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Saturday, 15 October 2011



Many an English village can boast of the possession of the ruins of an ancient castle, a gaunt rectangular or circular keep or donjon, looking very stern and threatening even in decay, and mightily convincing of the power of its first occupants. The new masters did not feel very safe in the midst of a discontented and enraged people; so they built these huge fortresses with strong walls and gates and moats. Indeed before the Conquest the Norman knights, to whom the weak King Edward the Confessor granted many an English estate, brought with them the fashion of building castles, and many a strong square tower began to crown the fortified mounds. Thence they could oppress the people in many ways, and the writers of the time always speak of the building of castles with a kind of shudder. After the Conquest, especially during the regency of William's two lieutenants, Bishop Odo and Earl William Fitz-osbern, the Norman adventurers who were rewarded for their services by the gift of many an English manor, built castles everywhere. The wretched men of the land were cruelly oppressed by forced labour in erecting these strongholds, which were filled "with devils and evil men." Over a thousand castles were built in nineteen years, and in his own castle each earl or lord reigned as a small king, coining his own money, making his own laws, having power of life and death over his dependants, and often using his power most violently and oppressively.

The original Norman castle consisted of a keep, "four-square to every wind that blew," standing in a bailey court. It was a mighty place with walls of great thickness about one hundred and fifty feet high. It contained several rooms, one above the other. A deep well supplied the inhabitants with water. Spiral stone steps laid in the thickness of the wall led to the first floor where the soldiers of the garrison resided. Above this was the hall, with a chimney and fireplace, where the lord of the castle and his guests had their meals, and in the thickness of the wall there were numerous chambers used as sleeping-apartments and garderobes, and the existence of a piscina in one of these shows that it was a small chapel or oratory. The upper story was divided by wooden partitions into small sleeping-rooms; and unlike our modern houses, the kitchen was at the top of the keep, and opened on the roof.
Descending some stone steps which led from the ground floor in ancient time we should visit the dungeons, dark, gloomy, and dreadful places, where deep silence reigns, only broken by the groans of despairing captives in the miserable cells. In one of these toads and adders were the companions of the captive. Another poor wretch reposed on a bed of sharp flints, while the torture-chamber echoed with the cries of the victims of mediaeval cruelty, who were hanged by their feet and smoked with foul smoke, or hung up by their thumbs, while burning rings were placed on their feet. In Peak Castle, Derbyshire, a poor, simple squire, one Godfrey Rowland, was confined for six days without either food or drink, and then released from the dungeon with his right hand cut off. In order to extract a heavy ransom, to obtain lands and estates, to learn the secrets of hidden treasure, the most ingenious and devilish tortures were inflicted in these terrible abodes.

The same style of castle-building continued for a century and a half after the Norman Conquest. It is possible to distinguish the later keeps by the improved and fine-jointed ashlar stonework, by the more frequent use of the stone of the district, instead of that brought from Caen, by the ribs upon the groins of the vaulting of the galleries and chambers in the walls, and by the more extensive use of ornaments in the bosses, windows, doors, and fireplaces. The style of the decoration approaches the Early English character.

The walls of the keep were not the only protection of the fortress. A moat surrounds the whole castle, crossed by a drawbridge, protected on the side remote from the castle by a barbican. High walls with an embattled parapet surround the lower court, or ballium, which we enter by a gate defended by strong towers. A portcullis has to be raised, and a heavy door thrown back, before we can enter; while above in the stone roof of the archway there are holes through which melted lead and pitch can be poured upon our heads, if we attempt to enter the castle as assailants. In the lower court are the stables, and the mound where the lord dispenses justice, and where criminals and traitors are executed. Another strong gateway flanked by towers protects the inner court, on the edge of which stands the keep which frowns down upon us as we enter.

An immense household was supported in every castle. Not only were there men-at-arms, but also cooks and bakers, brewers and tailors, carpenters, smiths, masons, and all kinds of craftsmen; and all the crowd of workers had to be provided with accommodation by the lord of the castle. Hence a building, in the form of a large hall, was erected sometimes of stone, usually of wood, in the lower or upper court for these soldiers and artisans, where they slept and had their meals.

A new type of castle was introduced during the reigns of the three Edwards. The stern, massive, and high-towering keep was abandoned, and the fortifications arranged in a concentric fashion. A fine hall with kitchens occupied the centre of the fortress; a large number of chambers was added, and the inner and outer courts both defended by walls, as we have already described, were introduced. The Edwardian castles of Caernarvon and Beaumaris belong to this type of fortress.

The border counties of Wales are remarkable for the number and beauty of their ancient castles. On the site of British earthworks the Romans established their camps. The Saxons were obliged to erect their rude earthen strongholds in order to keep back the rebellious Welsh, and these were succeeded by Norman keeps. Monmouthshire is famous for its castles; out of the eleven hundred erected in Norman times twenty-five were built in that county. There is Chepstow Castle, with its early Norman gateway spanned by a circular arch flanked by round towers. In the inner court there are the gardens and ruins of a grand hall, and in the outer the ruins of a chapel with evidences of beautifully groined vaulting, and also a winding staircase leading to the battlements. In the dungeon of the old keep at the south-east corner of the inner court Roger de Britolio, Earl of Hereford, was imprisoned for rebellion against the Conqueror, and in later times Henry Martin, the regicide, lingered as a prisoner for thirty years, employing his enforced leisure in writing a book in order to prove that it is not right for a man to be governed by one wife. Then there is Grosmont Castle, the fortified residence of the Earl of Lancaster; Skenfrith Castle; White Castle, the Album Castrum of the Latin records, the Landreilo of the Welsh, with its six towers, portcullis, and drawbridge flanked by massive tower, barbican, and other outworks; and Raglan Castle, with its splendid gateway, its Elizabethan banqueting-hall ornamented with rich stone tracery, its bowling-green, garden terraces, and spacious courts, an ideal place for knightly tournaments in ancient days. Raglan is associated with the gallant defence of the castle by the Marquis of Worcester in the Civil War.

The ancient castles of England were the central feature of feudal society. They were the outward and visible sign of that system. M. Guizot in his History of Civilisation says, "It was feudalism which constructed them; their elevation was, so to speak, the declaration of its triumph." On the Continent they were very numerous long before castle-building became the fashion in England, and every suzerain saw with displeasure his vassal constructing his castle; for the vassal thus insured for himself a powerful means of independence. The Norman barons in the troublous times of Stephen lived a life of hunting and pillage; they were forced to have a fortified retreat where they might shut themselves up after an expedition, repel the vengeance of their foes, and resist the authorities who attempted to maintain order in the country.

Others followed the example of the barons. The townsfolk fortified their towns, monks their monasteries; and even within the town-walls many houses had their towers and gates and barriers in order to keep back troublesome visitors.

Here is a description of a French castle in the fourteenth century:—

"First imagine to yourself a superb position, a steep mountain, bristling with rocks, furrowed with ravines and precipices; upon the declivity is the castle. The small houses which surround it set off its grandeur; the river seems to turn aside with respect; it forms a large semicircle at its feet. This castle must be seen when, at sunrise, the outward galleries glimmer with the armour of the sentinels, and the towers are shown all brilliant with their large new gratings. Those high buildings must be seen, which fill those who defend them with courage, and with fear those who should be tempted to attack them.

"The door presents itself covered with heads of boars or wolves, flanked with turrets and crowned with a high guard-house. Enter, there are three inclosures, three moats, three drawbridges to pass. You find yourself in a large square court, where are cisterns, and on the right and left the stables, hen-houses, pigeon-houses, coach-houses; the cellars, vaults, and prisons are below; above are the dwelling-apartments; above these are the magazines, larders, or salting-rooms, and arsenals. All the roofs are bordered with machicolations, parapets, guard-walks, and sentry-boxes. In the middle of the court is the donjon, which contains the archives and the treasure. It is deeply moated all round, and can only be entered by a bridge, almost always raised. Although the walls, like those of the castle, are six feet thick, it is surrounded up to half its height with a chemise, or second wall, of large cut stones. This castle has just been rebuilt. There is something light, fresh, laughing about it, not possessed by the heavy massive castles of the last century."

One would scarcely expect to hear a castle described as "light, fresh, laughing"; yet so a fourteenth-century castle seemed to eyes accustomed to the gloomy, stern, and massive structures of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In these no beauty or display of art was attempted. Defence and safety were the only objects sought after in the construction of our ancient strongholds.

Strange as it may seem, these castles were the birthplaces and homes of chivalry. Women were raised to an exalted position, and honoured and reverenced by knights and warriors. A prize won in a tournament was esteemed of vastly greater value, if it were bestowed upon the successful combatant by some lady's hand. "Queens of Beauty" presided at these contests of knightly skill and daring. The statutes and ordinances for jousts and tournaments made by John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester, at the command of Edward IV., conclude thus: "Reserving always to the queenes highness and the ladyes there present, the attributing and gift of the prize after the manner and forme accustomed." If a knight was guilty of any impropriety of conduct, he was soundly beaten by the other knights, in order to teach him to respect the honour of the ladies and the rights of chivalry.

In the days of chivalry a knight vowed in somewhat extravagant language eternal love to his particular lady fair, wore her glove or her guerdon on his helmet, and swore to protect it with his life. Family ties and domestic joys were cultivated. The wife of a knight was often herself a warrior. Fair ladies have donned armour and followed their lords to the Crusades; and often during her lord's absence at the wars in France, or Scotland, or the Holy Land, the wife would defend his fief and castle, and sometimes was called upon to withstand a siege, when some neighbouring lord coveted the fair estates of the absent warrior, and sought to obtain them by force of arms.

The castles also were schools, not of learning, but of arms and chivalry, where the sons of vassals were trained in all the qualites that become a knight. The sons of vassals were sent to the castle of the suzerain to be brought up with his sons. Numerous reasons have been assigned for the origin of this custom, which we need not now enumerate. The practice, however, became general, and concerning it an ancient work entitled L'ordre de la Chevalerie records:—
"It is fitting that the son of the knight, while he is a squire, should know how to take care of a horse; and it is fitting that he should serve before and be subject to his lord; for otherwise he will not know the nobleness of his lordship when he shall be a knight; and to this end every knight shall put his son in the service of another knight, to the end that he may learn to carve at table and to serve, and to arm and apparel a knight in his youth. According as to the man who desires to learn to be a tailor or a carpenter, it is desirable that he should have for a master one who is a tailor or a carpenter; it is suitable that every nobleman who loves the order of chivalry, and wishes to become and be a good knight, should first have a knight for a master."

When the young squire attained the age of manhood he was admitted to the honour of knighthood, which was bestowed upon him with much ceremony and dignity. First he was divested of his garments and put in a bath, a symbol of purification; then they clothed him in a white tunic, a symbol of purity, in a red robe, a symbol of the blood which he was bound to shed in the service of the faith; and then in a close black coat, a reminder of the death which awaited him. Then he was obliged to observe a fast for twenty-four hours, and in the evening entered the church and there passed the night in prayer. On the morrow after confession and the receiving of Holy Communion, he heard a sermon upon the duties of knighthood, and then advancing to the altar presented his sword to the priest, who blessed it. Kneeling before his lord he was asked, "With what design do you desire to enter into the order? If it is in order to become rich, to repose yourself, and to be honoured without doing honour to chivalry, you are unworthy of it, and would be to the order of chivalry what the simoniacal priest is to the prelacy."

His answers being satisfactory, knights, or ladies, advance and clothe him with the equipments of his order, spurs, the hauberk or coat of mail, the cuirass, the vambraces and gauntlets, and lastly his sword. Then his lord gives him three blows of a sword on his shoulder, saying, "In the name of God, of Saint Michael, and Saint George I dub thee knight," adding, "Be brave, adventurous, and loyal." He then mounts his horse, caracoles about, brandishing his lance, and afterwards in the courtyard he repeats the performances before the people ever eager to take part in the spectacle.

The young knight was now able to take part in the jousts, and all kinds of chivalric displays, which were common and frequent. Many castles have, like that at Carisbrooke, a tilting-ground within the walls; but great and important tournaments were held outside the castle. Richard I. appointed five special places for the holding of tournaments, namely between Sarum and Wilton, between Stamford and Wallingford, between Warwick and Kenilworth, between Brakely and Mixeberg, and between Blie and Tykehill. There was much pomp and ceremony attached to these knightly exercises. The lists, as the barriers were called which inclosed the scene of combat, were superbly decorated, and surrounded by pavilions belonging to the champions, ornamented with their arms and banners. The seats reserved for the noble ladies and gentlemen who came to see the fight were hung with tapestry embroidered with gold and silver. Everyone was dressed in the most sumptuous manner; the minstrels and heralds were clothed in the costliest garments; the knights who were engaged in the sports and their horses were most gorgeously arrayed. The whole scene was one of great splendour and magnificence, and, when the fight began, the shouts of the heralds who directed the tournament, the clashing of arms, the clang of trumpets, the charging of the combatants, and the shouts of the spectators, must have produced a wonderfully impressive and exciting effect upon all who witnessed the strange spectacle.

The regulations and laws of the tournament were very minute. When many preliminary arrangements had been made with regard to the examination of arms and helmets and the exhibition of banners, etc., at ten o'clock on the morning of the appointed day, the champions and their adherents were required to be in their places. Two cords divided the combatants, who were armed with a pointless sword and a truncheon hanging from their saddles. When the word was given by the lord of the tournament, the cords were removed, and the champions charged and fought until the heralds sounded the signal to retire. It was considered the greatest disgrace to be unhorsed. A French earl once tried to unhorse our King Edward I., when he was returning from Palestine, wearied by the journey. The earl threw away his sword, cast his arms around the king's neck, and tried to pull him from his horse. But Edward put spurs to his horse and drew the earl from the saddle, and then shaking him violently, threw him to the ground.

The joust (or just) differed from the tournament, because in the former only lances were used, and only two knights could fight at once. It was not considered quite so important as the grand feat of arms which I have just described, but was often practised when the more serious encounter had finished. Lances, or spears without heads of iron, were commonly used, and the object of the sport was to ride hard against one's adversary and strike him with the spear upon the front of the helmet, so as to beat him backwards from his horse, or break the spear. This kind of sport was of course rather dangerous, and men sometimes lost their lives at these encounters. In order to lessen the risk and danger of the two horses running into each other when the knights charged, a boarded railing was erected in the midst of the lists, about four or five feet high. The combatants rode on separate sides of this barrier, and therefore they could not encounter each other except with their lances. Sometimes two knights would fight in mortal combat. If one knight accused the other of crime or dishonour, the latter might challenge him to fight with swords or lances; and, according to the superstition of the times, the victor was considered to be the one who spoke the truth. But this ordeal combat was far removed from the domain of sport.

When jousts and tournaments were abandoned, tilting on horseback at a ring became a favourite courtly amusement. A ring was suspended on a level with the eye of the rider; and the sport consisted in riding towards the ring, and sending the point of a lance through it, and so bearing it away. Great skill was required to accomplish this surely and gracefully. Ascham, a writer in the sixteenth century, tells us what accomplishments were required from the complete English gentleman of the period:—

"To ride comely, to run fair at the tilt or ring, to play at all weapons, to shoot fair in bow, or surely in gun; to vault lustily, to run, to leap, to wrestle, to swim, to dance comely, to sing, and play of instruments cunningly; to hawk, to hunt, to play at tennis, and all pastimes generally which be joined to labour, containing either some fit exercises for war, or some pleasant pastime for peace—these be not only comely and decent, but also very necessary for a courtly gentleman to use."

In the days of pageants and royal progresses these old castles were the scenes of very lively exhibitions of rustic histrionic talent. The stories of Greek and Roman mythology were ransacked to provide scenes and subjects for the rural pageant. Shepherds and shepherdesses, gods and goddesses, clowns and mummers, all took part in the rural drama which kings and queens delighted to honour. When Queen Elizabeth visited the ancient and historic castle of Sudeley, great preparations were made for the event, and a fine classical pageant was performed in her presence, a sketch of which may not be without interest.

The play is founded on the old classical story of Apollo and Daphne. The sun-god Apollo was charmed by the beauty of the fair Daphne, the daughter of a river-god, and pursued her with base intent. Just as she was about to be overtaken, she prayed for aid, and was immediately changed into a laurel tree, which became the favourite tree of the disappointed lover. The pageant founded on this old classical legend commenced with a man who acted the part of Apollo, chasing a woman who represented Daphne, followed by a young shepherd bewailing his hard fate. He, too, loved the fair and beautiful Daphne, but Apollo wooed her with fair words, and threatened him with diverse penalties, saying he would change him into a wolf, or a cockatrice, or blind his eyes. The shepherd in a long speech tells how Daphne was changed into a tree, and then Apollo is seen at the foot of a laurel tree weeping, accompanied by two minstrels. The repentant god repeats the verse:—

  "Sing you, play you; but sing and play my truth;
  This tree my lute, these sighs my note of ruth:
  The laurel leaf for ever shall be green,
  And chastity shall be Apollo's queen.
  If gods may die, here shall my tomb be placed,
  And this engraven, 'Fond Phoebus, Daphne chaste.'"
A song follows, and then, wonderful to relate, the tree opens, and Daphne comes forth. Apollo resigns her to the humble shepherd, and then she runs to Her Majesty the Queen, and with a great deal of flattery wishes her a long and prosperous reign.

Such was the simple play which delighted the minds of our forefathers, and helped to raise them from sordid cares and the dull monotony of continual toil. In our popular amusements the village folk do not take part, except as spectators, and therefore lose half the pleasure; whereas in the time of the Virgin Queen the rehearsals, the learning the speeches by heart, the dresses, the excitement, all contributed to give them fresh ideas and new thoughts. The acting may not have been very good; indeed Queen Elizabeth did not always think very highly of the performances of her subjects at Coventry, and was heard to exclaim, "What fools ye Coventry folk are!" But I think Her Majesty must have been pleased at the concluding address of the players at Sudeley. After the shepherds had acted a piece in which the election of the King and Queen of the Bean formed a part, they knelt before the real queen, and said—

"Pardon, dread Sovereign, poor shepherds' pastimes, and bold shepherds' presumptions. We call ourselves kings and queens to make mirth; but when we see a king or queen we stand amazed. At chess there are kings and queens, and they of wood. Shepherds are no more, nor no less, wooden. In theatres workmen have played emperors; yet the next day forgotten neither their duties nor occupation. For our boldness in borrowing their names, and in not seeing Your Majesty for our blindness, we offer these shepherds' weeds; which, if Your Majesty vouchsafe at any time to wear, it shall bring to our hearts comfort, and happiness to our labours."

When the queen visited Kenilworth Castle, splendid pageants were performed in her honour. As she entered the castle the gigantic porter recited verses to greet Her Majesty, gods and goddesses offered gifts and compliments on bended knee, and the Lady of the Lake, surrounded by Tritons and Nereids, came on a floating island to do homage to the peerless Elizabeth and to welcome her to all the sport the castle could afford. For an account of the strange conduct of Orion and his dolphin upon this occasion, we refer our readers to Sir Walter Scott's Kenilworth; and the lover of pageants will find much to interest him in Gascoigne's Princely Progress.

The glories of our ancient castles have passed away; some indeed are preserved, and serve as museums, or barracks, or the country house of some noble lord; but most of them are in ruins. All traces of many a Norman castle have completely vanished. There was once a castle at Reading, but the only relics of it are the names Castle Hill and Castle Street. The turbulent barons made such terrible use of their fortresses during the troublous times of the civil war in Stephen's reign that in the more settled reign of Henry II. they were deprived of this means of oppression and their castles destroyed wholesale. The civil war in the reign of Charles I. was also another great cause of the destruction of these old fortresses. They were of great service during the progress of the war to those who were fortunate enough to possess them, and many of them in spite of Cromwell's cannon were most gallantly held and stoutly defended. Donnington Castle, Berkshire, was bravely held in spite of a prolonged siege during all the time that the war lasted by gallant Colonel Boys, who beat off the flower of the Parliamentary army; and when in obedience to the King's command he yielded up the castle, he and his brave garrison marched out with all the honours of war, having earned the respect of both friend and foe. Many other castles could tell the story of similar sieges in the days when "the gallants of England were up for the King."

But these brave sieges were the cause of their destruction. Cromwell when in power recognised their strength; they were too dangerous, these castles, and must be destroyed. His cannon-balls had rattled against their stone walls without much effect during the war; but their fate was sealed with that of their King, and the gunpowder of Cromwell's soldiers was soon employed in blowing up the walls that resisted him so long, and left them battered and smoking ruins.

Since then the ivy has grown over them to hide their nakedness. Forlorn and lonely the ruined castle stands. Where once loud clarion rang, the night owls hoot; vulgar crowds picnic where once knights fought in all the pride and pomp of chivalry. Kine feed in the grass-grown bailey court; its glory is departed. We need no castles now to protect us from the foes of our own nation. Civil wars have passed away, we trust, for ever; and we hope no foreign foeman's foot may ever tread our shores. But if an enemy threatened to attack England her sons would fight as valiantly as in the brave days of old, though earthen ramparts have replaced the ancient castles and iron ships the old wooden walls of England.

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