Early English Castles

After the peace of Chippenham in 879 AD Alfred The Great and his son and daughter became the first true castle builders in England. They started to build fortified towns across the countryside. These included:


It is believed that, where possible, stone was used but when not available wooden fortifications were built. When the Normans arrived in the 11th century they brought with them the knowledge of fortifications learned in France. It was at this time that the first motte and bailey type of castle was built. The motte or mound would vary between 10 feet under 100 feet in height and up to 300 feet in diameter. The mounds were usually of three types - natural hillocks, partly natural and partly artificial or wholly artificial according to the nature of the sites that they occupied.

The baileys were outworks which were used to defend the mounds and these were usually surrounded by ditches. When we compare these motte and bailey castles to the substantial brick ones which came later it is easy to underestimate them. However we must remember that the Normans conquered England Ireland, Sicily and parts of Italy using these motte and bailey castles. Sited in the best areas from both strategic and tactical points of view they provided excellent military headquarters.

However as the Normans settled down they needed larger buildings with more accommodation and it was from this point onwards that the medieval castle began to serve as a:

1. home
2. court
3. judicial buildings
4. storehouse
5. refuge

The first of these more modern castles were seen in the mid 11th century, Durham Castle being an excellent example. These early Norman castles were designed to overawe the populace of the districts in which they were built. Unfortunately, many of them have subsequently vanished.

These early castles tended to assume that any attack would come in one direction only. The attackers would precede from the outside through to the inner part until finally they reached the donjon or keep in the centre.

The development of these more permanent castles led to the first of what are called high cost sieges. These usually arose from Kings needing to assert or prove their authority for the monarch had a duty to maintain order amongst his barons. Without this discipline a state of anarchy would develop, as happened in England during the reign of Stephen.

History shows that there were three high cost sieges in England during these early years:

The Bedford Castle siege was the first of these high cost sieges. It was held by a gentleman called Fawkes de Breaute who was a mercenary and had performed set service for the monarch in the previous reign. However he became arrogant and defiant and that incurred the wrath of the king.

Kenilworth Castle held out for a year at June 1265 AD and 1266 AD and only surrendered because disease had broken out among the garrison. The castle was surrounded by 111 acres of water and a lot of ingenuity was used to try and break into the castle.

The third siege worthy of mention is Rochester. This castle was besieged by King John in 1215 AD. Although the siege itself only lasted for three months it made up for this in the intensity of the fighting.