British Castles

miniature doll
© F H Powell 2014

There are many attractions that year after year attract tourists to the British Isles. In 2008 tourism accounted for over £16bn of spending from overseas visitors. The global recession for one has an effect with 2008 seeing the first fall in visitors to the UK since the American 9/11 attacks. There are many different attractions for both domestic and overseas visitors on offer in the UK. One of the most beguiling must surely be the British castle. Naturally these buildings were primarily built to perform a function and it is therefore a bonus for us that their form fires our imagination.

Castles were built as a fortified stronghold, usually to secure land gained in battle. Due to the nature and cost only the richest lords could afford to build a castle and only then under the sanction of the King. The fairytale castle built of stone was a Norman invention brought to the UK by William the Conqueror from the invasion of 1066. More modest castles were around prior to this being of the Motte and Bailey type. Here a large mound (the motte) was surrounded by a ditch and a large area of land enclosed by a shorter mound (the Bailey). The castle tower would be made of timber and placed on top of the motte while the common workings of the fortification such as livestock, housing and workshops took place in the bailey.

Motte and Bailey castles were a little too flimsy for the likes of William so he set about building stone castles. These castles proved much more substantial and provided the blueprint for castle building for Kings to come.

As mentioned above, the King gave permission to build castles to those who had supported him, usually in battle, and these warriors or knights were granted titles such as Earl in return. The King expected these knights to continue to support him and keep any peasant revolts against him on their lands under control. Part of the arrangement was that the local lord would provide work for the peasants and would collect taxes, some of which went back to the King. However, the knights and barons had to satisfy the King’s financial needs or their castles and lands could be seized by him.

So the original function of the castle was keep the locals at bay. However, by the 13th century an attacking base was becoming a requirement. Territorial gains, particularly over disputed regional borders required staging posts that could be defended before pushing on further. The wooden tower of the early designs had developed into a stone tower called a keep. During the 13th century the keep design was replaced by the concentric design. Here two or three external walls were dotted with defensive towers allowing a 360 degree view. Inside the walls were open spaces that were available for workshops, livestock and domestic buildings. Castle building started to decline in the 15th century as the need for defence remained but the primary requirement became more comfortable living conditions. The development of firearms using gunpowder meant hand to hand combat reduced and warfare became more mobile again lessening the benefits of a large castle.

The reality of castle life was far from that portrayed in the cinema. A life of luxury was reserved only for the lord and his close family. The only heating came from the central open fire but this was reserved for the lord. Soldiers and others made do with a small lamp and slept on the stone floor with only a thin blanket for comfort. The days were long especially in the summer when the day started at sunrise, announced by a trumpet call by a guard. Following a small breakfast of bread, mass would be taken by the lord. Due to the early start the main meal of the day, dinner, was taken mid morning. A 3 or 4 course meal would be followed by the lord entertaining his guests while the majority went back to their chores. A late supper at bedtime would finish off the day.

Given the option I think we would all like to have been a medieval lord in charge of a great castle or a knight in shining armour. In reality we would have been soldiers or general workers looking after the top family. You can be the lord in miniature with our selection of miniature antique weapons (swords, shields, flails, crossbow, etc) which can be found with our pewter miniatures or we even have a knitting pattern to make chainmail.

miniature sword
© F H Powell 2007