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Norman Castles in the Irish & British Isles

Almost anyone with even a passing interest in the Middle Ages will have heard about the Normans, the people who built the first stone castles in Britain. But who were these Normans and why did they build these structures? How did Norman castles get built across England, Wales, and Ireland? And what makes these Norman fortifications different from other medieval castles?

A Brief Historical Background to the Norman Period

The year 1066 marked the start of a massive transformation in the governance of much of Britain. In January, the English King Edward the Confessor died, but there was disagreement over who should succeed him. William, the Duke of Normandy – a duchy in what is now north-western France – claimed that Edward had promised him the crown. This claim was disputed by Harold Godwinson, the dead king’s brother-in-law and a member of a prominent English family, who swiftly assumed the throne.

William was not going to take this. With the assistance of Scandinavian allies, he launched his invasion of England. At the Battle of Hastings, fought in Sussex that October, his Norman army successfully defeated King Harold’s. The latter was killed – possibly struck down by an arrow that pierced through his eye. With Harold’s death came an end to what historians and archaeologists have typically called the Anglo-Saxon period, and with it the Early Middle Ages in England. What followed was Norman rule, and the start of the High Middle Ages.

William, ‘the Conqueror,’ had himself crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day. His Norman troops cemented their dominance across the English landscape, putting down rebellions against his rule. During the winter of 1069–1070, the new king brutally repressed resistance in northern parts of England in what became known as the ‘Harrying of the North’. Over the coming years, some of the English rebels – men like Hereward the Wake and Eadric the Wild – were able to earn themselves a lasting place in the nation’s legend and lore, but none was able to reverse the Norman Conquest.

Many prominent English families were displaced and their lands taken by the new colonial elite. The Norman invaders rarely spoke the Old English language, but instead Norman French, highlighting their difference from the English population they ruled over. One of the few things they shared was their religious faith, with both communities being Roman Catholic, perhaps facilitating the gradual assimilation of the two groups over coming generations. Norman kings would rule until 1154, when Henry II became King of England, marking the first of the Plantagenet monarchs.

While the impact of Norman invasion was felt initially in England, it would not be long before the Normans began looking further afield. Norman troops launched attacks into the Welsh kingdoms from 1067 but only with concerted effort from the 1080s. Although they made considerable gains, they would be frustrated by a resurgent Welsh resistance led by Gruffudd ap Cynan, King of Gwynedd. Nevertheless, Norman gains were such that the Anglo-Norman ‘Marcher Lords’ were able to establish territories throughout southern and eastern Wales that lasted throughout the High Middle Ages. Wales would only be fully conquered by the English crown in the late 13th century, under the Plantagenet King Edward I.

Towards the end of England’s Norman period, the Anglo-Norman class began extending their influence into Ireland, then divided among various kingdoms. Both William the Conqueror and his son, King William II, had contemplated invading Ireland, but neither actually did so. It would only be in the 1160s that Anglo-Norman mercenaries arrived on the island to support the deposed King of Leinster. The 1170s saw Anglo-Norman lords push further into Ireland to claim territories for themselves, resulting in conflict for several centuries after. These invasions marked the beginning of English political control over Ireland, a situation with repercussions that reverberate to this day.

What are Norman Castles?

Throughout England as well as the Welsh and Irish kingdoms, the Norman invaders were rarely welcomed by the native populations. In many cases, the Norman colonialists were met with violent opposition. For this reason, the Normans swiftly turned to fortifications to protect themselves and to provide bases from which they could better control the surrounding communities. Over time, as anti-Norman rebellions declined, these castles also became comfortable residences for the ruling elites.

Most of the earliest castles built by the Normans were not stone fortifications, but rather structures of earth and wood. This was probably a decision rooted in expediency, as the invaders had to erect their castles quickly, often without the involvement of specialist architects. One of the styles of fortification that the invaders adopted is now known as the ‘ringwork.’ This typically involved a circular area encircled by a ditch and bank, on which was probably a timber palisade to protect those inside the enclosure.

Model Motte Castle
A model of a typical Norman Motte in the Bayeaux Tapestry Museum, Normandy.

More common than the ringwork structures during the early years of the Norman Conquest were the ‘motte and bailey’ castles. The motte was a central earthen mound; the bailey a timber palisade or wall enclosing it. Depictions of a motte with a timber structure atop it can be seen on the Bayeux Tapestry, an artistic portrayal of the conquest probably created in the 1070s. While the wooden elements of these structures have inevitably long since rotted away, examples of mottes believed to date from the 1060s or 1070s can still be found at York, Carisbrooke, and Hen Domen in Montgomeryshire. There are also Norman mottes that bear later stone fortifications upon them, as at Totnes in Devon, Lewes in Sussex, and Dudley in the West Midlands. Alternatively, those wanting to experience a reconstructed motte and bailey as it may have looked in the early years of Norman England can visit the living history attraction of Mountfitchet Castle in Essex.

The Norman invaders were certainly not unaware of stone architecture. On various occasions they made defensive use of older, Roman-era stone fortifications – most famously at Pevensey in Sussex, which William refortified as soon as he landed in 1066. Several Norman castles appear to have used stone walls from the beginnings, as at Ludlow Castle in Shropshire and Richmond Castle in North Yorkshire. The erection of central stone keeps inevitably took greater planning and resources than the timber and earth structures, but probably began soon after the original invasion of England. Although most of the original Norman castles have not survived in anything like their original form, having been changed by later owners or fallen into a state of ruin, there are still examples retaining much of their Norman appearance that modern visitors can appreciate.

What can you expect to see When Visiting Norman Castles?

Norman castles have a distinctive style, reflecting both the technological restraints and aesthetic choices of their builders. This makes stone Norman castles distinct from castles erected in Ireland and Britain at later points in the Middle Ages as well as from castles that have been build in other parts of the world.

Perhaps the most iconic aspect of those Norman castles that survive is the keep or donjon. This is a central structure, typically square-shaped, and built from stone. The top of the towers are usually crenellated. One of the most famous examples is the White Tower, the central keep at the heart of the Tower of London, construction on which probably began in the 1070s. Later in the 11th century, the Normans built what would be their largest surviving keep in England, at Colchester in Essex, situated atop an old Roman temple and making much use of plundered Roman masonry.

Similar square keeps can be found elsewhere in England, often dating from later in the Norman period. Those at Rochester Castle in Kent and Hedingham Castle in Essex, for instance, are probably from the first half of the 12th century, while the keeps of Dover Castle in Kent and Richmond Castle in North Yorkshire bear similar Normanesque styles but were built largely in the latter half of that century, under the first Plantagenet king. Similar Norman keeps can also be seen outside England, as at Chepstow Castle in Monmouthshire (Wales), where the unusually oblong keep probably dates from the late 1060s, and at Carrickfergus Castle in Country Antrim (Northern Ireland), built in the late 12th century.

Keeps were often surrounded by outer walls, providing additional levels of defence. At many medieval castles, such as the Tower of London, these outer walls are of later date than the Norman keep which they enclose. However, there are examples where perimeter walls of Norman age do still survive, sometimes being older than the keep itself, as at Rochester and Richmond, where parts of the walls probably date from the 1080s.

One of the characteristics of Norman castles is their square corners. This came to prove a liability, with such corners vulnerable to attackers. When King John laid siege to Rochester Castle in 1215, for example, his forces buried beneath the southeastern corner of the keep before lighting a fire that brought the corner crumbling down. By the 13th century, architects had discovered how to produce circular towers, which could be positioned along the external walls or at the vulnerable corners of their buildings. Unsurprisingly, the architects repairing Rochester Castle after John’s attack chose to make the keep’s new south-eastern corner a circular one.

It is because of these technological developments in castle construction that many later fortifications, such as those that King Edward I erected to maintain control of Wales, look quite distinct from their Norman forebears. Indeed, over the rest of the Middle Ages many Norman castles underwent substantial rebuilding, often losing many of their original features in the process. This even continued into fairly recent centuries. The Norman keep at Norwich Castle in Norfolk, for instance, survived into the 19th century – only to be substantially resurfaced during the 1830s. This means that while many castles across Britain and Ireland have Norman origins, they may now look little or nothing like authentic Norman structures.

It is important to remember that castles were not simply places of combat, but were also homes in which people slept, ate, and prayed. Several Norman castle chapels survive, displaying Romanesque architectural features such as rounded archways that can also be seen in churches from this period. By far the best known is Saint John’s Chapel inside the White Tower in London, but also of note is the circular chapel of Saint Mary Magdalene at Ludlow Castle.

Plan Your Norman Castle Sightseeing Itinerary

Where to See Norman Castles in England

Whittington Castle

Whittington Castle is unique in that it is the only castle in the United Kingdom to be owned and managed by a local community. A preservation trust was established to restore and maintain this strikingly picturesque castle, thought to have been constructed within the earthworks of a prehistoric hill fort. Whittington Castle is on the English side of Offa’s Dyke – here visitors will see a 12th century Marcher Norman Castle and its gatehouse, with a later Elizabethan addition – which now houses the gift shop.

Where to See Norman Castles in Ireland & Northern Ireland

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Where to See Norman Castles in Scotland

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Where to See Norman Castles in Wales

Cardiff Castle

Located in the centre of the city, Cardiff Castle is a medieval fortress later transformed into a lavish Victorian fantasy of the Middle Ages. A Roman fort originally stood here before Norman invaders adopted the location for their castle, from which they sought to dominate the Lordship of Glamorgan. The castle repeatedly saw bloodshed amid medieval clashes between Welsh and English and later between Parliamentarians and Royalists. In the 19th century, the architect William Burges oversaw substantial renovations in the Neo-Gothic style.

Chepstow Castle

Situated on a narrow cliff-top overlooking the Wye River, Chepstow Castle is Britain’s oldest surviving post-Roman stone fortification. Building began in about 1067 AD under the Norman Earl William FitzOsbern, after which it helped facilitate the Norman conquest of Gwent. Among its medieval features are the oldest known castle doors in Europe. Construction continued until the 17th century, when the castle was again on the front line in the English Civil War. Chepstow is the southern-most castle in a string of castles built along the Anglo-Welsh border.