An Englishman’s Home?
‘Everything you need to know about castles’ – a Historical Trips Study Day with historian and broadcaster, Dr. Marc Morris.
At 9am, the winding track that leads up to Dover Castle is dotted with temporary ‘Closed’ barriers. Fittingly, on this day of rare privileges, we simply drive around them, directed by a security guard to the exclusive Palace Green parking area set in the shadow of the castle’s massive outer gatehouse, wreathed in morning mist. Just a short stroll away, Constable Tower is our meeting point. This heavily fortified 13th century gatehouse is not open to the public, but today it is open to the 15 of us.
Colourful coats of arms surround us on the walls and windows – shields and crests, mottoes and mantles. But amongst the grandeur are the comforts of home life – this tower was a residence until quite recently; perhaps falling out of favour when the title Constable of Dover Castle became a more symbolic honour, conferred upon the likes of Sir Winston Churchill from 1946-65 and The Queen Mother from 1979-2002.
Upstairs, we gather in a charming room for an introductory talk by Dr. Marc Morris, presenter of the Channel 4 series Castle and author of acclaimed works on King John, Edward I and the Norman Conquest. He outlines differing opinions on what makes a castle, and the early history of these fortified residences on the continent and in Norman England. Many of the attendees are astonishingly well informed about the subject, immediately identifying images of Chepstow Castle, Château de Loches and other fortresses unknown to me (even with a history degree and a passion for the subject). It made me wonder how, as a guide lecturer, you pitch a day like this, with some of your audience expecting a general primer on castles and some expecting the most intricate detail.
Marc explains that he assumes interest and a basic level of knowledge from school, but not expertise, yet he also tries to pepper his talks with source material and historical personalities to appeal to the most ardent enthusiast. He clearly strikes the right balance. I spoke to one lady with no prior expert knowledge of castles, who thought this the perfect introduction, and one gentleman who knew castles inside out – 80% of what was being said was already familiar to him, but he treasured the 20% that was new. So, whether or not you know your machicolations from your crenellations, your garderobes from your donjons, your freestone from your ragstone, this is the day for you.
And, of course, there is another aspect to a Study Day like this – the opportunity to experience a great historical building in a new and exclusive light. Marc gives us a brief guided tour of the imposing 12th century keep, explaining the latest theories that Henry II built the castle as much for the defence of the realm as a suitably self-aggrandising welcome to aristocratic pilgrims from the continent travelling to the shrine of newly-canonised Thomas Beckett in Canterbury. ‘I may have admitted responsibility and sought absolution for Beckett’s death’, the castle seems to say on Henry’s behalf, ‘but do not forget that I am the king and the most powerful man in Europe’. Then, after a fine lunch and having explored the Roman lighthouse (the existence of which certainly surprised me) and the Anglo-Saxon church, we were admitted to the spur, another part of the castle complex not open to the public. Here, Marc described the siege of 1216, when Hubert de Burgh, one of the few great military commanders of the time still loyal to King John, held out against the forces of the French Prince Louis, and in doing so almost certainly prevented the invader, who had already taken London, assuming the English throne. The walls here, studded with round towers and bristling with the latest in 13th century defensive technology, present a great example of how castle building had evolved in the few decades since Henry II built his elegant square keep.
An afternoon talk back at Constable Tower, describing the transition of castles from impregnable fortresses to status symbols with almost decorative military trappings (such as breathtaking Bodiam Castle), along with the parliament-sanctioned destruction of castles after the English Civil War, rounds off a truly fascinating day. Or not quite, as Marc stays behind to sign copies of his book Castle: A History of the Buildings that Shaped Medieval Britain, a free gift to the happy Study Day participants, now experts all.
Places are still available on Study Days with Historical Trips and Andante Travels in 2018, encompassing subjects as diverse as Stonehenge and Soviet espionage, Flinders Petrie and Nefertiti. Visit andantetravels.co.uk or call 01722 713820 for prices and availability.