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CONQUEST - 20: SETTLERS ON A FOREIGN SHORE - Where Other Incomers Try To Blend In, Normans Build Castles To Stand Apart

Updated on December 24, 2017

Norman castle builders' first task was to defend themselves against likely attack by insurgents

Dundrum Castle, whilst not strictly Norman in that it was built after Henry II's reign, follows the design and building style of its English predecessors, with inner bailey and keep (albeit circular), outer bailey and surrounding moat
Dundrum Castle, whilst not strictly Norman in that it was built after Henry II's reign, follows the design and building style of its English predecessors, with inner bailey and keep (albeit circular), outer bailey and surrounding moat | Source

Frankish overtones

Frankish settlers may have been offered incentives to migrate to William's kingdom. There were shopkeepers, merchants, cooks, priests and other ecclesiastical settlers who came and established themselves amongst the common herd. At Hereford they were quit of all judicial fines but breach of the peace, heimfara (house-breaking) and foresteall (highway robbery). Oddly it is from Orderic's Shrewsbury that the most specific complaint came:

'The English burgesses say it is very hard on them that they render as much geld as they rendered... and the earl himself has granted to the abbey he is building there thirty-nine burgesses paying geld... altogether there are 193 messuages (dwelling houses with outbuildings and land) that do not pay geld'.

As there were only 252 houses and as many burgesses in 1086, their stance is understandable. Nor were such complaints rare - particularly about castle building - which affected almost every major burh in England. At Norwich twenty-two of the 1,320 burgesses had left for Beccles in Suffolk, three others to Thorpe St Andrew, 'those who fled and the rest who stayed were completely ruined' (de vastati), partly because of earl Ralph's forfeiture, partly by fire, partly the king's geld and to some degree because of Waleran!'

At Lincoln burgesses were more cautious. After complaining that 166 messuages had been destroyed to make way for the castle, they added 'that the remaining seventy-four have been destroyed outside the castle boundary, not because of the sheriff's bullying but because of bad luck and poverty and the ravages of fire'. The immediate results of the Conquest on English burhs was detrimental, although many recovered.

Burh (town) property is described in Domesday in terms of its landlords. King and Church normally took the greatest share. Baronies and newly-created earldoms divided rural areas, but town houses and burgesses were often linked to rural estates and some manors brought together both elements. as in the rest of the kingdom, English nobles of 1066 had gone, in their stead were the outsiders. The hall at Lincoln belonging to Toki, Auti's son had passed into the hands of Geoffroi (Geoffrey) Alselin and his nephew Ralph, who held it still in AD1086. An agreement of Archbishop Anselm's day (AD1093-1109) names the men who 'sat' (O.E. 'sittan') on nine messuages (hagan) in Canterbury, over which Christ Church had sake and soke. Only one had a foreign name, Willelm (William). The use of the verb sittan meant the occupants of the property rather than the landowners to whom renders were made.

Although landlords may have been Frankish, the burgesses and others who occupied properties in the borough were largely English. They made up the 'middle-ground' of society. Those who lived in towns or cities could be outsiders or native-born, those who lived on the land were almost all native-born. Were they tempted to try to change their lot they had to be quick. If found away from their home ground they could be dragged back to the 'village' and incarcerated at his lordship's pleasure - perhaps never to be released. Only the blacksmith was respected by the incomers, 'villeins' were expendable. Should they reach the town or city and hide from the hue and cry for more than a year they were free, but there were many who were not happy with them being amongst them. Public-spirited souls might alert the authorities and they were undone. Able-bodied souls who could make themselves useful and were friendly could expect to last longer, eventually blend in with the other citizens and achieve better things. It would take the Black Death to raise the horizon for the common masses on the land.

Norman castles built on 'burh' sites in England

Colchester castle after restoration in 1882, contemporary postcard view
Colchester castle after restoration in 1882, contemporary postcard view | Source
Durham Castle and Cathedral, fairly contemporary structures seen from the south bank towpath of the River Wear
Durham Castle and Cathedral, fairly contemporary structures seen from the south bank towpath of the River Wear | Source
Aerial view of Lincoln Castle, built and re-built over several centuries by successive bishops
Aerial view of Lincoln Castle, built and re-built over several centuries by successive bishops | Source

Only at Colchester is a list of burgesses supplied in Domesday, and then only for the king's land.

Of the 276 names given only sixteen are outsiders - as opposed to those in-born - and five of these are of the names seen in England before 1066 such as Ainulf, Filiman, Hardekin and Sunegod.

The other eleven look to be post-Conquest incomers. Ralph Pinel, a minor landowner in Essex is certainly one of these, as are Willelm Pecche and Demiblanc, a knight of Aubrey deVere. Not all landholders lived in the town. Ralph Pinel held four houses outside the walls and five acres. Hardekin held ten houses and twenty acres. Aelfric the priest had three houses and two acres.


To intimidate the English, chains of castles were built across the kingdom.

Originally timber from east to west, within a matter of three or four years the earlier wooden structures were replaced by stone edifices. Defences were improved and extended. Scarborough castle was sited on what began once as a Roman signal station, on the cliff that divided the two bays. The Normans raised a wooden motte and bailey castle, rebuilt it in stone and their successors extended the walls across the width of the hill. It was still in use when Oliver Cromwell's cannon pulverised its walls from a nearby hilltop dubbed Oliver's Mount.

Further afield was Pickering Castle, Helmsley, Thirsk (for a time, until its owner fell out of favour with the king), Ripon, Middleham, Redmire and Skipton. In another 'ribbon' of castles further north were Mulgrave (near Whitby), Danby, Kildale, Skelton, Whorlton, Richmond, Ravensworth, Barnard Castle and Bowes. The Normans weren't kidding around, there were relatively more castles built across Yorkshire and County Durham than anywhere else in the kingdom after the 1069 rebellion! After that add others at Knaresborough, Wakefield, Pontefract and York (two, one on either side of the river of which one survived the Middle Ages), Conisbrough, Sandal (near Wakefield),

To begin with Englishmen were not trusted as stonemasons, although there were many stone-built churches and public buildings before the Normans came. The Normans brought in masons from Normandy, Brittany and Frankia, fearful their English counterparts might sabotage the fortifications.. In later centuries English stonemasons were taken on or trained by their Norman masters, but for many centuries the master builders were brought here by successive kings of Continental birth. By the time of Edward I, born in England and raised amongst English-speaking people, masons could equally be English as Frankish or Norman.

Chains of castles were built from east to west across England, and then they started on Wales. The Normans liked to prove they were here to stay, and to reinforce that statement of intent they rebuilt earlier timber structures in stone. Castles that withstood sieges throughout the Middle Ages were only vulnerable when cannon were introduced to warfare. Augustin Thierry describes how the Normans and their descendants held on to power in England with their fortifications

Some of the castles built across Durham and Yorkshire

A trial in progress within Pickering Castle
A trial in progress within Pickering Castle
Bowes Castle near the A66
Bowes Castle near the A66
Brancepeth Castle
Brancepeth Castle

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