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The Evolution of the Castle

How did a simple stronghold morph into the ultimate defence, and then into an almost indefensible status symbol?
ILLUSTRATION: EDWARD CROOKS/WWW.EDWARDCROOKS.CO.UK, ALAMY X1, GETTY X2

WOOD

11TH-12TH CENTURY

Although a few castles were built by Norman settlers during the reign of Edward the Confessor, it was the period after the battle of Hastings in 1066 that saw the first great surge of castle building in England. Castles served as military bases, refuges and administrative posts, not to mention as powerful displays of dominance. Some were simple enclosures called ‘ringworks’, but most were ‘motte and bailey’ castles. These consisted of a conical earthwork (the motte) enclosed by an earth bank topped by a wooden palisade (the bailey). On top of the motte stood a wooden tower. Clearly, timber defences had their drawbacks when it came to resisting attack, not least their vulnerability to fire. But building in stone took time and the Normans, who were vastly outnumbered by the hostile English, needed their castles in a hurry. What’s more, trying to build in stone atop earthworks that had not properly settled was a recipe for disaster. Their original timbers have long since vanished, but hundreds of mottes survive.

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

In this month's issue… Everything you ever wanted to know about castles The complete story of the greatest emblem of the medieval age: how they evolved from simple forts into impregnable bastions, how they were built without modern machinery and how you could break into one. Plus: the Women's Liberation Movement; the peasant who became Japan's second great unifier; top 10 ancient board games; the football match that sparked a war; and a graphic guide to London Zoo's most famous residents.