When the Normans conquered England in the 11th century, castle building was a crucial element of their success. These military bases were necessary for the king and his nobles to defend themselves against the threats not only from the Anglo-Saxons but from other Normans as well. Castles were also centres of local government and administration, focal points for settlement and status symbols, allowing nobles to show off and to keep local villagers in awe of them.
The initial frenzy of castle building was focussed on the construction of simple enclosures, the most well known of these is the motte and bailey design. These castles featured a deep circular ditch surrounding an enclosed courtyard (bailey) and a raised mound (motte) often topped with a wooden tower.
The builders of these early timber framed castles tended to make the most of the natural landscape, for example, using a hill or a large body of water. Some even took advantage of existing man-made features such as Roman walls, as was the case at the Tower of London. As defence was their immediate function, it was vital that the castles could be erected speedily. Although these structures appear weak compared to modern defences, they would have been able to withstand the main threat of 11th century warfare: a cavalry of mailed knights.
Surrey was particularly important in this period as it was next door to London. Consequently, at least six castles that we know of were built in the early stages of Norman rule. These included defensive buildings at Bletchingley, Reigate, Guildford, Farnham, Walton-on-the-Hill and Abinger. Guildford Castle was the royal centre in Surrey, a base from which the king could administer his kingdom and keep an eye on his subjects.
Over time, the Normans became more confident in their hold over England and as their resources increased, they were able to construct more permanent buildings designed for greater comfort. The existing wooden structures were replaced in a piecemeal fashion, as and when their owners could spare the funds. Many wooden towers were replaced by stone ones, known as shell or tower keeps, which were a glorious display of the power and might of the owners. However, the purpose of these structures was still primarily defensive, and some were built with walls as thick as 6m or 7m.
It is easy to see the evidence of this development in Surrey even today in the 12th century stone keeps visible at Guildford and Farnham.
From the 13th century, stronger defences were required to respond to changing military strategies and techniques. A common development was to fortify castle gateways and flank them with towers, as was the case at Farnham Castle. Siege warfare led to the next craze in castle building; that of concentric castles, which consisted of rings of fortified walls or defences, such as a moat, forming separate zones within the structure. This type of building has been described as a castle within a castle and thrived during the reign of Edward I (1272-1307). Starborough Castle, in Lingfield, was the perfect example of this popular style, although little remains today.
However, the importance of Surreys castles began to decline during the 12th century due to the stable nature of the county, which made strategic defences largely unnecessary. Although Henry II (1154-1189) enthusiastically promoted technical developments and advancements in his castles elsewhere, only minor alterations occurred at Farnham, Reigate and Guildford. Guildfords new stone tower was used as the county gaol, and the royal apartments were moved to the bailey below. It was later during the reign of Henry III (1216-1272) that Guildford was transformed from a defensive castle to a royal palace.
Changes in society and more domestic demands in the 15th and 16th centuries led to the end of the age of great medieval castles all over England. Instead, palaces and great houses flourished amongst the nobility, due to such innovations as lavatories.
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