by Paul Martin Remfry
This 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.
Much 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
We 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,
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.
In 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
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 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.
From 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
If 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
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 round towers.
The 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
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 Bronllys
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 argument.
Since this was written excavation has proved that the tower is in
fact based on an earlier polygonal tower or possibly a small shell keep.
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.
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 1180s*. 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.
The 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 to settle.
It 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
(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 the small shell keep at 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.
There 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,
Clifford, Bryn 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
The 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
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 historical help*. 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
It 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
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/strengthening 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 achieved!
Powerful 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
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
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 of 1140*. Finally of course there is
the indisputable fact that rectangular towers were constructed
throughout the Middle Ages, cf. those built at Harlech in 1323-4*. 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
what then of the D-shaped towers reputedly built by Llywelyn ab
Gwynedd - Ewloe and Carndochan. True
they have D-shaped towers like Y Bere, but does Y Bere mean that
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
claimed that Llywelyn was responsible for this structure, although he
his power felt in this region and was instrumental in forcing the Earl
to return this castle to Llywelyn's princely vassal, Morgan ap Hywel of
Gwynllwg, in 1236. On
peak at Degannwy there is an open backed(?) D-shaped tower, in the
as the Mansell tower. Degannwy
certainly a castle of Llywelyn's*,
as too was
was built by
the earls of Gloucester in the late 1280's, but this too had a fine
tower similar in many respects to the Mansell tower.
Deudraeth castle seems to have had rectangular 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
show that Llywelyn was capable of building such castles?
If his ancestors were capable, then so too might his
been, the great Owain Gwynedd (d.1170).
the princes of Wales really co-existed with the Normans only to remain
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
happened to the stone removed from these operations?
Was it left lying around for attackers to use as missiles,
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
lot of facts have been formulated above which I believe directs us
conclusion that we are not as secure in our dating methods as we like
Even where minutely detailed surveys, excavation and
have been combined, it is not possible to state definitively that '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
wishful thinking, rather than detailed, difficult and time-consuming
is the way forward from here? The
first thing to be done must be the compilation of a list of what is
known - prior to speculation. This
can then form the basis for deeper research.
Each castle site must be approached by its historical
This takes much time and research, and evidence should not
just because it does not fit in with a pre-conceived idea or even a
accepted line of thinking. If
this is not done, we run the risk of compounding old
errors with new. To
stale repetition is one of the main purposes of my series of booklets
and their tenurial histories - to show what is left both historically
architecturally and then to attempt to combine the two to formulate a
hypothesis of a castle's development using available evidence, rather
project has now
been running for nearly ten years and has managed to cover the
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.
*See Remfry, P.M., Longtown Castle, 1048-1241
[Malvern, 1996]. Recent work in 2017 here has shown the keep to be mid twelfth century.
*Remfry, P.M., Castell Dinas Emrys, Gwynedd
*Remfry, P.M., Ten Castles of Radnor Lordship
*The 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
*In 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 Ithel .
*Cilgerran 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.
*There 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.
*Remfry, P.M., Buckenham Castles, 1066 to 1649
Copyright©1994-2004 Paul Martin Remfry