1066-1086 and All That, part two: Conquest and Construction: Castles, Cathedrals and Churches.   1 comment


When looking for changes after 1066 we should therefore be very cautious about describing anything as Norman without qualification. This is even true when examining the most dramatic changes to the landscape that we identify with them in the form of castles, churches and cathedrals. Of course, castles were not invented by the Norman dukes. The dividing line between a communal fort, like a hill-fort, designed to protect the whole community, and a private house or castle, is not always easy to define. However, there does seem to be a difference between walled towns, like those of Roman Britain or Anglo-Saxon England, and private castles. The appearance of the latter, where powerful barons are able to surround themselves with walls and barricades, as much to terrify and subjugate the local population as to protect the inmates, is the clearest archaeological sign of the Norman Conquest.

Nevertheless, there are certainly castles outside Normandy which were built as early as the tenth century. One of the best preserved is at Langeais in Anjou, built by the wicked Count Fulk the Black. A massive stone wall stands on a large mound, and the Norman ducal residences at Fécamp and Caen had stone walls around them and could also be seen as castles of a sort, though they are usually described as fortified palaces.The construction of large stone buildings, most notably abbeys, castles and churches was clearly a positive consequence of the Conquest. However, many of the castles were built long after the Conquest itself, albeit based on earlier simple motte-and-bailey constructions, by the twelfth-century Angevin kings of England, and by the Plantagenets in North Wales, not until well into the thirteenth century. Norman castle construction also began before the Conquest, in the reign of Edward the Confessor, who had a Norman mother and had lived in exile in Normandy for nearly twenty years during the reign of Cnut. At Goltho in Lincolnshire successive phases of the manor house, from Saxon to Norman, show an evolution in the defences which begin before 1066, not only in the re-modelling of stone buildings, but also in the re-building of ringworks, citcular banked and ditched enclosures. In addition, some of the towers built as part of fortified burghs, especially in ports, were developed into castles in the Norman period. However, where no stone-built walls existed, the priority for the conquerors was to gain control of their lands and to do so quickly, they needed to build their towers simply, in their hundreds, with earth mounds around them. Therefore, their keeps were timber constructions, inside the motte, the defended courtyard, or bailey, in which the soldiers and some of the forced labourers from the English or Welsh peasantry might live and gain a measure of protection from their new lord.


At Hen Dome (Old Mound in Welsh), (pictured above) near Montgomery, on the Welsh border, there is a classic motte-and-bailey castle built by Roger of Montgomery, one of William’s henchmen. The castle controlled an important crossing over the River Severn, on the major trading route between England and Wales, and the Romans had built a fort here before. It wasn’t until the thirteenth century that a new castle was built some miles away, on the top of a rocky hill above Montgomery, providing a view across into Wales beyond Offa’s Dyke. Even then, however, the marcher lords would probably have continued to be as much at risk from the English across the river, or from other barons, as from the Welsh across the Dyke, so the old mound was kept on as an outpost for some time. The archaeologists excavating the site have found the remains of dozens of buildings, creating what must have been a claustrophobic huddle within the defences. With a wooden palisades running along the bank, only the lord, his family and the soldiers would have been able to see out, so that the serfs below and within the bailey would have felt as if they were prisoners, which some probably were. Castles had to be capable of resisting a siege for many days, even weeks and months, so they had to be self-sufficient, with living quarters for the lord, family and household, the garrison, craftsmen and serfs, as well as animals. They also had to contain food stores, workshops, a smithy, a bakery and a brew house. It must have been a crowded and unpleasant environment even when not besieged. Romantic pictures of life in a castle, with minstrels and troubadours, do not fit the finds from this small, tough, border outpost. Life at Hen Domen was probably not much different in the twelfth century from life lived in Celtic hill forts from before the Roman Conquest, and far less pleasant than the life of slaves within Roman forts, not to mention the legionaries and their families.


Naturally, as soon as they could afford it, the wealthier Norman lords replaced timber towers with stone which often had to be brought some distance. Castle Hedingham in Essex (above) was one of the first stone keeps, built by Aubrey de Vere around 1140, using stone brought from Northamptonshire. The massive keep still stands on its mound, despite having taken twice by siege during the reign of King John. The second-floor main hall is spanned by what is said to be the largest Norman arch in Europe. The garrison would have lived below the hall, while the family and ladies would have occupied the top floor which, except in the event of fire, was the safest refuge. Two Norfolk castles were also built in the early Norman period, Castle Rising and Castle Acre. The former looks more like a defended hall, however, with ringed earthworks around it, and the latter, began as a two-storey stone hall before 1085, but was then converted into a keep. King William built in stone from the start, beginning with the White Tower in London, followed closely by Colchester Castle, built on the foundations of a Roman temple. They were both designed as fortified palaces, like the ducal residences in Normandy.

Castle building changed and adapted throughout the Medieval period in response to political and military changes. Every technological development in siege warfare was countered by changes in castle design until eventually artillery rendered them obsolete. Castles would have been built anyway in Britain, even without the Norman Conquest of England, probably, as in much of Europe, as a result of the Crusades, the first of which left Normandy in 1096. The concentric Crusader castles were to provide a blueprint for many of the later Medieval castles of Britain. However, the speed with which they were first built after 1066, and the sheer number of them, would not have happened without the imperative of military conquest. The Domesday Book records many town houses laid waste or destroyed because of the castle.



In Winchester, part of the castle mound raised in 1067 lay on top of an earlier street. This street had been many times rebuilt, with stratified levels more than five feet thick showing its importance in the town’s road network. Winchester also provides us with the most dramatic example of the brutality with which ancient cathedrals and churches were pulled down and replaced. As with his castle, the Conqueror may have wanted to make a propaganda point by building an enormous, magnificent new cathedral in the ancient Royal capital of the West Saxons. The Old Minster was originally a modest building which had been extended westwards over the centuries, to a magnificent west end, built on continental models, with a throne in a raised gallery to enable the king to attend in comfort and style. The Normans had no time for this ancient, awkward building, as they saw it, so they replaced it with a cathedral of such scale that not only is it the longest in England, but that it is outclassed in Europe only by St Peter’s in Rome.


Not only cathedrals, but also most major churches were rebuilt after 1066, and it is only largely by chance that rare examples of simple Saxon chapels remain, to be discovered centuries later, like at Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire. All over England a most ambitious building programme began within a few years of the Conquest. Between 1070 and 1100 about thirty major churches were started, some to be finished early in the next century. This is an extraordinary achievement, when the extent of castle-building and the demands of military campaigns in England and Normandy, as well as to the Holy Land, are taken into account. The building programme must also involved considerable manpower, both skilled and unskilled. As well as the great cathedrals, many abbeys still survive, at least in part, despite the ferocity of the Henrican Dissolution. Durham, built 1092-1133, sits on a rocky peninsula in a bend of the River Wear, next to the castle, the fortress of the Prince-Bishops. When it was built it must have been a massively solid reminder of Norman domination over the once proudly independent Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria, the centre of Christian learning and mission in Britain. It has been described as the crowning achievement of Romanesque architecture in England. However, Peterborough and Ely seem closer to the churches of Normandy, built out of Barnack limestone, more similar to Caen stone, which was also shipped to England for some buildings. As well as at Caen itself, the churches at Bayeux, Rouen and Mont St Michel can be easily compared with the series of great churches on the other side of La Manche. Although massive, they also have a simple, straightforward style, with tall, round pillars, round arches and aisles. Some striking resemblance between Normandy and England would be strikingly suggested by this architecture even if there were no historical records.



However, Romanesque architecture was not a Norman invention, but a style which was widespread throughout Europe. As its name suggests, it is descended from Roman architecture. Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon buildings could be described as belonging to the early stages of Romanesque architecture, but the name is usually associated with the great buildings of the Church, like the abbeys William and his wife Matilda built at Caen, or Durham Cathedral (above). The scale on which they built, and the size and magnificence of the churches, is new.

The impact the Normans had on England derives from their organisation, efficiency and from the wealth they had at their disposal once they had conquered England. Like the Danes, the Normans were attracted by the wealth of England, which was not a poor backward country, as we have seen in the case of Suffolk. It was far wealthier and more civilised than Normandy. England was famous for its embroideries and gold work, of which only a few tiny fragments remain today. From written accounts it is possible to piece together an impression of the lavishness of the metalwork, textiles, sculpture and manuscripts to be found in churches and monasteries, and probably in aristocratic homes as well.


Anglo-Saxons seem to have preferred to work on a small-scale basis, producing delicate ivories and fragile gold embroidery. Their churches tended to be rather small, with complicated additions in the form of towers and twisting staircases, crypts and elaborate west fronts. They adapted older buildings, rather than knocking them down. These churches would have been elaborately decorated, with painted wall plaster, stained glass, gilded statues and elaborate wall hangings. Today, these can only be pieced together from remnants. The pieces of metal or ivory which we prize today as masterpieces of Anglo-Saxon art would probably have seemed insignificant to a contemporary. It was at the time of the Norman Conquest that many of these products of Anglo-Saxon culture went forever. Some treasures were taken away by the cartload to adorn family homes in Normandy. Of course, there had always been inter-cultural traffic across the Channel, but it had been two-way. Charlemagne had recruited scholars from English monasteries and refugees, including most famously, St Dunstan, the Wessex royal family in the time of Cnut, and Edward the Confessor. At those levels of society, the Norman aristocratic takeover may well have benefited Britain’s contacts with the mainstream of European culture, more by accident than design, but it is more likely that, at lower levels of English society, Anglo-Saxon culture was set back for generations, if not for longer.

Some of the smaller churches were also partly or entirely rebuilt, in addition to many new ones being founded. Melbourne in Derbyshire, Christchurch Priory in Dorset, and Iffley in Oxfordshire are all good examples. Saxon doorways and window arches sometimes survive in these when all else has gone, although not always in their original position, and often alongside more elaborate Norman doorways whose sculpture is reminiscent of Norse styles. It seems obvious that this tremendous outburst of building was kick-started by the military conquest, but not all the physical evidence suggests that the architectural similarities between the two sides of the Channel were brought about by a complete and violent conquest of one side by the other. The very fact that the last ruling member of the Royal House of Wessex, Edward the Confessor, was half-Norman, and that it was he who built the most treasured of England’s ecclesiastical jewels, Westminster Abbey, completed just in time for his funeral, is a reminder that a revolution in building in stone was already underway before the Conquest. Although much of the original Abbey was pulled down and replaced in the thirteenth century, we can still get an idea of its appearance from the Bayeux tapestry. It seems very much like some of the Abbeys of Normandy which Edward would have seen during his twenty-year exile there. The building of the Abbey may very well have been supervised by Norman architects, part of the rebuilding of church architecture which had begun in the late tenth century, after the Viking raids, and had continued unbroken under Cnut.

Norman building was marked not only by the scale of the resources involved, but also by a total disregard for burial places of Celtic and Saxon saints, and royal tombs. Therefore, this phase of church building did represent a break with tradition. Without the Conquest, there would undoubtedly have been many more attempts to retain older features within the new, even in the cathedrals. Celtic and Saxon styles, combining modesty in scale with attention to detail in paintings, statues and ornaments, would not have given way so quickly to the massive austerity and brutal simplicity of Norman Romanesque. The continuous and intertwining curved lines would not have so easily replaced by carefully crafted archways, rectangles and triangles.

(to be continued)


One response to “1066-1086 and All That, part two: Conquest and Construction: Castles, Cathedrals and Churches.

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  1. Reblogged this on hungarywolf.

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