The Dating of Medieval Military Architecture
by Paul Martin Remfry
article has been under consideration for many years.
Its publication now is not due to its completion, more to answer
questions about my disagreement with many accepted dates of military masonry
structures in the UK. This
discussion is in no way supposed to be definitive, but it is intended to
provoke thought, argument and, hopefully, comment.
has been written about the dating of Medieval Military Architecture and many
theories have grown up through the study of the so-called progression of
building styles - from wood to stone - from square to octagonal to round.
In tandem with this these styles have been named from Norman to Early
English to Transitional etc etc. Now
after many years formulation and study these 'standards' have solidified and
become accepted. It is therefore
necessary to re-assess the evidence for the value of these procedures, and
here I intend to show that these now require re-evaluation.
must first start by examining the evidence on which we are basing these
theories. First and foremost must
be documentary evidence - archaeology is still far too imprecise a tool.
How many times has a date of 1200 give or take 150 years been
compressed to the far more practical, but totally illogical, c.1200?
Anyone looking at our text books can see how the most tentative of
dating attempts by an excavator tend to solidify into 'fact' over the
succeeding 50 years or so. This
happens all too often and the error is then compounded by similar structures
being dated by comparison. Therefore
we date one structure by taking an unproven and unprovable date from a totally
different structure, often built by different lords and in areas of the
country which have a totally different military history and tradition.
This 'date' is then assigned to yet another somewhat similar structure
and so the process goes on. How
can any faith be put in such dating?
To illuminate the point I will consider my family house. Late eighteenth century tithe maps show there was a cottage in an orchard where our house now stands. In the 1860's a new house with a lovely Victorian front was built onto the front and the cottage itself was altered to accommodate this. However when various 'experts' examine the house they all comment on our lovely 'Georgian' windows at the back. Undoubtedly the original builders used old materials in building the first cottages here. Or did they? Is it not possible that they were still producing fine 'Georgian' windows in the nineteenth century? To make matters worse that fine 'Victorian' door that obviously was the early entrance to the newly converted cottage was put there by us in 1970 when we moved it ten feet from its original position, which itself was replaced by a window! There is now no obvious trace of this movement. The second Georgian window is even worse. After each tentative dating, I show our 'experts' the beam that marks the second extension to the house. This extension, to house the first floor bathroom, was added sometime in the 1920's, yet the builders reset either an original, or a second-hand window in the 1920's wall. Few, if any, ever spot this. Well you may be saying to yourself, this is a very nice discussion, but what has it to do with Medieval Military Architecture? The answer is that if so many mistakes can so easily be made with a reasonably well-documented modern building, then how can we trust dates given to us for much earlier buildings that are little better than picked randomly, if judiciously, out of a hat. You may think that this is an overstatement. In the following pages I intend to prove the point with a detailed discussion of known castle building dates and what they prove.
Wales and the border region we are lucky in having had so much interest shown
from castellologists over the years, and such a tradition still continues to
thrive in this interesting and stimulating region. With all the available evidence, where is it best to commence
this discussion? Probably it is
best to start at known points and it must be admitted that the only area with
really firm dating evidence is the Edwardian Conquest castles of North Wales.
However even here our knowledge of the earlier tenurial history of
these sites, viz Caernarfon, Buellt and probably Aberystwyth (3 earlier
castles at this site?) is sadly lacking.
Caernarfon and Buellt have a history dating back to the earliest Norman
invasions and Aberystwyth to only slightly later.
Little research has been done on the early history of all three sites,
especially the first two. It is
possible that in Caernarfon this will have a leaning on the study of the
masonry remains. Certainly Victorian photographs of the interior of the castle
show impressive earthworks which have now been swept away by tidying up
operations. My own research at
Builth Wells shows there is good evidence that the present castle site dates
only from 1210 and not the eleventh century as previously believed.
the plans of these royal Edwardian castles, it is generally assumed that the
baronial houses spawned their own comparable designs, viz Holt, Caergwrle
(Hope), Ruthin, Denbigh and Chirk. But
did the lords of these castles knowingly copy their king's designs?
Was Roger Mortimer Junior influenced by the North Welsh castles or in
fact was Beaumaris based on Chirk? And
what of Caerphilly (pre-dates all Edward’s castles) and Morlais, the
pinnacles of baronial castle building? A
point in question may be Flint. If
this had been more thoroughly ruined than it currently is - say all the walls
and towers had now gone except for the two southern walls of the baileys with
the ruined entrances still set in them as they are now - what would be left?
A turfed over mound of rubble or 'motte' where the keep had been (many
turfed over collapsed keeps have in fact been mistaken for mottes, cf.
Richards Castle, Dinas Emrys etc.), and two baileys which show little, if any,
evidence of being flanked and had just simple hole-in-the-wall gateways.
Who would not by current standards, on architectural grounds alone,
date such a structure to the twelfth century?
Without tenurial history and a complete ground plan (earthworks, not
just masonry), preferably buttressed by excavation, any dating attempt is
likely to be flawed. Even with
the increasing abundance of documents concerned with castle building in the
thirteenth century, it is rarely possible to be conclusive about a castle's
origin. Yet we are prepared to
date military structures to narrow, pre-conceived, non-contemporary bands,
nearly always in total isolation from the tenurial history of the site.
our grasp of the architecture of the royal Edwardian castles of Wales is
uncertain and incomplete, it is to be expected that our knowledge of less
well-known sites is even less secure. Much
useful work has been done on the career of William Fitz Osbern in
Herefordshire and the border, but detailed work on his known and possible
castles is generally lacking. The
building of the hall at Chepstow is generally attributed to him or his son,
Roger, before 1075, but proof of this is lacking. It is widely accepted, with the exception of Ludlow, that in
Wales and the Marches between the dispossession of Roger of Breteuil (1075)
and the reign of Henry II (1154-89), no masonry castles were constructed.
In my opinion this is largely due to a failure to take into account the
tenurial history of castle sites. It
is therefore necessary here to look at some of the available history
for these fortresses. To keep
this paper to a reasonable length I will attempt to limit this discussion to
standard view for round towers is that they are a military feature of the
thirteenth century. This view is
based on a handful of 'known' building dates which in themselves are not
totally satisfactory, viz Beeston (SJ.537.593) 'circa' 1220-25 and Bolingbroke
(TF.349.649 - 'early history unsatisfactory' - D.J. Cathcart-King) 'circa'
1220-32. Similarly Welsh style
D-shaped towers are classified according to what little is known about Castell
y Bere, allegedly commenced in 1221 as Llywelyn's castle in Meirionydd.
In reality the earliest evidence we have for round towers in Wales is
the event that occurred almost certainly in the winter of 1165/6, retold by
Giraldus, concerning the death of Mahel, lord of Brecon.
During the night the castle caught fire and whilst fleeing the
holocaust a stone fell from the 'principal tower' on to Mahel's head.
The linking of the tower on the motte to this event is currently
rejected on architectural and no other grounds!
Instead the current tower is said to have been built by Walter Clifford
(1207-68). Of him we have no
evidence that he built or was even interested in building anything.
He is accredited with the conception of this tower simply because he
was the owner and was living 'circa' 1220-30 when it is claimed round towers
were being built*!
The motte on which the tower stands shows evidence (bedrock) of being
natural and must have been a primary feature of the site and therefore the
castle's principal tower was most likely built upon this from the castle's
conception, probably in 1144. The tower also shows evidence of burning and of having been
altered internally several times, as well as of being heightened.
Remains of a stone forebuilding can still be made out leading up to the
entrance doorway from the bailey. If
this tower is built on bedrock then there is no reason for it not having been
built from the first - once again no need for settling of the 'motte' - and
there is no reason to doubt that the windows could have been later insertions.
Comparisons with similar round towers on mottes strengthens this
or Builth Wells castle, as it is now known, was destroyed in 1169 by Rhys ap
Gruffydd of Deheubarth and was later 'constructed' for King John in 1210*.
The site has always been reckoned to be the site under the Edwardian
castle. However just west of the
current town is another motte and bailey, and on the motte are the buried
remains of a round tower equivalent to those found at Bronllys and Longtown.
This probable early tower-keep is quite likely the first Braose castle
of Buellt, founded in 1093. This
immediately brings into question Longtown's alleged date.
Longtown keep has generally been dated to the thirteenth century.
However in this case the historic dating evidence does point clearly
(but of course without total certitude) to the period immediately prior to
1230, even though the castle appears to have been newly commenced in stone in
The conclusion that the keep was built at this time from the dismantled
remains of whatever preceded it is re-enforced by the re-used material in the
round keep. This 'evidence'
however, can be argued against on the sensible grounds that it is not
conclusive. So too can the dating
of any structure as I think has been adequately stated above.
above sites beg the question as to what conclusive evidence there is for
twelfth century (and possibly older) round towers? One castle springs immediately to mind - Nevern in Cemais
(SN.083.402). Here are the barely
noticed remains of a round keep set in a motte; and although we have no
building date for this structure we do have a destruction date - 1195!
The castle itself was probably founded soon after the occupation of
Ceredigion in the reign of Henry I (1100-35), and it is possible that the keep
was built soon afterwards on terra firma, as has been proved at
Skenfrith and suggested at Clifford and Bronllys.
According to an unfortunately lost DOE excavation report, Longtown was
built on the motte on the most insecure of foundations.
In the other cases the mound was subsequently thrown up around the base
of the keep, which was built on a solid foundation.
There is therefore no need to wait for the soil above terra firma
is also worth noting here what happens when the upper stories of such a keep
are removed. You are left with a
mound, possibly with rubble surrounding it or vaguely protruding from it.
Such mottes/mounds which have been excavated revealing a masonry keep
and are not mentioned in this text include Barnstaple (SS.556.334), Crug Eryr
(SO.158.593), Dolforwyn (SO.153.950), Elmley (SO.980.403), Duffield?
(SK.343.441), Kenfig (SS.801.827), Miserden (SO.944.093), Neroche
(ST.272.158), St Briavels (SO.558.046), Castell Dinas Emrys*,
and Winforton (SO.302.463, probably not defensive*).
Those that show definite evidence of once having supported or having
been towers include Bleddfa (SO.209.682), Caus (SJ.338.079), Chartley
(SK.010.825), Clun (SO.298.809), Crickhowell (SO.218.183), Dolwyddelan I
(SH.725.522), Lyonshall (SO.331.563), Mileham (TF.312643), Plympton
(SX.546.559) and Wiston (SN.022.181). Those
that show some evidence include Aberedw (SO.078.471), Dolbenmaen (SH.506.430),
Eardisley (SO.311.491), Huntington (SO.249.539), several of the castles of the
Old Castleton (SO.283.457), Ongar (TL.554031), Oswestry (SJ.290298), Pilleth
(SO.259.677) and Tomen y Mur (SH.705.386).
This list is by no means definitive and no attempt has been made to
list the sites chronologically.
are other such round keeps in Wales that may well be twelfth century.
Probably the best such case is the keep at Dinefwr.
A 'tower' here was strongly defended in 1213 after the rest of the
castle had fallen*.
Such a tower is only likely to have been the present round tower. The
'tower' at Llandovery successfully resisted attack after the fall of the
bailey in 1116. Once again the
castle remains here have not been properly surveyed and, considering the
tenurial history, in my opinion are most unlikely to date to 1282 and
after. The castle of Rhaeadr-gwy
in Gwrtheyrnion is another good example of a historically recorded, but now
destroyed stone tower on a 'motte'. Built
by Rhys ap Gruffydd in 1177 it was twice destroyed by the princes of
Maelienydd, the last occasion in 1194 proving final.
Here is an attested Welsh built stone tower with a terminus post
quem and a terminus ante quem.
It is unfortunate that so little of the structure now remains*.
Regardless of this, time and time again, round towers are dated to the
thirteenth century on no grounds other than vague architectural assertions,
viz. Dolbadarn, Pembroke, Cardigan, Usk, Penrice, Wigmore,
Amlwg, etc. What actual firm
evidence do we have for the building of these structures?
Can we really date them on the grounds of architectural features, the
construction of all of which undoubtedly spanned many generations?
There can be no hard and fast rule.
Of all the historical documentation that may have existed about a
castle site we probably are lucky if we can now muster 1% of it.
The whole of that documentation probably covered but 1% of what we
would now want to know about that site. Can
we therefore really be so certain that Hay
castle was built c.1200 by Matilda
Braose, Bronllys tower was built c.1220 by Walter Clifford or even that
Clifford castle was built c.1220 by the same much put upon Walter Clifford?
Merely on the evidence of windows which may have been replaced, most
likely repeatedly, and styles that were neither fixed nor compulsory?
case of Nevern (above) opens interesting speculations.
It is generally argued that the chief lordship castle was copied by the
lesser baronial castles. In many
cases this is demonstrably false, though this is not to say that it did not
happen. If Nevern was a copy of the lordship round tower at Cardigan,
then Cardigan's tower is logically older.
The structure there is certainly unusual. It is said to be a stepped round tower with deeply projecting
corner spurs, making the ground plan square, rather than round, though this
may well be a confusion between the 'great tower' and the 'watchtower'.
Were either of these built in the attested stone building of the castle
by Rhys ap Gruffydd in 1171? Was
the tower already there then, or was it the great tower whose second storey
was constructed for Henry III in 1261*?
Even though we have a historical mention of building work at a castle,
this cannot be taken as evidence that this involves the erection of whatever
piece of masonry we are currently interested in.
Any castle that has been adequately examined shows multiple building
phases, and these indeed are to be expected over any length of time.
It is not so much building evidence that we lack, but a sensible method
of relating this to the castle. Currently
not enough research has been undertaken on the tower at Cardigan to even
hazard a guess as to its construction date or its repair.
The same should be true of Pembroke, for here we currently have no
Giraldus mentions Pembroke castle, initially hastily and roughly
constructed in the form of a stockade. From
this point he tells us stories of the siege of 1096, but of the later
structure, which must have followed the rough and ready stockade he tells us
nothing. We know that the site
was of great strategic importance during the twelfth century, yet it is not
until "c.1200" when once again all the masonry was suddenly supposed
to have been built, even if the Old Hall is allowed an unconvincing date of
"c.1180". All of this architectural dating evidence is quoted despite
the fact that Gerald Windsor, the castellan, surrounded his new castle,
which was probably at Cilgerran, with a wall as long ago as 1108*!
Indeed evidence of this apparently 'clay-laid' wall* still remains under
the later gatehouse and on the rock ledge beneath the castle's current north
curtain wall. If Cilgerran was
stone-built from the first then what of the myriad of other secondary castles
that litter Wales and the border? There is evidence of long abandoned stonework at so many!
Again the remains of the two round towers and linking curtain at
Cilgerran are dated to after 1223 on the grounds that fighting was going on
then and a re-fortification (refirmavit), not a complete rebuilding of
a derelict site, was attested*.
However it must be stated that the castle had been the scene of the
bitterest fighting since the 1160's and had been frequently taken and rebuilt*.
The two giant round towers are also obviously of different builds, one
probably dating to the 1220's rebuilding the other on stylistic grounds
obviously being much older.
is also a long held view that a powerful ruler was more likely to build a
substantial castle than a weak one. Hence
the attachment of many masonry castles to well-known personalities viz.
Richard of Cornwall, William Marshall, Walter Clifford etc.
Yet how much weight can really be attached to these fleeting arguments?
Was a lord who is now seen as great really more likely to build a
masonry castle than one who now appears insignificant - insignificant being
directly related to short-lived, militarily unadventurous (he might have
preferred building castles rather than fighting battles) or simply unrecorded? Roger Mortimer of Wigmore (1246-82) was undoubtedly the most
powerful member of that family in the thirteenth century, yet it was his
little-known father Ralph (1226-46) who was responsible for founding Knucklas
and Cefnllys castles and probably several others! Death also struck at odd times and many a promising career
was cut short by the hand of fate. In
how many other cases may a short-lived powerful and energetic lord be
dismissed as irrelevant simply because their period of lordship did not span
forty years? Our own political
leaders rarely last ten and look what building works some of these have
castles fell to an enemy through surprise or lack of will to resist.
Rarely did they fall to determined attack.
There are few well chronicled sieges in the Middle Ages.
One of these is concerned with the siege of the powerful stone castle
of Bedford in 1224*.
Bar the motte nothing at all can now be seen of this castle, yet we
know it was once one of the most powerful castles in the kingdom, with two
stone walled baileys and a round tower set in a round shell keep on a motte,
of which we even have a contemporary, if stylized, drawing by Matthew Paris
[compare this to the drawing of Lincoln castle during the battle of 1217].
We also know that it took the king two months and all the power of the
kingdom to subdue this determinedly held castle.
The first thing to be said about Bedford is that it was too strong for
King Stephen to take in 1138 and that he had to resort to starving the
garrison out. This suggests stone defences.
When Faulkes Breauté gained the castle in 1215/6 he proceeded to
strengthen it with 'towers and outer defences' and 'towers and walls and outer
walls from the stones of the churches, and surround it on all sides with deep
moats of pavement'. Deep moats of
pavement would suggest strong reveting of the ditches due to the low lying
nature of this probably wet site. It
is worth quickly quoting here the main occurrences of the siege by Henry
III which began on
20 June 1224. The siege began
with the outer ward being battered with mangonels and petraries.
Subsequently the barbican was taken, then breaches were made in the
wall of the outer bailey and this was next stormed with much loss of life.
In return for their sacrifice most of the garrison ammunition, horses
and livestock fell to the attackers. The
king then ordered belfries constructed and whilst his archers maintained a
murderous fire on all that moved in the castle, a tortoise breached the inner
curtain by the 'ancient tower*'.
Again this ward was then successfully stormed with great loss of life.
It was now necessary to undermine the keep on the motte and about
Vespers on 14 August the wooden pit-props were fired and great gaps appeared
in the shell(?) wall. The
garrison then surrendered to the king's mercy and Henry ordered the castle
demolished. Despite the protests
of the owner, William Beauchamp, the keep and the outer bailey were totally
demolished and the inner bailey was reduced to half its former height.
So ended one great round keep! In
Speed's day only the mound and 'old ruins' of the inner ward remained,
attesting the thoroughness of the destruction and the accuracy of the
accounts! From this we can see
that in 1224 a massive stone castle stood in Bedford and that parts of its
masonry already dated from 'antiquity'. Other
masonry castles must have been of a similar age while the round keep at New
Buckenham, Norfolk, is generally accepted as dating to a few years either side
Finally of course there is the indisputable fact that rectangular
towers were constructed throughout the Middle Ages, cf. those built at Harlech
If this is true of rectangular towers why then should round towers have
been any different?
we can see that round towers were not the preserve of the thirteenth century,
what then of the D-shaped towers reputedly built by Llywelyn ab Iorwerth of
Gwynedd - Ewloe and Carndochan. True
they have D-shaped towers like Y Bere, but does Y Bere mean that Llywelyn could
only build such towers and that no one else could? Some towers at Y Bere are rectangular and one is round.
The same is true at Castell Maredudd in the Gwent, yet it is nowhere
claimed that Llywelyn was responsible for this structure, although he had made
his power felt in this region and was instrumental in forcing the Earl Marshall
to return this castle to Llywelyn's princely vassal, Morgan ap Hywel of
Gwynllwg, in 1236. On the southern
peak at Degannwy there is an open backed(?) D-shaped tower, in the 1240's known
as the Mansell tower. Degannwy was
certainly a castle of Llywelyn's*, as too was
Caernarfon. Morlais was built by
the earls of Gloucester in the late 1280's, but this too had a fine D-shaped
tower similar in many respects to the Mansell tower. Deudraeth castle had round or D-shaped towers, yet we know
that it was built by Llywelyn's elder cousins immediately before 1188.
Further, Dafydd ab Owain is said to have held three castles in 1194, one
of which was undoubtedly Rhuddlan*.
Should Ewloe and Carndochan therefore be assigned to Llywelyn simply on
the grounds that we have available to us a few fragments of information that
show that Llywelyn was capable of building such castles?
If his ancestors were capable, then so too might his grandfather have
been, the great Owain Gwynedd (d.1170). Had
the princes of Wales really co-existed with the Normans only to remain incapable
of using stone for fortification in a land full of stone?
When castle ditches were dug at Welsh castles, more often than not, they
had to be rock-cut. What then
happened to the stone removed from these operations?
Was it left lying around for attackers to use as missiles, or, more
likely, did this go into the construction of the castle's defences?
Owain Gwynedd's contemporary Rhys ap Gruffydd was certainly a stone
castle builder, yet Owain, the recorded builder of stone towers for churches,
lot of facts have been formulated above which I believe directs us towards the
conclusion that we are not as secure in our dating methods as we like to think.
Even where minutely detailed surveys, excavation and historical research
have been combined, it is not possible to state definitively that 'so and so'
built this! There are only probabilities and possibilities.
Where castles have been firmly attached to a named builder, like Walter
Clifford at several sites, this has usually been done through inadequate and
wishful thinking, rather than detailed, difficult and time-consuming research!
is the way forward from here? The
first thing to be done must be the compilation of a list of what is actually
known - prior to speculation. This
can then form the basis for deeper research.
Each castle site must be approached by its historical merits.
This takes much time and research, and evidence should not be side-lined
just because it does not fit in with a pre-conceived idea or even a universally
accepted line of thinking. If this is not done, we run the risk of compounding old
errors with new. To avoid this
stale repetition is one of the main purposes of my series of booklets on castles
and their tenurial histories - to show what is left both historically and
architecturally and then to attempt to combine the two to formulate a reasoned
hypothesis of a castle's development using available evidence, rather than
speculation. This project has now
been running for nearly ten years and has managed to cover the architectural and
tenurial history of just 52 castles out of a total of some 2,000.
Obviously there is still much more to be done.
18 November 2001
B.K., Observers Castles [London, 1988], 168 uniquely appears to
support a pre- 1175 date for this tower.
Luckily we also have a foundation date for the castle of 1144 to 1155
as the land was granted to Walter Clifford (d.1190) by Earl Roger of
Hereford (d.1155). It was
certainly not built by Walter’s father in c.1090 as is repeatedly stated.
Remfry, P.M., Longtown Castle, 1048-1241 [Malvern, 1996].
P.M., Castell Dinas Emrys, Gwynedd [Malvern, 1994].
P.M., Ten Castles of Radnor Lordship [Malvern, 1995].
nature of this castle is mis-understood in 'The structure of an early
castle' Review of Projects, Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust ,
11 as once again its tenurial history has been ignored, see Remfry, P.M., The
Native Dynasties of Rhwng Gwy a Hafren  chapters 4 and 5.
1108 Gerald of Pembroke (Pennuro) built Cenarth Bychan ((K)enarth
Bychann/Chenarth Bechan/Kilgarran castle, Brut y Tywysogyon or The
Chronicle of the Princes. Peniarth Ms. 20 version, ed. and trans. T.
Jones [Cardiff, 1952], 163n), which he fortified with a ditch and a wall
(mur) and made gates fastened with locks and bars, Brut y Tywysogyon or
The Chronicle of the Princes. Red Book of Hergest version, ed. and
trans. T. Jones [Cardiff, 1955]; Annales Cambriae, ed. J. Williams ab
idea that these castles were 'clay-laid' is almost certainly erroneous.
The decayed masonry at Richard's Castle and
Longtown castle almost
certainly prove this point. Unprotected mortar rots!
was taken by Rhys ap Gruffydd in 1165 and the next year twice resisted
assaults by the Flemings to re-take it.
It then remained in Rhys' hands till his death.
In 1199 it was taken by his son Gruffydd and in 1201 was taken from
him by his brother Maelgwn. 1204
saw the castle then seized by Walter Marshal, who then lost the castle with
much of South Wales to Llywelyn in November 1215, who in 1216 restored it to
Maelgwn ap Rhys the holder of 1204. History
taken from cursory notices in RBH and AC.
may have been a tower similar to St George's tower beside the motte at
Oxford, for three-quarters of the 'old tower towards St Paul's Church' was
also demolished, Brown, R.A., Colvin, H.M., & Taylor, A.J. (eds.), History
of the King's Works [4 vols., 1963] II, 559.
P.M., Buckenham Castles, 1066 to 1649 [Malvern, 1997].
Copyright©1994-2004 Paul Martin Remfry