I’m a castle person, no doubt about it. I visit them, watch TV programmes about them, I’ve even studied them at university for heaven’s sake. But what about the people who actually built them, lived and worked in them? It’s the stories of human interaction with these wonderful buildings that often bring them to life.
Obviously there’s the grisly – the executions within the Tower, the traitors’ body parts being displayed around the country and the ludicrous story about Edward II’s demise at Berkley Castle (though probably not as far-fetched as the tale about him skipping the country and living for another decade or two as a hermit in Italy). After all, there’s no getting away from the violence that went on in the medieval period. Yet there are far more ‘normal’ stories about the castle people that also deserve to be remembered.
At the top of society is the monarch, possibly not the most normal of people, but we have to thank them for our castle legacy. Edward I, for example, is a famous castle builder, and a pragmatic one at that. For him, castles in Wales were just another tool, with several functions. There are the obvious, like a safe place to sleep and a base from which to launch attacks, but no less important and perhaps more so, were the logistical and symbolic. There were already castles in Wales when he arrived, but they were in the wrong places for protecting his supply lines. After all, an army won’t last for very long without its vittles. They were also a very clear statement – here I am, I’m not going anywhere, so you’d better just get used to it. On the other hand, he didn’t do much building from scratch when he turned his attention to Scotland, because he didn’t need to. He just took the ones that were already in convenient locations, like Berwick, which was described as being at the centre of his administrative web. You can just imagine some bureaucrat sitting in the castle above the river Tweed, waiting for his minions to bring him the latest news and despatches.
What about the men who really did build the castles, rather than just giving the order to do so? Edward’s favourite architect seems to be Master James of St George (St George being from St George d’Esperanche in Savoy). His trick was to bring together various innovations from around the world to produce a new type of castle for the British Isles. These new castles had projecting towers on the curtain wall, concentric rings of defences and vastly strengthened gatehouses from what had gone before. Sadly he wasn’t given the same scope in Scotland as he had been in Wales (though not for the Scots), with his minimum 1290s budget of £250 per week reduced to a measly £20 per week at Selkirk and Linlithgow in the 1300s. Quite a comedown really, but possibly made up for by the rewards – a salary of 3s a day, a promised pension of 1s 6d for his wife should she survive him, the position of constable at Harlech, worth £66.66 (100 marks) and a manor worth £25 a year. This was certainly more than other master masons got for their troubles.
Someone I’ve come across that I feel rather sorry for is Andrew de Harcla, who was keeper of Carlisle Castle for the decade or so until his death in 1323. Here was a truly dedicated public servant, defending various parts of northern England from the Scots. After the battle at Bannockburn in 1314 he “dared not leave his post for fear of Scottish attacks by day or night”. And importantly from my point of view, his tenure saw considerable investment in the maintenance and development of the castle. There were several surveys in the 14th century, highlighting its deficiencies and need for works, but they were largely ignored or only received a token response. This makes the amount spent during his watch stand out all the more. In recognition of his service, he was elevated from a humble knight to a baron and then an earl. So what went wrong? To put an end to the destructive Scottish raids he agreed to recognise Robert Bruce as King of Scotland, an act deemed to be treason, and for which he was executed. After being hanged, drawn and quartered, he then had the further indignity of having a quarter of his body hung on the walls of his own castle. Harsh enough, but only five years later the new king, Edward III, signed a truce and recognised Bruce as king (because it’s ok when the king himself does it). Edward also gave the macabre order, on 10th August 1328, that the quarters be returned to his sister for burial at long last. An apology perhaps?
Perhaps the most interesting though are the glimpses into the lives of those who don’t usually make it into the guidebooks. More than a decade after I read a few short lines about him, I remember the name of William Barber. On 20th December 1339, he was granted custody of the gate of Carlisle castle for life, in return for his “good service” in Scotland and Antwerp. He crops up again the following March – his appointment had merely said he should receive the “usual wages and fees” and this made him rather uneasy. Suspicion of government is clearly nothing new! Apparently worried that he’d have to wait a while to receive anything he, probably wisely, asked for clarification. He was given the news that he would have 4d a day (significantly less than Master James) plus the same fees as his predecessor. Only days later, though, is a very intriguing entry. Barber is allowed to use a deputy to carry out his duties as he is away “attendant upon other business for the king”. What does this mean? If only I knew! Unfortunately, Barber’s reward was short-lived. In March 1343, custody of the gate was granted to Peter de Routhe as Barber had died. Interestingly, the bureaucrats didn’t make the same mistake with Peter, and specified his wages straightaway (the same as Barber’s).
Obviously there are many many more stories like that, hiding away in obscure places. Some will be enlightening, others will be frustrating because they ask more questions than they answer. But all will be fascinating. The trick is knowing how to find them.