Skip to main content

Castles: Their History and Evolution in Medieval Britain

Review

Castles: Their History and Evolution in Medieval Britain

Castles are recognized as seats of power. At once fortresses and homes, they conjure images of medieval knights and fairy tale princesses. But what are they exactly? In CASTLES: Their History and Evolution in Medieval Britain, author Marc Morris takes readers on a tour of some of the greatest, most important, most beautiful and most interesting castles in England, Wales and Scotland. While each castle is visually striking, Morris puts his examples into historical context, providing history lessons from a unique vantage point. Seeking to answer the question of how to precisely define castles, he has created a riveting tale of politics and violence, technology and innovation.

"Morris’ slim yet detailed book moves us beyond an I-know-it-when-I-see-it impression and toward a real understanding of these buildings, creating a more vivid, rich and accurate view of England, Wales and Scotland in the medieval period."

Castles are potent symbols, illuminating the strengths and weaknesses, goals and dreams, of their inhabitants, and the ingenuity and skill of their designers and builders. Amidst the swirl of war, religion, technology and nation building, castles in medieval Britain served the purpose of defending and protecting communities as well as a means of cultural and personal expression. Morris’ account begins in the ninth century with the “Humble Origins” of castles in Britain. The structures themselves were modeled on those already being built and utilized in the Normandy region of France. And, in fact, many of the great architects of British castles were Normans who were hired to replicate French designs or create new ones for the specific needs of their British patrons.

Starting in 1051 with King Edward and moving forward through time, Morris chronicles how Britain was shaped by castles and, in turn, shaped castles to meet its needs. From the early Norman-style defensive structures, castles evolved in times of peace and prosperity into luxurious homes for the aristocratic and royal families of Britain. And, in times of conflict and need, these less defensible castles were called upon to serve as vital war posts, even when they had not really been designed to do so. From the first earthwork motte-and-bailey designs found in England to Raglan Castle, the victim of a late medieval siege, these castles tell us much about the world in which they were built.

So much of what we associate with the medieval period in Britain, from the Magna Carta to the Bayeux Tapestry, from THE CANTERBURY TALES to the Hundred Years’ War, is found in CASTLES as Morris deftly weaves together the many strands of real life and history. For example, while the code of chivalry comes quickly to mind for many of us thinking about the Middle Ages, few know that engineers working for Edward I in 1277 straightened a three-mile stretch of the River Clwyd in order to better situate Rhuddlan Castle on the waterway. And perhaps too few are aware of the treadmill cranes, both amazing and dangerous, that were employed to build these monumental structures.

CASTLES is a fascinating examination of castles not only as architecture but in terms of their functions as defensive structures, their livability, and their place in English history. Morris’ slim yet detailed book moves us beyond an I-know-it-when-I-see-it impression and toward a real understanding of these buildings, creating a more vivid, rich and accurate view of England, Wales and Scotland in the medieval period.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on April 21, 2017

Castles: Their History and Evolution in Medieval Britain
by Marc Morris

  • Publication Date: April 4, 2017
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Pegasus Books
  • ISBN-10: 1681773597
  • ISBN-13: 9781681773599