Castles of England/Norman Castles

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History of the Period

A model of Bedford castle. The distinctive motte with tower can be seen at the bottom left.

The Norman period began on 14 October 1066 when the invading forces of William, Duke of Normandy (later known as William the Conqueror) defeated the army of King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings. Harold's army had been weakened while winning the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066 against the army of King Harald III of Norway. After this initial victory, the southern part of England surrendered quickly to William's rule. It took six more years of battle to subdue the north.

In 1067 rebels in Kent attacked Dover Castle while Eadric the Wild, back my some Welsh lords, raised forces in western Mercia leading them against the Norman army based in Hereford. In 1068 rebels in Exeter were besieged by William who suffered serious losses before eventually negotiating the surrender of the town. This was followed by another revolt in western Mercia again backed by the Welsh and a separate uprising in Northumbria. It was during this period, as William travelled through England, that many castles were constructed as part of the war against the rebels.

In 1069 the Norman Earl of Northumbria and his army were attacked by rebels in Durham, all being slain. The rebels were this time supported by forces from Scotland who besieged York Castle and killed its castellan. William brought an army from the south and brought the revolt to an end during which the population of York was massacred. Following his victory William built a second castle at York.

Later in 1069 a Sweyn II of Denmark sent a fleet to England, the Danes joining forces with a new Northumbrian rebellion. The rebel forces seized both York castles but a probe into Lincolnshire was defeated by the Norman garrison there. At the same time other rebel forces from Cheshire and Shropshire attacked the castle at Shrewsbury while rebels in Dorset and Somerset besieged Montacute Castle.

Further unrest continued for nearly 20 years; it wasn't until 1088 that England was at peace.

The Norman period ended in 1154 with the death of King Stephen at Dover Castle. At the time of the Norman conquest, two basic castle forms had developed: the motte and bailey castle, and the enclosure castle.

Motte and Bailey Castles

Colchester Castle in Essex. It was constructed from bricks recycled from Roman fortifications

The most common type of Norman castle is the motte and bailey. It is constructed by raising a small hill, with a tower on top which is then surrounded by a fence or wall. This type of castle is relatively quick and easy to build. The tower and fence can be constructed of wood yet still offer a strong defence. The motte has to be carefully constructed to prevent its collapse. Usually layers of earth, stone and gravel were used to reinforce the surface.

Some motte and bailey castles were constructed with stone towers and walls. Some of these towers, often called Great Towers, have survived. The most well known are probably the White Tower, often known as the Tower of London and Colchester Castle in England's oldest recorded town. In both cases these were built from the reused remains of Roman fortifications.

Enclosure Castles


An enclosure castle is a development of the motte and bailey design and there is sometimes not a clear differentiation between the two. Broadly the wall of an enclosure castle forms part of the primary fortification and may include towers, gatehouses or a barbican.

Castles of the Period


Kenilworth Castle


History of the Castle

Kenilworth Castle

Kenilworth Castle is of Norman origin and was built in about 1120. The great tower was built later during the reign of Henry I by the Chief Justice of England, Geoffrey de Clinton (who had also been Lord Chamberlain and Treasurer to Henry I). The castle passed to Henry II in 1173. Henry ordered work to improve the strength of the castle and by about 1240 the castle was in its current form. It had been surrounded on three sides by a large artificial lake, known as the Mere, designed to keep siege engines out of range. It also created a formidable barrier for any attack.

After completing the works, the castle was granted to Simon de Montfort, who was later a prominent leader in the Second Barons' War. Kenilworth Castle was used as his base and was used as a prison for Prince Edward, the heir of Henry III. Edward escaped and later lead forces against de Montfort at Evesham, defeating them and killing de Montfort.

In 1266 the siege of Kenilworth Castle began, the longest in English history. The besiegers, lead by Lord Edward, were unable to breach the defenses and, after nearly a year, the dispute was settled by agreement. Henry III then passed the castle to his youngest son through him it was eventually inherited by John of Gaunt. John of Gaunt and is grandson, Henry V, slowly converted Kenilworth from a structure that was solely defensive to a more comfortable home.

Kenilworth Castle passed out of royal hands in 1563, becoming a possession of the Dudley family, before returning after his death. During the English Civil War the castle was captured by the Parliamentarians and later dismantled with the materials sold. After the restoration, the castle was passed to the Earl of Clarendon, who retained possession until 1937. Eventually the castle was given to English Heritage in 1984.

Design of the Castle

Layout of Kenilworth Castle by Charles Oman

Kenilworth Castle began as a motte and bailey castle with wooden walls. It is built on a rock knoll, surrounded by marsh land giving it a naturally strong position. As the castle was developed, the primary material used in the construction was sandstone, sourced from local quarries.

The Keep (A on the diagram) is the strongest part of the castle. The design spreads the enormous weight of the walls across a large area, making them far less likely to collapse if undermined. The walls are thick and were unlikely to be vulnerable to battering. The walls are looped and also contain a number of windows, the larger ones being added during the Tudor period when defensive strength was less important than comfort. The keep was entered through a forebuilding which was later converted to a gallery leading to the gardens.

Adjoining the keep are the kitchens and the Strong Tower. The kitchen was physically separate due to the fire risk and had accommodation for the domestic servants. The Strong Tower contained the main service facilities including the pantry and buttery.

John of Gaunt's Hall (B on the diagram) was constructed in the 14th century.

Leicester's Building (D on the diagram) is an Elizabethan three-story building containing living accommodation in the form of suites. Each contained decorative fireplaces, a bedroom and a public room with large windows.

Mortimer's Tower (F on the diagram) was a gatehouse controlling the entrance to the castle's outer court. When constructed the Mere protected the tower, rising to the very base of the tower. The tower has arrow loops and grooves for a portcullis.

Lunn's Tower (H on the diagram) is part of King John’s wall. It contained no living quarters or storage areas. The walls are looped and cover the north east corner of the defence.

The Water Tower (I on the diagram) was part of the living accommodation and had little defensive value due to its large windows.

Leicester's Gatehouse (J on the diagram) is a gatehouse built to serve as the main entrance to the castle. It was constructed by Dudley when the defensive qualities of the castle were much less important. The entrance was made wide enough for wheeled carriages to use.

Corfe Castle


History of the Castle

Corfe Castle dominates the surrounding area

Although evidence exists of an earlier structure, the surviving castle in the village of Corfe Castle is of Norman construction. The stone hall and inner bailey wall were built in the 11th century. Further structures were erected through until about 1250 including additional towers, halls and walls. At this time the castle was a royal treasure house. The castle was held by the royal family until the 16th century when it was disposed of by Elizabeth I to Sir Christopher Hatton.

In 1635 the castle passed into the Bankes family. The castle was besieged twice during the English Civil War by the Parliamentarians. The first siege last six weeks, and the second two months. It was ended when the Royalists were betrayed. The Parliamentarians slighted the castle to prevent its use as a fortress.

The castle was returned to the Bankes family in 1660; however, they did not reoccupy the castle, because the damage was severe. In the 1980s, Ralph Bankes bequeathed the castle to the National Trust, which continues to own and maintain it.

Design of the Castle

Plan view of Corfe Castle

Corfe Castle is built on top of a steep mound, commanding a gap in the south Purbeck hills, and is surrounded by a deep defensive ditch. The castle is positioned to defend the area from invaders landing to the south in Poole harbour and other anchorages. The first line of defence was the Outer Gatehouse.