A New Kind of Fortress for Britain
Most visitor itineraries include a castle or two - Britain is crawling with them. But did you know the most British of castles in England, Scotland and Wales were really French inventions?
When William the Conqueror crossed the English Channel to defeat the Anglo Saxons at the Battle of Hasting in 1066, he brought quite a few innovations with him, among them:
- He changed our language - About a third of English words come directly from French and another third indirectly (from Latin through French). Apparently, English speakers who have never taken a French lesson can immediately understand 15,000 French words.
- He brought monasteries - The large, rich and powerful monastic communities eventually so aggravated Henry VIII that he broke them up and gave their riches to his cronies.
But William's most visible innovation - one that can still be seen all over the UK - was the building of castles. Before the Norman Conquest, Anglo Saxon "castles" were earthworks and ditches, or palisades of pointed sticks surrounding small settlements.
Almost as soon as he arrived, William began planting garrisons of his soldiers in terrifying stone castles to make sure the locals understood who was in charge now. Windsor Castle - the oldest and biggest inhabited castle in the world, was begun by William. Maybe you didn't know that London has a castle too. The Tower of London, one of William's first castles, was completed in his lifetime and still stands beside the Thames.
London's Castle - The Tower of London
After William the Conqueror's victory at the Battle of Hastings he didn't march on the capital, London, right away. He took his time, making a circuitous route around the city.
Once he decided to march on London, in December 1066, he approached from Southwark - now the location of Borough Market and Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. He sent troops ahead to subdue the population and to found a castle.
The spot he chose to throw up a hastily built fortification was in the southeast corner of London's Roman walls, essentially where the Tower of London now stands.
On your way to the Tower from London Underground's Tower Hill Station, look for a large section of London's original Roman wall. The statue of of Roman Emperor Trajan, beside it is a reproduction but the wall would have been part of the Roman fortifications that were incorporated into the Tower.
That castle, initially a wooden palisade, was started in late 1066. Almost immediately, the work to replace it with a stone castle was begun. The White Tower, the stone tower pictured here, which gave the whole Tower of London complex its name, was started in the 1070s and may have been completed within William's lifetime (he died in 1087) but no one is really sure. When it was built, it would have been primarily a military building designed to protect the main entrance to London from the sea and to thoroughly intimidate the locals.
By the time William arrived in London he had laid waste to the countryside all around it and cut off all its supply routes - so the locals were probably already pretty intimidated.
The original White Tower was only three-stories high and most of what you can see today, beyond the footprint, has been rebuilt over the years. The original Caen stone, used for facing details and brought from William's territories in Normandy, was long ago replaced by local Portland stone. Most of the windows were enlarged in the 19th century. But look carefully and you will see two small windows on the building's south wall that have been there since the Tower was built.
The White Tower Today
William's White Tower is one of the largest castle keeps in Europe and the best preserved 11th-century castles in the world. Today it forms only part of the 12-acre complex known as the Tower of London.
It houses an 11th century Romanesque Chapel of St John the Evangelist as well as a Royal Armouries collection. A highlight, The Line of Kings, is the world's longest-running visitor attraction. It opened in 1652 and its display of English Kings in full suits of armor besides full-sized wooden horses been on continuous exhibition and popular ever since.
- Where: The Tower of London, London EC3N 4AB
- Contact: +44 (0)20 3166 6000
- Open: Summer hours - Tuesday to Saturday 9am to 5:30pm, Sunday and Monday from 10am. The Tower closes an hour earlier from November 1 to February 28, and is closed December 24-26 and January 1.
- Admission: Adult, child, family and annual membership tickets are available. Check the website for current prices. There is a small additional fee for tickets booked by telephone but not for tickets purchased online or in person.
- Getting There: The easiest way (with the least parking hassle) is by London Underground (District and Circle Lines to Tower Hill) or Docklands Light Railway (to Tower Gateway).
If you fly into London's Heathrow Airport, look down as you circle for a landing and you are bound to spot Windsor Castle. The world's biggest and oldest occupied castle has an unmistakable profile - even from the air - and is recognized by almost everyone.
It's most familiar feature is the Round Tower, pictured here. William the Conqueror didn't build it but it does occupy the exact spot - a chalk mount surrounded by a ditch - where he did establish the first motte and bailey castle on the site.
William himself chose the site, an ideal location above the Thames with excellent views across all the surrounding countryside - the perfect place from which to defend the western approaches to London. Castle building began in 1070 and the first castle took 16 years to complete.
The castle today reflects centuries of additions and improvements since William's day. For nearly 1,000 years it has served not only as a fortress but as a family residence for Britain's monarchs. It still does. HM Queen Elizabeth II is reported to consider it one of her favorite places and she spends most private family weekends there.
The castle is easy to reach from London by train, bus and car and makes a fascinating - and full - day trip out of the capital. In addition to the fabulous staterooms, a castle visit might include a look at Queen Mary's Doll House as well as artworks and drawings from the Queen's collections and the Royal Library.
St George's Chapel, within the Castle Walls, is the burial place of 10 sovereigns, including Henry VIII and the doomed, beheaded Charles I.
When William the Conqueror landed in England on September 28, 1066, he came ashore at Pevensey, in the south of England, with a force estimated at 8,000 men including 3,000 mounted knights.
Handily, he found a fortification readymade and waiting for him. Pevensey Castle, a Roman/Saxon shore fort was mostly in ruins when the Normans arrived, but the Roman walls and several of the towers were strong enough for temporary shelter.
William's men made some repairs to the walls. Apparently, a characteristic pattern of Norman brickwork can still be found if you know what you are looking for. But they didn't tarry. Two days later, on September 30, the Normans were on the move again, heading for Hastings where they would set up an encampment and prepare for the battle that would take place a few weeks later.
A Norman castle was built within the Roman walls later in the century but the Roman walls that greeted the Norman invasion force are still there to be seen and explored. They are in the care of English Heritage and the site is a listed ancient monument.
- Where: In Pevensey off the A259, Very good directions including SatNav coordinates, train and bus routes can be found on the English Heritage website.
- Open: The castle is open throughout the year between 10 am and 5 or 6 pm depending upon the season. Between November 1 and March 31, it is only open weekends and closes at 4 pm.
- Facilities: A small exhibition explains the history of the castle and displays artifacts found on the site. Restrooms and parking are available and there are vending machines for drinks and snacks.
- For More Information, and the full range of prices, visit the website.
After the Battle of Hastings, on October 14, 1066, with their king Harold, killed in the fight, the Anglo Saxon nobles did not submit to William the Conqueror as he expected. In fact, the Anglo Saxon council of nobles proclaimed a new king, Edgar Aetheling, a descendant of Aethelred the Unready.
Realizing he still had a fight ahead of him before he could be crowned king, in London, William led his men on a long, circuitous march toward the capital. On October 20, they left for Dover.
Dover - The Key to England
When they got there in early November, they found the remains of an Iron Age hill fort, an Anglo Saxon Church and the remains of a Roman lighthouse, the Pharos (indicated by a white arrow in the picture above, it's the best preserved and tallest Roman lighthouse in Europe).
William ordered the building of more earthwork defenses and a timber-stockaded castle (but not before he first torched the town of Dover). From that day in 1066 until 1958, the castle was continuously garrisoned with soldiers. The castle had defended England for more than nine centuries, And the Anglo-Saxon church (next to the Pharos in the picture above) remained a garrison church until 2014 when it was turned over to the Dover Diocese. It had served the military for 1400 years.
Visitors today will have to search to find the remains of William's fortifications. The Medieval stone castle on the site was added more than 100 years after the Conquest by William's descendant, Henry II.
But the massive earthworks will give you an impression of the powerful position that convinced William to establish a castle here. Dover is the largest castle in Britain and, together with Windsor Castle and the Tower of London was among the most important fortresses of the early Norman castle system of defense.
Its exhibitions cover the entire span of its history from its Medieval tunnels to its role in planning the evacuation of British forces from Dunkirk in World War II. Family visitors especially will enjoy the colorful recreation of the interiors of a Medieval palace in the Great Tower.
- Where: Dover Castle, Castle Hill Road (the A258), Dover CT16 1HU
- Contact: +44 (0)370 333 1181
- Open: Dover Castle is open between about 9:30 am and 6 pm depending upon the time of year. In fact, it has a remarkably complicated opening schedule that varies virtually month to month. Your best bet is to check the English Heritage website closer to the time you want to visit.
- Admission: Adult, child, family and concession (students and over 60s with a valid ID) prices are available. Dover Castle is also included on the English Heritage Overseas Visitor Pass.
- Getting There: The entrance is on the A258 and there is free parking for up to 200 cars. The nearest train station is Dover Priory, about a mile away. The castle is also served by several local bus routes. Stagecoach direct bus routes (68, 91, 100, 101) between the station and the castle take about 20 minutes.
William's architect, Bishop Gundulph of Rochester, designed Colchester Castle on the foundations and vaults of the ruined Roman Temple of Claudius. It guarded the eastern approaches to London and against invasions from the North Sea.
Gundulf also designed Rochester Castle and The White Tower at the Tower of London. This castle, built of brick and stone quarried from the Roman town of Colchester, has the same footprint as the White Tower but is somewhat larger. In fact, it's claimed that it is the largest castle keep in Europe.
The Castle was started shortly after the Norman Conquest, sometime between 1067 and 1076 but not completed during William's lifetime.
Still Standing After All These Years
Considering that Colchester Castle saw very little military action, it is still something of a miracle that any of it is standing. In the 1300s, no longer needed as a royal castle, it became a county prison. In 1645, Matthew Hopkins, the infamous Witchfinder General, imprisoned and tortured suspected witches there during his reign of terror.
In the mid 17th century it was besieged by Parliamentary forces in the English Civil war and, at some point during that century, the roof of the Great Hall collapsed.
In 1683 - after being valued at £5 by a Parliamentary survey - it was sold to a local ironmonger who was licensed to tear it down for scrap. He did manage to destroy the upper stories but eventually had to give up as the cost of tearing it down was uneconomical
For the next few hundred years it passed through private hands. It was a grain store, once again a jail, and a private park. Finally, in 1922, it was given to the town of Colchester and turned into a local museum.
Colchester Castle Rises Again
Finally, in 2013/14, the authorities spent £4.2 million restoring the castle, repairing the roof, refurbishing the interiors and upgrading the museum exhibits based on the latest research into the castle's history.
Visitors today can explore Norman interiors and see important archeological finds from the long history of Colchester, as Roman Camulodunum reputed to be the oldest town in Britain. Among the star exhibits are Celtic gold coins, Roman pottery decorated with gladiators and the earliest known bronze cauldron ever found in Britain.
- Where: Colchester Town Center. Museum Entrance from the Visitor Center on the High Street or off Cowdray Crescent.
- Contact: +44(0)1206 282 939
- Open: The Castle is open every day, 10 am to 5 pm Monday to Saturday and from 11 am on Sunday.
- Admission: Adult, child, and family saver tickets are available. Guided tours of the roof and the Roman vaults cost a small extra fee. See the website for current prices.
- Getting There: The Castle is a 10-minute walk from Colchester Town Station, under an hour from London Liverpool Street. Check National Rail Enquiries for times and prices. If you drive, pay and display parking is available near the town center.
Hastings Castle was built as a pre-fabricated timber stockade almost as soon as William the Conqueror landed with his troops in September 1066. It vies for the position of the first of William's castles in England with Pevensey and Dover.
Sometime after his coronation, in December of 1066, William ordered Hastings Castle to be rebuilt in stone and by 1070 a stone castle stood on this site, high above the fishing port of Hastings in Kent.
Sadly, very little is left of it. The Castle was dismantled by King John in 1216 to prevent it from falling into French hands. It was rebuilt about 9 years later by Henry III, then dismantled and rebuilt at least once more before parts of the castle fell into the sea after fierce storms. Henry VIII had a hand in the devastation of Hastings Castle as well. He ordered the castle's collegiate church destroyed and his over-enthusiastic henchmen destroyed much of the castle too.
By the 19th century, this important evidence of the Norman Conquest was little more than a jungle of weeds and undergrowth. It was restored as a visitor attraction by the Victorians and remained a romantic ruin for decades.
During World War II, commandos trained on its cliffs and, in 1951, the Hastings Corporation bought it for only £3,000.
The sad fate of this important landmark is that it has become part of a relatively tawdry visitor attraction that is very poor value for money. Admire it from a distance or climb the hill to enjoy the view without going into the castle grounds - but don't waste your money climbing up just to see the ruins.
Instead, you can enjoy the views of the castle as well as stunning views from the heights above Hastings by taking one of the town's two historic cliff railways. The West Hill Lift, with its Victorian-vintage wooden cars, goes up Castle Hill itself and offers terrific views extending all the way to Beachy Head. The East Hill Lift is the UK's steepest funicular railway with views over the beach and Hastings Old Town as well as distant views of the castle ruins.
Falaise - Where William's Journey Began
When William defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and became King of England, his territories on both sides of the English Channel became in effect, one country. So no itinerary following William the Conqueror's career would be truly complete without a visit to Normandy, in France, to see the chateau where it all began in the Calvados town of Falaise.
Chateau de Falaise
Before he was William the Conqueror, England's first Norman king was known as William the Bastard. He was the illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy, Robert the Magnificent (they did like their superlative titles, those Norman French) and the Chateau de Falaise, in the Calvados area of Normandy, was his father's castle.
William inherited the Dukedom - and the castle - when he was only 11 or 12. His father had named him heir before going off on pilgrimage. He died along the way, leaving a child heir. and years of anarchy and rebellion. William finally secured his territories in 1060, only six years before moving on to conquer England.
The massive walls and turrets that surround the chateau - parts of which are original - were not fanciful decorations but the sign of embattled times. Within these walls, the castle itself is largely an imaginative reconstruction based on historical, archaeological and architectural research.
It's not by accident that parts of it are reminiscent of Norman castles in England. Norman Connections, a European cross-border project, highlights the shared heritage of Falaise with castles in England - notably Norwich, Rochester, Hastings and Colchester. The English designs of William's architect, Gundulph, were often recreated in his Norman domains. The original castle keep at Falaise was modeled on the Tower of London and the current reconstruction resembles Norwich Castle.
Highlights of Visiting Falaise
- Very clever use of augmented reality brings the Middle Ages to life both inside and outside the castle. Look through the telescopic viewers located at various points in the castle ward and you'll see it transformed to its 11th or 12th-century appearance. Visitors tour inside the castle with a tablet, free with the price of admission, that colorfully fills the empty rooms with a virtual environment. Explanations - in English, French and several other languages - explain what life in the chateau was like. And exhibits near the end of the tour tell the story of William's preparations for the invasion of England.
- Look for Arlette's Fountain on Rue de la Roche, behind the great rock on which the castle keep stands. Legend has it that Arlette, William the Conqueror's mother, was washing clothes in the fountain when William's father first saw her and chose her as his mistress. A relief on the wall beside it tells the story. To find it, just follow the road at the base of the castle ramparts until you are right under the keep.
- For more information visit the castle website.
Travel From the UK to Normandy for a Two-Center Vacation
A quick hop across the Channel for a bit of Normandy touring is easy to arrange. We traveled overnight with Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth, England, enjoying a comfortable sleep in a private cabin and waking to a nice - if somewhat rushed - breakfast the next morning in Ouistreham, France. Ouistreham is less than an hour from most sites associated with William the Conqueror including Bayeux, Jumieges, Falaise and Caen.
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