Republished May 2012, Windmill Books
Paperback 288 Pages
Beginning with their introduction in the eleventh century, and ending with their widespread abandonment in the seventeenth, Marc Morris explores many of the country’s most famous castles, as well as some spectacular lesser-known examples. At times this is an epic tale, driven by characters like William the Conqueror, King John and Edward I, full of sieges and conquest on an awesome scale.
But it is also by turns an intimate story of less eminent individuals, whose adventures, struggles and ambitions were reflected in the fortified residences they constructed. Be it ever so grand or ever so humble, a castle was first and foremost a home.
To understand castles – who built them, who lived in them, and why – is to understand the forces that shaped medieval Britain.”
It could be said that I am on something of a Marc Morris roll right now. I recently read his new book on King John- and decided it was time to start on this one which I have had on my shelf for about three years, making it my third read of his four major mass-market titles. I should resolve myself to getting through more such titles, but that is straying from the subject.
Like most of Dr Morris books that I have read so far (including my all-time favourite his biography of Edward I) this was engaging and well-written. It must be admitted that for the chapter or two, I got the impression that there was not a lot I didn’t already know, and there seemed little focus on the lives and careers of the inhabitants of England’s great castles.
Gradually, however, the reader could become absorbed in the work. Each chapter was typically devoted to one or a number of castles, that were in some way representative of a certain period, culture, or trend. Rochester as the stone keep that became increasingly common the twelfth and thirteenth century, and was famously besieged by King John. Bodiam as the personal home of Sir Edward Dallingridge, the Knight of humble origins who made his fortune in the Hundred Years’ War- and the great castles of the Welsh borders, conceived and created at the behest of Edward I.
The author explores the life and career of the buildings, as well as those responsible for their creation, as well as notable inhabitants and events to show how these noble fortifications played such a pivotal role in Medieval British culture. They were far more than just the statements of wealth and power, as we are sometimes told by guides or commentators. Some examination of the structure of buildings, and everyday life is also included, although this is not the principal focus of the book.
The later chapters, recounting the decline of the castle in the sixteenth century, and the destruction of many of the largest and most iconic castles in the country during the English Civil War was at times poignant. One could feel a genuine sense of gratitude to the conscientious General Fairfax for ensuring the protection of the Oxford colleges and the Bodleian Library, and palpable sorrow for the wanton destruction of the collection of ancient manuscripts once held in the library at Raglan Castle which was intentionally burned when the castle was slighted.
Morris book does great justice to these magnificent and inspirational buildings, providing the general reader with a well-rounded history that takes account of the political as well as the social background. The romantic soul will likely find themselves stirred with a yearning to have seen the likes of the sad ruins of Pontefract of Corfe in their heyday. Also, I was rather pleased that the author drew attention to his own background of growing up in Kent (the neighbouring county to my native Sussex), and his visits to the famous castles of the region as an inspiration for the love of the period and its buildings. Such is a sentiment with which I can identify.