Motte and Bailey Castles

Motte and Bailey Castles

Motte and bailey castles became common in England at the time of William the Conqueror’s death in 1087. The construction of them prompted the future of a huge programme of castle building in England and Wales.

In 1066 William arrived at Pevensey and straight away decided to build a castle as protection for himself and the men he valued most. William had a lot of military skills as a soldier which he had learnt in the north of France and was feared. The Normans became very famous for their building of castles.

This was because the kings of France had a reputation for castle building, which was their coping method for the Scandinavian Vikings continuous attacks. The French kings were not skilled in defeating the Vikings. The noblemen of France found a way to protect themselves in buildings called castellans - these were private fortifications that protected animals and people.

Arundel Castle
Arundel Castle

Some Vikings ended up staying in the north of France and the Norsemen transformed into the Normans. They found the French castellans impressive and adopted them - the motte and bailey was the most favourable design. In the castles there was a protected building (the castle) on top of a hill that was man-made, known as a motte. Its purpose was to provide an end fighting place for soldiers to retreat to in the case that all the other areas of the castle were broken through. The motte castle was able to be reached by wooden stairs which had the potential to be destroyed if the actual castle faced attack or by a 'flying bridge' connecting the bailey to the castle. People and animals lived quite safely within the bailey in peaceful times since they had a good sized wooden fence surrounding them which prevented attackers and wild animals from entering.

Motte and bailey castles first appeared in France at the beginning of the 11th century. Originally the first English motte was recorded in 1051 when castle builders from France built one in Hereford for the English king. Though the local nations did not think much of the French so the French builders ended up leaving without anything being built properly.

After William’s Hastings victory in 1066, he headed to Dover and built the third of his English castles after Pevensey and Hastings. This motte and bailey castle was only built within eight days - according to William’s chaplain, William of Poitiers. However it is not known whether this could have been possible.

It was very hard work back then to build castles. William, along with his men were all invaders and the army would need to be guarded constantly, especially just after Hastings. According to research, a motte and bailey castle by William at Hampstead Marshall contains 22,000 tons of soil. This took 50 men to build over a period of 80 days, so looking to this as a guide, the motte at Dover would be required to finish in eight days by 500 men. Local people in the town could have been forced to work very hard to finish the task. Though building a motte did need a great deal of skill as they were built up layer by layer. Firstly, a layer of soil would have a covering of stones which was covered by a layer of soil, and son. The purpose of the stone layers was to make the motte stronger and aid drainage.

William came to accept the Anglo-Saxon nobles’ surrender at Berkhamsted Castle in north west London which was notably his best motte and bailey castle. Because of this he did not to have to fight for London and the population of London did not have their city torched.

William’s reign began in a surprisingly diplomatic manner - he let the Saxon nobles hold onto their land and made efforts to learn English. Though he did experience frequent rebellions within his new kingdom in the couple of years leading up to 1068. His response was to march his army to a rebellious area and re-assert his ruling. Afterwards he built a castle there as an obvious sign of Norman power. There were also castles built in Exeter, Warwick, Nottingham, Lincoln, Huntingdon, Cambridge and York but this scheme did not remove the issues. People who rebelled against William joined together in northern England and in 1069, set off towards York castle which was the biggest sign of William’s power. The castle was not well protected and Norman soldiers residing there were beaten while the castle got burnt to the ground.

Naturally, this made William furious and he decided to destroy north England, which was also given the name ‘Harrying of the North’. The Norman soldiers ruined anything which may have been used by people living in the north. Up to 100,000 people are believed to have died from starvation and York castle was built again. William then removed some of the Saxon nobles’ land and passed it to his own noblemen who were all expected to build castles there.

Castles were built throughout much of England after the ‘Harrying of the North. Individual Norman knights were invaders so building motte and bailey castles for themselves and their soldiers was just seen as common sense, since the Saxons did not think highly of them.

Roger of Montgomery was one of William’s closest acquaintances who became the earl of Shropshire on the border of Wales. This location was viewed as a ‘refuge’ for villains and thieves and in most ways a bandit-country. Because of this Roger ventured on an important castle building programme and built more than 70 motte and bailey castles. They were easily built and a clear demonstration of the Normans authority so the Normans were highly skilled in building them by 1070 - the reason why so many mottes have survived near the English and Welsh border.

It is uncertain how many Norman motte and bailey castles got built throughout England, but after looking at the amount of English mottes already existing, archaeologists think the Normans managed to build 500 - equal to one over every two weeks during 1066 to 1086. The mottes were used for controlling the Saxons, and after seeing the way that William responded to the rebellion of northern England, a lot of areas did not want to risk rebellion. Motte and bailey castles were to show that Norman soldiers were always nearby.

After England’s population had been controlled, William focused on more grand castles and set about creating a stone castle building programme. Once England’s population seemed to have been tamed, William began a stone castle building programme.

See also: Castles

MLA Citation/Reference

"Motte and Bailey Castles". HistoryLearning.com. 2015. Web.