Dominion in the Landscape

Article excerpt


Lucy Marten-Holden, winner of the first Royal Historical Society/History Today award for the undergraduate dissertation of the year, explores the thinking behind the siting of Norman castles.

EVER SINCE THE ANGLO-NORMAN historian Orderic Vitalis made a link between the Norman possession of castles and the English lack of resistance to the 1066 conquest, those castles have been viewed in predominantly militaristic terms. The stone fortification high upon its artificial motte stands as a symbol of Norman domination, of superiority and supremacy, of military power used as a political tool. While I would not wish to deny the Normans their martial superiority or to undervalue the changes that 1066 brought to English society, I hope to challenge the theory that military factors above all determined the siting and structure of Norman castles, by looking at the evidence of one county -- Suffolk.

Like many areas of historical research, castle studies has its roots in late Victorian scholarship. In 1912 Ella Armitage demonstrated that the motte-and-bailey form was a Norman import, and this fitted neatly with J.H. Round's theories, first expounded in the 1890s, on the introduction of knight service to England by William. The Norman Conquest was seen in cataclysmic terms as a sudden departure from existing English forms: in the military technology of the mounted warrior; the introduction of new administrative systems; and in the architecture of the castle. Ever since that time, developments in castle architecture have been viewed as responses to the evolution of military technology. Yet recent studies at the late-medieval site at Bodiam in Sussex have revealed a castle that lay within a manipulated landscape, its spectacular site designed less to thwart military attack than to impress the visitor as a symbol of social standing and prestige.

The `cataclysmic' view of the Norman Conquest has been subsequently revised, but the idea of the Norman importation of castles and the subsuming of their functional and symbolic roles into the military continues to be very common. Little attention has been paid to the iconography and development of secular architectural styles in this period, unlike those of their ecclesiastical counterparts. This neglect misses the symbolic and the aesthetic aspects of both the site and the building, where it survives. It assumes that those who built castles between 1000 and 1300 were concerned only with military considerations and that other factors played no part in secular building. In any other age it is accepted that the buildings and residences of the elite reflect the philosophies and high culture of the age. In restricting the architectural expression of the secular Norman lord to a purely military function, historians and archaeologists deny them attributes of sophisticated living and complex social articulation, though this approach seems at odds with the concept of a `twelfth-century renaissance'.

Those castles built in the fifty years following the Conquest are usually treated as a homogenous group. Yet the urban castles that William I erected in the immediate aftermath of Hastings or the revolt of 1069-70 were clearly not constructed under the same conditions as the majority of rural baronial sites. If the location of early Norman castles in Suffolk is examined, military imperatives such as the control of the populace, the protection of strategic positions, or the control of high ground were clearly not the prime considerations.

William I may have needed to assert his authority by building urban strongholds quickly within the main centres of population, but individual magnates clearly did not always apply the same principle to their own choice of castle site. By the late Saxon period, Suffolk had become one of the wealthiest and most densely populated counties in England, yet the Normans opted for only a modest number of castle sites. …