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The end of castles

When Henry II came to the throne in 1154 most castles in England were still of the earth and timber type. Stone structures had yet to become the norm and very few of the timber castles contained any masonry. Not many more than ten or twelve castles in the country had stone keeps.

The next 100-150 years were to see great changes in the design of castles. Those who had the income to do so began to reinforce their castles by replacing the timber towers with stone and rebuilding many of the defensive features, such as the palisade, in stone. This change in material for the construction of castles meant that the earth and timber castles were gradually abandoned and the stone court with angle towers - such as Goodrich and Brampton Bryan - became the norm.

Transformations also occurred in the way that these new stone castles were defended. The entrance to the castle evolved by stages from a simple gap in the curtain wall to a gap with flanking towers and finally to a gatehouse with elaborate passage systems flanked by towers and defended by a portcullis and heavy wooden double doors.

This new style of castle was a serious investment that could only be undertaken by a financially secure lord or the king, and was no longer within the reach of any lord with a piece of land to his name, as the timber castles had been.

Medieval buildings were at greater risk of structural damage and decay, and all castles needed a certain amount of income set aside each year for repairs and modifications. As timber was prone to decay the timber-built castles required more damage control than the later stone castles.

A medieval castle was often erected with inadequate, or in some cases no, foundations. In later years this could lead to the subsidence or collapse of some structures.

There was no concrete in the medieval period, only lime mortar. The tools that the builders had access to were simple in form, and stonemasons found it easier to cut softer stone accurately into the shape and size required. However this meant that often the stone used for castles was easily weathered and eroded.

Medieval castles also lacked a damp course, which all modern houses have to have. This meant that castles were very exposed to the elements and subject to damp, which would eat away at the lower levels of the castle walls, often causing them to partially collapse.

The only way to heat a castle was by means of open fires. In timber structures the consequences of an out of control fire are obvious. In stone castles much of the interior was still built out of timber and so they too were vulnerable to damage caused by fire. There was no way of recouping losses in the event of an accident, which often meant that rebuilding was impossible.

All these factors meant that stone and timber castles required a great deal of upkeep and expenditure. The income of a castle depended heavily on farming, taxes and rents. When a castle was in use this capital could be quite high with money to spare for repairs. During times of war or poor harvest the income of a castle would be quite low and repairs would likely have been put off for a better day, which may never have come. 

In the medieval period a lord would sometimes own many castles; he could not live in all of these castles, nor is it likely that he could have afforded to pay staff to keep each castle. A large building, such as a castle, would need constant upkeep to remain in a habitable state. Drains would need un-blocking and rotting timber and roof tiles would have needed replacing, to name but a few of the endless maintenance duties. This meant that the tendency towards decay in uninhabited castles was high.

As a consequence of these factors new castles and castles rebuilt in stone were becoming less frequent, and the number of active castles in Herefordshire went into decline.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2002]