Do you know the largest occupied castle in the world?
Despite its early construction, Windsor Castle is the largest occupied castle and oldest official royal residence in the world.
Castles evolved from ancient cities such as Troy, Babylon and Jericho but it was the Normans who were the masters at constructing castles and it was not until 1066, that England began a huge castle building programme under the orders of William the Conqueror, which included: Warwick, Exeter, Hastings, Tower of London, Nottingham and Windsor. Records do not reveal the exact number but hundreds of castles were built by the Normans throughout Britain.
Warwick castle is England’s most impressive castle and was built by Henry de Beaumont on the orders of William the Conqueror, it was of simple timber construction (as early castles were very simple and called motte and bailey castles) but throughout the middle ages the castle was gradually rebuilt in stone.
Most castles were initially made from timber and, even though strong against arrows and spears, could be easily destroyed by fire but stone was more durable than wood and became essential for the construction of castles. Stone castles mainly consisted of rectangular towers surrounded by walls which could be built high, this was a crucial factor for defence. Stone castles were built for stability and they were much more likely to withstand attack from invaders.
King Edward I spent massive amounts of money on the construction of Welsh Castles
Building castles was very labour intensive, it was expensive and included the employment of up to 3000 workers (depending on the size of construction plans) consisting of woodcutters, quarrymen, master masons, ditch diggers, miners, blacksmiths and carpenters – but work was not all year round as construction mainly took place during the months of April to November. Castles generally took 2 to 10 years to build and walls surrounding medieval castles ranged from 30 to 44 feet high and anything from 7 to 20 feet thick.
King Edward I almost bankrupted the royal treasuries by spending £100,000 on castles in Wales. Edward’s castles included: Aberystwyth Castle 1277, Beaumaris Castle 1295, Caernarvon Castle 1238, Conway Castle 1283, Denbigh Castle 1282, Flint Castle 1277, Harlech Castle 1283, and Rhudden Castle 1277.
The best preserved are Beaumaris which was designed by a master castle builder – James of St George, who designed a concentric castle consisting of an inner rectangular ward with 6 towers and 2 gatehouses, he also designed Conway and Caernarvon, which again remain in good condition receiving thousands of visitors each year.
Why were castles so important?
Castles represented power and wealth, yet they also acted as a home and required cooking facilities, sanitation and fresh water, but good location of a castle was the first point to consider.
The ground had to be solid and not marshland and preferably built close to a river, for example, Warwick which boasts the country’s leading castle, is situated on a bend of the River Avon. It was important for a castle to be built on high ground so it could have a good view and be ready to defend itself against attacks, also suitable water was an essential factor for drinking, washing and farming and the land had to be fertile to grow food and graze animals.
Ever wondered what diminished the construction of castles?
By the end of the 1300’s gunpowder was in use and castles were no longer an effective form of defence as a canon could knock down a stone wall.