Castle- A History of the Buildings that Shaped Medieval Britain- Marc Morris

Republished May 2012, Windmill Books

Paperback 288 Pages

13657306Beginning 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.

Review- Across the Dark Water- St Julien’s Chapel, Southampton

Some readers may know that my BA Dissertation of ages past (as it almost seems) focused on the first two years of the reign of King Henry V of England. I could hardly ignore the so-called ‘Southampton Plot’ (which was actually revealed to the King at the nearby town of Portchester, rather than the city of Southampton), in fact, I confess to having been somewhat fascinated by the event, and the figures involved. Those familiar with Shakespeare’s Henry V may recall The Bard’s brief mention of the Plot in one scene of the play- which was inaccurately blamed primarily on bribery by the French.

So when local media mentioned that a play about the plot was to be performed at various locations in Hampshire related to the plot, I was naturally enthralled. This play was the cleverly titled Across the Dark Water, ostensibly a reference to River Itchen, which cuts a path through Southampton and nearby Winchester.

Attending on the last day of performance, in the ancient St Julien’s Chapel (dating back to the twelfth century), the audience were treated to a magnificent piece of theatre. Transforming the plot into something of a psychological drama focused on one of the leading figures, Henry Lord Scrope of Masham, grizzled veteran and loyal servant of the King, who learns of a complex plot conceived by the aggrieved, marginalized and resentful nobleman, Richard Earl of Cambridge’s  plot to put his cousin, Edmund Mortimer on the throne.


Darell Brockis in a sympathetic and thoughtful performance as Lord Scrope of Masham

As a long-time friend of both, Scrope entreats them to abandon the plans, but is gradually drawn into sympathy, and finally complicity with the plotters, through manipulation, and his own doubts about the justice of the war with France and the treatment of his fellows.

As a work of dramatic art, tha play and quality of acting could hardly be faulted. The sympathetic and complicated treatment of Scrope- a very minor character in Shakespeare’s play, and his interest in the works of the popular fourteenth century hermit and mystic Richard Rolle added a fascinating and personal edge to the story.

However, as another reviewer has mentioned, there seemed to be some fundamental weaknesses in the script, as well as a few historical inaccuracies such as the clain that the  fine the King made Edmund Mortmer, Earl of March pay for his unauthorised marriage was the ‘biggest in history’. It was not, as there were several larger during the reign of King John and his predecessors.

In my opinion another fundamental weakness was the failure mention the familial connections of the characters, and the possible significance of this. It was rightly mentioned that Mortimer and Cambridge were both cousins of the King- but not that they were also brothers-in-law by virtue of the Earl’s marriage to an Anne, the older sister of Mortimer some years before.  A union given all the more prominence by her bearing him at least two children. Nor indeed that Scrope had been married to the Earl’s own Stepmother, and that Cambridge himself was the brother to the Duke of York.

Acrossthedarkwater-300x211The writer seems to have opted instead to portray the leading plotter as a political and social outsider, making a living by raiding in the Scottish borders, and nursing a long-term grudge for his lack of financial security and acceptance by the wider royal family, and as proto- revolutionary, railing against ‘the system’. The former has been examined as a possible motivation for the plot by some historians, but seems to be only one of several threads. In some ways, these motivations and a depth of character seemed lacking.

Also, it appeared that Henry V was portrayed as vindictive, fickle, and at the end, rather unnecessarily spiteful in his view and treatment of the plotters, laughing at Cambridge and making almost throwaway remark about his head being impaled on the battlements of Portchester Castle, and ultimately telling Scrope he never had any love for him. Not only is the former claim inaccurate (Cambridge’s head was buried with his body in St Julien’s chapel itself at the behest of the King) but my own reading and research on the life and reign of Henry V have never revealed such traits. Certainly he possessed a very strong, almost excessive sense of justice, and hated disloyalty, leading to actions against those who betrayed him that some modern commentators have judged ‘cruel’ and ‘severe’.

The King’s reaction to Scrope’s involvement makes sense in light of this, and even the severity of his punishment fits into the context of the Lord’s relationship to the King, and his status as a Knight of the Garter. To betray the trust of one’s Lord, and the ties of kinship and honour that were supposed to bind the knights to their monarch would have been seen as a terrible crime in itself. Yet for all this, I got the impression that the King was meant to be seen as the ultimate villain, with even his definition of mercy raising a laugh from some members of the audience.


St Julien’s Church, Southampton

Added to this, there seemed to be a discernible influence of the popular historian Ian Mortimer’s perspective on events. This could be noticed in the passages wherein the characters sarcastically remark upon King regarding the French as ‘infidels’ and the implication that the Agincourt campaign was a Holy War. Dr Mortimer’s failure to take account of contemporary ideas about just war, and the influence of religious notions upon this concept is a weakness of his book on Henry V, and it seems to have ‘rubbed off’ on the play.

As a person who remains wholly unconvinced by the claim that Henry V was a ‘religious fanatic’ and ‘mass-murderer’ which is not supported by contemporary evidence, it saddens me to think that the scriptwriter seemed to have too closely followed a doubtful modern interpretation of events, and the key figures and events.

Across the Dark Water is worthwhile as an exploration of the character and possible beliefs of some of the plotters, and a useful introduction to the Southampton Plot itself – but it would be ill-advised for the audience to base their knowledge entirely upon it. Those wishing to learn more would benefit from reading books and articles related to the main figures, and the Southampton plot itself that are to be found in various books and online.

Oswald: Return of the King- Edoardo Albert

Published May 2015 (UK)

Lion Fiction, 448 Pages


The exiled family of King Aethelfrith of Northumbria arrive,after much hardship, on the island of Iona, where the monastery founded by St Columba has become a centre of worship and learning. Young Oswald becomes firm friends with a novice, Aidan.

When Aidan professes his final vows, Oswald and his little brother Oswy are received into the church. As befits a young prince, Oswald learns to fight. However, Aidan’s example attacts him and he is on the point of deciding to become a monk when news reaches Iona that his half brother, Eanfrith, has been killed by Cadwallon, the king who defeated Edwin.

Oswald sails back to Northumbria and meets Cadwallon in battle, defeating and killing him. Oswald, now undisputed king of Northumbria, gives Aidan the island of Lindisfarne as his base. But Penda, the last great pagan king in England, is raising troops against him …

The sequel to the first book in this trilogy ‘Edwin: High King of Britain’ was for me, long awaited. I remembered a little of Oswald’s story- for which the sources are sparse- but the wait was well worth it. The title is a conscious nod to Tolkien, of which it is, I believe legitimate to draw at least some comparison.
King Oswald of Northumbria, a seventh century Saxon King, was the inspiration for Aragorn- and Middle Earth was what Oswald’s people the Anglo-Saxons, called the earth. For once again Edoardo Albert has taken the material that gives the barest details and created a grand, moving and realistic historical drama recreating the lives of half-forgotten figures who lived in a period that is as much shrouded in myth as it is known from history.

It tells the story of an exiled Prince, who returned to his homeland to reclaim his Kingdom, and, once it was won, to spread the New Faith of Christianity which he had embraced. This led him to establish the great monastery of Lindisfarne, and other foundations that would become famous as centres of Early Medieval English Christianity
As a ruler, Oswald ‘flashed for a few short years’ when much was against him- when fellow Kings said that no throne could survive when there were two brothers to compete for it.
His was a tale of a King who sought to bring hope to his people of brotherly love, loyalty, intrigue and sacrifice – tainted by betrayal, pride and mistrust.
The characters are ‘real people’- flawed and relatable- this heroes genuinely heroic- yet not always having a heroic motivation for their actions.

As with the last book the often beautifully written descriptive passages helped re-create a far distant age and really transport the reader back to the time, to feel as if they are there with the characters as the story unfolds in the King’s hall high on the fortress of Bamburgh , on the battlefield, sailing through the misty fens of East-Anglia.
One problem with some historical fiction novels is the tendency to inject modern values, thoughts and ideas into the heads of historical characters- harder still is the avoid modern idioms and turns of phrase.
In this series- even the way that the characters speak evokes the world of Tolkien, and, for literary buffs- Old English and British poetry.
Some of my favourite passages included:

        “But even the sea, first and masterless, had quietened at the command of her    heart-Lord. If he had chosen Oswald, she would not hold him back for her mother fear.”

         “We are all afraid…Death takes…glory fades, deeds are forgotten. In a generation, who will remember out names? But there is a hope in the new ways: a hope of life, a hope in death, a hope even in defeat”.

         “When I was a boy, all I wanted was to be a warrior, to wield sword and win fame…but now I am glad the story is greater than sword glory”.

My only complaints were that the Oswald’s actual reign seemed to take something of a back foot. He didn’t even develop King until halfway into the novel- and the section devoted to his rule is nearly three quarters of the way through.
Much time is devoted to the preliminaries- mostly the warfare which ravaging the Kingdom of Northumbria, waged by rival Kings who Oswald had to defeat and bring to heel. This much of the first part of the book is the backstory about how he became King, in which relatively minor character from the last book get a lot of attention.

One such characters was Coifi, the former pagan priest who ostensibly converted to Christianity it the last book. The characterization of him here was- dubious to say the least. In the last book, it seemed to be implied that his supposed supernatural ‘powers’ of prophecy were a delusion, and he was something of a powerless charlatan, who lost realized the gods he served held no power. Here, it is implied many times that he really can see into the future- when he goes into trances, his ‘visions’ often prove uncannily accurate.

One minute he claimed the gods abandoned him- but then claims they have given him is abilities back when he gets his visions again. I almost felt the author was trying to cast his as a Gandalf like- character- when such was really not needed and I feel is not appropriate.
It is almost counter-productive to have a figure to whom who believes the gods have given him power- and whose power seems very real- when other characters are shown abandoning the worship of those capricious gods because they believe it can give them no hope.

Also, in a couple of places some details seemed confusing. Perhaps the last section seemed too ‘rushed’. Oswald went from gaining his throne, to everyone calling him High King very quickly, one I sometimes found it hard to recall when the other kings had given him their allegiance. In some places, also, there seemed to be little sense of the passing of time- so until we were told that someone’s child was so old, it was hard to keep track of how much time had passed.

Finally, it may be pertinent to mention that readers seeking a story with a happy ending may be disappointed. This novel is true to the history of the period, which was frequently violent and sometimes tragic.
Yet is it not a story entirely devoid of hope. Those seeking a realistic work of historical and literary fiction, which explores some deeper issues without being preachy or clichéd, and is free of gratuitous sex, excessive, unnecessary violence, or plain silliness which plagues some historical dramas may well find what they are looking for here.

I received an ARC of this book free from the publisher for review. I was not required to write a positive one, and all opinions expressed are my own.

Katherine Swynford: The History of a Medieval Mistress- Jeanette Lucraft

The History Press, 2011, 252 Pages


Katherine Swynford — sexual temptress or powerful woman at the centre of the medieval court? This book unravels the many myths and legacies of this fascinating woman, to show her in a whole new life. Katherine was sister-in-law to Geoffrey Chaucer and governess to the daughters of Blanche of Lancaster and John of Gaunt.

She also became John of Gaunt’s mistress — a role that she maintained for 20 years — and had four illegitimate children by him, from one of whom Henry Tudor was descended. In a move surprising in the fourteeth century, John of Gaunt eventually married her, making her Duchess of Lancaster and stepmother to the future king, Henry Bolingbroke. But who was this extremely well-connected woman?

In this fascinating book, Jeannette Lucraft treats Katherine as a missing person and reconstructs her and her times to uncover the mystery of the ‘other woman’ in John of Gaunt’s life.

As I’m studying Women in the Later Middle Ages, I thought this book would come in useful. I had seen some negative reviews of Alison Weir’s book, so (perhaps unfairly) avioded it and opted for this one which has a more academic tone.

I knew of Katherine of course as the long term mistress, and later wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and the mother of his Beaufort children, and so ultimately, a progenitor of Henry Tudor. After reading this, I think it could be said I have a newfound- admiration (though perhaps not respect) for Katherine- though her position as is mistress engaged in long-term adulterous relationship cannot be ignored, and can scarcely be admired.
Yet other aspects of Katherine’s life and career are explored, revealing many things about the expectations of the Medieval noblewoman and female courtier, and also as a wife and mother. The details of her background as well as she and her reatives ‘connections’ prove interesting- her sister was married to Geoffrey Chaucher for instance.

The later chapters on Image management and piety and saintly approprations are probably of more specialized interest, but do help to set Katherine in context. It appears that what was controversial was not her having been a mistress (as many noblemen kept mistresses) but that the Duke of Lancaster married her, and officially raised her to the status of Duchess- and that this was accepted by the King and other relatives.

This books does present quite a sympathetic view of Gaunt, as loyal, a generous patron, and the epitome of ‘Good Lordship’ to his retainers, as well as genuinely caring for Katherine and her children. Gaunt has I believe been subject to some bad press for his negative traits. On top of the wave of the recent resurgance of interest in the Yorkists, particualrly Richard III, he is in danger of being cast as ‘the enemy’ as the progentior of the Lancastrian Dynasty.
This would be a savage irony indeed, as the Yorkist Kings were, in fact, also descended from him and Katherine through their Maternal grandmother, Joan Beaufort.

Her brothers also get a mention. The first generation of Beauforts were an interesing lot- one was know for his generosity and pious bequests- but later generations have an unfortunate historical reputation as the ‘baddies’ and enemies of the Yorkists. Perhaps this book can go some way towards challenging that.

A short, but informative book, well worth a read- (even if one questions the reason for the inclusion of the last chapter largely devoted to recounting Saint’s lives, and with whom said said was popular) if you don’t mind the more adademic style. As with any history book, one does not have to agree with everthing the author says, but most points seem to be well argued and evidenced- and the intention revealing the figure of Katherine as she was seen by her contemporaries seems to have been achieved.

Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages- Joseph & Frances Gies

2033009A readable chronicle of medieval life written by the authors of Life in a Medieval Castle & Life in a Medieval City. Historians have awakened to the importance of the family, the basic social unit.

This traces the development of marriage & the family from the Middle Ages to the early modern era, describing how Roman & barbarian cultural streams merged under Church influence to forge new concepts, customs, laws & practices. Century by century it follows the development–sometimes gradual, at other times revolutionary–of significant elements in the history of the family.

Chronicling the subject from the end of the Roman Era to the Black Death, this is amongst the longest of the Gies works. Nevertheless, it is well worth the read, not just for those interested in Social History, but also for the more general reader- such is the appeal of these authors.

The chronological approach makes it relatively easy to find what you might be looking for, and looking at examples from across Europe and the social specturum gives a more well-rounded approach.

There are some- surprising revelations here- in the later half of the fifteenth century for instance, some female agricultural workers in the Midlands of England were paid the same wage as their male counterparts.
This was a condition that would not be achieved again for many ordinary women until well into the Twentieth century.