Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 3rd: St Augustine’s Canterbury

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St Augustine’s was founded in roughly 598 by St Augustine, making it one of the oldest monastic sites in the country.

Augustine was sent by Pope Gregory the Great in the late 500s to restore Christianity to Southern England. Christianity had waned in England with the departure of the Romans. In the late 500s England was divided into a number of small kingdoms and Augustine set out with the aim of converting the royal families, deciding that they could then persuade their subjects.

He started in Kent because the king,  Ethelbert, was one of the most powerful in the region and his wife, Bertha, was already a Christian.  Augustine was successful and Ethelbert converted.

The Abbey was built after Ethelbert’s conversion and it served both as accommodation for the monks that Augustine imported and as a burial place for the kings. It was built outside the Roman and later medieval walls of the town of Canterbury. It also became the burial place for the early Archbishops of Canterbury.

After the Norman conquest the abbey became a standard, though powerful,  Benedictine monastery. It remained so until 1538 when it was suppressed as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. After it was dissolved it was used as a royal palace by Henry VIII and as a resting stop on the journey between London and the ports in the South East. It was used as a brewery for a time in the 1700s and 1800s and by the late 1800s a missionary school had been established. Today some of the site is still occupied by King’s School. The abbey is often overshadowed by it spectacular neighbour Canterbury Cathedral, but as the site of the re-establishment of Christianity in England and as one of the most powerful monasteries of the time it is in many ways more important.

 

References: Site visit 2012

English Heritage book: 9781850746690

The photos are all mine.

Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions December 2nd: Bury St Edmunds

burybury st 3bury st 5Bury St Edmunds is one of my favourite abbeys. It was the first abbey I ever saw and the ruins that remain are less romantically dishevelled than many of the other religious institutions you’ll see on this list. There is an epicness to the ruins which is hard to convey in photographs.

As Bury St Edmunds is one of my favourites I have written about it before in detail so here’s the link to the original post

https://historicalragbag.com/2014/10/07/bury-st-edmunds/

Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions December 1: Rievaulx Abbey

The last two years I have run an advent calendar over December. In 2015 it was medieval quotes, in 2016 it was medieval castles, this year I am doing medieval religious institutions (abbeys, monasteries, convents, priories etc not churches or cathedrals). This means that each day from the 1st of December to the 25th of December I will put up a short post on a medieval religious institution with photos. These will be British, Irish and French and from a variety of religious orders. Some of the places I will have written about before in more detail and some I will write about later in more detail.

I am beginning with Rievaulx Abbey

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Rievaulx is a Cistercian abbey in North Yorkshire in England. It was the first Cistercian monastery in the north of England. As this is first Cistercian monastery listed I’m going to briefly explain what the Cistercian Order was.

The Cistercian Order was founded in 1098 in Citeaux in what is now France. While its foundation is complex, essentially it was a reaction against the perceived corruption and extravagance of the older Benedictine monasteries like Cluny. The aim of the Cistercian Order was to return to the original ideals of St Benedict and to live a very simple life. Cistercian abbeys were usually isolated and self sufficient, though the lay brothers did the work on the farms because the monks were cloistered. They lived simply and ascetically, closely following the rule, away from the gold, excesses and luxuries often seen in the bigger older monasteries.

By 1153 over 350 houses had been established across Europe, including Rievaulx. This was at least partly due to the work of the man who is probably the best known Cistercian of his period; Bernard of Clairvaux.

Bernard is not one of my favourite historical figures, largely due to his puritanical opposition to Eleanor of Aquitaine when she was Queen of France. He was, however important. He joined the Cistercian Order as a novice in 1113 and by 1115 was the founding abbot of one of the early daughter houses in Clairvaux. He preached the 2nd crusade, was a councillor to Louis VII and had an immense amount of influence. He died in 1153 and was canonised  by 1174.

Riveaulx was founded in 1132 by Bernard to drive the colonisation of Northern England by the Cistercian order. The original buildings would have been wooden, but William, the first abbot, began building in stone by the late 1130s. By the 1160s it was one of the most powerful abbeys in Britain. The abbey was at its height under Abbot Aeldred (1147-67) who was later canonised. Aeldred came to Rievaulx in 1134 and was elected abbot in 1147. Under Aelred Rievaulx was home to a community of 140 choir monks and 500 lay brothers and servants. It also expanded extensively including the building of the spectacular church in the late 1140s

Riveaulx was part of the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. It was dissolved in 1538, though by this time it had shrunk to a community of just 23. It was sold to Thomas 1st Earl of Rutland. Rutland had the buildings dismantled, especially the lead roofs and the bells which he reserved for the king. Luckily Rutland’s steward from nearby Helmsley Castle kept detailed records of everything that was dismantled.

Rievaulx made very picturesque ruins and was a favourite of the romantic painters. It is certainly still hauntingly beautiful today.

 

References

Site visit 2012

English Heritage Rievaulx booklet

https://historicalragbag.com/2017/05/22/mellifont-abbey/ (for the part about the Cistercians)

http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/rievaulx-abbey/history-and-stories/history/

 

 

From Page to Place

This post should really be called: Places I’ve been to because I’ve read about them in historical novels. I decided, however, that it was too long a title.

I’m stepping a little outside my usual milieu for this post, but in my summary for the blog it does say “lots of books” and I’ve been a bit neglectful on the book front. Basically I’m going to take you through some of my favourite historical books and then elucidate some of the history of the places they inspired me to visit. So this will be part historical travelogue and part book review.

It won’t cover every place I’ve been inspired to see by books, but it will cover a good selection.

There also will be mild spoilers about the plots of the books, mainly because they’re historical novels and it’s a bit difficult to discuss the history they’re written about with out giving away some of the events they cover.

I’ve sorted them into medieval mysteries and historical novels and they’re listed in chronological order for the time they’re set.

Mysteries

Books: Sister Fidelma Series by Peter Tremayne 

At the time of writing this post the Sister Fidelma mysteries number 28 and Tremayne has been writing them since 1994. The mystery series is set, mainly, in mid seventh century Ireland. I say mainly because Fidelma does travel abroad occasionally. Fidelma  is a dalaigh, an advocate in the Irish system of laws that would come to be known as the Brehon laws. At the beginning of the series she is also a member or the religious community of Kildare. Fidelma is the daughter of Failbe Fland the king of Cashel, who died shortly after her birth. Her brother later becomes king of Cashel.  As well as being intriguing mysteries in their own right the Sister Fidelma series are also a fascinating window into the complex and layered legal system of Ireland in the 7th century and Celtic christianity. Celtic christianity is quite different to the Roman form which would become ascendant with time. For more information on the books and Sister Fidelma’s time, follow this link

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Place: Cashel, Ireland.

Fidelma is from Cashel and a number of the books are set in or around there, so naturally I looked it up. As soon as I did there was no doubt in my mind that I had to go there. It is one of the most incredible places I’ve been and is a favoured tourist destination in Ireland, so try to get there before all the buses roll up. The highlight for me is the 12th century Cormac’s Chapel with some truly spectacular surviving  wall paintings and a very early 12th century round tower both of which you can seen in the photos below.

I’ve written about the history of the Rock of Cashel before, so you can find more information here. 

Rock of Cashel

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Books: Brother Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters

These books were the progenitor of the medieval mysteries genre. They were also one of my earliest forays into medieval fiction, when my mother gave them to me to read when I was about 11. For those who haven’t come across them, the Brother Cadfael books follow former crusader turned monk and herbalist Brother Cadfael predominantly in Shrewsbury Abbey. The books are set in the Period of Anarchy in England (1135-1153). In creating Brother Cadfael, Peters not only illuminates Wales and the Marches of the time, but has created one of the most human and complex characters to ever lead a medieval mystery series, as well as starting the genre. The 20 books were published between 1977 and 1994 and there is also a TV series starring Derek Jacobi. So enduring is the appeal of Brother Cadfael that Shrewsbury Abbey has part of a stain glass window dedicated to him (you can see it in the photos below). For more information on the books click here.

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Place: Shrewsbury Abbey

Shrewsbury was one of the definites on my list of places to go in the Welsh Marches. There actually isn’t that much left of the Abbey itself, which was once an entire complex, but the church remains reasonably intact. The Abbey of St Peter and St Paul was founded by Earl Roger de Montgomery in 1083. It was a Benedictine monastery. It survived as a complete abbey until, like many other religious institutions, the dissolution of the monasteries. By the time the dissolution of the monasteries act was passed in 1536 the abbey was 34th out of 602 monasteries in terms of wealth. Abbot Thomas Boteler was given a pension and so were some of his monks when the abbey was dissolved in 1540. The majority of the buildings were demolished and sold off, some of the church survived though. The nave was left standing while the rest was demolished and a new east wall was built. This is the church you see remaining today. In the photos below you can see the interior and exterior of the remaining abbey and you can see where the new wall was built after the remainder of the abbey was demolished.

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Books: Owen Archer mysteries by Candace Robb

The Owen Archer series is set in mid 14th century York, in the dying years of the reign of Edward III. It follows Owen Archer a one eyed Welshman who was in the army of the Duke of Lancaster until he was blinded and no longer able to fight. He is seconded to John Thoresby, the Archbishop of York, Chancellor of England and a worldly and devious man. Thoresby sends him to York to investigate suspicious deaths and so begins the 10 book, so far, series. Owen meets and eventually marries apothecary Lucie Wilton and deals with all manner of crimes and mysteries for the Archbishop. The books paint a beautifully detailed picture of 14th century York as well as creating a truly memorable collection of characters both historic and fictional. For more information see the author’s site. 

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Place: York Minster

The Owen Archer books were not the only reason I went to York, but they were a large contributing factor. I do not have the time in this post to write about the history of the whole of York however, so I’m going to focus on the Minster which features heavily in the books. The original Minster dates to 627, when it was built for the baptism of Edwin King of Northumbria, the site of this building is unknown. The majority of the Minster that you can see now dates to the 13th century and later. The nave was constructed between 1280 and 1350, the north and south transept between 1220 and 1260 and the east end and central tower between 1361 and 1472. It is still very much an active church and remains one of the great cathedrals of England. The photos you can see below are the exterior, the altar and part of the nave, the magnificent quire screen with reliefs of the Kings of England on it and the roof of the Chapter House vestibule which dates to the 1270s and 1280s. IMG_0702IMG_0708IMG_0712IMG_0723

Books: The Burren Mysteries by Cora Harrison

The Burren Mysteries are set in 16th century Ireland in the region called the Burren just out of Galway. They follow Mara, Brehon (judge) of the Burren as she runs her law school and deals with investigating crimes in the region. They illuminate the intricate Brehon laws of Ireland, like the Sister Fidelma books, and bring life to one of the most spectacular areas of Ireland. Mara is a sympathetic, but strong character and her world feels very real. There are fifteen books in the series, at the time of writing this post, and the mysteries themselves are very much key to each of the novels. They are usually complex and fit well with the rule of law of the time. The true stars of the series for me though, will always be the Burren itself and the fascinating, ancient and egalitarian legal system of the Brehon laws. For more on the series see the author’s site

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Place: The Burren, Ireland

This series was the entire reason I was intrigued enough to go to the Burren when I was in Ireland. It is one of the most beautiful and fascinating places I have ever been. The ground is largely carboniferous limestone, the top soil was stripped off by glaciers, and wild flowers grow in profusion through the cracks, called grykes. There is also a number of monasteries, ancient monuments, churches and round towers making it close to my favourite place in Ireland. It is truly beautiful. I have written about it before, specifically about Temple Cronan, so you can read more here

You can get an idea of the area from the photos below.

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Historical Fiction:

Book: The Greatest Knight by Elizabeth Chadwick

The Greatest Knight follows the early years of William Marshal. From his early knighthood in 1167 until 1194 with the return of Richard I from Crusade and the birth of Marshal’s daughter Mahelt. Marshal was involved in the majority of the important events for the English crown in the this period and lived a complex and fascinating life, remaining a man of loyalty and integrity.  The book covers Marshal’s life admirably and it was the novel that introduced me to Marshal in the first place. I went on to read every biography I could find on him, and to write my honours thesis on the man, but this book will remain important to me because it was where I first met him. For more information on the Greatest Knight and its sequels see the author’s site.

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Place: Marshal Sites.

The Greatest Knight introduced me to Marshal and led me to travelling to a great number of Marshal related sites. I am not going to go into detail about the life of William Marshal here. If you want more detail you can read my short piece about him here.

I have also written about his wife Isabel de Clare, from whom he gained lands, money and status here. 

For this post I am creating a visual diary of key Marshal sites, some of which I have already written about.

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Tintern Abbey in Wales, of which Marshal was a patron

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Chepstow Castle in Wales. Marshal was responsible for large portions of it and probably the doors in the photo above. For more information on the history of Chepstow Castle see this previous post here

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Pembroke Castle in Wales. Marshal was responsible for parts of it including the massive round tower you can see in the photos above. For more information on the history of Pembroke see this previous post

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Ferns Castle in Ireland. Marshal built most of it originally. For more information on the history of Ferns Castle see this previous post.

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Kilkenny Castle in Ireland. Built partly by Marshal. He was largely responsible for the early form of the round towers. There isn’t much of the medieval castle still visible.

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The Barrow River in New Ross in Ireland, St Mary’s Abbey in New Ross and one of the sections of the New Ross Tapestry.

Marshal founded the town of New Ross essentially so he could have a non royal controlled port in his lands in Ireland. He and Isabel de Clare were instrumental in the construction of St Mary’s Abbey. The panel of the New Ross tapestry depicts the storm which Marshal barely survived when crossing the Irish Sea in 1201. He swore to God that if he survived he would found an abbey. He did and it can be seen in the photo below. For more on Marshal, Isabel and Ireland see this previous post.

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Tintern Parva in Ireland.

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Hook Head Light house in Ireland, which was built on Marshal’s orders in the early 1200s as a landmark and to guide ships up to Marshal’s newly built port at New Ross. For more on the lighthouse see this previous post.

Lincoln castle

Lincoln Castle. While Marshal had nothing to do with the construction of Lincoln Castle it was the site of the one of the most decisive battles in English history, which had Marshal at its head. In 1217 the young Henry III’s forces, led by his Regent Marshal who was in his early 70s, met with the forces of Prince Louis of France who was trying to take England. The battle was a rout and Marshal’s forces were victorious. It was the beginning of the end of Louis’ attempt to gain the English crown. There were so few casualties it was known as the Faire of Lincoln. For more on the battle and the history of Lincoln Castle in general see this previous post. 

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The Temple Church and Marshal’s effigy there.

The Temple Church in London is one of the few surviving actually medieval churches in London. It was built by the Knights Templar and it is deliberately round to mimic the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Marshal joined the order of the Templars just before his death and was interred in the Church. The effigy was damaged severely during the Blitz but thankfully enough survived and it was restored.

Marshal died well for the medieval period,  managing his death and ensuring all the right steps were taken. For more information on Marshal’s death see this previous post.

Books: The Welsh Princes trilogy (especially Here Be Dragons) by Sharon Penman

Sharon Penman is probably my favourite medieval author. Here Be Dragons, the first of her Welsh Princes trilogy, was the first book of hers I read. The Welsh Princes Trilogy were also the books that got me interested in Wales. They follow the final years of Wales as an independent kingdom or kingdoms depending on how you look at. They focus on North Wales and the princes in Gwynedd.

Here Be Dragons  follows the life of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, known as Llywelyn Fawr (meaning Llywelyn the Great). He was a Welsh Prince from North Wales who united most, but not all, of Wales and held off the English.  You can find out more about Llywelyn in this previous post and about his wife Joan who was King John’s illegitimate daughter, in this previous post. 

The second book Falls the Shadow follows the end of Llywelyn and Joan’s lives and the life of their son Dafydd and Llywelyn’s grandson Llywelyn ap Gruffydd. A large part of the narrative is also dedicated to the life and love of Simon de Montfort and his wife Eleanor of England (the sister of Henry III and daughter of King John). I’ve never written anything about the de Montforts, though I probably will at some point,  so I can’t provide an old post for more information. De Montfort has been credited with being the founder of the concept of the parliament and he led the barons revolt against Henry III. It is much more complicated than that of course, and he and Eleanor are both worth much more time than I can dedicate here. So to learn more about them at here’s a link to the Britannica article.

The final book in the trilogy is the Reckoning. I’ve only ever managed to read it twice because it depicts the fall of Wales to the English as well as the life of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd as he tries to fulfil his grandfather’s dreams of a united Wales. Like de Montfort I’ve never written about Llewelyn before, but you can find more about him here.

Penman brings the period alive and creates characters that are not only enduring, but who you really care about. The series is also helped by covering one of the most fascinating and sometimes unbelievable part of English and Welsh history. It was a time populated with many extraordinary people, but also a time of immense tragedy as a country fell. You can find out more about Sharon and her other books here.

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Place: Wales in general but several specific sites

While this trilogy inspired me to become interested in the history of Wales in general and certainly inspired me to go there, it would be a whole other post to discuss history of all of Wales. So I’m going to keep it simple and focus instead on a couple of places in Wales I would never have gone without reading these particular books.

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Llewelyn’s tomb in Llanrwst parish church

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Joan’s tomb in Beaumaris

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Conwy Castle. I visited this castle because it is an amazing example of late 13th century medieval architecture, for more on the castle see this previous post, and because it is on the site of the abbey where Llewelyn was originally buried. The town is also where a statue of Llewelyn stands, though it much smaller than it looks and smaller than it should be. You can see it below.

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I wanted to add in two natural rather than historical sites as well.

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Mount Snowdon. The photo is the view from the top. Penman describes the mountains in Northern Wales so evocatively that I had to see them. I was lucky enough to get spectacular weather when I took the train up Mount Snowdon.

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Aber Falls, known as Raeadr Fawr in Welsh. These falls feature in a particularly intense scene in Here Be Dragons. They are very close to Abergwyngregyn, a small Welsh town that was once one of the homes of the Welsh Princes. There is nothing left of the residence, but the waterfall is spectacular.

Book: Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

While this is a contemporary mystery it is the first book that introduced me both to the concept of history being written by the victors and the many arguments surrounding Richard III, so it is worthy of inclusion. If you haven’t read Daughter of Time do, everyone should if only so you can learn that history is not immutable fact.

Tey takes the unusual step of having her usual detective Alan Grant stuck in hospital with a broken leg. In his boredom, he begins to investigate the history of Richard III with the help of a young American student to do the leg work. The book looks at how the popular narrative of Richard III as a nephew killing villain has been constructed and Grant investigates until he finds what he sees to be the truth behind Richard III. I am not going to get into the Richard III debate here (though for the record I fall on the side of he probably didn’t kill his nephews but we can never really know) but regardless of where you fall in the debate, Daughter of Time is fascinating. It not only imparts a the history of Richard III and his period, but it deconstructs how history is constructed. In managing the latter in a readable, relatable and engaging way it is one of the most important books written.

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Place: Richard III’s grave and tomb

I was quite young when I read Daughter of Time, 12 or so I think, so while I was aware of Richard III and knew a little about him it was Daughter of Time which introduced me to arguments regarding the truth of his story and cemented my interest in the king. So while Sharon Penman’s Sunne in Splendour (a retelling of Richard’s life) also deserves credit, I’ve decided to list Daughter of Time as the main reason I went to Richard III’s grave and tomb in 2015.

I travelled especially to Leicester. I know both Richard’s burial in Leicester and the monument to him in the cathedral have their dissenters (there’s lots of articles about this, google it if you’re interested). I, however, found both the monument and Richard’s actual grave surprisingly moving. When I was there in 2015 the cathedral still had some work to do in providing information both about the cathedral and Richard III (though I’ve heard from other people they have improved substantially). The Richard III centre across the road was fascinating and a well realised tribute. You can see both Richard’s tomb in the cathedral and his grave in the photos below.

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Book: Henry VIII’s Shoes by Karen Wallace

This might seem to be an odd book to finish on. It’s a children’s book to start with and it’s actually set in the present day although Henry VIII does still feature. This however, for me, was the book that began my interest in history. It’s the story of a group of English kids who go to Hampton Court for a school trip, and find some shoes in the maze. They turn out to be Henry VIII’s shoes and then Henry himself shows up.. chaos ensues.

I was reading this as an eight year old when my grade 3 teacher (Mr Spaull) assigned a project where we could pick any historical figure we wanted. At my Mum’s suggestion, because of this book, I chose Henry VIII and the rest is literally history. I started with the Tudors and then moved back to the Plantagenets, read a lot of historical fiction and a bit of non fiction, studied history as much as I could at school, studied history at uni, did my honours degree in medieval history and ultimately ended up working in a history library (Australian history, but still) all because I was reading this book at the right time. So books and teachers can change lives, even in slightly unexpected ways.

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Place: Hampton Court

I’ve credited this book as the genesis of my interest in history, which is true, but in the spirit of this post it is also the primary reason I went to Hampton Court.

Hampton Court is probably best known for its association with Henry VIII. It was built by Cardinal Wolsey, but Henry took it from him in 1529. He expanded it greatly and was determined to make it a pleasure palace.

It wasn’t just Henry’s palace though. It was used by succeeding monarchs as well, including his three children. It was there, during the Hampton Court Conference, that James I commissioned the King James Bible. James’ son Charles brought an art collection, one which Oliver Cromwell admired  when he took over as Lord Protector of England. Charles II installed his mistresses there and William III and Mary II commissioned Christopher Wren to extensively remodel the buildings. Wren originally wanted to demolish the whole thing and start again but they didn’t have the money, so he settled for rebuilding the king and queen’s apartments. Hampton Court is now run by Historic Palaces. You can see photos of Hampton Court below.

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The photo above seemed to be a good way to finish. It’s taken in 2012 when I made it to the centre of Hampton Court maze, in a funny way I’d made it back to where I started my journey into history.

References:

Sister Fidelma and Cashel: 

Site visits 2012 and 2015.

Sister Fidelma’s time: http://www.sisterfidelma.com/fidelma.html

Brother Cadfael and Shrewsbury

Site visit 2012

Shrewsbury Abbey: http://www.shrewsburyabbey.com/A%20Rare%20Benedictine.html

Owen Archer and York Minster:

Site visit 2012

Candace Robb: http://www.emmacampion.com/books

York Minster guides.

The Burren Mysteries and The Burren

Site visits 2012 and 2015

Cora Harrison: http://www.coraharrison.com/burren.html

The Greatest Knight and William Marshal

Site visits 2012 and 2015

Elizabeth Chadwick: http://elizabethchadwick.com/knight/

The Welsh Princes and Sharon Penman

Site visits 2012 and 2015

Sharon Penman: http://www.sharonkaypenman.com/

Daughter of Time and Richard III

Site visit 2015

Henry VIII’s Shoes and Hampton Court

Site visit 2012

Hampton Court history: https://www.hrp.org.uk/media/1205/hcphistory_v1.pdf

The photos are all mine.

Gerald of Wales

Gerald of Wales also known as Giraldus Cambrensis was born in c. 1145 in Manorbier Castle which you can see in the photos below.

IMG_5277IMG_5316IMG_5292IMG_5294Below you can see the room that the castle has set up to commemorate Gerald.

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Gerald described Maorbier as “in all broad lands of Wales Manorbier is the most pleasant place by far”[1]

Gerald was of both Norman and Welsh stock. His father was William de Barri, a Norman knight, and his mother was Angharad the daughter of Nest, one of the most fascinating Welshwomen of the period who you can find out more about her here. Nest was the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr Prince of South Wales. So Gerald’s lineage was rooted in both sides of the Norman French and Welsh divide. He described himself as strikingly handsome in his mid thirties, as well as very tall. He was confident of his own ability, sharp-tongued and sharp-witted and apparently an excellent horseman.[2] So much of his work has survived, and he wasn’t shy about describing himself and his opinions, that we are left with a surprisingly complete picture for a man who lived in the 12th and 13th centuries. He died in 1223 in his 80s, extraordinarily long lived for the time.

He travelled extensively and succeeded in being involved in several of the most momentous events of his time. His ultimate aim was to become Bishop of St Davids in Wales, an ambition at which he never succeeded. He was elected, but he never managed to have it confirmed by the king. He refused four other bishoprics to try and get St Davids, he even travelled to Rome to try and secure the bishopric and ended up in gaol whilst there. In the end, though, he was never made its bishop. When he died, however he was probably buried there. You can see an effigy in St Davids today which is thought to be either Gerald of his nephew. See the photo below

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You can see some photos of St Davids below

IMG_5561IMG_5565IMG_5598IMG_5604IMG_5605 St Davids has been a site of worship for more than 1500 years since it was founded by St David in the middle of the sixth century.  As St Davids is a cathedral it makes the town of St Davids, arguably, the smallest city in the UK with a population of only 1800 in 2011.

Gerald was a scholar, diplomat, churchman and theologian, but he is best known for his extensive surviving writings. He was the author of a number of works, including a life of St Hugh of Lincoln. The best known and, to me, the most interesting are: The Journey Through Wales, The Description of Wales and The Topography of Ireland. These texts are part travelogue, part nature guide and part diary and are not always flattering to the local inhabitants and geography. They also place Gerald at the heart of several key events. They give an almost unique depiction of the reality of Gerald’s world.

The Journey Through Wales covers the journey that Gerald, as the Archdeacon of Brecon, made with Baldwin Archbishop of Canterbury in 1188 to preach what would become the 3rd Crusade. Phillip Augustus of France and Prince Richard of England, later Richard I, had both taken the cross in 1187 and Archbishop Baldwin was trying to recruit more people. He preached in towns across Wales as well as saying mass at a number of cathedrals. The Journey Through Wales is an almost diary like account of this journey, and is one of the best descriptions of Wales at the time as they preached to both the Welsh and the Norman French. Gerald had connections throughout Wales with both groups and he presumably spoke Welsh, though he avoided preaching in it and didn’t act as a translator.

The Journey Through Wales has chapter headings that cover where Gerald and Baldwin journeyed. I’m not going to cover each in detail, but I have photos of quite a few, so I thought I’d include the list with a number of photos.

Book One

1.Hereford and Radnor

herefordHereford Cathedral

2.Hay-on-Wye and Brecknockshire

hay on wyeHay-on-Wye castle

3.Ewias and Llanthony

4.Coed Grwyne and Abergavenny

5. Usk Castle and Caerleon

caerleonCaerleon Roman amphitheatre

6. Newport and Cardiff

Cardiff Castle

7. Llandaff and Margam Abbey

8. Rivers Avon and Neath. Swansea and Gower

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9. River Loughlor, Kidwelly

kidwellsView from Kidwelly castle

10. River Tywi, Carmarthan, Whitland

11. Haverfordwest and Rhos

haverford westHaverford-West castle

12. Pembrokeshire

pembrokshirePembrokeshire Coastline

13. Cambrose, Newgale and St. Davids

IMG_5562St Davids

Book 2

14. Cemais and St Dogmael’s

dogmaelsSt Dogmael’s

15. River Teifi, Cardiganshire and Newcastle Emlyn

teifiRiver Teifi

16. Lampeter, Strata Florida, Llanddewi Brefi

Strata FloridaStrata Florida

17. River Dovey

18. Traeth Mawr, Traeth Bychan, Nefyn, Caernarfon and Bangor

caernarfonCaernarfon

19. The Island of Anglesea

angleseaAnglesea

20. River Conwy, Dinas Emrys

conwyRiver Conwy

21. Mountains of Snowdonia

snowdonView from the top of Mount Snowdon

22. Degannwy, Rhuddlan, Llanelwy

23. River Dee, Chester

24. Whitchurch, Oswestry, Powys and Shrewsbury

shrewsburyShrewsbury Cathedral

25. Wenlock Edge, Bromfield, Ludlow Castle, Leominster, Hereford. 

ludlowLudlow Castle.

Gerald probably finished the first version of The Journey Through Wales in 1191 and started the Description of Wales most likely straight after. The Description of Wales covers much more of the people and landscapes of Wales and is often less than laudatory about the Welsh. Dwelling, for example, on the inconstancy and instability of the Welsh as well as their weakness in battle and their greediness. He also usefully outlines how they could be conquered. Including the need for a long sustained effort, how to blockade their supplies and the importance of sowing dissension amongst the ranks of the Welsh as a “spirit of hatred and jealousy usually prevails” [3] This is a reference to the Welsh practice of acknowledging all sons, illegitimate or otherwise, and dividing land amongst all the sons, which led to quite a lot of infighting and fratricide. [4] These condemnations of the Welsh should not be taken as unvarnished fact.

Gerald wasn’t only condemnatory, he acknowledges the beauty of Wales and he goes into detail about the geography and especially the rivers and some mountains. He also discusses everyday things like how the Welsh wear their hair and their love of music.

The Journey Through Wales and the Description of Wales were not the only works of Gerald’s to present a travelogue. He also wrote The Topography of Ireland and The Conquest of Ireland when he travelled with Prince John’s party when John was sent in 1185 to be the new Lord of Ireland. Gerald was sent along as an advisor and he stayed after John returned back to England. While there he began both texts. Neither are complimentary of the Irish, and are very much from the view of the Norman conquerers. That being said he does cover a lot of the landscape of Ireland from the birds, to the barnacles and especially the weather describing it as a country “exposed more than others to storms of wind and deluges of rain”[5]

Having spent some time in Ireland I can see his point…

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But coming from a Welshman it does seem a bit harsh.

Gerald’s writings remain some of the most detailed and interesting accounts of his time. They continued to be influential for centuries after he died, not always to the benefit of reality especially in the case of the Irish, and in his long life he truly succeeded in making his mark.

References:

Site visits to Manorbier and St David’s in 2015 as well as visits to other sites in Wales and Ireland in both 2012 and 2015.

Gerald of Wales, The Journey Through Wales and The Description of Wales, Thorpe, Lewis, (ed. and trans.) Penguin: London, 1978

Gerald of Wales, The Topography of Ireland,  http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/topography_ireland.pdf

[1] Gerald of Wales, The Journey Through Wales and The Description of Wales, Thorpe, Lewis, (ed. and trans.) Penguin: London, 1978. p.151.

[2] Gerald of Wales p. 23

[2] Gerald of Wales p. 267

[4] Gerald of Wales p. 261

[5] Gerald of Wales, The Topography of Ireland, 

http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/topography_ireland.pdf  p. 13

The photos are all mine.

 

 

Cardiff Castle

 

IMG_4844Cardiff castle is a fascinating amalgam, part Roman foundations, part 12th century shell keep, part 19th century victorian gothic palace and part WWII bunker. It manages to encompass many of the key eras of British history, at the same time as being linked to some of the most interesting stories and people of the medieval period.

For me, naturally, the medieval section of the castle is the most interesting and the most important. I do, however, have a real soft spot for the Victorian gothic section, because it doesn’t pretend to be authentic medieval and it is just so gloriously over the top.

To begin from the beginning though. There is nothing much left of the Roman origins of Cardiff Castle. There were four roman structures on the site between c.54 and 400 CE, the final one was an 8 acre fort with ten foot thick walls. It was a central point for communication for the area. It was abandoned when the Romans left the area at the end of the 5th century CE.

The site was appropriated by the Normans, when they arrived in the late 11th century, to build the original motte and bailey castle. The castle you can see today dates largely to 1140 and was originally built by Robert of Gloucester, the illegitimate oldest son of Henry I of England, though the gatehouse is a 15th century addition. You can see the castle from several angles below.

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This is a classic shell keep, meaning that there would not have been permanent rooms in the interior of the keep. There would have been a collection of timber buildings and the structure would not have been roofed. The holes you can see in the walls are called putlog holes and are where the beams of the timber buildings would have been inserted into the wall.

This particular keep has 12 sides, a moat that is roughly 23 m and 2 m thick walls. The castle has two key claims to fame. Firstly that it was the final prison of Robert Duke of Normandy, also known as Robert Curthoes. He was the oldest son of William the Conqueror and was left Normandy as his inheritance. After various conflicts that are too convoluted to go into here, however, his younger brother Henry I of England captured Robert and took Normandy for himself. Robert spent the last 8 years of his life held in Cardiff castle until he died in 1134.

The other key claim to fame for this castle in the medieval period was the kidnap of its lord. In 1158 Welsh lord Ifor Bach stormed the castle and carried off William Earl of Glamorgan and his family. He was forced to ransom his freedom back.

The castle was also threatened by the Welsh in the 1200s and Gilbert de Clare, who held the castle at that point, had the black tower built in what is now part of the outer wall. It was linked to the keep by a massive wall, the remains of which you can see in the photo below. The wall was demolished by Capability Brown in the early beautification of the castle.

 

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The castle played a role in Owain Glyndwr’s revolt in the 1400s as well. It was severely besieged and almost lost before a relief garrison arrived.

Capability Brown  may have redesigned most the grounds in the 1700s, including filling in the moat, but it wasn’t him who made the castle what it is today. It was a collaboration between William Burges and the 3rd Marquess of Bute in the mid 1800s.

They re-excavated the moat, re-landscaped much of the grounds, uncovered the Roman foundations and built the ridiculously intricate Victorian gothic mansion that you can still see today. The mansion is very much based on medieval design, and a romanticism of the medieval period.

Burges mainly re-modeled exisiting buildings rather than building from scratch, but he did build the 150 foot high clock tower between 1867 and 1875. You can see some of the exterior below.

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It is, however, the interiors which are truly remarkable. The interiors are an amalgam of styles from the beautifully ornate Arab room:

IMG_4913To the library

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IMG_5033To the utterly magnificent banqueting hall which depicts key scenes the life and career of Robert Earl of Gloucester on the walls. Incidentally Robert of Gloucester was the father of William of Glamorgan who was captured from Cardiff in the 1150s.

IMG_4903IMG_4902IMG_4904IMG_4905IMG_4906IMG_4909There are beautiful hidden corners all over the 19th century palace, especially in the windows and the ceilings. Below are just a few examples.

IMG_4895IMG_4896IMG_5031After the 19th century the castle stayed in the hands of the Butes until 1947 when it was given to the city of Cardiff by the 5th Marquess of Bute.

The castle wasn’t severely damaged in World War II, through Cardiff was badly bombed. The outer walls however did serve as air raids shelters, which could hold up to 2000 people. You can see one of the areas used in the photo below.

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The castle stands at the centre of Cardiff, both literally and figuratively. The streets of the city radiate out from it, and it has been key to most parts of Cardiff’s long history. It is a truly fascinating place to visit.

References:

Site visits 2012 and 2015.

Welsh Castles and Historic Places ISBN: 9781850130307

Castles in Wales: A handbook by Gerald Morgan ISBN: 9781847710314.

http://www.cardiffcastle.com/

All the photos are mine.

Mellifont Abbey

Mellifont Abbey in County Louth is one of the most interesting if inconspicuous (at first glance) abbeys in Ireland.

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It was founded by St. Malachy, with a group of Irish and French monks in 1142. It was the first Cistercian monastery in Ireland.

The Cistercian Order was founded in 1098 in Citeaux in what is now France. While its foundation is complex, essentially it was a reaction against the perceived corruption and extravagance of the older Benedictine monasteries like Cluny. The aim of the Cistercian Order was to return to the original ideals of St Benedict and to live a very simple life. Cistercian abbeys were usually isolated and self sufficient, though the lay brothers did the work on the farms because the monks were cloistered. They lived simply and ascetically, closely following the rule, away from the gold, excesses and luxuries often seen in the bigger older monasteries. They also deliberately founded daughter houses. By 1153 over 350 houses had been established across Europe, including Mellifont. This was at least partly due to the work of the man who is probably the best known Cistercian of his period; Bernard of Clairvaux.

Bernard is not one of my favourite historical figures, largely due to his puritanical opposition to Eleanor of Aquitaine when she was Queen of France. He was, however important. He joined the Cistercian Order as a novice in 1113 and by 1115 was the founding abbot of one of the early daughter houses in Clairvaux. He preached the 2nd crusade, was a councillor to Louis VII and had an immense amount of influence. He died in 1153 and was canonised  by 1174.

It was Bernard’s friend St Malachy who founded Mellifont Abbey. He was granted the land by Donnchadh Ua Cerbhaill, King of Airghialla. It was founded with roughly 300 monks and 300 conventuals. The church in the abbey was consecrated in 1157. The remains of part of the transept can be seen below.

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The foundation was part of a general re-evaluation of christianity in Ireland. There were several Synods leading up to Mellifont’s foundation in 1142. Furthermore the Cistercians were only one of a number of continental orders that arrived in Ireland at around the same time.

Mellifont might have been the first Cistercian abbey in Ireland, but it certainly wasn’t the last. It was the mother house for at least 8 daughter houses by 1153, including Boyle Abbey which was founded in 1148. The church of which can be seen below.

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The Cistercian Order spread quickly, partly because of Ireland’s landscape, which worked well for the Cistercian model of isolated self-sufficiency. The abbeys were also supported by the incoming Norman-French/ English nobility who came to Ireland in c.1170. Many of the Cistercian abbeys can be found in parts of Ireland that were  under Norman control by 1200. An example is Tintern Abbey which was founded by William Marshal.

Marshal came to visit his lands in Ireland that came to him by right of his wife Isabel de Clare in 1200-1201. They were caught in a terrible storm crossing the Irish Sea and Marshal vowed to God that if they survived he would found an abbey. The ship didn’t sink and Marshal kept his word. As thanks to God for their survival he founded Tintern Abbey, which  stands on Hook Head Peninsula. It’s known as Tintern of the Vow as well as Tintern Parva, meaning small Tintern in Latin. It can be seen below.
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It is a daughter house of Tintern Abbey in Wales, which also stood on Marshal land. It can be seen below.

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As you can see from the photos of other surviving Cistercian abbeys there is comparatively little left at Mellifont. IMG_4577IMG_4569IMG_4567IMG_4571It, like many other abbeys, was a victim of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. Following the Dissolution the buildings came to Sir Edward Moore who converted them into a fortified residence. It played a role in several Irish wars and during the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 King William based his headquarters there. It fell into disrepair in the early 18th century and eventually ended up in the hands of the state in the 1880s.

Despite that lack of large buildings remaining there are some fascinating surviving features. The one most people notice is the lavabo which dates to the beginning of the 13th century and would have been where the monks washed before entering the refectory. You can see it in the photos below. It is an unusual survival partly because it was octagonal.

IMG_4568IMG_4566Additionally much of the intricate stone work has survived and can be found preserved in the visitors centre. Examples can be seen below.

My favourite survivals however are the medieval tiles. I’ve written about medieval tiles before and that can be found here. 

The tiles at Mellifont aren’t in the original positions and they are kept in formation in a closed off area because they were damaged by vandalism. They were most likely first introduced to Mellifont sometime after 1230. Roughly 25 differnet  patterns adorn the tiles. They all represent common medieval tile design, none are unique to Mellifont. You can see examples of surviving tiles below. IMG_4557IMG_4560

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I was also lucky enough to be able to have a look at some of the individual tiles which are in storage, including a really lovely lion rampant tile (see below). The tiles are surprisingly heavy and are earthenware with a lead glaze. They were fired in batches in a kiln. Mellifont would have bought them in, not made them on site

IMG_4564Most of these tiles were discovered during an excavation in the 1950s.

The overall evolution of Mellifont Abbey architecturally was key to religious architectural development in Ireland generally. It would have possessed some of the most dramatic and beautiful church buildings in Ireland. By 1540 Mellifont held estates that extended to 50 000 acres making the abbot one of the wealthiest landlords in the country. It was remodelled on several occasions and it is likely that other religious buildings across Ireland would have been based on its design. The photo below is a model which shows how the abbey itself might have looked at the height of its powers.

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Mellifont benefited from the support of many noble families including local Irish nobility, especially in its early years before the Norman conquest. For example Dervogilla, who was the wife of O’Rourke of Breffini, gave a gold chalice for the altar and furnishing for nine other altars as a gift for the consecration of the church in 1157. Only a little before this gift Dervogilla had, unwittingly, become one of the key sources in the Norman invasion of ireland.

Diarmait Mac Murchada was King of Leinster. He was involved with the other kings of Ireland in various disputes and battles. In 1152 during yet another conflict he carried off Dervogilla, who was the wife of his old enemy O’Rourke, and her cattle. Depending what source you believe she may have been consenting as her husband was a bit of a tyrant. This abduction was a personal insult to O’Rourke and he held a grudge. Although O’Rourke managed to reclaim Dervogilla, a little over a year later, he never forgave or forgot Diarmait. His grudge helped to lead to Diarmait’s loss of his kingdom in 1166 and his subsequent request for help from Henry II, which brought the Norman/French to Ireland in 1169. The never left again.

Dervogilla may have stayed with her husband after being reclaimed, but as well as Mellifont she had the Church of the Nuns at Clonmacnoise built. You can see some of Clonmacnoise in the photo below.

IMG_3598Dervogilla retired in 1186 to Mellifont and she died there. It is possible that she was buried in the wall of the church and legend has it that she was buried the wrong way round because she was a “fallen woman”.

Mellifont Abbey was at the core of faith in Ireland from its foundation in 1142 until its dissolution in the 16th century. It shaped the way religion was enacted in the country and it shaped the development of many other religious houses. For what now, especially in comparison to other sites, seems to be a small and inconspicuous grouping of walls and buildings it is of national historical importance.

References:

Site visit to Mellifont, Boyle, Clonmacnoise in 2015. Site visit to Tintern Pava in 2012 and 2015. Site visit to Tintern 2012.

Mellifont Abbey OPW guide-book.

Ireland Under The Normans 1169-1333 by Goddard Henry Orpen. ISBN: 9781851827152

Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 1980: Mellifont Abbey: A Study of Its Architectural History by Stalley. pg 264  http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.slv.vic.gov.au/stable/25506059

Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy :Excavations at Mellifont Abbey, Co. Louth: Liam de Paor, J. Hunt, H. J. Plenderleith and Michael Dolley pg 110. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.slv.vic.gov.au/stable/25505154http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.slv.vic.gov.au/stable/25505154

A Monastic Landscape: The Cistercians in medieval Ireland. Dr. Breda Lynch. ISBN. 9781453561003

Special thanks to Lindsay from OPW at the site who answered all my questions and showed me the tiles.

The photos are all mine.

Advent Calendar of Castles: December 24th: Foix Castle

This is the final castle on this advent calendar. I hope everyone has enjoyed the collection of castles and has a wonderful holiday season and new years.

Ellen

Now please enjoy Foix.

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Foix, the third and final French castle, sits impressively perched on a massive lump of carboniferous limestone looking out toward the Pyrenees. It was the home of the Counts of Foix. The  first mention of the castle is in the early 11th century when it featured in the testament of the Count of Carcassonne. The original castle though was probably built at the end of the 10th century possibly on the site of an early older building of some description. The original castle would have just been one square tower with a wall.  Then later in the 11th century a second square tower was added along with a building connecting the two towers. The square tower with the roof  you can see today was probably built on the foundations of the original tower.

The castle was caught up in the Albigensian Crusade at the beginning of the 13th century. Foix was right in Cathar country and after several sieges it was occupied by the crusaders for a number of years. However the counts did survive the crusades largely intact, though by the end they were certainly distancing themselves from the Cathars.

By the mid 14th century the Counts of Foix were not using the castle as their principal residence. Though Gaston Febus ,the Count of Foix, did use the castle as a prison for a number of well born lords that he captured in 1362.

The final tower of the castle was constructed in the first half of the 15th century. It’s the round tower that stands at the end. It was built primarily to use as a residence, which is evidenced by the fact that the door is on the ground floor. The round tower is 32m high and 4m thick and it was built out of sandstone rather than local limestone to give it a more sumptuous appearance.

From the end of the 15th century the castle fell into disuse and was almost razed by the government, a fate which many castles met because they were too expensive to maintain. Thankfully in this case the order was never carried out. Foix was home to a garrison from the mid 15th century and this use continued until the mid 17th century when it mainly became used as a prison. At times the prison held more than 200 people, but it was finally closed at the end of the 19th century.  By the mid 20th century the castle had been restored to its medieval origins and was open for the public.

References

Site visit 2012

Foix, historic city: 9782913641433

http://www.catharcastles.info/foix.php

http://www.cathar.info/cathar_wars.htm

The photos are all mine.

 

 

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.