New: Article on the Medieval minsters of Beverley, Rippon and York, submitted by Stuart Sharp.
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Motte and Bailey castles are a good example of how practical the British people have been when it comes to making use of sites reinforced by their predecessors. You can find these tributes to practicality all over the country, and most of the more "modern" castles you find will be built on the site of a motte and bailey.
As the name implies there are two parts to a motte and bailey castle. The
motte is the part of the castle which is raised up on a hill and acts as a refuge of last resort in the event of an attack. The pictures of the motte at Berkhamstead provide a very good example. Heights of mottes varied from 10 feet to 100 feet and their basal diameters from 100 to 300 feet. They were mainly built on natural hills, but in some cases on man made ones were created. Whatever the original landscape, the final product was covered with an outer layer of clay or sometimes stone - this may explain the unusually high survival rate of these "lumps" of earth. Most can still be seen today.
bailey is part of the castle that "grew" later on. The bailey was a flat, lower section of the castle which varied in size. This is where the day to day life of the castle took place - in the larger, more important castles the bailey could house several buildings and be almost a small village. Some smaller estates simply had the bailey as the main rooms for the Lord of the castle. Often simply a kitchen, chapel, dining hall and bedrooms.
This photo of Berkhamstead castle, taken from the Motte and looking roughtly SSW give an idea of the space and how the bailey was a separate, defendable position by the 13th century AD. In this picture you can see the remains of the wall and in the top left corner there is the Chapel area. Sadly the remainder of the site has fallen into ruin or been used for local building projects.
As stated above, these castles show how the iron age - early medieval occupants of Britain were very pragmatic when it came to a defended home. To explain, look at how a typical motte and bailey site will have evolved.
During the mid-iron ages the Celts settled the British Isles and in the process displaced the native inhabitants. As they regularly needed secure areas to sleep and eat they started building walled encampments. As the years progressed these walled encampments were surrounded by ditches until they eventually became man-made mini-hills. The iron age hill fort was born.
During the time of the Romans, little changed in the way of the hillforts. Lots were destroyed - however some survived and some became the base for Roman legionary forts. It is a testament to their durability that by the time the Romans left and the Saxons arrived most of the hills were still in place and offered just as good protection as they had 600 years earlier for the Celts.
The Saxons almost turned the hill forts into an industry. During the Anglo-Saxon (and occasional Viking) rule, it must have seemed like there was a hill fort built every few miles. In reality, although there were a lot built, most will have been about a days journey apart and they served as both refuges and civic centres. The original (often Celtic) hillfort was now surrounded by a walled palisade which created a sort of "courtyard" effect for the villagers to go about their daily business in. In our terms, the motte had now been joined by the bailey.
After the Norman invasion, the conquerors were keen to establish their foothold on the Saxons and the best way they could think of was with solid power bases, where they garrisoned soldiers to control the surrounding areas. In the early years, when speed was of the essence the easiest way to do this must have been to billet Norman knights and soldiers in the Saxon forts. As the 11th century gave way to the 12th and the Norman hold was firm, the Knights started the process of turning the, often wooden, hill forts into the stone castles we recognise today.
By the end of the 13th century advances in military tactics & technology and in building materials & methods meant the motte and bailey design was becoming out dated. No longer did the local lord sally forth to engage the enemy, now the castle was often the centre of hardened fighting and the arrival of artillery undermined the security of the motte. Castle builders and designers moved away from the outmoded motte and bailey and started experimenting with the concentric ring castles and square enclosures that are often shown in literature and fiction. Despite this you can still often make out the early period motte and bailey structure that served as the inital castle on the site.
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English Heritage own and maintain a great selection of castles (not just motte and bailey ones). Normally you pay an entrance fee to EH sites, however lots of the Motte and Bailey castles are free to visit - this makes them a great starting place to look and learn about the castle heritage of Britain. If you get interested in visiting these sites though, please join EH or at least donate - without funding they would cease to be able to support the nations heritage.