Medieval Part I: War

The Norman Conquest was achieved largely thanks to two instruments of war previously unknown in England: the mounted, armoured knight, and the castle. The former was a key factor in William the Conqueror’s triumph at Hastings, while the latter dramatically militarised the English landscape.

Dover Castle, Kent, besieged three times during the 13th century

Dover Castle, Kent, showing the 12th-century keep at its heart. The castle was besieged three times during the 13th century


Fighting on foot, the English army at the Battle of Hastings could not withstand the charges of the mounted Norman knights, who were protected by long chainmail hauberks (tunics) and armed with spears.

Substantial wooden saddles, well-designed stirrups and the use of lances secured firmly beneath the armpit gave the Norman knight a firmer seat on his horse, and thus impressive striking force. A knight’s armour and heavy horse were expensive to buy and maintain, though. So the king, in return for ‘knight service’, granted land as an incentive.

Norman knights, depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry

Norman knights, depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry
© age fotostock/Alamy


An intensive programme of fortress building controlled the newly conquered land.

The Normans’ first castles were ditched and banked earthwork enclosures (the bailey), defended by wooden stockades and often including a mound (or motte), a strongpoint with its own ditch and stockade. Earthwork motte and bailey castles were quickly and easily constructed – local forced labour helped. Well over 500 were raised in the 20 years after 1066.

In castles such as Eynsford, Kent, the timber stockades of the bailey were soon replaced with stone ‘curtain’ walls. Those of the motte were replaced with circular stone-walled ‘shell keeps’.

Totnes Castle

Totnes Castle, Devon, was built soon after 1066 as William the Conqueror crushed resistance to Norman authority throughout south-west England. The original earthwork and timber construction (known as a motte and bailey castle) was replaced with stone buildings in the 13th century to improve the castle’s defences.


Keeps – also known as great towers – were the chief strongpoints of most early castles, and may also have been where the owner or his representative resided. Small stone keeps could be built on the top of mounds, but larger keeps required firmer foundations. At the Tower of London, these were built at ground level from the outset.

The rectangular keeps of Middleham and Scarborough in North Yorkshire and Dover in Kent were all raised during the reign of the greatest of all royal castle-builders, Henry II. But their corners were vulnerable to undermining during sieges, as happened at Rochester Castle, Kent, in 1215.

Other forms of keep therefore began to appear at the end of the 12th century: polygonal at Orford Castle, Suffolk; cylindrical with wedge-shaped buttresses at Conisborough Castle, South Yorkshire; and round, as at Longtown Castle, Herefordshire.

Reconstruction drawing of the 'great siege' of Dover Castle in 1216

Siege warfare was a common feature of medieval conflict. In the great siege of Dover Castle in 1216, the castle held firm for four months against French forces, hoping to secure it for Prince Louis of France, who had invaded England at the invitation of King John’s rebellious barons.
© English Heritage (drawing by Peter Dunn)


Castle design was changing, with a new emphasis on multi-towered enclosing walls and strong gatehouses instead of keeps. Framlingham Castle, Suffolk, among the first built in the new style, has 13 towers studding its walls, but no keep at all.

By about 1250 Dover Castle had both inner and outer circuits of towered walls around its existing keep, each line of defence supporting the others. This made Dover the first ‘concentric’ fortress in western Europe.

The same concentric principle – reinforced by powerful gatehouses effectively acting as keeps – was used for the chain of castles (including Harlech and Beaumaris) that Edward I built between 1277 and 1294 to control newly conquered north Wales. These represent the high point of castle building in medieval Britain.

Monument to a fallen knight at Furness Abbey

Stone monument to a fallen knight dating from 1225–50, from the nave of Furness Abbey church, Cumbria. Believed to be the effigy of a crusader, the sculpture is unusual in that the knight’s visor is closed.


Mounted knights, equipped with increasingly sophisticated armour, still dominated the battlefields of the Plantagenet kings’ wars with their barons, and against the Scots. Their infantry support was generally provided by spearmen and crossbowmen.

Crossbows were powerful but shot slowly, and their most experienced users were often foreign mercenaries. At the Battle of Falkirk in 1298, though, Edward I’s defeat of William Wallace’s Scots army was mainly accomplished thanks to a newly popular weapon, the longbow. Much more would be heard of it.

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