Along with cathedrals, abbeys and parish churches, castles are the most tangible surviving examples of medieval architecture and, by extension, the Middle Ages themselves. Many of us, as children, were introduced to the period through castles and churches, and, for many, they remain totemic. Unlike the church, however, castles are surprisingly under-studied by ‘serious’ historians of the Middle Ages. Too often they are seen as the domain of military historians alone, while historians of medieval religion, economy, society, culture and even politics focus on other matters. This is a shame because, as this collection tries, often successfully, to show, in castles many aspects of medieval life intersected. In them, as well as the occasional epic siege, we can see economic development, the practice of administration and justice, places where the great and the lowly rubbed shoulders in a domestic setting. We can marvel at amazing feats of architecture and engineering whose layers of meaning we can glimpse only if we understand the literature and culture of the world which created them. Like many undergraduates, I sat in seminars where we were taught that late medieval castles ‘declined’ from a military function towards domesticity: Bodiam was presented as being at the centre of that story, either as the last flourishing of military purpose or, more often, as the prime example of style over substance. One of the purposes of this collection, edited by Robert Liddiard, is to challenge this and other myths about late medieval castles. At the heart of this book is Charles Coulson’s chapter on Bodiam, one of four examples of his work in the book. In many ways, however, it is one of the less satisfying pieces. At over sixty pages (many of which are almost overwhelmed by copious footnotes), it is twice as long as any other chapter—but this can complicate rather than illuminate. Much of the chapter is taken up with discussions of loops, embrasures and machiolated parapets in an attempt to assess just how defensible Bodiam really was. This can be somewhat esoteric, and it is only at the end of the chapter that we find an all too brief but certainly insightful discussion of the castle’s context: the political background of Edward Dallingridge’s decision to build Bodiam in the aftermath of the Rising of 1381 and John of Gaunt’s assertion of lordship in eastern Sussex after a long period where magnate power had been absent. It is strange that this chapter is so unbalanced, given that Coulson’s first piece rightly places such stress on contextualising castle building in the late Middle Ages: there he successfully moves us beyond stale debates about decline and instead focuses on how the castle evolved and how, like their predecessors from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, castles had multiple functions and served royal and magnate ambitions and needs in different ways. The other chapters describe many of these purposes in various settings and times. A short review does not allow for each of the seventeen chapters to be described in detail so I hope the reader will forgive me if I pick out a few which most caught my attention. Following Coulson’s theme of challenging established understandings, Nicola Coldstream’s chapter on the Edwardian castles reassesses the celebrated contribution of Master James of St George to Edward’s project. While acknowledging Master James’s input, especially at Beaumaris, she convincingly contextualises his efforts and brings out the insular tradition from which the castles emerged. Rather than being the genius architect behind the whole project, the Savoyard only slowly came to the fore as the man tasked with the implementation of a vision that was, from start to finish, the king’s own. Staying in Edward I’s reign, Richard K. Morris draws out the hidden Arthurian messages in castles, other residences and even monuments to extend R.S. Loomis’s chapter on Edward’s Arthurian enthusiasm. The chapter shows perfectly how castle studies can be used to bring new insights to political and cultural history as these buildings bore the stamp of their patrons’ personalities and interests. This work further reminds us that much of the style and substance of Edward III’s kingship was heavily influenced by the memory and example of his grandfather. In between those two great kings came the calamitous reign of Edward II and Michael Prestwich’s chapter ponders the surprisingly slight role played by castles in the political disturbances that plagued this Edward’s tenure of the throne. Castles were not unimportant, Prestwich points out, and possession of castles was a sensitive matter as the cases of Odiham and Leeds illustrate, but there were no great sieges to mark the civil wars of the thirteenth century. This is a trend witnessed for much of the rest of the Middle Ages but was down more to a lack of resolve on the part of garrisons than a fundamental lack of defensibility on the part of late medieval castles. One only has to recall the two sieges of Rochester in the thirteenth century to be reminded of this. In 1216, the rebel garrison held out even when part of the keep itself had fallen to assault, while in 1264 the royalists held the keep until relieved by Henry III, when the bailey had fallen to the rebels. It was men as much as masonry that held the enemy at bay, and ultimately people were more willing to fight against King John or Simon de Montfort than they were for Thomas of Lancaster: one can hardly blame them for that. The collection has significant Celtic elements, of which Charles McKean’s chapter on the ‘Scottish problem’ is particularly illuminating, arguing that the Renaissance did not bypass Scottish architecture but that the Scots largely rejected the classical form found in England and France in an attempt to maintain a sense of their own independence. Scottish Renaissance culture needs to be interpreted in a broader European, rather than a narrowly British, context, and this allows us to see its individuality and worth. My most significant criticism of the book is that it contains no new research. Professor Liddiard has done a splendid job in bringing these chapters together in one place, as a hugely valuable resource for students and professionals alike, but the most recent is now a decade old. In its current form, therefore, it seems as if castle research has fossilised along with so many of its subjects. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/open_access/funder_policies/chorus/standard_publication_model)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Aug 1, 2018
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