Skip to main content area
 
Main Content Area

Castles

Introduction to castles

Before the Norman Conquest of 1066 the main threat to life and property in England had come from the fearsome raids of the Danes. To guard against these attacks Alfred the Great and his successors built a series of burghs or fortified towns to act as strongholds and places of refuge in times of danger. These were defended camps to protect people, and not fortifications as a form of government or control.

Archaeological remains of these sites suggest that they were enclosures consisting of an earthen rampart topped by a stone or wooden wall and surrounded by a ditch.

Castles and the Norman Conquest

The conquest of England represented a new political and military phase for the country. The Normans brought with them a new aristocracy, a new government and a new sophisticated form of art and architecture.

The Normans were a war-like people, being Vikings who had settled in Normandy in north-west France in the early 10th century. They then expanded their territories into England, Italy and Sicily. They became very powerful through the development of a social class system called feudalism. This was a system of obligations given by lesser people to more powerful ones. The castle was in part a manifestation of the feudal system and it indicated to subjects the ever-present power and threat of force.

By the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086 (twenty years after the Conquest), only a few of the 180 greater landlords in England were English. The Crown had acquired one-fifth of the land and the remainder was held by the Norman favourites of the king. The earldoms of England before the Conquest were split up and a new landed hierarchy formed.

In principle all land belonged to the king but was held by barons in return for knight's service. This could be up to 40 days a year at one of the king's castles. On the Welsh border the estates of the new earls of Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford were allowed to rule almost independently and enjoyed many royal advantages. This administration was known as the Laws of the March because all these three areas were in the Welsh Marches. The government of the counties of these areas was put in the hands of individual Sheriffs.

Herefordshire and the French connection

Herefordshire was an unusual English county in that it appears to have had three castles prior to the Norman Conquest of 1066. As many of the lords who had settled here were in part French, they had begun to bring Norman ideas over with them.

In the build-up to the Norman Conquest King Edward the Confessor, a Frenchman in his habits, placed his nephew Ralph of Vexin in charge of Hereford. This caused Hereford to become rapidly Normanized.

Richard son of Scrob and Osbern of Pentecost soon followed Ralph. These two men built castles in the extreme north of the county (Richard's Castle) and in outlying Ewyas (Ewyas Harold Castle). These castles are two of only four known pre-Conquest castles, the other two being Hereford Castle and Clavering in Essex. Ewyas Harold Castle is thought to be the first castle built in England.

On the death of Edward the Confessor there arose a problem of succession. Edward had married the daughter of Godwin, Earl of Hereford, but had produced no heir by this marriage. Harold, son of Godwin, felt that he had a right to the throne of England as he was Edward's brother-in-law and was an Englishman of great standing after his defeat of the Welsh King Gruffydd of Gwynedd, who had invaded Mercia and sacked and burnt Hereford. However Edward had never forgiven Harold's father Godwin for the murder of his brother and had looked elsewhere for his successor.

Yet more intrigue was added to the question of Edward's successor when in 1064 Harold was sent as an ambassador of Edward the Confessor to Duke William of Normandy. He went apparently to swear an oath confirming that he would support William in his claim to the throne of England.

On 5 January 1066 King Edward died and the Whitan (the Anglo-Saxon Parliament) declared Harold King of England. Harold now had to deal with two other contenders for his throne. The first was Harold Hardrada of Norway, who invaded Northumbria and occupied York. Harold - who had been prepared to meet William's Norman invasion in the south - was forced to rush north and deal with this first threat.

Three days after defeating the army of Harold Hardrada at Stamford Bridge, Harold received news that the Normans had landed in the south. He rushed to meet them but his army was tired and his preparations for battle with the Normans fell apart. The English army was defeated by the Normans on 14 October 1066 at the Battle of Hastings and King Harold died on the battlefield, apparently the victim of an arrow through the eye. William was declared King William I the Conqueror on Christmas Day of the same year.

After the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest there was a need for consolidation of the conquered land by the Normans. Castles were an ideal way to secure territories that had already been won. Not only did they help to control the people of the land, they also served as a visible reminder to those in the surrounding area of the power of the invader. This is why Herefordshire had such a high concentration of castles. It was an area already conquered by the Normans and it was an ideal base for any advancement into the unconquered territory of the Welsh. The Normans also needed to protect their new territory from raids by the Welsh.

One of William's earliest tasks in England after the Conquest was to provide a secure political and military base; castles were a way of achieving this aim. Castles were quickly built within all the shire capitals, such as Hereford Castle, which was situated in the heart of the county and would have had a sphere of influence radiating from it. These castles were to act as administrative and strategic centres for the Normans' further advances. Outside of towns, castles were built to act as local and regional bases for the new Norman aristocracy. Wigmore Castle, Richard's Castle and Ewyas Harold Castle are all substantial castles built before or soon after the Norman Conquest. Wigmore and Richard's Castle were built to control the north of the county to the Shropshire border, whilst Ewyas Harold castle was built to control the south of the county.

It was a fairly quick process to construct a network of castles throughout conquered territory. Timber castles could be put up in a couple of months, whilst stone castles could take years to build and would more often slowly replace already-established timber buildings.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2002]