Urnes Stave Church in Norway

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Urnes Stave Church in Norway is probably the most remarkable medieval structure I have ever visited. It is aided in this status by the truly incredible surroundings.

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IMG_2139It is, however, its completeness as a 12th century wooden structure inside and out, and especially the carvings, which make it truly remarkable.

This is the first of what will be a series of posts on the history of Iceland, Denmark and Norway. I’m beginning with Urnes because of its uniqueness and because it is UNESCO World Heritage listed.

Urnes sits on eastern edge of the Luster Fjord. It was built around 1150. There had been churches on the site before, parts of which have been reused in the church you can see today. It is the oldest stave church in Norway and is so distinctive and so influential that its style has come to be known as Urnes Style when it is used in other buildings.

The name stave church comes from the large vertical load bearing posts which form the basis of the structure of the church. Essentially it is composed of a vertical rectangular frame. You can see a cross-section of Borgund stave church below, which gives you the idea of the interior structure necessary for a stave church (Borgund is a lot bigger than Urnes though)

IMG_2089There were once over 1000 stave churches in Norway, but now only 28 remain. Most were built between 1130 and 1350 though a few are later. The black death affected the construction of new buildings after the mid 14th century. The reason they survived, even though they are wooden, is because the wood is coated regularly in pitch to protect it from the weather (this is still done at Urnes). In the case of Urnes it has a stone foundation, which stops it rotting from the ground up. The previous church on the site was a post hole church, the holes have been found in archaeological investigations.

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Stave churches are not all the same, they are built along different lines and with different styles. For example you can see Ringebu Stave Church below

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Urnes is one of the smallest, but it is also the most lavishly decorated.

The carvings are truly incredible. They are an amalgam of Celtic, Viking and early Christian design. Some are extremely reminiscent visually of early illuminated manuscripts like the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells.

IMG_2105IMG_2106The carving above is the side door which is no longer used, but would most likely have originally been the main entrance. You can see a stylised lion in the carvings on the left. These carvings most likely come from the exterior of the earlier church and were reused in the current church. You can see the interior of the door below.

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Other exterior carvings from the earlier church include the post you can see below.

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The main entrance to the church is on the west end and you can see more medieval carving on the capitals and it is thought that the ironwork on the door might be original as well.

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When you look at the photos of the church from the front you will noticed that there is an odd flap open.

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This flap, along with some other panels, are usually closed to protect the delicate carvings beneath. I was lucky enough that when I visited it was open for a conference group and, while it is very weathered, it is still beautiful and thought to be medieval. IMG_2101

The timber the church is constructed of is largely pine with elements of hardwood. The turret on the church is not original, in 1702 it replaced an earlier one from 1680. The roof was also tiled at one point. The current shingles date to the 20th century when the church underwent careful restoration, when much of the protective cladding was also added.

IMG_2141IMG_2143Leaving aside the exterior of the church for the moment, the interior is just as if not more impressive.

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You can see that the floor in the nave is lower than the rest of the church, this was because there was an open space under the floor which was used for burials. It was discontinued in favour of the external cemetery in the 19th century at least partly because of the smell.

The ceiling is 17th century, originally it would have been open like the underside of a boat. The original windows would have been small and porthole like. As you can probably tell the interior has been changed quite a bit over the centuries, but there are still a lot of medieval elements. My favourites are the carved capitals on the columns which then rise up into romanesque wooden arches. These were quite possibly based on contemporary stone churches of the time and are certainly similar to stone churches I have seen in England and Ireland.

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Remarkably some of the medieval fittings have also survived: including the figure of Christ on the Cross with Mary and John which dates to the end of the 12th century

IMG_2113Along with a medieval bishop’s chairIMG_2125

A medieval candelabra

IMG_2126and the chandelier which hangs from the ceiling

IMG_2136The gallery you can see part of above the chandelier, and above the chancel in the earlier photo, was added later and sadly involved cutting some of the original columns and capitals.

The highly decorated altar and pulpit dates to the 1690s, the chancel was extended out in the early 1600s.

IMG_2127IMG_2131The paintings and figures you can see on the walls are also 17th century.

Originally there wouldn’t have been fixed pews, they were introduced after the reformation and the ones in Urnes are 17th century. The boxed pew you can see in the photo below was for women being brought into the church to be cleansed after childbirth.

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Urnes was probably built for the wealthy local Ornes family, but it was also a church used by the locals. It is an amalgam of styles as the needs of the church’s community changed. It is a testimony to the quality of construction that it is still standing today.

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In 1720 it was sold to local priest Christopher Munthe and it remained privately owned until the parish bought it in 1850. By 1881 it wasn’t needed any longer because the parish was reorganised and it was to given to the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Monuments. The parish retained the burial rights in the churchyard and the right to hold services twice a year. This practice continues and Urnes is used by the local community for special occasions. In 1979 UNESCO included Urnes on its World Heritage Register

It met the three main criteria easily with UNESCO saying

Criterion (i): The Urnes Stave Church is an outstanding example of traditional Scandinavian wooden architecture. It brings together traces of Celtic art, Viking traditions and Romanesque spatial structures. The outstanding quality of the carved décor of Urnes is a unique artistic achievement.

Criterion (ii): The stave churches are representative of the highly developed tradition of wooden buildings that extended through the Western European cultural sphere during the Middle Ages. Urnes is one of the oldest of the Norwegian stave churches and an exceptional example of craftsmanship. It also reveals the development from earlier techniques and therefore contributes to the understanding of the development of this specific tradition.

Criterion (iii) : Urnes Stave Church is an ancient  wooden building and is outstanding due to the large-scale reuse of both decorative and constructive elements originating from a stave church built about one century earlier. It is an outstanding example of the use of wood to express the language of Romanesque stone architecture.

Urnes is truly astounding and for such a little church it certainly holds a lot of history.

 

References

Site visit 2018

Urnes Stave Church brochures

Urnes Stave Church Booklet

UNESCO Listing: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/58/

The photos are all 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. Intricate patterns adorn the tiles. They represent  roughly 10 or 11 of the common medieval tile designs. 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.

 

An Easy to Evil Medieval Quiz. No.2

This is my second easy to evil medieval quiz. To have a shot at the first click here.

The way this quiz works.

It’s pretty simple. You see the question with a photo underneath and underneath the photo, which might be some kind of clue, you’ll find the answer. There’s twenty five questions so keep track of how many you get right and how many you get wrong and see how you do at the end. There’s also a poll at the end so you can see how you compare to everyone else if you’re interested.

As the title suggests, it starts off easy and gets much more complicated. There are five sections: Easy, Medium, Hard, Difficult and Evil.

Easy

  1. What is name of the Duke who became King of England in 1066.IMG_7055

Answer: William I. Other acceptable answers include William the Conqueror and William the Bastard.

Photo: The Abbey of Sainte-Etienne in Caen where he is buried.

2. What is the name of King John’s Queen?

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Answer: Isabelle of Angouleme. (any spelling of Isabelle is allowable, there’s lots of them)

Photo: Isabelle’s effigy (on the left) with  Richard I, Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine in Fontevraud.

3.  What is the name of the royal castle only an hour by train from London? The largest inhabited castle in the UK.

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Answer: Windsor Castle.

Photo: Windsor Castle, obviously.

4. What is the name of the King who died at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485?

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Answer: Richard III

Photo: Richard III’s tomb at Leicester Cathedral

5. What is the name of the abbey in London where a significant portion of the Kings and Queens of England are buried.

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Answer: Westminster Abbey

Photo: Westminster Abbey.

Medium

6.  Which king was known as Rufus and probably died in the New Forest?

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Answer: William II

Photo: the ossuaries in Winchester Cathedral where his bones are thought to reside.

7. What Crusade did Eleanor of Aquitaine go on? Bonus point for the start date and or the King she went with.

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Answer: 2nd Crusade, 1147 and Louis VII of France (to whom she was married at the time)

You get one bonus point if you got the date or the king. If you got both, you’re very clever but still only one bonus point.

Photo: Eleanor of Aquitaine’s effigy at Fontevraud.

8. Who was William Marshal‘s oldest son?

IMG_5978Answer: William Marshal the Younger. You get the point if you just said William Marshal.

Photo: What is probably the younger Marshal’s effigy in the Temple Church in London.

9. What area of what is now London was known in the medieval period for its brothels, and was the site of the Bishop of Winchester’s London palace who also licensed the brothels. The prostitutes are said to have been called Winchester’s Geese.

IMG_6718Answer: Southwark

Photo: The remains of Winchester Palace.

10. Who wrote the History of the Kings of Britain in 1136?

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Answer: Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Photo: Monmouth Castle.

Hard

11. Who purportedly said. (Bonus point for who they are speaking about.)

“My Lords, here you see the countess whom I have brought into your presence. She is your lady by birth, the daughter of the earl who graciously, in his generosity, enfieffed you all, once he had conquered the land. She stays behind here with you as a pregnant woman. Until such time as God brings me back here, I ask you all to give her unreservedly the protection she deserves by birthright, for she is your lady, as we all know; I have no claim to anything save through her”.

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Answer: William Marshal, he was saying it about his wife Isabel de Clare.  Remember you get the bonus point if you got Isabel de Clare too.

I use “purportedly” in the question because although it is recorded in his relatively contemporary biography we have no proof he actually said it, for more about the complexities of the History of William Marshal click here

The quote is from History of William Marshal Volume II. pgs 177-179. ISBN: 0905474457

Photo: Kilkenny Castle in Ireland, where the statement was purportedly said.

12. What are the dates of the Period of Anarchy where the Anglo Saxon Chronicle said “that Christ slept, and his saints.”

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Answer: 1136-1154.

Photo: the non contemporary tomb of Empress Matilda, one of the participants.

13. What is the name of the Earl of Leicester who married King Henry III’s sister?

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Answer: Simon de Montford.

Photo: Statue of Simon de Montford, non contemporary, on the clock tower in Leicester.

 

14. What was the name of William the Conqueror’s brother who possibly commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry?

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Answer: Bishop Odo, you can have the point if you just said Odo.

Photo: Ships sailing to England in the Bayeux Tapestry.

 

15. What is the name of the mistress of John of Gaunt whom he later married?

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Answer: Katherine Swynford.

Photo: Katherine Swynford’s tomb in Lincoln Cathedral

Difficult

16. Winchester Cathedral was begun in which century?

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Answer: 7th century, though there is nothing left of the original building.

Photo: Winchester Cathedral

17.

Who built Castle Rising?

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Answer: William d’Albini the Earl of Arundel you get the point if you just said William d’Albini.

Photo: Castle Rising.

18. Who wrote:

“I have your picture in my room; I never pass it without stopping to look at it; and yet when you are present with me I scarce ever cast my eyes on it. If a picture, which is but a mute representation of an object, can give such pleasure, what cannot letters inspire? They have souls; they can speak; they have in them all that force which expresses the transports of the heart; they have all the fire of our passions, they can raise them as much as if the persons themselves were present; they have all the tenderness and the delicacy of speech, and sometimes even a boldness of expression beyond it.”

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Answer: Heloise. The quote comes from a letter from her to Abelard. It can be found at http://sacred-texts.com/chr/aah/aah04.htm

Photo: The non contemporary tomb of Abelard and Heloise in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

19. Who took Lincoln Castle in 1144. There were two, but you can have the point if you get one of them.lincoln-2

Answer: Ranulf Earl of Chester and his brother William of Roumare. You get the point if you got at least one of them and some variation on the name is OK.

Photo: Lincoln Castle.

20. When was the Charter of the Forest first issued separately from the Magna Carta? bonus point for who issued it.

lincoln-3Answer: 1217, it was issued by Henry III under the seal of his regent William Marshal. If you got either Marshal or Henry III you get the bonus point. If you got both, well done you’re very smart, but no extra points.

Photo: Lincoln Castle from inside the walls which holds a copy of the 1217 Charter of the Forest.

EVIL

21. What is the name of the cavern under Pembroke Castle and what stone is composed of?

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Answer: Wogan’s Cavern and limestone. you need both to get the point.

Photo: The cavern.

22.  Where is this description from the Domesday Book describing?

“King Edward had 51 Burgesses paying rent and 212 others over whom he had sake and soke, and three mills rendering 40s. Now there are 19 Burgesses paying rent. Of [the houses of] the 32 others who were [there] 11 are waste in the city ditch and the archbishop has 7 of the them.”

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Answer: Canterbury. The quote is from the page five of the Penguin Classics edition of the Domesday Book.

Photo: facsimile of the Domesday book from the National Archives.

23.  What is the name of the chapel in Richmond castle and what century does it date to and what type of vaulting is the roof?

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Answer: St Nicholas’ chapel, 11th century and barrel vaulting. You need all three for the point.

Photo: The chapel.

24. What was the amount of money paid to Prince Louis of France to leave England in 1217?

IMG_3421Answer: 10 000 marks

Photo: The effigy of William Marshal in the Temple Church. He was regent at the time the money was paid.

25.

Who created the Lindisfarne Gospels and when did they die?

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Answer: Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne and 712.

Photo: Lindisfarne Abbey.

THE END

So that’s it. How did you do?

1-5: Well you’ve got some basics down pat. Good start.

6-10: You know more than basics, well on your way.

11-15: Good work, beginning to build a wealth of obscure facts.

16-20: Impressive. You know you stuff.

21-25: Incredible effort. You may know more about this period than is sensible 🙂

26-27  remember the three bonus points: Speechless. Incredible. You definitely know more than you need to about this specific period and area.

28: If you got them all… Sure you didn’t write the quiz?

Now if you feel like it put your results in the poll below.

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.

 

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.