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Castles! (William the Conqueror, 3/3)

Updated: 7 days ago

The History and Lasting Wonder of England's Castles.

Cardiff Castle in Wales. Originally built by William the Conqueror's Normans.

This Blessed Plot

When I was twelve, my fourteen-year-old brother and I flew to England to meet my Aunt Lee.  She was already vacationing in England and agreed to take on two adolescent boys for the week. Arriving at Heathrow, we met her at the terminal, hopped on the metro, and off we went to Central London.  It was the summer of 1989, my first foreign country, and at that point in my life, the most exciting thing I’d ever done.


As long as I can remember, I’ve loved the wonder and lore of Britain.  When it came to King Arthur, Robin Hood, and the Loch Ness Monster, I was all in.  Though I’d never read Shakespeare, looking back, he captured my sentiments best when he wrote, “This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle…, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”  

Arriving at our London hotel, I made my Shakespearean sentiments perfectly clear: “Aunt Lee, take me to the castles!”  

When she asked which castles, I said, “ya know, castles… but only the ones with dungeons.” With that, we walked to perhaps the most famous castle-dungeon combo of them all: The Tower of London. 

Standing in the stone courtyard and eyeing the White Tower, I noticed a plaque marking the exact spot of Queen Anne Boleyn’s execution.  My eyes gleamed when I saw a wooden block next to that plaque. Grabbing my disposable camera, I snapped a photo and turned around to Aunt Lee and said, “I just took a photo of the executioner’s block where Anne Boleyn lost her head!”  Smirking, she replied, “That’s not an executioner’s block, that’s the box tour guides stand on when they speak to tourists.”  

Well... it was way too late for facts to ruin my wonder. My imagination had already caught fire and I only wanted more -- more castles, more knights, more towers, more execution blocks. I wanted more of this blessed plot!

Catering to my every whim, Aunt Lee soon rented a car and drove my brother and me to Warwick, a town in the English midlands a hundred miles northwest of London.


Arriving at Warwick Castle, a knight greeted me in full armor atop his warhorse. “Now that’s more like it,” I thought.  After crossing the drawbridge, I noticed arrow slits on either side of the stone gauntlet between the raised iron gates. Exiting the stone passageway, my imagination entered the fourteenth century.  

Spinning around in the courtyard, I scanned the perimeter stone wall, the saw-toothed towers, and the stained-glass windows.  “What was it like to be here?” I thought.  The clanking blacksmiths, snorting livestock, crackling fires, burning meat, warm beer, the burly knights – all of it, what was it like?!  I was inside history; I could see, smell, hear, taste, and touch it.

As the mythic past swirled through me, I still had no idea why this castle ever existed -- other than providing rich dudes with a cool place to live. 

Why were castles like Warwick built anyway?  How were they used militarily?  

To find the answers, I'll take you on one last ride -- and I promise, this is the last ride – with William and his conquering Normans.  After all, it was the Normans who built England’s first castles, including the one where I stood as a captivated 12-year-old boy.

Warwick Castle today. The Normans built the mound (or "motte") on the far side, including a wooden tower. The stone architecture came in the centuries that followed.

Harrying the North

Following their victory at Hastings in 1066 (see Part-2), William sought to pacify an English population who weren’t exactly thrilled about their new French overlord.   

During the two months following the battle, William and his seven-thousand-man army stormed across southern England, intimidating the population to the point that London surrendered without a fight. A week later, on Christmas 1066, the Archbishop of York crowned William in Westminster Abbey. The Duke of Normandy had become King William I of England (and Normandy). 

During the first year of William’s rule, he extended an olive branch to the English nobility, knowing that diplomacy was always cheaper than a military occupation.  Though initially stable, the brief peace didn't last.  English nobles in the midlands and north sought to exploit the new king’s diplomacy by launching a full-scale revolt.  In one fell swoop, the defiant nobles slaughtered the Norman garrisons at Durham and York, proclaiming an Anglo-Saxon named Edgar as the rightful king of England.

Snapping the olive branch, William reached for his sword and called upon his army.  Embracing their Viking roots, William’s Normans crushed the rebellion without mercy. After recapturing both cities, they descended on towns and villages throughout Northern England, burning and killing as they went.  Tens of thousands died quick from blades and arrows, or slow through hunger and disease.  According to historian David Starkey, William was so brutal that he “shocked an unshockable age.”

History remembers William’s campaign of terror as the “Harrying of the North.”  He “set no bounds to his fury,” wrote an English monk at the time, “condemning the innocent and guilty to a common fate.” Like Caesar before him and Sherman after, William unleashed total war against an entire population. "War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it,” General Sherman once wrote to the people of Atlanta before burning their city.  In short, “war is hell.”  For Anglo-Saxon England, William was the devil himself.


As the devil, William also played the long game.  After crushing the northern rebellions, he ensured a lasting victory -- 958 years and counting -- by doing what he did best: innovating. Just as he won a quick victory at Hastings through innovations in cavalry, he won a lasting victory in England through the most recognizable and permanent Norman innovation of them all: Castles.  

Before William, there were no castles in England. The Anglo-Saxon kings who ruled the island forbade castle building, considering anyone who built a castle a threat to their rule. For the Normans living on a divided and feudal continent, however, things were different. The Normans built castles across France to protect their lands from rivals in Flanders, Brittany, and Maine. This is why, Morris writes, “castles were a French invention," an invention the Normans would use to conquer England forever.

From the Channel up to Scotland, and from Wales to East Anglia, "everywhere William went," historian David Starkey writes, "he built a castle." In the two decades following his invasion, William built more than five hundred castles across England. Five Hundred! Because of this, historian Marc Morris argues, a “force of seven thousand men conquered and held down a country of one to two million.”

A Race of Builders

So how did William build five hundred castles so fast? 

First, he didn’t exactly hire union labor.  Instead, his knights would ride into a local village or town (like Warwick), round up the locals, pass out shovels, and say, “Start digging!”  

The Bayeux Tapestry depicting English labor building a Norman Castle in England.

Next, William built castles fast because he understood how to scale his operation. Like any suburban developer today, William didn’t bother to reinvent the wheel. He just built the same castle over and over again. And because they all looked alike, they became known as the “motte-and-bailey” castles, named after their signature 30-foot mound called a “motte,” and their fenced-in courtyard called a “bailey." 

Chroniclers at the time said the Normans could build a motte-and-bailey castle in a few weeks (followed by improvements in the months that followed).  To build castles this fast meant that they looked more like Old West cavalry forts than the towering stone marvels that came a century later. Yet, what many don't know is that the stone marvels we see today at Warwick, Windsor, York, and Cornwall began as "motte-and-bailey" castles in the eleventh century.   

Depictions of eleventh century motte-and-bailey castles built by the Normans in England.

Stone towers atop the original Norman mottes came two centuries later at York and Cornwall Castles.

Construction of a motte-and-baily castle began with hundreds of laborers digging an oval-shaped perimeter trench line at least a thousand feet in circumference. Inside the oval trench was a two to three acre courtyard (or bailey).  Around the bailey, laborers hammered thousands of fourteen-foot wooden spikes into the earth and tied them together to form the castle’s perimeter wall.  Over the trench line, connecting the bailey to the outside world, was a drawbridge. 

Laborers would then dig for another week within the bailey (or just beside it), building a giant mound (or motte). Atop this thirty-foot motte, they'd construct a two-story wooden tower with a "flying bridge" connecting it back to the bailey below.

Standing high atop their towers, Norman sentries had a bird’s eye view of the surrounding landscape.  All while the locals in nearby farms, villages, and towns looked back to those towers and saw oppression. Make no mistake, David Starkey writes, “the motte-and-bailey castles were there to intimidate" the locals and "symbolize a profoundly alien military occupation.”

With five hundred towers atop five hundred castles across England, William had eyes everywhere. Combined with his network of spies and informants, William's knights (stationed in every castle throughout the realm) could pounce an uprising before it even had time to spread. In no small way, these omnipresent castles tamed England and solidified William's power.

Medieval Aircraft Carriers

To better understand exactly how these castles tamed England, medieval historian Marc Morris offers this helpful analogy: "Castles were the medieval equivalent of the modern aircraft carrier." 

Think about how American presidents have used carriers throughout our lifetimes.  When a country starts to threaten American interests, the president often sends an aircraft carrier to park off that country’s coastline and intimidate them.  When the country’s misbehaving leaders (and populations) see a hundred thousand tons of steel with a hundred supersonic jets on board, they think long and hard about their next move. 

Without saying a word, the mere presence of power tells our adversaries, “You are within striking distance of American firepower, so knock it off!” This is precisely what William did with his five hundred castles parked in strong points across England.

Instead of F-18s, William' had his knights. “Setting out at dawn,” Morris writes, “the cavalry garrison could ride out on daily patrols, making their presence felt and striking at their enemies before returning to the safety of the castle in the evening.”

To garrison his five hundred castles, William needed thousands and thousands of knights.  To recruit these men, he never required Norman knights to be wealthy landowners (as was typical in the centuries that followed).  Instead, he required two things -- that they be expert horseman and capable fighters. 

William’s knights were not the mythic Arthurian knights in shining armor, reciting poetry and saving damsels in distress. These were rough men, and, as Morris notes, “not much better off than the peasants who had done well for themselves.”  What these knights lacked in wealth, they made up for in ability.  Thus, history remembers them as the most mobile, disciplined, and ruthless killers of their age. From five hundred wooden strongpoints across England, these horse-mounted men could deploy at a moment’s notice with speed and lethality. They were William's 911 reaction force, doing what occupying armies have always done, ensuring peace through superior firepower.


Looking back, after the Battle of Hastings the antiquated English never had a chance. They had no castles; the Normans built five hundred. They lacked heavy cavalry; the Normans had thousands of knights in castles across the realm. And so it goes... Norman castles marked the end of Anglo-Saxon culture. They would never again return to power. Their ruling nobles were either dead, defeated, or in exile. For the next three hundred years, English Kings only spoke French.

Since history is filled with ironies and silver linings, I'll end with this one. Though Norman castles helped destroy Anglo-Saxon culture and massacre thousands, these bastions of oppression have bestowed centuries of wonder for 12-year-old boys like me. So hold your outrage folks, it's been a thousand years. As far as I'm concerned, their loss is our gain.


William the Conqueror finally died in 1087 at the age of fifty-nine. He died an obese and unhappy man.  While besieging a castle in Normandy, his horse suddenly reared, slamming his stomach into the pommel of his saddle and rupturing his internal organs.  It was a painful death and one he certainly deserved. As attendants stuffed his swollen corpse into a stone crypt, his bowels literally burst, unleashing “an intolerable stench [on] the nostrils of the bystanders and the whole crowd,” wrote the monk Oderic. As people scattered, his rotting corpse was quickly buried without much fanfare.

Almost nine hundred years after his death at the nearby town of Bayeux in Normandy, the English finally got the last laugh.  Beneath a monument commemorating the British soldiers who died storming the beaches of Normandy in 1944, a plaque reads, “We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror’s native land.”

Such is history. What goes around often comes around. Yet, the memories of William have lasted in large part because of the castles and histories he left behind.  From one generation to the next, century after century -- including centuries from now -- people continue to marvel at the crumbling towers, fading ink, and recovered artifacts of the Normans. These things matter because they spark our imaginations about times long ago. Through these ruins, archives, and relics, we gain the most enchanting gift history can offer us: wonder. 

Thank you, William the Conqueror, you cruel, smart son of a bitch. You helped light a flame of wonder inside me at that castle you built so long ago.  

Most of all, thank you, Aunt Lee, for taking me to England, a trip back in time that I will never forget, a trip that ignited my love for history. This piece is for you.  

Till next time, barbarians… whether it’s history, music, nature, or anything else, find and keep your wonder.  And if you find yourself inside the walls of a medieval castle and you see a wooden box, do yourself a favor and pretend it’s an executioner’s block.  Life's more fun that way.



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