William, Duke of Normandy, famously conquered England in 1066 and was crowned king, but his next actions are less well known. He embarked upon a program of castle building, constructing a large number of castles across the length and breadth of his new kingdom in an effort to control the physical landscape and intimidate his Saxon subjects into submission. These castles formed the backbone of Norman rule throughout England, acting as administrative centers and military bases, proving crucial in several of the uprisings and rebellions that plagued William’s early reign in England. In this article, we will look at seven of William the Conqueror’s most famous and important Norman castles.
After his coronation as king of England on 25th of December 1066, William had achieved his goal of conquering England – but his position was still tenuous. Despite defeating the last Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings on 14th October and routing his army, the vast majority of the country had not been subject to Norman military invasion. It was therefore potentially liable to rise up in insurrection against the new Norman overlords.
This is precisely what happened on several occasions – the earls of Mercia and Northumbria revolted in 1068, and the following year Edgar the Ætheling rose to attack William with the aid of the king of Denmark. William the Conqueror needed a way of countering military campaigns by rebels and physically dominating his new lands, whilst also impressing his new subjects with a display of wealth and prestige and demonstrating to them his superiority as their feudal lord. The solution to this problem was the castle.
Castles arguably developed in Europe from the early 9th century, following the collapse of the Carolingian empire and the ensuing political upheaval that resulted. In England, the Saxon fortified towns or ‘Burhs’ had emerged during the reign of Alfred the Great in order to defend against ‘Viking’ or Danish incursions. However, it was the Normans who brought stone castles to Britain and ushered in a new age of castle building across northern Europe.
A castle was able to control the surrounding countryside and nearby towns by maintaining garrisons – the garrison could sally out to attack raiders or enemy forces, and the castle could be used to shelter friendly troops. Although many of William’s castles started life as simple wooden motte-and-bailey fortifications, they were soon converted into enormous stone keep castles, featuring the latest Romanesque architecture.
Although William the Conqueror was the builder of many of the Norman castles constructed post-conquest, other Norman lords soon followed suit. Through a process of subinfeudation (where a lord granted land to his vassals to create their own distinct fiefs), Norman knights settled across the length of England and many of them built castles of their own. The country was eventually filled with castles of various sizes, all built to control and subjugate England.
Built immediately after the Normans landed on the south coast of England in September 1066, Pevensey was William the Conqueror’s first castle. In the interests of creating a fortification quickly, William reused the existing Roman defenses which still stood on the site – the shore fort of Anderitum, built around 290 AD. The Roman fort was made up of a stone wall circuit measuring 290 meters by 170 meters, punctuated with towers, some of which were up to ten meters tall.
During the medieval period, the site was on a peninsula that projected into marshland, land that has since silted up or been reclaimed, making it a strong defensive location and an excellent place for William the Conqueror to build his first military base for the invasion of England. Initially, the Normans constructed a simple wooden motte-and-bailey style keep with great speed, taking advantage of the existing defenses by placing their keep within the Roman walls.
Soon after his conquest was successful, William ordered the wooden keep at Pevensey to be upgraded. In its place was built an imposing stone keep, a large tower measuring 17 meters by 9 meters internally. Unusually the tower also had 7 projecting towers, and although it is a ruin today, it is thought that the structure measures up to 25 meters in height. A moat was also added around the new keep, which was likely up to 18 meters wide, and crossed by a wooden bridge.
Thanks to these upgrades, Pevensey became an incredibly formidable Norman castle. The incorporation of the old Roman walls made Pevensey into an extremely powerful version of a motte-and-bailey castle, with high stone walls and a stone keep set in a wide bailey, instead of a simple wooden palisade and relatively weak wooden keep.
The castle was tested when it was besieged by rebellious Norman barons in 1088, who failed to take the castle by force, but managed to starve the garrison into capitulating. Later on, in the 13th and 14th centuries, Pevensey was upgraded further with the addition of a curtain wall (featuring round towers) which incorporated the earlier Norman keep. This essentially made the castle into a concentric fortification, a ‘castle within a castle.’
Established just down the coast from the Norman landing point at Pevensey, Hastings was another early castle built as a base of operations for William’s invading forces. Positioned next to the sea, it was from Hastings castle that William’s army raided the English countryside prior to the Battle of Hastings on 14th October 1066.
As speed was key, Hastings was built using earthworks, a wooden keep, and a palisade wall, rapidly providing the Normans with some defenses should they be attacked. Following his coronation, William the Conqueror ordered for the castle to be upgraded, and by 1070 a stone keep had been built which towered over the fishing port of Hastings and surrounding countryside. In 1069 William granted the castle to Robert, Count of Eu, whose family held it until they forfeited their English landholdings in the 13th century. The Norman castle was later intentionally ruined by King John of England, lest it fall into the hands of Louis the Dauphin of France, who at the time had designs on the English crown.
Perhaps the most famous of William the Conqueror’s castles, the Tower of London today is still an excellent example of an 11th century Norman keep despite later additions to the site. Built of Kentish ragstone and originally detailed with Caen Limestone (although this has since been replaced with local Portland stone), the tower was an enormous square keep, a layout typical of Norman keeps in England, measuring 36 meters by 32 meters.
Initially, however, the Tower of London started out as a much simpler wooden keep. Before his coronation on Christmas day 1066, William sent an advance party of his troops ahead to secure London and begin construction of a castle to control the city. The location they chose was at the south-eastern corner of the old Roman walls in London, and the wooden keep served to establish Norman rule in the city.
Almost immediately after his coronation, William began the process of upgrading the castle. The tower was built in Romanesque style, which is characterized by small windows, rounded arches, thick walls, and decorative arcading. The keep also features buttresses and a first-floor entrance complete with a forebuilding, both distinctive elements of Norman castle architecture. Although it was only finished in 1087 after William’s death, the Tower of London also contained luxury accommodation for the king.
The Tower of London was an essential fortification for William, as the castle was of great strategic importance. Its site by the River Thames defended the entrance to London from the sea, and the imposing newly built keep dominated the English capital. Not only was the fortification militarily effective, but it was also a great statement of prestige, having been built at great expense in the latest European fashions.
Windsor was another of William the Conqueror’s castles built after his coronation in an effort to secure the lands surrounding London. In order to defend the capital from attack, a series of motte-and-bailey castles were quickly constructed in a ring around London, each of them a short journey from the adjacent castles to allow these fortifications to mutually support one another.
Not only was Windsor part of this ring of castles, but it was also the site of royal hunting forests that had been used by Saxon monarchs. Furthermore, the close proximity to the River Thames enhanced the strategic importance of Windsor, and the castle has been extensively expanded and used as a royal residence by the English and British royal families since the reign of Henry I.
Despite its current opulent appearance, William’s castle at Windsor was rather simpler. The first castle was a wooden keep built atop a man-made motte raised on a natural chalk bluff 100 meters above the River Thames. A bailey was also added to the east of the keep, and by the end of the 11th century, another bailey had been built to the west, giving Windsor a distinctive double-bailey layout that it still has to this day. The earliest incarnation of Windsor castle certainly appears to have been a primarily military construction – William and other Norman kings did not stay there, instead preferring the nearby palace of Edward the Confessor in the village of Windsor.
Early in 1067, William the Conqueror embarked upon an expedition to East Anglia, intending to assert his authority over the region – it seems likely that the foundation of Norwich castle dates from this campaign. Constructed right in the center of Norwich, the Norman keep is an unmistakable display of William’s power.
Built out of Caen limestone imported from Normandy at great expense (a testament to the great wealth of William the Conqueror), the castle was styled according to the latest Romanesque architectural fashions. Buttressed along all four sides, the keep features small windows, crenelated battlements, and a forebuilding (which has since been destroyed) which were all hallmarks of Norman castle design.
Furthermore, the elaborate blind arcading on the exterior of the castle suggests that this structure was intended as more of a statement piece than a rugged military outpost. Indeed, even the building of the castle displayed the power of the Normans, as up to 113 Saxon houses were demolished to make way for the incredible earthwork motte on which Norwich castle stands.
Chepstow was built by William the Conqueror in 1067 in Monmouthshire, Wales, to control the Welsh border and oversee the independent Welsh kingdoms, who could have potentially threatened his new crown. The site of Chepstow was chosen as it was positioned above a major crossing point on the River Wye and overlooked the roads leading in and out of southern Wales.
The Norman castle itself was built on limescale cliffs beside the river, affording Chepstow excellent natural defenses in addition to the fortifications that the Normans constructed. In contrast to William’s other castles, Chepstow was never built of wood – instead, it was made of stone, suggesting just how strategically important the site was. Despite construction only beginning in 1067, the ‘Great Tower’ was completed in 1090. It is possible that it was built so quickly as a show of strength by William intended to intimidate the Welsh king Rhys ap Tewdwr.
Constructed in 1072 on the orders of William the Conqueror, six years after the initial Norman conquest of England, Durham was a classic Norman motte-and-bailey castle. The fortification was built following William’s journey to the north earlier in 1072 and played an important role in controlling the Scottish border, as well as preventing and quashing rebellions in the north.
Durham castle may have initially been built of wood but was certainly soon upgraded to stone – the material was local, cut from the nearby cliffs. Waltheof, Earl of Northumberland, oversaw the construction of the castle until his rebellion and execution in 1076, at which point William Walcher, the Bishop of Durham, was tasked with completing the building work, and given the right to exercise royal authority on behalf of King William. In 1080, during another northern rebellion, the castle was subjected to a four-day siege and Bishop Walcher was killed.
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