This edited article about castles originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 709 published on 16 August 1975.
The most numerous as well as most impressive examples of Britain’s heritage are certainly her hundreds of castles. Ask almost anyone you know who first built them, and the answer will probably be, “Oh, the Normans, after the Conquest in 1066.” That answer would be wrong, by something like thirteen hundred years.
It is true that they built most of the finest castles to be seen today. The Tower of London, for instance, with its 90-foot (27-metre)-high keep, the White Tower, whose walls are fifteen feet (4.5 metres) thick. It has been a monarch’s residence as well as a prison. William the Conqueror also built much of Windsor Castle, for nine centuries the most important home of our monarchs outside London.
But famous castles such as these are less ancient by thirteen hundred and more years than the earliest forts in the land built of stone, the brochs, built and occupied by the Picts, and perhaps also by the mysterious race known as the Celts, during the Iron Age. To see these, you must go to the far north of Scotland, to Skye and the Western Hebrides, to Orkney and to Shetland.
Nothing quite like them is to be found anywhere else in Britain. There are some four hundred of them, usually overlooking open water, on headlands like the atalayas of Majorca and the nuraghi of Sardinia. Built of massive stones laid one on another without mortar between, circular, perhaps forty feet (12 metres) in diameter and rising originally to perhaps fifty feet, (15 metres) they may best be described as resembling the cooling-towers of an electricity generating station. Most of them are now little more than massive stone rings overgrown with grass and weeds. But there is a magnificent specimen on the lake island of Clickhimin, and another at Mousa, in the Shetlands, forty feet (12 metres) high.
They were designed and constructed with astonishing skill. The immensely thick walls tapered inwards as they rose, tier upon tier. More remarkable still, they were double-skinned walls, the outer and inner faces separated by a space wide enough to form a stairway and even sleeping-chambers. The walls were bonded by enormous slabs of rock, laid longitudinally to serve as steps and as floors.
These brochs were both homes and fortresses. The entrances to them were narrow passageways of stone slabs, easily defended by a pivoted stone or timber door with a massive crossbar. The floor was paved and a fire burned on a central slab, the smoke rising through the open roof. The owner and his family lived secure within, and their stock could be brought in from their grazing if predators were around.
In size and splendour, of course, important as they were in their day, the brochs cannot compare with the huge castles that began to be built as soon as the Normans had established themselves in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and went on being built by successive monarchs and barons. Many of these survive to this day in all the glory that marked them when they were first completed. Berkeley Castle, overlooking the Severn in Gloucestershire, is one of these. It claims to be the oldest permanently occupied castle in Britain, the home of the Berkeleys for eight centuries. Beneath the Keep, known as the King’s Gallery, there is a 30-foot (9 metres) deep dungeon. Within its massive walls, King Edward II was horribly, brutally, murdered in 1327.
Like Windsor Castle, Arundel Castle has a huge circular Keep, with 10-foot (3 metres) thick walls and, beneath it, both a dungeon and an ammunition vault. It has been occupied by the Earls of Norfolk, Britain’s premier earls, for over four centuries. Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, close to the Scottish border, has been the home and fighting-base of the Percies for seven centuries and belongs to the Duke of Northumberland. It is perhaps the most forbidding looking castle in Britain, for the high walls of the gatehouse and barbican carry more-than-life-size statues of warriors poised in menacing attitudes all along the massive battlements and turrets.
The central keep and the gatehouse and protective barbican were always the most impressive features of any castle. Square or round, the keep dominated the whole complex of buildings that formed any castle of any size, for a castle had to be self-sufficient, housing the owner and his family, his men-at-arms and servants, his food supplies and ammunition and, at times of attack, his cattle and sheep. All these were contained within high curtain-walls and turrets with arrow-slits and battlements. A fine example of such curtain walls is Richmond Castle in Yorkshire.
In their way, the castles that ceased to be occupied or were damaged by Cromwell’s men after their surrender are very impressive too. Look at the gaunt remains of Peveril Castle in Derbyshire, inspiration of Scotts’ novel but originally owned by William the Conqueror’s son, and you will understand. Or at Brough Castle in Cumbria, or Launceston Castle in Cornwall, or the 100-foot-high keep of Hedingham Castle in Essex, or the 20-foot-thick, 87-foot high main tower of Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire, or the craggy ruins of Skenfrith, Grosmont and Llantilio Castles in Gwent, or Hermitage Castle in the Scottish Lowlands. All these, and so many others, though in ruins, evoke their original greatness and importance.
Between the age-old brochs of Scotland and her offshore islands, the work of the Picts or Celts 2,300 years ago, and the Norman and later masterpieces of eight or nine centuries ago, there are the castles built by the first invaders of Britain, the Romans. Many of these, as at Pevensey in Sussex and Portchester in Hampshire, were constructed to serve as bases overlooking open water or harbours in which waves of legionaries disembarked before setting off to fan across Britain and man the fortified towns such as Chester or the line of Hadrian’s Wall at the farthest limit of the newly occupied province of the Roman Empire.
Brougham Castle, in Cumbria, was built by the Romans and known as Brocavum. It is one of the four northern castles that include Pendragon, Appleby and Brough. Built largely of flint on the south coast, and of gritstone in the north, they were meant to last. And last they did, though, after the Romans departed in the fourth century, they began to fall into ruin.
So, as you can see, the span of life of Britain’s castles is measured in many centuries. Though some, like the brochs, are little more than half-submerged ruins, others, not that much less ancient, have been fortunate enough to have caught the attention of public-spirited organisations like the Department of the Environment and the National Trust and so have been preserved for us in this late twentieth century to visit, explore and appreciate.
Many of them are maintained to this day in what would be called mint condition; but all, whatever their condition, are vivid reminders of a very important aspect of our long tradition and heritage.
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