The English Castle, 1066-1650
The English Castle, 1066-1650
Yale University Press 548pp £45
ISBN 978 0 0300110586
In the last quarter of a century our understanding of medieval castles has been transformed. Instead of seeing these buildings, as we did, primarily as instruments of war, their architectural development the product of a dialectical struggle between defender and attacker, we now appreciate them for their variety of function – political, military and symbolic – interpreting their architecture as a medium for the expression of messages about power, history and authority.
John Goodall’s impressive new book offers the fullest and most authoritative account to date of castle history couched in these terms. Taking as his definition of a castle ‘a residence of a lord made imposing through the architectural trappings of fortification’, he locates the castle’s history firmly in the setting of a society in which a dominant chivalric elite flaunted its wealth and power through building. Critical of the old idea of castles as grim redoubts from which kings and barons breathed defiance at one another, he presents a view of castle-building as the creative activity of a closely-knit elite. In support of this idea, he lays bare some of the patronage and kin networks by which innovations in royally constructed castles were picked up and imitated by those at one remove from the court.
Goodall’s book, however, is much more than an elegant summing-up of trends already well established. The novelty of the author’s approach is to integrate castle history into a broader narrative of English architectural history. Goodall’s argument is that castles shared a common architectural vocab-ulary with other high-status buildings, such as cathedrals and abbeys, and he cites the examples of Clifford’s Tower, York and Westminster Abbey to suggest that in at least some cases they may have been designed by the same master masons. As he points out, once the king’s works organisation was established, as it was by the late 13th century, there existed a centre in which new architectural ideas could be developed and explored in the whole range of building projects in which the Crown was engaged.
Goodall argues his case with verve and passion, drawing on a wide range of recent specialist writing and exploiting his own intimate knowledge of the sites he discusses. He has written a work of supreme distinction that will dominate the field for years to come. In the face of such awesome scholarship it is tempting to ask: what is there left to say? Two possible areas of discussion stand out, one relating to the functions of castles and the other to the matter of their definition.
To take the question of function first, it is implicit in Goodall’s analysis that he sees the main factor driving the physical development of castles as architectural fashion, not defensive need. For example, he interprets the introduction of the spur at the foot of towers as a way of linking a square base to a circular superstructure, not as a device for repelling besiegers. At the same time, however, he regularly refers to the role of castles in war, giving considerable attention to both the civil war of Stephen’s reign and the baronial struggles of the 13th century. Even if we reject the old, discredited view of castles as grim defensive redoubts we are still left with the problem of assessing the role of defensive capability in architectural con-ception; an issue which is by no means directly addressed here.
The second issue relates to the thorny question of what is a castle. Goodall’s definition makes sense in that it sidesteps the primacy of the castle’s military function, implicit in earlier definitions, to highlight its role as a lordly residence. At the same time, however, it is inclusive enough to embrace a whole range of semi-fortified dwellings of inferior status to the grander buildings discussed here. As Goodall recognises, contemporaries used a wide variety of terms to describe the buildings which we today call castles – and they used them, too, to describe other forms of fortified structure. In that case one is bound to ask: what justification is there for treating what we call ‘castles’ as a discrete category? Goodall’s solution of identifying as castles those buildings for which a licence to crenellate was granted is ingenious, but perhaps does not altogether resolve the matter.
To raise these questions is not to criticise this book but, rather, to pay tribute to it in stimulating thought and moving the study of castles onto an entirely new plane. This is a superb book, beautifully produced and illustrated – and competitively priced – by the publishers.
Nigel Saul is the author of For Honour and Fame: Chivalry in England, 1066-1500 (The Bodley Head, 2011).
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