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The Norman Conquest

Norman castles

What is a motte-and-bailey castle?

The earliest castles in Herefordshire are what archaeologists call motte-and-bailey castles.

motte is a mound made of earth and rubble, on which was built a square timber tower used as a look-out, a place to fire on attacks from, and for storing weapons. On the top of the mound and surrounding the tower was a palisade made of timber with a platform on the inner side and wooden steps leading up to one side.

Sometimes a bailey is attached - that is an enclosed area which was used for horses and food storage. There are records of over 600 motte castles in England, 83 in Herefordshire alone. Nowadays all that often remains is the motte, the mound, perhaps with trees growing on it.

In Herefordshire, a motte is often called a tump. This word sometimes turns up in place-names, such as Newton Tump.

Many castles made of timber were eventually replaced by stone towers and walls.  Many of the castles in Herefordshire are now only ruins.

Who was responsible for introducing castle building into England?

The Normans were the first castle builders in England. The Saxons had burghs (towns) with a timber palisade and palisaded farms, but no castles. When the Normans first arrived in Herefordshire they built timber motte-and-bailey castles because these were relatively easy and quick to build. In time these timber castles were replaced by stone ones. The prototypes for these stone castles already existed in Normandy.

William the Conqueror was born at the castle of Falaise in Normandy. It was built of splendid white Caen stone. There has been some debate as to whether the stone with which Goodrich Castle keep was built was imported from Caen or whether it is a quartz conglomerate brought in from the Forest of Dean.

Falaise Castle was badly damaged during World War II, and was renovated over a period of 50 years using modern materials of concrete, glass and steel. Conservationists differ in their opinions as to the effectiveness of this approach, but the alterations do reflect the military image of power and might of the original castle without trying to return it to its original appearance.

The Norman word for keep is donjon, from which we get the word dungeon, as the earliest Norman prisons were in the castle keep.

Caen Castle is a good example of a Norman castle built to impress, and to control and defend the local population.

Why are three of England's earliest castles in Herefordshire?

Many historians believe that motte-and-bailey castles were built in England only after the Battle of Hastings (1066) by the conquering Normans. Herefordshire is unique in that King Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) encouraged Normans to settle in Herefordshire before 1066. [Note that the street behind All Saints Church in Hereford was called Frenschemanne Lane in the Middle Ages (it is now Bewell Street) and that the customs governing the townspeople in Hereford recorded in the Herefordshire Domesday Book have been compared with those of the town of Breteuil in Normandy.] Edward, who had a Norman mother, had spent 25 years in Normandy. The disputed succession to the throne of England can to a large extent be traced to Edward's part-Norman ancestry. He even made his Norman nephew Ralph (the Timid) Earl of Hereford when the Saxon Earl Godwin and his sons were exiled from England during an argument with the king. In response to the defeat of Bishop Ealdred of Worcester by the Welsh in 1049, Ralph and his Norman friends built at least three motte-and-bailey castles in Herefordshire (Hereford Castle, Ewyas Harold and Richard's Castle). These would have been the earliest in England because Saxon nobles did not build castles.

[Original author: Toria Forsyth-Moser, 2002]