During my first ever visit to the south-east of England back in 2009, I visited one of the most archetypical castles in Britain.
Its name is Bodiam Castle, and it has everything a castle should have–round towers, a moat, crenellations, murder holes. With its small windows, spiralling stairways, and imposing gatehouse, the castle evokes powerful images of mounted knights, desperate sieges, and an eternally militarised Middle Ages.
What I did not realise at the time was that these imposing views and militaristic flourishes were a ruse. Built in 1385 by the Sussex notable Sir Edward Dalyngrigge, Bodiam Castle is, in fact, more like a grand house than a great fortification.
For scholars, the first hint of the building’s less-than-perfect military nature came when they realised that although it was ostensibly built to repel raiders from across the English Channel, it was nowhere near the sea. When they looked at the site with a more critical eye, they realised that many of its features were impractical. For a start, it lies low in the landscape, and its moat, while attractive, is too shallow for effective defence and can easily be drained.
To add insult to injury, its crenelations are too low to serve their purpose, many of the gun-ports and murder-holes are impractical, and its defensive wall has a very large hole in it where the chapel windows were built.
So although it looked like a castle and felt like a castle, it very decidedly did not function like a castle. These conclusions left scholars in a bit of a difficulty, because if Bodiam wasn’t a castle, then what was it?
The answer was not to change Bodiam’s classification, from a castle to something else, but to change the way we perceived and interpreted castles. At the time Bodiam was being re-examined, received historical wisdom stated that the development of castles could be explained as the response to escalating militarism among the English elite after the Norman Conquest (1066). Earthwork and timber castles were thus replaced by a growing number of stone castles, whose design was dictated by military needs.
As historians revisited a growing number of castle sites, however, they began to notice inconsistencies. Castles were being built not to maximise their invulnerability to attack, but to make them look good in the surrounding landscape. Even when many castles were attacked, they norm was to surrender under well-established protocols of battle, not to fall through siege.
The result? Castles are now seen as symbols of status and power, and only more rarely as genuine attempts at fortification. They housed an elite that revered its military past but also, as time went on, became more interested in the comforts of lordly life. Bodiam, at one time surrounded by elaborate water gardens and well appointed inside, reflects this vision by imitating warfare while inviting leisure.
Now, although the scholarly furore surrounding Bodiam has died down, its deliberate beauty remains.
A small, well-illustrated, rigorous, and accessible book is Robert Liddiard’s Castles in Context, (Macclesfield, UK, 2005).