Monday, October 13, 2014

Medieval Architecture

Warwick Castle, by Extra Medium on Flickr
There are more than a thousand relics, ruins and remnants of the great stone castles that once dominated England. It’s easy to think, after seeing pictures of the likes of Warwick Cast, or the Tower of London, that the all the people of Medieval England either lived in gigantic castles, or mud huts which have since disappeared. Neither is really true. There were enough people groups and building styles it’s like to drive you mad, but I will attempt to tell a little of what I’ve found out.


Maiden Castle
The Bronze and Iron Age Celts constructed ring forts (in Ireland) and hill forts all over the British Isles. The distinctive circles can be seen under the turf especially well at Maiden Castle in Dorset, the largest of the Iron Age hill forts. For the most part, these hill forts were small towns, surrounded by concentric rings of earthworks and palisades with very little stonework. In Ireland, on the other hand, the ringforts were built of stone.

The Grianan of Aileach, an Irish ringfort in Ulster,
was rebuilt in the 1870s by a group
of overenthusiastic archaeologists

The great builders of stone, however, were the Romans, who showed up in AD 43 and, over the next four hundred years, completely remodelled the face of Britain. The Romans had a particularly efficient way of laying roads and walls, as was demonstrated by the building of Hadrian’s Wall along the Scottish border in just six years. Distinctive Roman walled cities sprang up in places like London, Chester and York and because of the relatively gentle British climate, the Romans and Romanized Britons were able to build Italian style villas, which were envied by even the aristocrats in Rome. Probably the most famous Roman site in Britain is the city of Bath in Somerset with its partly rebuilt, but still functioning bathhouse.

The Anglo-Saxons

The Greensted Church in Essex is the oldest wooden church
 in the world and is considered by some to be the oldest
wooden structure in Europe. The Anglo-Saxon frame has
been covered over by later additions, but it still remains,
along with curious original elements like leaper holes in the walls.
The Romans left Britain in AD 410 and the Angles and Saxons took their place. For many years, archaeologists declared that since they couldn’t find anything really conclusive, the early Anglo-Saxons had no distinctive building style and never built anything of note. Which, of course, isn’t true.
It now appears that Viking and Norman eradication of everything Saxon, coupled with the Anglo-Saxon habit of building with wood, pretty much wiped out any remnants of Anglo-Saxon architecture. Yet, in some nooks and crannies of England, there are still some bits and pieces that the Normans forgot and the elements haven’t rotted away.
The Exeter City walls show layers of history; Roman on the
bottom, Anglo-Saxon in the middle, Norman on the top
It seems that the Anglo-Saxons took their inspiration from Roman architecture, incorporating columns and arches into their buildings. The Saxons didn’t have the expertise of the Romans, but they made every effort to repair or replace crumbling Roman buildings and walls. Through the Dark Ages, the Anglo-Saxons didn’t build great stone castles, but they did build small wood and stone churches. Their houses were probably very much like our vision of an English cottage of timber and daub and a great thatched roof. Their castles or Burhs (the root of the word and concept ‘borough’), like the Celtic hill forts of old, were made of earth and wood.
The Anglo-Saxon tower on Trinity Church in Colchester

by Nic McPhee on Flickr
Under Alfred, England really became England and for some reason, around that time, the Anglo-Saxons caught the Cathedral fever and started to build big. I'm not sure why they felt the need to build massive cathedrals rather than massive castles; perhaps it was because prosperity abounded and, in a unified kingdom, everyone felt more secure, even though the truce with the Danes was quite shaky. Either way, they probably would have been wise to build castles instead of cathedrals, considering what came over the sea in 1066.

The Normans

The White Tower, built by William the Conquerer,
was probably the first significant Norman structure in England
The ornamental domes are not original to the building
by Stewart Morris on Flickr
The Normans were master castle builders. They were so prolific, they built them all over the British Isles, all over France, all over Italy and all over the Holy Land. They even imported stone from France to build structures like the Tower of London and remodel Canterbury Cathedral. They were trying to make a statement with their massive, stark designs and used castle building as the chief means of taking over territory. In order to build a castle, a noble had to ask the King specially, and even then, the noble was limited to the number and style. Only the Marcher Earls of the boarder and interior of Wales and Ireland could build castles as they chose. Even now, Wales has more castles per square mile than anywhere else in the world.   
The Jew's House by David on Flickr
But the Normans weren’t all about castles. After they leveled the Anglo-Saxons, took out the Danes and made inroads into Wales, Ireland and Scotland, they remodeled or rebuilt all of the Saxon Cathedrals and added some of their own. They built great new monasteries on Saxon foundations and added new layers of stone over Saxon repairs of Roman walls.  But I think the most fascinating and intimate structures are the few remaining examples of Norman houses.
Saltford Manor House
Probably the oldest remaining town house in England is the Jew’s House in Lincoln. It was built sometime in the mid-1100s and it looks like a very tiny Norman castle with four walls and windows. On the same street is the aptly named Norman House, which is dated between 1170 and 1180 and probably also belonged to a Jew before the Jews were expelled from England.
An even older example of Norman architecture is the Saltford Manor House in Somerset, which is considered to be the oldest continually occupied private house in England. It was built before 1150 by William Fitz Robert, 2nd Earl of Gloucester for the Bishop of Coutances.


Bodiam Castle in East Sussex, is much smaller than it appears
by Brian Snelson on Flickr
Norman Architecture spanned the 11th and 12th centuries. By the High and Late Middle Ages, castles were becoming less menacing and more showy; Bodiam Castle, for example was built to look grander than it really was and Henry III build a beautiful Palace in the middle of the stoic Windsor Castle.

People were starting to become interested in windows and Motehouses like Markenfield Hall and Ightham Mote were built with the aim of balancing comfort and defense. After a while, defense was forgotten, the Middle Ages were left behind and the Tudor period began. 

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