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Norman Castles

History is filled with different types of castles built by various kings for different reasons. The castles played an exciting part in history, and each of them is surrounded by its own unique story. But talking about innovation, uniqueness, and defensiveness, Norman Castles attain the top position on the list.

Norman Castles were the first castles designed to solve different purposes than just to offer the roof or to offer defensiveness; they were designed to intimidate the conquering Anglo-Saxons and show them the power of Normans. These castles were built very quickly because of their motte and bailey design. Designed using wood initially, they were used as a temporary measure until the permanent stone structures could take their places.

Origin and Spread of Norman Castles

Bayeux, Normandy and the Tapestry Museum
Bayeux, Normandy and the Tapestry Museum”, by JR P, is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Normans were the members of Vikings raiding groups who lived in small huts designed using straw-thatched roofs in Normandy, France. In the 8th century, they started raiding European coastal settlements, and in the late 9th century, they raided the northern and western coastlands of France, securing a permanent foothold in the Valley of Seine River. They followed the French river system to travel inland. With time, they developed the new ‘Norman’ culture and got their ethnic identity.

Originated in France in the 10th century, the early Norman Castles had a wooden structure and Motte and Bailey style. Anjou, Fulk III, and Geoffrey II built many castles during their reigns. They were built using simple wooden work in the building but later got upgraded into free-standing stone buildings.

The Norman Castles were first brought to Britain in 1066. The first Castle in England was built a few miles away from where King William I lived. It was the base of the soldiers to terrify the locals and gather supplies. At that time, William had more than 8000 men to consolidate his power. And building Motte and Bailey castles was the best step to secure the towns who already submitted to his power without their interest. After a few years, Normans won the Battle of Hastings and decided to settle in England.

The Architecture of Norman Castles

Norman Keep at Cardiff Castle
Norman Keep at Cardiff Castle”, by Nessy-Pic, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Norman Castles in England were built for different objectives and reasons. The major one was to provide living space and site to Norman rulers, their soldiers and horses. Also, castles worked as the base for keeping the provisions secure. These castles also were the symbols to spread fear in England. And depending on the need, they used to have several distinctive architectural elements.

The Crenellated towers, the parapet walls designed on the top of the castle forming the tower, were usually seen in the Norman castles. They helped in attacking the enemies easily. Also, Norman castles were found with sections of curtain wall and keeps with buttresses. Buttresses reinforced the castles against the lateral pressure that walls could face due to the roof’s weight.

The famous Norman Castles includes keeps with pilaster buttresses, which are more sort of ornament. With time, the walls of the Norman Castles became stronger and thicker, and they didn’t require any additional support to handle the weight of the roof, making buttresses decorative.

Most Norman Castles architecture included visible plinths, the heavy bases that supported the structure, with many small windows at their bases. This you can see in the structure of White Tower in London. This building has many small windows around the stairways and oversized windows in the rooms and halls.

The feature of Norman Castles that made them distinguishable from other castles was their Romanesque decorative style. This style originated in the 11th century, during Normandy. It was all about rounded arches and grand proportions, with a semi-circular arch supported by large columns. In the beginning, these arches were simple and square, but they became decoratively rounded with time.

The Doorways in Romanesque style were decorated with receding arches and zigzag or chevron patterns. And the Windows in this style were smaller and narrow and found with arch decoration. Also, some castles were seen with incredible blind arcading on the outer walls. You check out this kind of architecture in Colchester castle and Norwich castle.

Key Features of Norman Castles

There were five key features of Norman Castles:

The Motte

Arundel Castle – motte
Arundel Castle – motte and quadrangle, England”, by 98octane, is licensed under CC BY 2.5

The Mottes are the moulds of the castle’s site. The Mottes of Norman castles ranged between 25ft (8 metres) and 80ft (24 metres) in height. They were very steep on the sides so that enemies couldn’t reach the top easily. Additionally, they were designed with a deep ditch around their base to provide extra protection from attacks.

The Bailey

Inner bailey, Dover Castle from East
Inner bailey, Dover Castle from East”, by Nilfanion, is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Baileys are the outer wall of the castle. In Norman Castles, they were located at the bottom of the Mottes and were designed in different sizes, usually ranging from 1 to 3 acres, with the ditch (famous as Fosse). You would find various other buildings inside the bailey, used as stables, living quarters for soldiers, and bakeries.

Crenellated Towers

Crenellation
Crenellation”, by Thomas Quine, is licensed under CC BY 2.0

One of the distinguishable features of Norman Castles was crenellated towers. The crenellated towers were the parapet walls present on the top of the castle, composing the tower shape. These were used to attack the enemies with arrows and missiles. These were designed with a solid portion (merlon) between two crenels (the smaller rooms offered better cover to defenders).

Windows

Norman arched windows, Penrhyn Castle, North Wales
Norman arched windows”, by Snapshooter46, is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Windows of Norman castles were designed in different shapes and sizes, depending on the required brightness in the room. However, most windows in the existing Norman castle’s structures are small and plain. Their primary purpose was to light up the room. The largest windows in Norman castles were seen in the private chambers of kings.

Doors

Norman Castles Doors
Norman Castles Doors”, by William Murphy, is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Norman Castle’s doors were solid and stronger to withstand the attacks. They were designed using different layers of oak to make them durable and weather-resistant. All the layers were held together using iron nails and visible studs. These kinds of doors were set in stone arches to stand still during attacks.

The Decline of Norman Castles

Norman Castles spread around Europe very rapidly. Since 1066, when the first Norman castle was built in the country, hundreds more have been built to pacify the population. Even Norman’ Marcher Lords’, appointed to guard the Welsh border, built Norman castles in Wales to expand their influence.

The Norman castles also evolved with the development of Siege technology in the late 12th century. The concentric castles became the norm at that time, and many layers of fortifications were added to them. Between the late 12th and 13th centuries, rounded towers were added to the castles to blow the missiles easily.

The Norman Castles never completely declined; however, their styles were transformed with time. Depending on the siege and living requirements, Norman Castles were upgraded. They are still present in many parts of England and are open for visitors to explore.

Summary

Norman castles were first designed in the 10th century in England by Normandy, and you can also notice the Norman architecture in the castles in France, Italy, Scotland, and other countries.

Designed using cement and upgraded with a stronger stone structure, Norman castles have evolved over time. Even though the northern princes of Wales were hostile to Norman conquests and hundreds of castles were concentrated to cement their hold, the structures of many of these castles are still present. No doubt, the architecture of Norman Castles was very modern and durable at the same time. Don’t miss a chance to explore Norman Castles and their beautiful and unique architecture.

The top picks of famous Norman castles are Oxford castle, The White Tower, Hedingham Castle, Carrickfergus Castle, Colchester Castle, Norwich Castle, Raviscanina Castle, Venus Castle, and Castle of Nelson.

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