originally written for class at American Military University.

[1] Harriet Wood, The Battle of Hastings: The Fall of Anglo-Saxon England (London:
Atlantic Books, 2008), 39.
[2] The Bayeux Tapestry, Image 12. http://hastings1066.com/bayeux12.shtml (accessed July 22, 2011)
[3] Paul Hilliam, Leaders of the Middle Ages: William the Conqueror, First Norman King of England  (New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2005), 34.
[4] Andrew Bridgeford,  1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry (New York:
Walker Publishing Co, 2004), 64.
[5] Janice Hamilton, The Norman Conquest of England (Minneapolis: Twenty-First Century Books, 2008), 8
[6] Ibid, 58
[7]  Raymond Carr, “A tapestry’s Rich Life” review of The Bayeux Tapestry by Carola Hicks Chatto, The Spectator. (2006) http://www.lexisnexis.com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/hottopics/lnacademic/?verb=
sr&csi=8406&sr=lni%284K43-0S50-0159-P274%29 (accessed July 1, 2011)
[8] Alison Williams Lewin, “The Norman Conquest: England after William the Conqueror” review of The Norman Conquest: England after William the Conqueror by Hugh M. Thomas, Saint Joseph’s University online article (2008). http://proquest.umi.com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/pqdlink?did=1489124541&Fmt=7&clientId=62546&
RQT=309&VName=PQD (accessed July 21, 2011)
[9] Plantagenet Somerset Fry, Castles: England+Scotland+Wales+Ireland, The Definitive Guide to the Most Impressive Buildings and Intriguing Sites, (Cincinnati, OH: David & Charles Books, 2001), 11.
[10] Christopher Gravett, The History of Castles: Fortifications Around the World, 2nd ed., (Guilford, CT: Pequot Press, 2001), Chapter 2, p. 1.
[11] Peter Hicks, How Castles Were Built. (New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2008), 15.
[12] Hilaire Belloc, William The Conqueror, (Edinburgh: University Press, 1933), 22.
[13] Ibid, 20.
[14] Ibid, 26.
[15] Plantagenet Somerset Fry, Castles: England+Scotland+Wales+Ireland, The Definitive Guide to the Most Impressive Buildings and Intriguing Sites, (Cincinnati, OH: David & Charles Books, 2001), 11.
[16] Sidney Toy, Castles: Their construction & History, (Mineola, NY: 1984), 54.
[17] Plantagenet Somerset Fry, Castles: England+Scotland+Wales+Ireland, The Definitive Guide to the Most Impressive Buildings and Intriguing Sites, (Cincinnati, OH: David & Charles Books, 2001), 10.
[18] Christopher Gravett, The History of Castles: Fortifications Around the World, 2nd ed., (Guilford, CT: Pequot Press, 2001), Chapter 3, p. 1.
[19] Ibid.
[20] The Bayeux Tapestry, Image 24. http://hastings1066.com/bayeux12.shtml (accessed July 22, 2011)
[21] B.J.W. Hill, M.A., The History and Treasures of Windsor Castle. (London: Pitkin Pictorials, 1970), 27.
[22] Edward Thomas, Windsor Castle. (Boston: Dana Estes & Co., 1910), 20.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Plantagenet Somerset Fry, Best Castles. (Cincinnati, OH: David & Charles Books, 2006), 97.
[25] King William I of England, The Domesday Book. (1085) http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/domesday/ (accessed July 25, 2011)
[26] Peter Hicks, How Castles Were Built. (New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2008), 13.
[27] Christopher Gravett, The History of Castles: Fortifications Around the World, 2nd ed., (Guilford, CT: Pequot Press, 2001), Chapter 2, p. 2.

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