And so arrives the dread X. It so happens xylo is a Greek word related to wood and this leads me to building materials.
As I’ve mentioned in a few posts, castles weren’t always made with stone. The early ones utilised wood and lots of earthworks. Even though stone was popular with the Romans, the Saxons reverted to wooden structures. Prior to William the Conqueror’s arrival, woodland covered around 15% of England. The country was an idyllic haven for trees. Nifty Will decided to claim the forests for himself and passed a law – the Forest Act – making hunting in them illegal and any money to be made from the timber his too. This law remained relatively intact until the 17th century. So not only was wood in the hands of the king, and not the landowners, it turned out wooden forts burnt down rather easily. If it didn’t burn, it rotted.
So the rush was on to build stone. Stone keeps with thick walls, some as deep as ten feet. The downside, the immense scale of the projects meant it took years for a castle to be built, then modified, then repaired, and so on. It was an unending activity. Rochester castle was the first to be built. By the time William died, in 1087, 86 castles had been built – that’s one a year. Imagine building the same number of skyscrapers in twenty years!
Using limestone or sandstone for the whole castle would have been mighty expensive. Roofs, supports and partitions were still built with wood, which is why when visiting a ruin there is no roof left or evidence of floors. Stone also corrodes and weathers leaving amazing patterns, but at least it doesn’t burn.
Sadly, there are no original wooden castles left. They’re long gone. However, there are recreations to visit. Mountfitchet castle is one I’ve added to my list. Mountfitchet is a Norman motte and bailey castle built using wood on its original site. What it demonstrates is how little defensive structure there was to the design – a tower, gatehouse and palisade. The enclosed village would have been spread out, not penned in. It’s more a fortified village, which was common in Saxon times. Alfred the Great discouraged castle building as it gave too much power to the nobility. He preferred fortified borough towns where the threatened population could hide. Obviously didn’t work since both the Vikings and Normans destroyed these in later times. So there endeth the era of wooden fortifications. Now of course, wooden structures are popular again due to managed woodlands and a greater understanding of its beauty and strength.
Fred the sawyer
met Frank the mason
on top of a big hill
“the boss wants a castle here,
I’ll build the walls,” Frank declared
“me, the roof and floors,” Fred suggested
“I’ll design the keep.”
“then I’ll add the drawbridge and portcullis.”
they surveyed and measured.
chopped and hewed,
chiselled and hammered.
many years later,
they met again
on top of a tower.
“Tis done,” Frank declared.
“aye,” Fred agreed.
in the distance, a great hill.
“the boss wants a castle there.
I’ll build the walls.”