Keeps and Towers

A sample of English Castle Keeps and Towers

A supplement to the British Castle Guide. You need to be a real enthusiast to come here, but I'm willing to oblige. The English say a man's home is his castle -- well, these were homes for very proud but insecure people, so they built these architectural masterpieces both to vaunt their grandeur in local society and for self-protection and the suppression of their serfs. As civilization advanced (in our terms), the display became more important and necessary than the protection, more's the pity if you are into the esthetics of medieval castles as CASTLES rather than mansions. The Keep (or at least the largest tower in a smaller castle) was not only the final bastion of defense, but the epitome of what the builder could accomplish esthetically within his means as a show of power and superiority. Obviously, the Royals built biggest and best, but some of the nobility managed quite well. Oliver Cromwell pretty much put an end to the private castle as a stronghold as opposed to just a fancy residence. When Government took over the role of defense of the realm, esthetics and personal show were basically thrown away. (Hence Henry VIII's grim Camber castle at the bottom of this page, as compared, say, to the magnificent Hedingham tower -- note the Morris Minor, or maybe a Vauxhall, that conveniently dates this photo and adds some quaintness -- there's now a parking lot for buses and cars.)

Square Keep Towers

[Tower of London] [Dover]
Tower of London Dover Castle
[Corfe] [Rochester]
Corfe Castle Rochester Castle
[Hedingham] [Portchester]
Hedingham Castle Portchester
[Ludlow] [Dolwyddelan]
Ludlow Castle Dolwyddelan
[Guildford] [Kenilworth]
Guildford (Commuter Belt) Kenilworth Castle
Did you know that the largest Norman keep in England (in ground area) is at Colchester? It was built on the remains of the triumphal arch that the Emperor Claudius had constructed after his conquest of Britain in the 1st Century. The great stone keeps such as the Tower of London and Dover Castle were built by the Kings at first (as they had the money from the exchequer and tax base). Later on, some very voracious and powerful nobles built similar extravagances, although they usually ended up reverting to the King after the typical fall from grace of that particular family. During the chaos of the 12th C., motte-and-baileys sprang up all over the place; one of the first "licencing" laws, the right to crenellate or build stone walls with arrow loops, under government approval, was enacted in this time -- basis in Common Law now of all our ZONING regulations!

Round Keeps on Mottes

[Totnes] [Launceton]
Totnes Launceston
The first Norman castles consisted of a mound (motte) of piled-up earth, the material coming from the digging of the moat, with a wooden stockade on top. There was an outer courtyard, the bailey, which contained the garrison accommodations, great hall, chapel, stables, etc. When the power of the local castle became consolidated, the baron built a stone keep on top of the motte, as in these examples. But of the several hundred motte-and-bailey castles built by the Normans, only a few dozen ever achieved this status. They were originally just forts established in "Injun territory" to subdue the locals. Not that many of these brigands succeeded in becoming powerful enough to go on from there and create grand castles, except in the Welsh and Scottish border areas, where the King could tolerate, in fact needed, powerful strongholds not under his direct control that he didn't have to pay for.

Strong Towers

[Caernarvon] [Conway]
Caernarvon Castle Conway Castle
[Farleigh] [Hadleigh]
Farleigh-Hungerford Hadleigh Castle
Four examples are shown here of a 'strong' tower (when you didn't really have a keep). The most grandiose (Caernarvon's Eagle Tower) really is a keep, but it is not located where the keep would have been built had the grand plan ever been finalized (they ran out of money, what else?), so it is just the most glorified wall tower ever built in Wales. The Conway Castle tower is just one of eight or so, all the same size, and bristling with arrow loops -- sheer defense, although the accommodations within were probably pretty grand for the time. Farleigh-Hungerford's is just the local baron's gesture at having a grand tower to impress; it is actually very feeble as a defensive structure. Hadleigh's pitiful remnant, even though it inspired the famous Constable painting, just makes me sad -- this must have been a very fine smallish castle in a prominent position on one of the few high areas overlooking the Thames, what's left still shows beautiful construction, and the elaborate privy chutes in the tower (that are very well preserved oddly enough compared to the rest of the place) show a high level of 'sanitary' development that must have made this place the pride of somebody or other back then ("yes, we dump our sewage right into the Thames, where it gets washed out to sea, no smelly privy pits").

A fine Gatehouse or two thrown in for good measure

[Sherborne] [Warwick]
Sherborne Castle
The striking feature is the elaborate chimney
Warwick Castle
The fine barbican is still intact
Keeps (except the big ones) became obsolete within a hundred years or so. What good is it to have a place of final retreat when the rest of your complex has been overrun by the enemy? The outer defences had to be built up, especially the entrance, the most vulnerable part. So elaborate gatehouses became the vogue and in many cases outdid the Keep in architectural style, and especially fortification technique (with barbicans and drawbridges and all that stuff). People for some reason approve more of gatehouses than keeps, maybe because a gatehouse symbolizes protection for everyone, whereas the keep is for the oppressive family whom nobody really likes anyway. Anyway, gatehouses, especially town and city ones, have survived the vicissitudes of history far better than castle keeps. For the English, they were also more acceptable for conversion into jails. Apart from the Tower for high treason, the English have always felt more comfortable using a gatehouse for imprisonment rather than a Bastille-like keep. Says something about the culture, and I think that's admirable, although a lot of anti-liberals would disagree and say that's the problem with our society (i.e. that we DON'T have Bastilles, unless you are John Gotti). I should point out, however, that the infamous Newgate in London, which is now the Old Bailey courthouse, was a converted gatehouse, and it certainly wasn't one of those country farms for crooked insider traders or tax dodgers.

An Artillery Castle (Camber)

You should notice that the more technologically advanced the attacking force became, the more crouched into the earth the fortress became -- the high proud towers of the Normans were no match for cannons. Now our most advanced fortifications are underground bunkers and trenches, with lots of barbed wire replacing the fine battlemented walls.

These are all black and white scans of very low resolution and are presented as illustrative examples rather than tourist shots. I took most of them back in the 1960s, when I was seriously considering doing a book on the subject.

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