Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Launceston Castle

The keep of Launceston Castle dominates the town and surrounding countryside. Most Saxon burghs had castles forced upon them within a few years of the Norman Conquest, and the castle of "Dunhevet" is recorded in the Domesday Book. At that time it was held by William the Conqueror's half-brother Robert.

Initially the castle passed through a variety of hands, and the only Norman masonry is the shell keep on the motte. In 1227 Henry III granted the Earldom of Cornwall to his brother Richard, and he must have been responsible for most of the existing masonry. Eventually, the castle fell into the common rut of being used as a courthouse and gaol for the duchy, and the defenses decayed. By the end of the Civil War, during which it changed hands several times, it was a total ruin.

Earl Richard built a stone wall on top of the bailey rampart, but only the lower courses survive. It was a curiously plain curtain for the thirteenth century, without towers except for the drums flanking the southern gatehouse. The latter are still quite impressive and the simple gate tower at the far end of the bailey has also survived destruction. Otherwise it is the keep that commands our attention.

The only approach is via the stretch of curtain ascending the side of the motte, controlled at its foot by a ruinous tower. Launceston's unique "triple crown" keep is the result of three phases - a stone reverment around the upper part of the motte, the late Norman shell keep on top and Richard of Cornwall's cylindrical tower rising up within it. This arrangement appears to constitute an early example of concentric planning, though it is clear from the joint holes in the walls that the narrow space between the tower and the shell were roofed over.

Lancaster Castle

Lancaster Castle and its distinguished neighbor, the priory church, crown the summit of a hill overlooking the River Lune. A Roman fort occupied the site. Following the arrival of the Normans, Lancaster became part of the vast estate granted to Roger de Poitou and the first castle is very likely to have been his foundation.

In 1265, the castle became the chief seat of the powerful lords who followed, including Thomas, ring leader of the baronial opposition to Edward II; Henry, the first palatine duke; and john of Gaunt, who married his way into the duchy. After John of Gaunt's son seized the throne as Henry IV in 1399, and the consequent union of the Duchy of Lancaster with the Crown, the castle fell into decline as a residence but remained the administrative center of the Duchy. It remains very much a working vastle, still serving as a courthouse and prison.

The existing castle is largely a reconstruction of 1788-1823 by Thomas Harrison, designed to meet the growing requirements of the country gaol and the courts. The phony curtain and towers enclose an area roughly corresponding with the medieval bailey, except on the north side where the prison juts out in a big arc. Furthermore, a series of assize buildings, notably the semi-circular Shire Hall, projects on the west.

Fortunately, a few important pieces of the medieval castle have been preserved. The finest of these is John of Gaunt's Gate, one of the most majestic of medieval English gatehouses. It is a massive and rather austere-looking block as befits the entrance to a prison.

There is a continuous machicolated parapet around the wall head and the well-proportioned gateway preserves its original portcullis. Semi-octagonal towers that carry inner turrets above parapet level flank it. The circular Hadrian Tower forms part of the Shire Hall complex.

Kirby Muxloe Castle

Kirby Muxloe Castle, four miles west of Leicester, is the companion of Ashby Castle, being the work of William, Lord Hastings. Although a license to crenellate was granted in 1474, construction did not commence until October 1480, by which time Ashby was nearing completion. The building accounts, which survive in full, give a total expenditure of 1088 pounds on the incomplete castle.

An older manor house occupied the site and some of its foundations are visible in the courtyard. Unlike Ashby, where Lord Hastings utilized existing buildings, Kirby Muxloe was completely rebuilt on quadrangular lines. It is oblong rather than square in plan. Kirby also differs from Ashby in the choice of brick as the main building material, stone being used only for doorways and windows.

The low revetment wall, which defines the courtyard, rising out of a water-filled moat, marks the position of the intended curtain and its square angle towers. Only two portions, the gatehouse and the west corner tower now stand, though more must have been built.

The gatehouse is a ruin and is known to have been left incomplete. It is a sturdy, oblong structure with semi-octagonal flanking towers and stair turrets at the rear. The angle tower has fared better because it is still intact, including the battlements, though now a shell.

Kirby Muxlor was one of the last castles built with some serious regard for defense. A drawbridge, a portcullis and two pairs of gates defended its gate passage, and gun ports pierce both the gatehouse and the surviving tower. These gun ports, however, are the primitive type, which are pierced by gun ports. These gun ports, however, are the primitive type that had been in use for over a century - small roundels permitting only a limited range of fire.

Hurst Castle

Its nucleus is one of the coastal forts of Henry VIII, expanded as a result of another invasion scare in Victorian times. The original castle was built in 1539-44 and the master mason, Thomas Bertie, later became captain of the garrison here, a curious but not uncommon reward for a castle builder.

Like Calshot, it lies at the end of a spit of shingle, well over a mile long and projecting into the middle of the Solent. The Isle of Wight is little more than a mile away and, along with its counterpart at Yarmouth, the castle's guns could effectively command the western entrance to the Solent.

Hurst was garrisoned almost continuously until the Second World War. Its situation also made a secure prison, used mainly for the incarceration of Catholics though its most famous inmate was Charles I en route to his trial and execution. The Henrician fort is now flanked by two long batteries added in 1861-73, when the fear of a resurgent France under Napoleon III led to that vast array of defensive works known as "Palmerston's Follies'.

Henry's castle is made up of a central tower, polygonal outside but circular within, surrounded by a thick curtain with three semi-circular projecting bastions. Large gun ports in the beginning pierced the curtain and further cannon could have been mounted on the parapets of the curtain and the higher central tower. Later modifications have obscured much of the original layout.

The central tower has a spiral stair turret at its nucleus, probably an original feature though it was rebuilt in the Napoleonic period when the tower's brick vault was inserted. Only the northwest bastion, which is higher than the others, preserves its original appearance. Beside it is the entrance gateway, retaining its portcullis groove and slots for the drawbridge chains.

Hever Castle

Hever Castle, beside the River Eden, two miles east of Edenbridge, is set within a wet moat between beautiful gardens and what appears to be a Tudor village. Gardens, "village" and the splendid interior of the castle are all the creation of a rich American, William Waldorf Astor. He purchased the castle in 1903 and immediately set about its transformation, which thus went on at the same time as Lord Conway was restoring Allington Castle. To his credit, Viscount Astor did not interfere with the exterior, which remains largely authentic.

There is some doubt as to the original builder. William de Hever obtained a license to crenellate in 1340 and Sir John de Cobham obtained another in 1384. The latter date is favored, though Sir John may just have added the gatehouse. The castle is a simple, square enclosure its embattled curtain enlivened by Tudor windows, chimneys and gables.

Square turrets project at each end of the entrance front and between them is a handsome, oblong gatehouse. This dominates the rest and is no doubt an echo of the old keep-gatehouse theme. The gateway, surmounted by carved tracery and a row of machicolations, is placed off-center so that there is a large room on one side of the gate passage but just a tiny chamber on the other.

Two original wooden portcullises, one still in working order, hang in the gate passage; the drawbridge is a restoration. Timber-framed ranges occupy three sides of the tiny courtyard, early Tudor in origin but heavily restored by Viscount Astor. They recall the castle's famous association with the Bullen family.

It was here that Henry VIII came to court Anne Bullen, who changed her name to Boleyn. Her life as queen was cut short by the executioner's sword and her dynasty-making fater, Sir Thomas, died soon after.

Hereford Castle

Hereford means "army ford", a reference to the turbulent days of its foundation when the Kingdom of Mercia was pushing westwards into Welsh territory. Excavations have uncovered the Saxon town rampart. For centuries the English settlers and the Welsh beyond the River Wye were uneasy neighbors, and in 1055 the town went up in flames. Harold Godwinson, later King Harold, drove back the invaders and rebuilt the shattered defenses.

In Norman times, the enclosed area doubled in size and a walled circuit replaced the earthwork defenses from 1224 onward. Hereford rebuffed a Scottish army in 1645 but fell to Parliament at the end of the year. Damaged during these sieges, the city wall suffered the common fate of demolition and concealment thereafter. However, clearance in the 1960s for the Victoria Street bypass has led to the re-appearance of much of the western part of the circuit, extending from the river almost to West Street. The wall is mutilated but it preserves two semi-circular bastions. All the gatehouses have perished, including the one which guarded the medieval Wye Bridge. There was no wall on the riverside, but remains of a ditch show that the medieval city had a suburb on the opposite bank.

According to John Leland, Hereford Castle was one of the "largest, fairest and strongest" in England, so its virtual disappearance is a great pity. Castle suffered from too close a proximity to the cathedral. In 1140 the Empress Matilda's supporters fired stones and arrows into the bailey from the central tower, a forerunner of the present one. Henry III found himself a prisoner here after of Battle of Lewes, but his son Edward escaped and rallied the royal forces to victory over Simon de Montfort at Evesham.The defenses of this royal stronghold were torn down at the Restoration.

Hedingham Castle

The village of Castle Hedingham is dominated by one of the finest keeps. Faced with ashlar masonry brought all the way from Barnack, it is almost perfectly preserved, lacking only its battlements. The sloping plinth and pilaster buttresses are typical Norman motifs but the turrets rising at two opposite corners are a distinctive feature. From outside, the keep is seen to have five stages.

This translates to four stories within because the hall - as usual in the larger Norman keeps - is twice the height of the other rooms and its upper windows are at gallery level. The top floor, or solar, is just below the parapet, so there is no blank space to protect a steeply pitched roof as in many Norman keeps. It is interesting to see how the windows graduate from narrow slits at ground level to larger and more elaborate openings above, though being Norman, they are relatively small. Note the even rows of putlog holes used in the construction.

A fore building preceded by a flight of steps guarded the way in. This has been allowed to decay into a ruinous stump, but the first floor entrance, with chevron ornament and portcullis groove, is still in use. The room within is bisected by a wide archway, which prepares us for the loftier, molded arch at hall level. These cross arches are a unique feature. They helped support the wooden floors without dividing the keep into smaller rooms as a cross wall would have done.

A mural gallery runs all the way around the keep at the upper level of the hall. Frequent window recesses pierce it so the hall benefits from light at two levels. The present floors and roof are modern, the older ones having been consumed by a fire in 1918. .