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Ten Castles that Made Medieval Britain: Warwick Castle

Ten Castles that Made Medieval Britain: Warwick Castle

By James Turner

Raised amidst the settling dust of the Norman Conquest, the traditional seat of the Earldom of Warwick has continually throughout its millennia long and oft glorious history fundamentally reinvented itself, making it the Madonna of medieval military architecture. Growing steadily in the green and pleasant parkland in which it is set, Warwick Castle’s rippling, ever changing, edifice has borne witness to much of the tumultuous political history of England, much of which authored by the great men and women that called the castle home.

The seeds of Warwick Castle were sown in 914 during the first forging of England as a singular political entity when Æthelflæd, the Lady of Mercia and daughter of the celebrated Alfred the Great first fortified the site. The formidable Æthelflæd and her family were engaged in an extended campaign to fulfil their wilfully intertwined goals of unifying the fractured Anglo-Saxons and driving back the now settled and quite comfortable Viking invaders who had a generation before overrun much of Northern and Central England. Æthelflæd was a skillful tactician and inspiring leader who, following the death of her husband, ruled the former kingdom of Mercia in her own right; the defensive works at Warwick and others like it were an important element of her eventually vindicated Revanchists’ strategy.

In 1068, following the Norman Conquest and the sundering of the relatively recently restored line of Wessex derived kings, William the Conqueror established a Motte and Bailey castle above the old Anglo-Saxon fortifications. Essentially an IKEA style flat-pack castle of piled earth and sturdy timbers, the erection of such castles at any and every opportunity was a classic play from the Norman’s book on how to occupy territory and subjugate people and hundreds rose up like dragons teeth in the immediate aftermath of the Conquest.

In 1088, the Castle and the Earldom which became synonymous with it, was granted to Henry de Beaumont by King William Rufus as a reward for his service in the dynastic struggle between the King and his brother Robert Curthose, the Duke of Normandy who had enjoyed the support of much of the now cross-channel aristocracy. Henry was the son of Roger de Beaumont, famous for both his role as one of William’s most trusted counsellors and bizarrely for the quality and luxuriousness of his beard. Between Henry, his elder brother Robert and their sons, the family formed one of the most powerful affinities in the freshly expanded Norman world.

Much of this power was to be spent and ultimately squandered during the grinding, stuttering violence of the Anarchy, a dynastic dispute fought between two of the Conqueror’s grandchildren, Empress Matilda and King Stephen which consumed England between 1135 and 1154. While his dynamic cousins, Robert the Earl of Leicester and Hereford and Waleran the Count of Meulan and Earl of Worcester delighted in the effective breakdown of royal authority dancing between the rival claimants and prosecuting their own private agendas, Earl Roger, Henry’s son and successor, simply tried to ride out the storm. Hunkering down within his Castle and attempting to avoid notice as his lands were slowly devoured piecemeal by opportunistic neighbours.

Unfortunately for the pious and gentle Roger, in 1153 during one of his infrequent sojourns to the outside world, his wife handed Warwick Castle to the Empress’ son, the future Henry II, causing the nerve ridden Earl to die of shock. This may well have been seen as a fair trade by the least sentimental of the Beaumont descendants, for the newly ascended King Henry took advantage of his brief custodianship of the Castle to rebuild it in stone. The castle and earldom was eventually restored to the Beaumont family and Roger’s son where it rested until 1242 when following the death of Earl Thomas the title passed through his sister Margaret to her husband, the sometime sheriff of Oxfordshire, John Du Plessis.

1263 found England in the throes of the Second Barons’ War fought in part to re-establish the Magna Carta and curb what were seen by many of the largely isolated aristocracy as excessive royal rights and capital raising powers. During the second year of the war, the Castle whose master, Earl William Maudit, a relative of Du Plessis’s, had stayed loyal to Henry III was stormed by the dashing rebel leader and famed crusader Simon de Montfort. Both the Earl and his wife were captured and held for ransom in de Montfort’s nearby Castle at Kenilworth while the walls of Warwick Castle were partially demolished in an attempt to deny such an important strategic resource to avenging supporters of the King.

In 1268, the old Earl, who had died the year previously, was succeeded by his nephew William de Beauchamp who would go on to be a close companion and trusted lieutenant of Edward I, also taking a leadership role in many of the domineering King’s imperialistic wars. The castle also served infamously, albeit briefly, as a prison during the turbulent and marred reign of Edward II when Earl Guy of Warwick captured Edward II’s friend Piers Gaveston whose seeming monopoly of the material and temporal benefits of royal affinity made the unlucky courtier a lightning rod for the threatened nobility now brimming with discontent. Guy handed the royal favourite over to Edward’s cousin and only rival in wealth or power, Earl Thomas of Lancaster, who later that year in 1312 had him executed following a perfunctory show trial.

Perhaps inspired by the increasingly dangerous tempo of English politics over the last few generations or as a result of a more acute awareness of his increased status, Guy’s son andsuccessor, Thomas, embarked upon an extensive modernisation of the Castle’s defences, rebuilding its northern wall with the addition of a bulging and fortified gatehouse and raising a network of great towers around the Castle’s perimeter which featured several architectural innovations derived from the Continent. It is fitting and perhaps unsurprising that Warwick Castle was to gain many of its most obvious and lasting military attributes under Thomas’ tenure for he was perhaps the most militarily proficient Earl to dwell there. A close friend of the glory hungry and driven Edward III, Thomas served as the Marshall of England. He commanded one of three English battalions during the resounding victory at Crecy before going on to further glories serving as a mentor to the Black Prince during his brutally effective chevauchée of 1356 prior to fighting at the Battle of Poitiers during the campaign’s culmination.

When Henry de Beauchamp, the childhood friend of Henry VI died in 1446 with no immediate male heir, the stage was set for the Castle’s most famous and notorious inhabitant, Richard Neville ‘The Kingmaker.’ Gaining the Earldom through marriage to Henry’s sister Anne in 1449, Richard was already part of a powerful northern affinity; the son of the Earl of Salisbury and related through marriage to the Duke of York, the Earl was to play a pivotal role in the fratricide strewn War of the Roses. Warwick was a firm supporter of his uncle Richard of York’s attempts to step in and exercise royal power on behalf of his then catatonic family member, King Henry VI.

However, this brought the Duke and his emerging affinity into open conflict with another faction of royal ministers and relatives led by the King’s wife Margaret of Anjou and the Duke of Somerset. Worse still, upon Henry’s recovery it became clear that his trust remained with Somerset and that the King saw York’s attempts to seize power in his absence as deeply threatening. Now isolated from royal support and threatened himself, Duke Richard felt that his only chance for survival was to persevere in his attempts to forcibly remove the pliant King from the custody of his rivals, sparking another spasm of violence throughout the kingdom in which he was aided by the cunning and redoubtable Warwick.

Following the Duke of York’s death at the Battle of Wakefield, the Earl declared his cousin, Edward Plantagenet the rightful King. The mainstay of the Yorkist war effort, he guided the young and talented King to victory whereby he firmly established himself as the foremost royal minster and most powerful noble within the land. However, Richard feeling that he was becoming increasingly excluded from royal favour and the mechanisms of power following the King’s generous patronage of his new bride’s vast cohort of relatives soon turned against the victorious Edward throwing his considerable power behind a Lancastrian rival. He was joined temporarily in this rebellion by his son-in-law the Duke of Clarence, a particularly grievous blow for the embattled Edward given that the Duke was his younger brother. This breaking of faith was ultimately to prove a fatal mistake; the mercurial Clarence defected yet again and ‘The Kingmaker’ was slain at the Battle of Barnet.

During the War of the Three Kingdoms, the dilapidated castle was refurbished and refortified as a Parliamentarian stronghold and successfully endured a Royalist siege. From this point on, the Castle served largely as a stately home to the Greville family, although they struggled with the financial burden presented by the Castle and the continuing battle to modernise it in an evolving economy. In 1976 the Greville family sold the castle to the Tussauds Group after which it fell into the clutches of Merlin Entertainment, the sites current managers, where Warwick nestles comfortably amongst its portfolio of equally crucial historical and cultural landmarks such as Alton Towers and LEGOLAND.

Set beside the gently meandering River Avon, amidst breezy emerald parkland and raiment of peacock strewn gardens, Warwick Castle is blessed with one of the most pleasant settings enjoyed by any English Castle. The sprung bow of the Castle’s singular curtain wall rising above the defensive ditch and soaring machicolated towers almost grotesque in their size, is an imposing sight; their sheer high and bulky early modern gatehouses, psychologically at least, compensating for any lack of depth. Sheltered behind the curve of the wall and nestled against the river are the Castle’s sumptuous manor-like residential buildings erected far later than the rest of the Castle and refurbished and remodelled many times. They are crafted with sufficient levels of architectural synergy that they do not appear visually disruptive to the older curtain wall. Both the Great Hall and State rooms display a cornucopia of historical artefacts.

Overlooking the rest of the Castle is the ancient Æthelflæds Mound upon the fastness of which stands the remains of the Castle’s original stone keep which now plays home to part of the highly popular Horrible Histories Stormin’ Normans Experience where children are inducted into the mysteries of Norman soldiery. This goal is achieved through the distribution and subsequent swinging around of large wooden poles which no doubt contributes to its enduring popularity with its target audience and widespread despair amongst their parents.

The fact that children still play at and dream of being knights in the shelter of the ever adaptable Warwick Castle highlights one of the paradoxes of history. Which is that the context emphases the extent of our removal from our medieval forebears while the act itself illuminates an unyielding similarity.

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See also: Ten Castles that Made Medieval Britain: Windsor Castle


Watch the video: Secrets Of Great British Castles Series 1 Episode 1: Dover Castle (August 2021).