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Great British Castles, a Journey Through History

Updated on September 13, 2016

There is something about castles that captivates the imagination. From our first sight of them in fairy tales as children, they represent fantasy and adventure. We find them in stories and movies as the backdrop to great romances, battles and mysteries.

Castles are one of the great physical symbols of the British Isles, their history, scale and dominance demanding our attention and awe. There are hundreds of castles in the British Isles, in various states of repair, from the isolated romantic ruins off the beaten track to those that are well restored and commercially presented to visitors. Their architectural styles also vary considerably, from the domestic style castle built to prioritise accommodation and entertainment to the imposing military castles with siege walls and cannon ports, and the Tower House castles so characteristic of Scotland.

From 1066 to the 14th Century Peak of Castle Building

To properly appreciate British castles, we must first understand the historic context that determined their location and design. Before castles were built, the Anglo-Saxon occupants of the land originally lived in fortified townships. It wasn’t until the Norman invasion of 1066 that castles were built in England and Ireland.

The geographical spread of castles followed the fortunes of the waring armies who sought to take control the areas of the British Isles over the centuries. The Normans who came from northern France were responsible for the first major campaign of castle building, initially with a number of Royal castles controlling the key cities of the time such as Warwick. They built more castles on conquered lands as they advanced through English territory and into Wales, sometimes positioning them along old Roman roads or at ports or river mouths. Some castles were built at strategic locations such as Windsor, just one day’s march away from the next castle in a ring around London. Hundreds of castles were built, occupied and then abandoned as the invasion progressed.

In terms of architecture, most castles were originally built in the ‘motte and bailey’ style. That is a wooden tower on a mound with an enclosed area next to it. During the 12th century however, many castles were rebuilt, this time in stone. This was sometimes for defence purposes but otherwise more to do with demonstrating the prestige of their owners. In the Scottish war of independence, the new castles built by nobles in Scotland were of a Tower House design. By the 13th century castles walls were increasingly designed and built with defence in mind. The buildings had to withstand attacks in the Baron’s wars. There were arrow slits for crossbows, extensive water defences and huge siege towers such as at Kenilworth Castle.

Part of the attraction of visiting a castle is to imagine what life would have been like living there. Some became comfortably furnished with tapestries and floor and window coverings. Some, such as Leeds Castle, would have landscaped gardens with lakes, parks and additional buildings such as churches and settlements.

Some castles were architectural showstoppers of their time. Those constructed in North Wales during Edward I final invasion of the native strongholds, represented, it is said ‘amongst the finest achievements of medieval military architecture in England and Wales’. Caernarfon and Harlech castles boasted powerful defences and high status accommodation. Caernarfon in particular was highly decorated with carvings, towers and multiple doors and portcullises. Along with Edward’s famous castles Beaumaris and Conwy, they are popular visitor destinations today.

Edward I's great fortress - Conwy Castle, Wales
Edward I's great fortress - Conwy Castle, Wales | Source

During the 14th century in England the trend was towards developing grander palace-castles with more living accommodation for visitors and entertainments such as Windsor and Kenilworth. The new castles, such as Bodiam, were being built with far more emphasis on architecture than on serious defence capabilities. They were characterised by the rectangular shape with corner towers, gatehouses and moat. However, in the north of England, large towers were also typical such as at Warkworth Castle and gun ports were built in the walls, such as at Carisbrooke Castle, that helped in the successful repelling of the French in the siege of 1377.

One of the largest and strongest fortresses in Northumberland - Warkworth Castle
One of the largest and strongest fortresses in Northumberland - Warkworth Castle | Source

From 15th Century Decay to 20th Century Redeployment

This period of building new castles came to an end and many fell into decay during the 15th century, though in areas of instability such as Scotland, Ireland and English frontier with Scotland, hundreds of Tower House castles continued to be built. The accession of James IV of Scotland to the English throne in 1603 led to a period of stability between the two nations making castle building for defensive purposes redundant. By the end of the 17th century however, many had been pressed back into service once again during the heavy artillery sieges of the English civil war between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists.

Through the 18th century some castles in Britain continued to have a military use such as English border defences like Carlisle Castle and internal security in Scotland like Sirling Castle. Other castles would be used as barracks, county gaols or for holding prisoners of the Napoleonic war. A new trend emerged to repair and improve ruined medieval castles, adding follies and Capability Brown makeovers. So by the end of the 18th century castles were becoming recognised for their picturesque potential amongst painters and became tourist attractions for the first time with hundreds of thousands of visitors travelling to see the Tower of London, Warwick and Edinburgh. This trend to popularise castles inspired the restoration and rebuilding of castles such as the gothic Alnwick Castle and Scots Baronial Floors Castle.

Prison reform in Britain brought the use of castle prisons to an end by the end of the 19th century. However, they would be brought back into more practical use yet again during the course of the First and Second World Wars for holding spies and prisoners of war and with coastal castles supporting naval operations.

A New Wave of Preservation and Heritage Tourism

The potential for castles as film sets was already being mined with the filming of Ivanhoe at Chepstow Castle in 1913. British castles are frequently used as film sets now, inspiring a new wave of castle tourism. More recently the Harry Potter series of movies used Alnwick Castle for the set of Hogwarts School.

Setting of Harry Potter's Hogwarts School - Alnwick Castle, Northumberland
Setting of Harry Potter's Hogwarts School - Alnwick Castle, Northumberland | Source

Castle preservation became a priority in the second half of the 20th century with the UNESCO World Heritage Site programme playing a key role. These days English Heritage owns the largest number of English castles, followed by the National Trust. Some are looked after by Local Authorities, and others remain in sole private ownership with many centuries and generations of the same family behind them. British and Irish castles now form a significant part of the tourist ‘heritage’ industry. This has led to the trend for commercial exploitation that has been controversial, such as reconstructions and re-enactments with a dubious factual basis. Nevertheless there are millions of castle visits every year and the appetite for the castle experience shows no sign of abating!

For the British, a castle represents far more than a historic day out as it is symbolic in the way the justice system applies the law of self-defence. The dictum ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’ was established in 17th century law. This is the concept that designates a person’s home with protections and immunities permitting them to use reasonable force to defend themselves against intruder, free from legal prosecution. These principles continue to be applied in law today.

The Best of British Castles showcases a selection of castles that are the best of their kind. Whether it is in terms of the dramatic setting, the completeness of their structure or the whole visitor experience. Each one offers the visitor something different from the others and has a story to tell about the part it played in the history of the British Isles. From browsing the gallery of selected Castles for inspiration, visitors can click on each of the images to find more useful information and links to help appreciate each one.


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