In the Middle Ages the Welsh border had the greatest concentration of castles in Europe. Hundreds of castles were built from 1066 and throughout the 12th century.
In the 13th century many of these sites were upgraded to mighty fortress homes, whilst others were abandoned. Why did this happen?
Many castles were used in the civil war and some are even lived in today. Others lie almost forgotten in the beautiful rolling landscape of the Welsh borders. Some of the greatest have become tourist destinations. Collectively they are a fascinating part of the history of the border area that the Normans, as well as later English kings, struggled to pacify. There are at least 250 castles in Herefordshire and Shropshire.
The story starts with the Norman invasion of 1066. After William’s famous victory at Hastings, he set about building castles to tighten his control over his new wealthy kingdom. He built many ‘motte and baileys’ – these castles could built quickly. The motte was a mound with a tower on it that was the home of the local lord, and the ‘bailey’ was an attached enclosure, typically with accommodation, stores, a chapel and a well. Most importantly there was also space for horses, for these Normans were mounted warriors. To build quickly, the walls on the earthen banks were generally built in wood.
England had seen nothing like this before. Iron Age hillforts and Saxon Burhs had defences, but these were large communal places. The reason for the change was the new society that the Normans brought. Grants of land were made by the King to his Norman lords, and they in turn granted land to the lesser nobles. They could gain wealth from the land, but in return they became ‘vassals’ who owed military service. We call this feudalism, derived from the word ‘benefice’ or ‘fief’ referring to land.
Along the Welsh border the Normans struggled to maintain their grip. The English Norman kings responded by giving great powers to the border lordships to act as a buffer zone, and powerful feudal families resulted such as the Mortimers based at Ludlow Castle. There continued to be sporadic raiding and attacks along the border.
In the 12th century, many of the great wooden towers were replaced by stone keeps with suites of accommodation – bed chambers and fireplaces and windows with dramatic views. The 12th century keep at Goodrich is a good example. Smaller stone towers were also sometimes added to the curtain walls to improve their defences. This transformation was expensive, and so not all castles had this development. Many early motte and baileys were abandoned, their timber defences rotting away, and so today they survive as earthwork mounds.
The 13th century saw continued development and the introduction of round towers. Great gatehouses were built to defend the entrances and provide more luxurious accommodation. Barbicans (outer defences) were added to some so that any attacker couldn’t even get close.
By the end of the 13th century the military development was complete and Wales had eventually been conquered by Edward I. In the subsequent centuries there was less warfare and the emphasis changed to more comfortable accommodation and a display of status. Pleasure gardens were added and larger and lower doorways and windows started to appear. Many later buildings that are entirely domestic contain architecture inspired by castles such as arched gateways and battlements. After all, an Englishman’s home will always be his – or her – castle.
Historic England has ensured the survival of many of the great border castles. Three that are close together and can all be visited are Wigmore Castle (repaired as romantic ruin), Stokesay Castle, and Hopton Castle with its great medieval tower.
We are currently funding repairs to two castles near Ross-on-Wye. Clifford Castle, home of fair Eleanor, mistress of Henry II, and Snodhill Castle in the golden valley near Hay-on-Wye.
See more about the work at Snodhill Castle with specialists and a local village trust:
Written by Bill Klemperer MA MCIfA FSA, Principal Inspector of Ancient Monuments for Historic England.