Advent Calendar of Castles: December 23rd: Caen

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Caen is William the Conqueror’s castle. It dates to c.1060 and would have been a wood and earth construction originally, though the walls were rapidly built in stone. It remains one of the largest medieval enclosures in Europe.

Inside the huge enclosing walls would have stood a ducal palace , some private houses and a parish church. It was Henry I of England who most likely built the towers on the walls in the early 12th century, though they were added to by the French in the 13th century.

In the 11th century the castle would have been entered the castle from the Northside, using a drawbridge over the defensive ditch, which never had water in it. The entrance would have been a tower gate, similar to that which you can see in Richmond castle in England.  Additionally in the 12th century there would have been an imposing keep within the walls. Built in c. 1120 by Henry I of England it is believed to have stood at nearly 30 meters high. Sadly it was largely lost during the French revolution.

One of the most fascinating survivals from the early medieval period within the castle walls is the 12th century exchequer hall. It was built again by Henry I. In the 12th century the hall would have most likely had two stories, with the ground floor being used for kitchens and the like and the upper floor being used as the ceremonial space. The building was heavily restored in the 1960s, but some Norman elements do remain.

Normandy fell to the French in 1204 and Phillip II of France added a curtain wall to Henry I’s keep along with four round towers and a dry moat. He also constructed the massive Porte des Champs gate as a replacement for the Norman tower gate in the castle’s ramparts as well as adding two new towers to the ramparts.

The English held Caen during the 15th century hundred years war and they refortified much of the ramparts adding a barbican to one of the gates. However by the end of the conflict gunpowder was beginning to render the still impressive walls useless and despite attempts to shore them up against canon fire the use of the castle began to diminish. By the French Revolution only one barracks building housing a regiment of disabled soldiers remained. Much demolition of the castle occurred during the French Revolution in retaliation for the imprisonment there of two MPs. While they didn’t destroy the Norman keep completely it was significantly damaged and it was ultimately dynamited to make way for a gunpowder store in the 19th century. By the end of the 19th century Caen castle was home to the Lefebvre barracks  and it was occupied by the Germans in WWII which led to further destruction as it was also bombed. The castle was opened to the public after WWII and now houses the Museum of Normandy and the Museum of Fine Arts.

References:

Site visit 2015

Caen castle: 9782815100854

http://www.normanconnections.com/en/norman-sites/caen-castle/

The photos are all mine.

 

Advent Calendar of Castles: 22nd of December: Angers

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Angers is the first French castle on this list, it was the home of the Dukes of Anjou who went on to become the Plantagenet dynasty of England.

Angers sits on a rocky promontory which overlooks the River Maine, and there has been some sort of occupation of this site since Neolithic times. The first structure on this site dates to the 9th century when a lookout tower was established by the Counts of Anjou to help to counter the threat of the Normans. There was a castle here from the tenth to the twelfth centuries and it was the home of the Counts of Anjou, but almost nothing remains. The only remains of this original palace are the walls of the grand hall, the steam room and the chapel of St Lud.

The immense castle you see today dates to the 14th century and was built by Blanche of Castile, a granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, in her role as regent for her young son Louis the IX, who was later canonised as Saint Louis.

The ramparts of the original castle, which largely still stand today, measure approximately half a kilometre in length and boast 17 shale and limestone towers. The castle was very much built as a way to repel invading troops.  The walls were changed in the late 16th century with the towers being shorted drastically and pepper pot roofs added to the top. This was mainly to deal with changes in military technology, especially canons.

The Dukes of Anjou used the castle as a place for art and entertainment in the 14th and 15th centuries, in fact the moat you can see today was never intended to hold water and in the 1400s Rene of Anjou used the moat to house his menagerie. The moat, which was constructed in c.1232, has been used for grazing and a vegetable garden as well. It became very overgrown and in 1912 the Mayor of Anjou had it turned into flower beds.

Apart from being a spectacular castle in its own right, Angers also houses the 14th century apocalypse tapestry. It was commissioned in 1375 by Louis I of Anjou and illustrates the book of revelations of St. John, the final book of the old testament. It originally measured roughly 140m in length and 100 m are preserved and are now on display inside the castle.

Angers also served as a departmental prison in the 1800s and was used as a barracks until the mid 20th century. When the army left the castle, the apocalypse tapestry was returned from the cathedral and Angers was opened to the public.

References

Site visit 2012

Angers brochures

http://www.chateau-angers.fr/en/Explore/History-of-the-monument

The photos are all mine.

 

Advent Calendar of Castles: 21st of December: Trim Castle

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Trim castle is my second Irish castle and like Ferns it was built by an English baron on Irish soil. Unlike Ferns, Trim had no connection to the old Irish Kingdoms. In 1172 Hugh de Lacy was granted the Liberty of Meath by Henry II. It was an attempt by Henry to stop Strongbow taking all that he could of Ireland. Shortly after he was granted the land de Lacy erected a wood and timber motte and bailey castle at Trim. By 1176 this castle had been replaced, after it had been burnt down by one of de Lacy’s barons to keep it from Irish hands, with a stone keep.

While the rest of Trim is not that unusual by Anglo-Norman castle standards the keep very much is. It is built in a cruciform shape which was an experimental military design for the period.  The keep would have contained a public hall, great chambers for the lord and his family and a chapel, as well as quarters for castle officials and the garrison. Trim’s keep also has extensive cellars which were kept well stocked so that the keep could hold out in a long siege if necessary. In 1196 Walter de Lacy enlarged the keep adding new floors, and later a great hall was built at the third floor level. In the 13th century the side towers were extended and plinth at the base of the keep was added, which closed off one of the original doorways. While this made the keep more secure it did not make it especially accessible for large public gatherings and a great hall was built in the grounds outside the keep sometime after 1250.

Although the original wall around the keep would have been wooden, by 1180 a stone wall had been built, which would have contained stables and places for stores, there was also, eventually, a ditch added as well as a drawer bridge and three defensive towers and a stone gatehouse. In the 13th century weirs were put on the River Boyne which allowed for the moat/ditch to be flooded and a new gate was constructed to guard the south entrance to the castle.

Trim came into the Mortimer family in 1306 and they held it until 1425, parliaments were held at Trim in the 15th century but by the 16th the castle was in decline and eventually it was surrendered to Cromwell’s forces in 1649.

 

References:

Site visit 2015

OPW Trim visitor’s guide

http://www.heritageireland.ie/en/midlands-eastcoast/trimcastle/

The photos are all mine.

 

Advent Calendar of Castles: December 20th: Ferns Castle

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The first of the Irish castles on this list, and the third Marshal castle.

Ferns stands at an important strategic site as the area was historically the capital of the Kings of Leinster. Diarmait Mac Murchada was the last King of Leinster and he invited the Normans, led by Richard de Clare, to Leinster to regain his kingdom. He promised both his daughter, Aoife, and the inheritance of his kingdom to Strongbow as a reward. Isabel de Clare was Strongbow and Aoife’s daughter and through her marriage to William Marshal Ferns came into Marshal hands. More about the background to all of this can be found here.  Diarmait was also buried in Ferns and his grave can be seen there today.

There was an earth and timber motte and bailey castle on the site built by the kings of Leinster before Marshal arrived in Ireland, but the castle, the remains of which you can see today, was most likely built by William Marshal. The original castle was built between c.1199 and c.1220 so most likely William Marshal the elder begun the building, but he died in 1219 so his son William Marshal the younger most likely finished it. There were later additions made though.

The castle may not look especially impressive, but the interior has a significant number of original features including original floors in some places, a stunning chapel with some of the original carvings and a spectacular vaulted ceiling. There is also a complete original cellar with a beehive vaulted ceiling. Additionally in the cellar are trip steps which were specifically built so any raider coming down into the cellar would fall, injuring himself hopefully fatefully.

The ditch around the castle was intended as a moat, but it was a dry moat and would have likely been filled with rubbish. The castle was lost and retaken several times by both the Irish and the Normans over the centuries. The current condition of the castle is due partly to neglect but also due to the demolition of it by Cromwell’s forces in the 17th century.

References:

Site visits 2012 and 2015

Ferns Castle information brochures.

Castles and Ancient Monuments of Ireland 9781854107527

http://www.fernsvillage.ie/ferns-heritage-page53898.html

http://www.heritageireland.ie/en/south-east/fernscastle/

Advent Calendar of Castles: 19th of December: Caerphilly Castle

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Caerphilly is another Marcher castle, but it is much later in date than the other two on this list. It was begun in 1268 by Gilbert de Clare Lord of Glamorgan in response to Llywelyn the Last’s threats to the area. Gilbert de Clare took the area in which the castle stands in 1266 to try to stop Llywelyn the Last from moving further south. Construction of the castle was halted in 1270 when Llywelyn the Last attacked it. However it began again in 1271 and continued apace. What makes Caerphilly remarkable is that apart from some basic domestic remodelling in the mid 14th century there were no additions or changes to the castle as the years went past. This makes it an extraordinarily complete example of a late 13th century military castle. It is also an excellent example of the cutting edge of military defence at the time.

Caerphilly not only has walls with in walls making it the first, as well as arguably the best, concentric castle in Britain (between the outer entrance and the heart of the castle were 3 drawbridges, 6 portcullises and 5 sets of double doors) it also has the best use of water as a defence in a castle of this period. The immense water works are manmade lakes and moats and the waters are held back from the castle by earth dams. Caerphilly boats both an inner moat and an outer moat. Because Caerphilly was built on unused ground Gilbert de Clare was able to use all the modern techniques to create a truly massive castle, it occupies a spectacular 30 acres.

The first thing most people notice about Caerphilly is its precariously leaning tower. This is the south east tower and it currently stands at 15m high and leans an alarming 10 degrees out of line. Locals say it was caused during the Civil War bombardment, but it could also just have been subsidence no one is entirely sure.

The need for Caerphilly was negated by the crushing defeat of the Welsh at the start of the 13th century and after this the castle didn’t see that much use. The last real action it saw was when it was besieged by Isabella queen of Edward II in retaliation towards Hugh Despenser, but Hugh had already been taken and was in fact hanged in 1326. By the 16th century the castle was no longer in use and was falling towards ruin. The castle was saved from complete ruin by the Butes in the late 19th century.

References:

Site visit 2012

http://cadw.gov.wales/daysout/caerphilly-castle/?lang=en

http://www.castlewales.com/caerphil.html

http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/forget-pisa—its-leaning-2239600

 

The photos are all mine.

 

Advent Calendar of Castles: December 18th: Chepstow Castle.

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Chepstow is the second of the Marcher castles on this list, it is also the second with real involvement from William Marshal. It sits on a sheer escarpment of carboniferous limestone on the banks of the River Wye. Chepstow is probably my favourite castle and I will write about it in substantially more detail at a later date. I have written about the extraordinary surviving medieval doors before and that post can be found here.

Chepstow, known then as Striguil, was begun originally as a Norman castle. It was constructed by William Fitz Osbern shortly after the Norman conquest of 1066. He was responsible for the beginning of the construction of the castle, but it is unlikely that he had the time to oversee the construction of the Norman great tower before his death in 1071. The great tower is the only substantial surviving part of the Norman castle, though it was extended by the Marshals in the 13th century.

While it will never, of course, be certain it has been argued that the great tower was built under the auspices of William the Conqueror when Chepstow was in royal hands from the 1075 until 1115. The great tower is definitely a Norman building regardless of whether it was built by Fitz Osbern or William the Conqueror, and this makes it one of the oldest dateable surviving stone secular buildings in Britain. It was also impressively built in stone when most other castles were still wood and earth motte and bailey constructions.

Chepstow came into the hands of the Clare family at the start of the 12th century and by 1148 it was in the hands of Richard de Clare, known as Strongbow. Strongbow was the founder of the Norman occupation of Ireland and more can be read about him here. When de Clare died in 1176 all his estates passed to his son Gilbert, who was underage, and when Gilbert died, without ever coming of age, to his daughter Isabel de Clare. Isabel married William Marshal in 1189 and all of her extensive estates came to him. Isabel de Clare was a fascinating woman in her own right and you can read more about her here.

Marshal rebuilt the curtain wall with two round towers and the main gate house. Under the Marshals over the years other parts of the castle were extended and modernized. Chepstow came into the hands of Roger Bigod Earl of Norfolk, by right of his mother who was Marshal’s daughter, in c.1245. The Bigods were responsible for the building of the new hall block inside the castle walls as well as a large new tower in the south east corner of the castle and significant parts of the high walls.

After the death of Roger Bigod in 1306 Chepstow was in royal hands again and after this it passed in and out of various families over the centuries. It was modified by the Tudors and during the Civil War the it fell twice to parliamentary canon before it was refortified. Its final outing on the main stage of history was when Bigod’s tower was used as a prison, albeit a relative comfortable one, for Henry Marten one of the signatories of the death warrant of King Charles I. He was held in the tower at the order of Charles II, who spared his life, for roughly 20 years until his death at Chepstow in 1680.

After the Civil War and the Restoration Chepstow slowly crumbled into a picturesque ruin. It came into Cadw hands in 1984.

There is much more to write about Chepstow, not the least the absolutely fascinating well, but that is for another time.

References:

Site visit 2012

Chepstow Castle: Its history and buildings 9781904396529

Wales Castles and Historic places: 9781850130307

http://www.berkshirehistory.com/bios/hmarten.html

http://cadw.gov.wales/daysout/chepstow-castle/?lang=en

The photos are all mine.

Advent Calendar of Castles: December 17th: Pembroke Castle

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Pembroke is the first Marcher castle on my list. While it is arguable whether Pembroke actually stands in the Marches it was certainly owned and built by the men who were or became Marcher lords, including one of my favourites William Marshal. As this is a castle I have written extensively about before, I thought I’d provide a link to my previous post rather than a new potted history.

https://historicalragbag.com/2015/11/15/pembroke-castle/

The photos are all mine.

Advent Calendar of Castles: December 16th: Dolwyddelan Castle

 

dolwyddelan1dolwyddelan2dolwyddelan3My second purely Welsh castle. Dolwyddelan now stands on a farm guarding the Lledr Valley.

Like Dolbadarn, Dolwyddelan has very little documentary evidence. There is a tradition that Llywelyn the Great was born here, but more recent research has shown that there are other more likely locations.

Dolwyddelan was in fact probably built by Llywelyn the Great in c. 1200. It is part of his circle of mountain castles protecting the passes, Dolbadarn is another.

There is no documentary history before the conquest of Edward I except for a letter that Llywelyn the Last signed from here in 1275. Edward I besieged the castle in in 1282 until it was captured on January 1st 1283. His men wore white to be camouflaged in all the snow. The castle was sold in 1488 and by 1848 it was in ruins and in the hands of Lord Willoughby de Eresby. It was under his ownership that the keep was restored to its present condition.

The original keep would have only been two stories and the third story and the wall walk were possibly added under Edward I, the battlements and the wall walk were reconstructed by de Eresby. The west tower was also added later, possibly under Edward I.

References:

Site visit 2012

Wales Castles and Historic places: 9781850130307

Castles in wales: 9781847710314

http://cadw.gov.wales/daysout/dolwyddelan-castle/?lang=en

 

The photos are mine.

Advent Calendar of Castles:December 15th: Dolbadarn Castle

 

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Dolbadarn is the first purely Welsh castle on this list and it still sits on the hill guarding Llyn Padarn. This impressive little keep would have had total command over the Llanberis pass.

While there is no documentary evidence of Dolbadarn before Edward I’s conquest it was most likely built by Llywelyn the Great in the mid 12th century. Llywelyn mostly likely built the castle to guard the path between Caernarfon and the upper Conwy Valley. The striking circular tower is the central figure of this castle, but it would not have stood alone. There are several building surrounding it, though not much remains. There was probably a great hall, a curtain wall and mostly likely two towers guarding the western and southern approaches to the castle.

The keep itself is very well constructed and still stands at an impressive 50 feet tall. It was probably modelled on castles built by the Marcher lords, but intriguingly the door is believed to have had a portcullis at some point, which is unusual for a castle of this size and age. Additionally it had three stories, unusual in a Welsh castle, and even more oddly the stair reverses its spiral to reach the battlements, which don’t exist anymore. The reason for this reversal is not known.

Dolbadarn is best known as the castle where Llywelyn the Last most likely held his brother Owain captive for more than 20 years from c. 1255 until Llywelyn’s first defeat at the hands of Edward I when Owain was released and given lands in Llyn.

Once Llywelyn was killed in 1282 his younger brother Dafydd tried to keep fighting but he failed. He issued his last documents as Prince of Wales and Lord of Snowdon from Dolbadarn in 1283. He was captured at the castle and taken to Shrewsbury where he was hanged drawn and quartered on the 2nd of October 1283.

Dolbadarn came into Edward I’s hands, but apart from some minor repairs he largely left it alone and it sank out of history.

References:

Site visit 2012

Wales Castles and Historic places: 9781850130307

Castles in wales: 9781847710314

http://cadw.gov.wales/daysout/dolbadarncastle/?lang=en

 

The photos are all mine.