A new generation of castleologists believe that castles were about much more than trebuchets, portcullises, galloping hooves, boiling oil, and the clash of swords on armour: instead, castles were centres of lordship, symbols of wealth, and expressions of status, alluding to the past and expressing poetic ideals. Chris Catling reports.
Forget what you were taught at school about castles being military buildings: new research, pulled together in a massive new volume The English Castle by John Goodall, suggests that they are primarily residences, stately homes that used military references, such as moats, towers, and battlements, as statements of power and prestige; and that the architectural trappings of fortification continued to be used to define aristocratic dwellings right up to the eve of the English Civil War. It was then, ironically, that many castles saw the only combat they ever experienced, shortly afterwards to be decommissioned as part of a campaign of republican zeal.
Even in its ruined state, Dunstanburgh Castle is one of England’s most impressive and inspiring castles: sitting on a spectacular headland between the villages of Craster and Embletonon the Heritage Coast of Northumberland, Dunstanburgh presents a powerfully romantic vision of rock, sea, and castle turret silhouetted against the northern sky. Built on a massive scale, the castle fell into disrepair at the end of the Middle Ages, and was a popular subject for 19th century topographical artists.
There is evidence that Dunstanburgh was made more romantic by19th-century owners through selective demolition, designed to open up particular views and to give a more pleasing and sculpted appearance to the shape of the ruins. So it comes as something of a shock to discover that Dunstanburgh might always have been intended to look like a mythical fantasy castle: that when the castle was built in the second decade of the 14th century by Thomas Earl of Leicester and Lancaster (1278–1322), the wealthiest nobleman in England at the time (and leader of the baronial revolt against his own cousin, King Edward II), he might have had visual effect and literary allusion as much in mind as military necessity. Indeed, one has to ask what exactly is the castle doing here at all, in an otherwise empty landscape, and what exactly is it defending? A team ofarchaeologists, led by Alastair Oswald, surveyed and excavated the site in 2003, and think they have an answer. They discovered that the earthworks surrounding the castle were not Medieval at all, but formed the ramparts of an Iron Age promontory fort, raising the possibility that these prominent prehistoric earthworks – quite possibly themselves the subject of Medieval speculation and myth, associating them with mighty rulers and warriors of the past – might have been the reason why Thomas of Lancaster chose the site for his castle.
The survey also discovered the true extent of the castle: at least twice the size of the currently visible remains – though much of the area inside the curtain walls has always been empty and unoccupied, suggesting that it was the appearance of strength and massiveness that was desired rather than practical utility. Soil cores taken by palaeoenvironmentalists revealed that the castle’s western approach had once been surrounded by a ring of freshwater meres. Too shallow to be of any defensive use, these would have made the castle look as if it were floating on an island, surrounded by sea and water. Could it be, then, that Dunstanburgh Castle was built as a statement of continuity with some mythical past, for visual effect, and to evoke Arthurian myth? Jeremy Ashbee, the archaeologist and historian who wrote the Dunstanborough Castle guidebook for English Heritage, believes the historical record supports this hypothesis. One possible explanation, he says, is that ‘the design of the castle embodied a complex series of iconographic meanings, particularly associations with other castles, and with personalities, both real and mythological. The meres not only had the aesthetic effect of creating reflections for the walls and towers, they may have held other meanings, relating to Earl Thomas’s self-image. His career had similarities to that of the most famous baronial rebel of the previous generation – Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester (1208–1265). One of Earl Simon’s greatest castles, Kenilworth in Warwickshire, was distinctive for its meres. Perhaps Thomas was trying to create his own Kenilworth in the north’. An alternative and even bolder hypothesis is that the castle was intended to allude to Arthurian legend. ‘If Dunstanburgh had any practical military purpose at all, it was as the safest and most remote stronghold in Earl Thomas’s possession,’says Jeremy, ‘a place to which he and his supporters could retreat if his challenge to Edward II’s authority went wrong – as it did in 1322, when the baronial army was defeated at Boroughbridge, North Yorkshire, and Earl Thomas was captured. Thomas was so fanatically fond of Arthurian stories that he even adopted the code name “King Arthur” in secret correspondence with the Scots, with whom he hoped to forge an alliance – something that was used to humiliate him at his trial and subsequent execution for treason. Is it beyond possibility to suggest that Thomas saw Dunstanburgh as his Isle of Avalon, the place to which he and his supporters could escape to wait, like the sleeping King Arthur, for his recall to arms at the hour of England’s greatest need?’