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Dominion in the Landscape

Early Norman Castles in Suffolk
Lucy Marten-Holden

Lucy Marten-Holden, winner of the first Royal Historical Society / History Today award for the undergraduate dissertation of the year, explores the thinking behind the siting of the Norman castles of Suffolk.
Ever since the Anglo-Norman historian Orderic Vitalis made a link between the Norman possession of castles and the English lack of resistance to the 1066 conquest, those castles have been viewed in predominantly militaristic terms. The stone fortification high upon its artificial motte stands as a symbol of Norman domination, of superiority and supremacy, of military power used as a political tool. While I would not wish to deny the Normans their martial superiority or to undervalue the changes that 1066 brought to English society, I hope to challenge the theory that military factors above all determined the siting and structure of Norman castles, by looking at the evidence of one county – Suffolk.
Like many areas of historical research, castle studies has its roots in late Victorian scholarship. In 1912 Ella Armitage demonstrated that the motte-and-bailey form was a Norman import, and this fitted neatly with J.H. Round’s theories,  first expounded in the 1890s, on the introduction of knight service to England by William. The Norman Conquest was seen in cataclysmic terms as a sudden departure from existing English forms: in the military technology of the mounted warrior; the introduction of new administrative systems; and in the architecture of the castle. Ever since that time, developments in castle architecture have been viewed as responses to the evolution of military technology. Yet recent studies at the late-medieval site at Bodiam in Sussex have revealed a castle that lay within a manipulated landscape, its spectacular site designed less to thwart military attack than to impress the visitor as a symbol of social standing and prestige. (History Today)

Good essay which clarifies modern thought on the positioning and function of the early Norman castle. To quote "The post-Conquest castle site... was a complex mix of Anglo-Saxon precedent and Norman innovation, based upon a universally recognised model and used as a deliberate strategy of Lordship... The whole represents a deliberate construction of authority, but it is an authority based around the concept of dominion, not military domination." Marten-Holden is careful to limit her comments to her area of study - Suffolk but her conclusions can clearly be more widely attributed although with some reservations in the welsh marches where active warfare and military domination had a greater, but not exclusive, role in castle siting.

Published in History Today (April 2001) Vol. 51.4 p. 46-52


Last updated on Friday, March 10, 2017