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Timber Castles.

ROBERT HIGHAM & PHILIP BARKER. Timber castles. 390 pages, 241 illustrations. 1992. London: Batsford; ISBN 0-7134-2189-4 hardback |pounds~47.50.

Some 30 years ago Philip Barker began the excavation of the motte-and-bailey castle of Hen Domen, close to Offa's Dyke in the middle Welsh Border. The site was well chosen. The castle was documented and had been a seat of Roger of Montgomery, the first Norman Earl of Shrewsbury. It remained the caput of a Marcher lord until 1207, and continued to be inhabited until the later years of the 13th century.

Throughout this period Hen Domen, or Old Montgomery as it should more properly be called, remained a castle built exclusively of timber. The concept of timber-built castles has been demonstrated by Ella Armitage as early as 1912, but it was widely assumed that the use of timber, justified on grounds of cost and expediency, was quickly abandoned in those castles which remained in use in favour of masonry. Until recently castle studies were concerned largely if not wholly with stone-built fortresses. In recent years, however, the importance of timber has come to be stressed, notably by the authors of this book, but not until the appearance of the latter has the fundamental importance of timber been demonstrated.

This is an epoch-making study, as important in changing our preconceived ideas as Armitage's work of 80 years earlier. It does two things. In the first place, it relates timber-built castles to the historical tradition of building in wood. In northern Europe this was normal. The survival of a large number of masonry-built Anglo-Saxon churches has tended to obscure the fact that most were constructed of wood and have disappeared. The authors very properly relate the wooden towers in motte castles to those surviving in Scandinavian stave churches. To most of those who built the castles of the Conquest, timber rather than masonry construction was normal. Secondly, this book emphasizes the fact that fortifications in wood not only continued to complement those of stone, but also that, in some places outside the British Isles, such as North America, long outlasted them. No one who has seen, for example, the fort at Harrodsburg in Kentucky can doubt the effectiveness of a well-constructed palisade.

The authors rightly distinguish between the construction of the external fortifications of a castle and its internal structures, which were, in the main, of a domestic nature. Some use of timber remained essential in the latter throughout the Middle Ages, and even in masonry-built castles there were buildings constructed, except for a stone plinth, wholly of timber. This was in the native tradition, and people would not really have expected otherwise.

A vast number of motte-and-bailey castles was thrown up before the middle of the 12th century. Most, in all probability, had only timber defences which have left no trace. During the short period of their existence, as the Hen Domen excavations have demonstrated, they underwent continuous change and adaptation. Even the earthworks upon which they had been constructed were altered, and for this the authors present a very full statement of the archaeological evidence. Ringworks were turned into mottes; mottes were levelled or raised higher; baileys were added or abandoned as need arose. In the last resort, the shape of the defended home was dictated, not by a sort of primitive pattern-book, though preconceived ideas of form and material must have played some role, but by countless people making countless ad hoc decisions in the light of personal needs and of local social and political considerations.

This book is strong and presuasive in its analysis of the archaeological evidence, which it draws from all of western as well as from parts of central and southern Europe. The social and political milieu of the early earth and timber castle is not examined in comparable depth. Who built them? What did they cost? What considerations entered into their location? These questions, though hinted at, are not fully addressed. There was, as is clearly demonstrated, an immense range in size, sophistication and comfort in timber-built castles. Reconstructions show the supposed elaboration of the work in the castles of Stafford and Hen Domen. One wonders, indeed, whether these may not be little exaggerated. But of those at the opposite extreme there can be no question. They were 'cold, uncomfortable and primitive', and there was little to distinguish life in them 'from that of a site, say, of the Iron Age'. Most castles would have been closer to this extreme than to the opposite. The authors remark, 'one would have thought that any Norman lord of however small a manor would have had the energy and resources to enlist or enforce the best craftsmen'. They evidently did not. It would be interesting to determine at what income level, in Domesday terms, a manorial lord felt able to undertake the building of a simple castle. It is paradoxical that close by the simplest motte castle there might be a parish church decked out in not inconsiderable Romanesque splendour.

It is sometimes forgotten that the Conqueror did not at once bring stability and order. It was a deeply unsettled land upon which a foreign hierarchy of rulers had been superimposed. The hasty building of castles reflected their insecurity. The abandonment of castles in the first half-century after the Conquest is a measure of the way in which the first Norman rulers had created their own peace. It is not true, even of the Welsh March, that every manorial lord built himself a motte or ringwork, though many must have possessed some form of 'protected' home like that of the Anglo-Saxon who had 'thriven to thegn-right'. How this differed from the simplest castle is not easy to determine, though the authors make a brave attempt to link the two.

This is a wide-ranging book, with implications far broader than its title would suggest. It is based, not only on the authors' own excavations, but also on an exhaustive study of reports and literary and pictorial evidence. Its discussion of the pitfalls inherent in the evidence of the Bayeux Tapestry is exemplary. One might, however, be permitted to suggest that greater use could have been made of the rolls of official correspondence and of the available collections of charters, though these could only have strengthened the conclusions which the authors had already reached. But this is a minor point. The book is a remarkable achievement, not only for the breadth of its coverage but also for the insights which it offers into matters other than the actual use of timber in early castles. It is to be recommended as much to social historians as to archaeologists.
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Author:Pounds, N.J.G.
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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