Twelfth Century Great Towers: The Case for the Defence

Twelfth Century Great Towers: The Case for the Defence

Twelfth Century Great Towers: The Case for the Defence

By Richard Hulme

The Castle Studies Group Journal, No 21 (2007-8)

Introduction: In 1215 King John’s miners brought down a corner of the great tower at Rochester after the castle’s defenders had retreated there following the capture of the bailey. Even then the defenders fought on from behind the great tower’s internal cross-wall. It was a dramatic siege, well documented, with incidental detail such as John’s order for forty fat pigs to help fire the props underneath the tower, and illustrates the traditional view of donjons or tower keeps as ‘both the castle’s ultimate military strong point and principal residence’.

The authors of the History of the King’s Works (HKW) declared ‘Both (Anglo- Norman and Anjevin rectangular tower keeps) were designed for passive rather than active resistance…In an age when the only projectiles were stones, lances, arrows and the like, they were, however, as nearly impregnable as any form of fortification yet devised’. Thus, ‘the keep dominated the twelfth century conception of a castle’.

Recent research has cast doubt on these ideas, questioning both defensive capabilities and residential use. Some towers, like Chepstow, lacked latrines and fireplaces, implying a limited residential role. The Tower of London possessed latrines and fireplaces but seems to have housed only prisoners. At Hedingham the one-way gallery above the grand hall suggests a design for ceremonial use. Forebuildings have been interpreted as processional entrance routes rather than defensive features (towers with forebuildings often also had a secondary entrance).

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