Medieval castles

Portchester Castle – The Keep
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

What was their purpose and significance?

The castle as we know it today was introduced into England in 1066 during the Norman invasion led by William the Conqueror. After their victory at the Battle of Hastings, the Normans settled in England. They constructed castles all over the country in order to control their newly-won territory, and to pacify the Anglo-Saxon population. These early castles were mainly of motte and bailey type. The ‘motte’ was made up of a large mound of earth with a wooden tower on top, while the ‘bailey’ was a large ditch and bank enclosure which surrounded the motte.

These timber castles were quite cheap and very quick to build. However, the timber castles did have disadvantages. They were very vulnerable to attacks using fire and the wood would eventually start to rot. Due to these disadvantages, King William ordered that castles should be built in stone. Many of the original timber castles were replaced with stone castles.

Over time, stone castles were built in different architectural styles as builders experimented with castle-building techniques. In their infancy, castles were primarily military fortifications used to defend conquered territories from attack. The strategic location of the castle was paramount. However, once the Normans began to consolidate their control over England, castles began to take on a variety of different roles. Castles could serve as a centre for local government, administration and justice. They were also used by powerful lords to display their wealth and power through lavish architectural styles and decoration. Castles were not only built and used by the crown. In fact, the majority of castles were granted by the king to his loyal lords and nobles along with large areas of land. In return for these grants, the king expected his nobles to control and administer these lands on his behalf. The castle itself also represented a whole group of people who contributed to its function from constables, masons, blacksmiths and servants to name a few.


Tasks

Questions

  • Do you think this order would have changed Alnoth’s opinion of castles?
  • Clue: think about what a castle might represent: an intimidating fortress? An impressive building? An important centre of government? A building to be demolished like any other – all part of the day job?

Questions

  • What does Portchester Castle represent for the king?
  • What does Portchester Castle represent for Queen Eleanor?
  • What does the granting of Portchester Castle mean to the bailiffs of Portchester (the people who worked at the castle)?

Questions

  • What does Portchester Castle represent to the king?
  • What does Portchester Castle represent to the constable?
  • What does Portchester Castle represent to foreign spies?

Questions

  • What does Portchester Castle represent to King Edward II?
  • What does Portchester Castle represent for foreign invaders?

Questions

  • What does Portchester Castle represent to King Richard II?
  • What does Portchester Castle represent to John Cook and Peer Geveyn?
  • What does Portchester Castle represent to the masons and carpenters employed to work on the castle?

Questions

  • Compare this document to Document 5.
  • Does this change your impression of what Portchester Castle represented for John Cook and Peter Geveyn?
  • Does this change your impression of what Portchester Castle represented for the masons and carpenters employed to work on the castle?

Questions

  • What does Stokesay Castle represent to Lawrence of Ludlow?
  • Do you think he wanted to build fortifications around his home?

Question

  • What do you think castles represented for William Perheved?

Question

  • What does the castle of Berwick represent to John de Leycestre?

Questions

  • What does Alnwick Castle represent to Anneys?
  • What does Alnwick Castle represent to Richard Croftus?

Teachers' notes

The purpose of this enquiry is to allow students to explore documents relating to the general function of castles. Did some people find them intimidating?  Did a king view a castle in the same way as a peasant? Did a queen think about a castle in the same way as a builder?

The questions provided with each source act as prompts for students to answer the overarching question: What was the purpose and significance of castles?

The records used cover a range of material including royal grants, extracts from pipe rolls and the Calendar of Patent Rolls, royal orders, licences and pardons. We hope that these documents will offer students a chance to develop their powers of evaluation and analysis. All sources have been provided with a transcript and, as the language may prove challenging, we have also provided a simplified version with more difficult words defined within the text. Each source is captioned and dated to provide a sense of what the document is about. Alternatively, teachers may wish to use the sources to develop their own lesson in a different way or combine with other sources.

The documents included in this lesson relate to the following castles: Framlingham, Portchester, Stokesay, Berwick and Alnwick, some of which also feature in the specification for OCR History GCSE module: Castles Form and Function c1000-1750 as specified sites in conjunction with English Heritage. Framlingham Castle is the first named site for OCR in 2018. For AQA, GCSE History, module Historical Environment of Medieval England, Stokesay Castle is the specified site for 2018.


External links

Images of historic sites

An overview of the ‘Middle Ages’

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