Pre-Norman Castles in Britain?

Friday, April 2, 2010

 Offa's Dyke

A map of the Burghs of Alfred's Wessex, taken from the Burghal Hidage.
For almost a century, historians have debated whether the Normans introduced the idea and practice of castle-building when they conquered England in 1066. We do know the Saxons built long dykes, earthen ramparts flanked by deep ditches that barred passage between regions. Of these, Offa's Dyke is arguably the best known. Erected in the late eighth century by the king of Mercia, the linear earthwork stretched along the border between England and Wales and performed a defensive function. At least in theory, the earthen barrier prevented the Welsh in Powys from storming into England.

In addition to earthen embankments, the Saxons constructed other fortifications prior to the Norman Conquest. Excavations at some earth and timber castles in England, including Goltho and Stamford in Lincolnshire and Sulgrave in Northamptonshire, have revealed the presence of pre-Conquest timber halls fortified to some degree with earthworks underneath the Norman castles. Goltho, for example, may have been enclosed as early as the mid-ninth century with earthworks and a ditch. Whether or not the defended halls served the same function as the Norman castles that replaced them remains unestablished, yet it seems reasonable to presume that the homes of the leading Saxons would have required at least some form of protection, particularly from the Vikings, who were in full swing at this time, and also from regional rivals. These fortified halls may represent an early form of "castle" as defined in this book. Some historians characterize these sites as "burns," individual structures that centered a Saxon lordship and where the local leader received payments and services from the populace;4 others apply the term only to the fortified communal settlements occupied by the Saxons during the early Middle Ages.

The Burghal Hidage written in the early tenth century, documents that Alfred the Great, King of Wessex from AD 871-899, established thirty-three burns at a distance of 20 miles apart to prevent the Danes from taking over southern England. The unusual record provides fascinating details of each burh, detailing its size, the length of the ramparts, and the number of men needed to garrison the site. Saxon builders often reused existing Roman walls as ready-made enclosures for a new burh, but also constructed timber-revetted earthen ramparts to defend the settlements. While some burns primarily served a military purpose comparable to a Roman fort, many were noteworthy administrative or population centers. New inhabitants received land in the burhs in exchange for providing defensive support when necessary; the system seems notably similar to feudalism, the establishment of which historians generally credit to the Normans. The largest Saxons burhs included Wallingford in Oxfordshire, Southwark near London, Wareham in Dorset, and Chichester in West Sussex.

Considerable evidence also exists that the Saxons established a burh known as "Bircloyt" at Rhuddlan, in Denbighshire, which was later superseded by a motte castle, built by Robert of Rhuddlan to establish a Norman presence in an area long controlled by the Saxons. In short, even though archaeologists have unearthed evidence that the Saxon leaders may have erected private residences that were fortified to some degree, they apparently favored the defended community settlement, which confirmed their dominance in the area and also provided protection from outside attack. True castles, however, did not arrive in Wales until the Norman incursion after 1066.

In pre-Norman Wales, native Celtic rulers lived in large halls, known as "neuadd," protected by weakly fortified walls. Some, like Dinefwr in Carmarthenshire, were later rebuilt as stone castles. Royal courts evidently served as the main residence, the "llys" or royal palace, of the native princes. Like the neuadd, each llys was enclosed with a defensive wall. The llys at Rhosyr, near Newborough on the Isle of Anglesey, was only recently excavated. Notable finds included the foundations of two timber halls, lengths of the stone enclosure wall, and other structures. Such structures suggest functional similarities with medieval castles, in that the llys was a private residence with some degree of fortification and was used to carry out the business of the commote (or district) in which it was centered. However, at best, these structures should probably be classified more as residences than as fortified structures.


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