Castles: The Original Status Symbol

Ain’t no place I’d rather be
Chillin’ with homies and family
Sky high, iced out paradise
In the sky..
Ain’t no place I’d rather be
Only place that’s right for me
Chromed-out mansion in paradise
In the sky…
-2Pac Thugz Mansion

It’s fair to say that in the 1000+ years of British monarchy socially society has changed rather drastically. For example we wouldn’t sell our babies to the local baby farmer, (Victorians), imprison someone for highly offensive facial hair, (Elizabethans) or put leeches in private places to prevent STDS and other nasty infections (ye olde medieval folk). Yes morally and scientifically we’ve moved on from yester-year but I still believe certain undeniable qualities that make us human will never die out. I think mankind has always had a history of being somewhat insecure and worse still, we have a nasty habit of going to extreme lengths to show the world that everything is ‘just fine.’ For example, it’s widely believed that TV sex symbol and Tudor King Henry ‘bacon machine’ VIII had *ahem* problems in the trouser department hence the lack of heir. But Big Hen could not possibly be blamed for this whatever nasty rumours certain nobles would spread (George Boleyn) and just to prove his worth; Henry ploughed through six wives…we all know how this ends. Henry was obsessed with symbols of power, be they clothes, conquests or even wives!
People have always had status symbols, it seems that we’re all incapable of existing without some kind of material object to project to the world how wealthy/popular or just plain successful we are now. Today it may be a Bentley car or a Dior handbag back in the 1100s the most effective way to prove your worth was through castles. Phew…after that long winded introduction let’s talk about castles! The types of castles we’d normally recognise didn’t start cropping up until the mid 1000s under the arrival of the Norman kings. Under the Anglo Saxons England was over populated by military barracks and garrisons as the country was split into far smaller provinces. What we would now identify as a typical castle simply did not exist before the Norman conquest, and the age of feudalism. Anglo Saxon forts and early castles existed as centres of villages, scenes of rural life rather than mighty fortresses. They were used as defensive buildings but inside, they housed houses and entire families. King Alfred, who saved the Saxons from being entirely overrun by the marauding Danes, invented the concept of burhs, fortified towns a Roman tradition. These burhs served as a substitute for the Norman castle. However, the architecture of many Saxon buildings-excluding their stone churches-was not necessarily sound. They were made from thatch, wood and mud, easily flammable and frequently ravaged by the Danish invaders who would eventually take the throne under the famous Viking King Cnut. Once Cnut died and the throne went back to the exiled Edward of Winchester (later the Confessor) early Norman architecture slowly began to creep into Saxon culture. Edward had been exiled to France after his father Æthelred the Unready was deposed by Cnut and the exiled prince found refuge with the Norman princes. Edward grew to love the powerful duchy, even going as far as to promise his throne to its charismatic duke William the Bastard after he died. Slowly England slipped into Norman customs but the fateful 1066 invasion would be the event to finally end the Saxon rule once and for all.

Alfred the Great's 'burhs'
Alfred the Great’s ‘burhs’

The overriding concept of the castle with its battlements, moats and keeps is an entirely Norman construct. Built on mounds and protected by moats and stone keeps these were the Norman idea of the status symbol. Castles were a sign of power and dominance over a dying culture. Upon his arrival to England, William the Bastard, now the Conqueror, set about ending the age of Saxon dominance, uniting the country best he could with the sheer power of Norman soldiers. Norman castles were designed to be much more than the simple barracks England was used to, they were heavily walled fortresses, homes to the wealthy, focal points for families. William built several castles in his quest brow beat his new realm into submission, sadly most the Norman castles in England have been built upon or have fallen into disrepair but a few remain-admittedly in a rather dilapidated state-and are well worth the visit. For William, the continued Anglo Saxon rebellion could only be halted by great force, by brutal punishments for any wrongdoers. Within a few years almost every Anglo Saxon lord had been executed and the north of England completed devastated, the guy wasn’t called the ‘harrier of the north’ for no reason. The greatest opposition to the new Norman regime came from the northern cities and it is there that old Saxon villages were burnt to the ground and a culture wiped out by an oppressive regime. Amazingly the ruthless and efficient William felt some remorse for his fearsome actions, supposedly exclaiming on his deathbed:
” I’ve persecuted the natives of England beyond all reason, whether gentle or simple. I have cruelly oppressed them and unjustly disinherited them, killed innumerable multitudes by famine or the sword and become the barbarous murderer of many thousands both young and old of that fine race of people…”
These solemn words are relayed by the 12th century chronicler William of Malmesbury in 1120 and while chroniclers are famous for embellishing the truth, Henry II was William’s great-great grandson and it would not be in Malmesbury’s favour to slander a previous king.
Under Henry II who had set about finishing what his relatives started, castles began to spring up all over the country. Henry spent thousands building and also improving existing castles in England, turning simple Roman and Saxons ruins into mighty fortresses (see Dover Castle). Henry was constantly fighting with his vassals in Wales, Scotland, England and France, so the importance of having royal authority firmly imprinted on the land he ruled, was paramount. It was not only in Britain but also in France, that Henry went about rebuilding 10th and 11th century fortresses. The Forteresse de Chinon is probably the best example of Henry’s impact on the culture of castles. Originally a modest chateau built in the 1000s, the Angevin stronghold was transformed into the might fortress that currently looms over the city of Chinon. Henry built several towers and fortified the walls, a project later taken on by John I was sadly lost the castle to Philippe Augustus. After Henry’s death Richard and John both spent their respective reigns improving the ancient Angevin chateaus. John was responsible for the construction of the Chataeu d’Angers, which still stands in the capital of Anjou, whereas Richard I improved and resided in the grand Chateau de Gaillard. Again, these fortresses tower over their respective towns, they were built to defend their king and country from attacks and often houses lengthy sieges. Arguably it was the capture of the vital fortresses in Anjou by the French King Philippe Augustus, that ended Plantagenet domination in France. It was not just the early Plantagenet kings and Normans who were involved in changing the concept of the castle, their construction and fortification carried on throughout the medieval period up until 1495 and the fall of the Plantagenets.

The Plantagenet, Roman and Saxon fortress at Dover
The Plantagenet, Roman and Saxon fortress at Dover
The stunning Chateau Gaillard in Normandy
The stunning Chateau Gaillard in Normandy

During the Wars of the Roses, English land changed hands constantly, the Yorks and Lancastrians seized their enemies land respectively. During the catastrophic 100 Years War and the weak rule of Henry VI in France, English land abroad and the castles that came with it, were all but gone. The attention of the English Monarchy promptly switched to problems at home. Much like the Normans, the ownership of castles and their role of defending a family claim, were once again vital. Castles throughout Britain were owned by various members of the gentry and it was the use of these castles and the armies that came with them, that could make or break a monarch. A prime example of this is of course the Battle of Bosworth and the end of York rule once and for good. Richard III had spent several years defending York land and the crown alongside his brother Edward IV and now as King of England. Unfortunately the king was divisive amongst the elite of England and support for the York regime was sparse in the south. Upon the day of Bosworth the powerful Stanley family, who had primarily been Lancastrians, defected from Richard’s army. Lord Stanley’s support of Henry Tudor was one of the nails in the coffin for Richard. The shock of Stanley’s ‘betrayal’ and his assistance for Henry, successfully overcame the York army and bought an end to dynastic war. With the ascension of Henry Tudor came a marriage to Elizabeth of York and an end to the War of the Roses.

An image of the now lost Nonsuch Palace
An image of the now lost Nonsuch Palace

Now that dynastic struggles seemed to grind to a halt, the concept of castles began to change. We can pinpoint the shift of their purpose with Henry VIII and the construction of Nonsuch Palace and Hampton Court. These stately homes replaced the fortresses of the monarchs of yesteryear, they were still status symbols, but they were shows of wealth not war. Under later Tudor, Stuart and especially the Georgians, castles were replaced by stately homes, revamped to create luxurious living spaces for parties rather than spaces to prepare for war. As wars moved increasingly onto the battlefield and the seas, the castle stopped being a necessity for war. These stately homes have outlived most of their medieval counterparts, which is a great shame as I find the dark spiral staircases and stone keeps far more exciting than any ballroom! But while the concept of a castle has changed its message has not. Henry II spent thousands on his projects in a move to display his power over his subjects, Henry VIII did not different with the sadly destroyed Nonsuch Palace. Both Henrys were desperate to warn those around them of their power, of their control over those around them and marking the land they ruled with grand designs. This continued under the Hanoverians who rebuilt huge areas of Hampton Court (George II), Brighton Palace (George IV) and many more.
In France too, the grand fortresses morphed into the fairytale chateaus that now dominate the Loire Valley. Chinon still remains a fortress but the original foundations of the Louvre-built as a fortress by Philippe Augustus-are now buried under the grand palace. As the priorities of aristocrats shift from war to opulence so do their homes. Barracks are replaced with gold plated walls and ballrooms, stone keeps relegated in favour of sprawling flower gardens.

Chenonceau in the Loire Valley
Chenonceau in the Loire Valley

Now mansions have replaced chateaux as symbols of power, buildings as opulent as the chateaux merely with built in swimming pools. Instead of being populated by royal families and noblemen, they are bought by celebrities and oligarchs. Still, the idea of a huge and powerful home, whether it be a fortress or a mansion in Beverly Hills, is seen as a sign that its owner is powerful. Let’s look at that gross project of ‘Kimye’ currently going on in LA. Kanye West and his other half (I’m not even mentioning her name) bought a HUGE mansion in California for millions and squillions of dollars only to demolish half of it to add even more features. When you think about all the people who struggle to live in a single room, the idea of buying houses ‘just cuz’ is repulsive, that said there were plenty of peasants who couldn’t walk through the maze at Hampton Court. Like castles are now mansions, peasants just live under a different name.

Chateaux and castles were once limited to a small few yet now anyone who has a couple of million can build them and, unfortunately money does not equal taste. In France, there is a trend of building new mansions in the style of the old chateaux but with swimming pools and home cinemas. While this may be slightly repulsive, it is just another sign that once again, what see as a status symbol is merely evolving. I’m sure the oppressed Anglo Saxons saw the new Norman fortresses in England as rather ugly, Richard I probably would have been appalled at the garish Brighton Palace…the modernisation of the old will never make everyone happy.
That said I wouldn’t mind a swimming pool in my house… but given the choice I’d rather live in Chinon than Beverly Hills.

Are these the castles of the 21st century?
Are these the castles of the 21st century?

Castles to visit:
• Dover Castle: Situated on the cliffs of Dover, the castle still has its Roman Walls, Saxon church and Plantagenet keep.
• Warwick Castle: The quintessential English castle, Warwick has been continually restored, its towers and keeps ready to be explored.
• Hampton Court: This redbrick colossus represents the beginning of the end for fortresses, Hampton Court is a charming example of the Tudor Court and also of the gaudy Georgian homes.
• Rochester Castle: This is a stereotypical Norman castle, it’s battlements and staircases still intact but it’s floors completely decayed. Essentially it’s a ruin, but it’s a lovely one.
• Windsor Castle: A prime example of a castle turned stately home. From the outside it’s seems like a castle complete with a moat, on the inside it’s a Hanoverian and Victorian home. A little twee for my taste but still fun for a visit.
• Chinon: Ok, I’m biased but this is by far my favourite castle, it’s surroundings, white walls, breathtaking views and history is overwhelming. It’s houses families, wars and imprisoned historical figures such as Joan of Arc and Eleanor of Aquitaine. If you can GO!
• Chateau d’Angers: Sadly its towers have been shortened but the battlements are still climbable and it houses one of the largest medieval tapestries, the Apocalypse Tapestry.
• The Louvre: Once a fortress (you can still see its original foundations and models of its original form) the Parisian castle is now home to some of the most beautiful pieces of art you can name such as the Mona Lisa , the works of Vermeer and countless Greco-Roman statues.

Happy travelling readers!
Over and out!

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