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Living History Project
THE LIVING HISTORY PROJECT
Today castles can be found in cities, towns and villages all over Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. However they are usually in ruins, covered in mossy grass, and are rather forgotten.
Castles were first built for defense against attacking armies in the war torn feudal Europe. Castles were necessary to protect villages and their lords. Later they were built for government over local populations.
Some of the first castles were built in Anglo-Saxon England. They were primitive structures of defense. A stockade or wooden fence was built around a village, and was often supplemented by an earthen wall. They were built during the reign of Alfred the Great 871-899 as protection against the marauding Danish who raided the coastal ports of England.
Normans and early design
The Keep at Dourdan (photo by Nigel Hughes)
When the Normans arrived in the eleventh century, following William the Conqueror, castle design was greatly improved. At the top of an artificial or natural hill called a motte, a fort or keep was built. The keep was very uncomfortable, and the lord's men had to sleep on the floor! At the bottom of the motte, a walled court was constructed to form a protected compound called a bailey. This motte and bailey castle was sometimes supplemented by a water filled ditch or moat around the motte!
The entrace to Dourdan Castle (photo by Nigel Hughes)
The Normans needed strong castles to enforce their rule over the Anglo-Saxons in England. Only a Norman lord was allowed to build a castle. Strong castles became very important centres of government. The lord often lived in the castle with all of his retainers, or servants and soldiers. Early wooden castles proved to be too weak to withstand attacks, and so stone became a favoured material in later design.
Normans and later design
The stairs inside the Keep (Dourdan Castle)
Norman castles were built of stone, with the crenellated battlements at the top of very thick walls. From the top of walls, where the defenders stood on a floor called the ramparts the defenders could drop stones and boiling liquids on attackers, or they could fire arrows from bows and crossbows. In the walls there were no windows, but only narrow spaces or slits through which arrows could be shot, but people could not enter. The gate of each castle was defended by two things. A drawbridge could be raised to prevent people from crossing the moat. And finally an iron grill or portcullis could be lowered across the gate to secure the defenses.
Medieval castles were often built to a square plan. Good examples of this are such as the White Tower in London. But, they were vulnerable because an attacker could dig under a corner, undermine the castle and cause it to collapse. So, to try to prevent such an attack, castles were built in other shapes, such as hexagonal and even circular walls. Many of these technological improvements came from the Byzantine Empire during the period of Crusades. The most impressive crusader castle of all is the Krak des Chevaliers in Syria, built in the 12th and 13th centuries.
Edward I and Wales
Dourdan Castle wall (photo by Nigel Hughes)
Edward I 1272-1307 had many castles built according to the new designs in Wales. Again, like the Normans the castles were not built to defend against foreign invaders, but in order to suppress the local population. In this case the English under Edward I wished to subdue the Welsh.
Gunpowder, Folly and the End of Castles
With the invention of gunpowder the castle began to decline in importance. At the Battle of Crecy in 1346 gunpowder showed that even stone was no longer adequate defense. From the invention of gunpowder onward, castles were no longer effective. Castles which were built after this period were even built out of brick, and were even quite comfortable!
Reconstruction of Dourdan Castle in the days of Philippe Auguste (1165 - 1223)
In the 18th and 19th centuries castles were built for very different reasons. Aristocrats who were nostalgic for the past had wonderful and fantastic castles built for their pleasure. The most avid and extreme of castle builders was King Ludwig of Bavaria in the 19th century. King Ludwig was known as the mad king, and so should not be taken too seriously.
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