3 reasons why the Normans built castles (and How they built them)

After William the Bastard who later got known as William the Conquerer and his army of Normans had crossed the English Channel they immediately started building a castle at the point where they had landed.

And after the Norman victory at the battle of Hastings and the coronation of William castles were built all over England.

But why did the Normans build castles? What were the 3 reasons that made the Normans build castles? What type of castle was built by the Normans? And how were these castles built and how long did construction take?

All these questions will be answered in the following article.

Castles secured Norman rule over England. But castles served not only as military bases but also as visual signs of Norman rule and as centers of Justice and Administration. Between 1066 and 1086 around 500 castles, so-called Motte and Bailey castles were built. The Motte consisted of a (wooden) keep that was protected by palisades and constructed on top of an artificially created hill while the Bailey was the center of economic activity.

Let`s find out more and start with the 3 reasons why the Normans built castles before we look at how the Normans built their castles!

Why did the Normans build castles?

There were 3 main reasons/functions why William the Conquerer and his Normans started building castles right after they had landed in England and why they even continued after the coronation of William.

Securing Williams reign

One of the main reasons, arguably even the main reason why Wiliam built so many castles can be found in the circumstances of his invasion and the situation he had to face after he was made king.

When William invaded England in 1066 he only had somewhere around 7,000 warriors with him. He knew that that kind of force would be enough to make him king not to control and dominate the 1-2 million native Anglo-Saxons.

But apart from his army, Wiliam had also brought another important factor with him to England. And that was his knowledge about castles.

While castles had been built in France for generations as a response to the Viking invasions England hadn`t had the necessity to built castles against the Viking invasions. Because of that, the concept of castles was unknown in England.

Do you wonder why England is contrary to France and did not use castles as protection against the Viking raids even though both England and France were targeted by Viking raiders?

Why did the Normans build castles and the English didn`t?

The answer lies in the way the English and French answered the Viking threat.

While the French noblemen were more or less left on their own and the defense against Vikings was not organized by a central power the English noblemen joined forces and were able to push back the Vikings.

In contrary to that the French gave a large piece of land in northern France, that until today is called Normandy, to Viking leaders.

Since the French noblemen had to deal with the Viking threat on their own they started to build fortified structures to which they, their families, and their servants could escape in case of a Viking attack.  

These early castles just like the castles Wiliam would build in England were so-called Mottes. More on them later.

So let`s return to the question of why Wiliam built so many castles.

We have already determined that Wiliams Norman army was extremely outnumbered. And the problem was that even after Wiliam had become king things didn`t calm down. Multiple rebellions flared up and threatened everything Wiliam had archived! And the reaction to that threat was the construction of castles.

Wiliam used his castles as a way to control the surrounding lands and their native Anglo-Saxon inhabitants. The castles acted as a basis from which mounted soldiers could control the surrounding land and show the presence of the new Norman rulers.

Cavalry was actually one of the Norman strong points. Not only was a mounted man more valuable and effective than a footsoldier but mounted soldiers could also patrol a much larger area. You can find out more about how efficient the medieval knights were in my article here. There you can also find the reasons for their effectiveness.

One example for how Wiliam used his knights. The mounted soldiers that were stationed at one of the castles could operate from there while having a pretty secure basis to return to. Because of that strategy, Wiliam and his small force of Normans were able to control 1-2 million natives even though rebellions were common, especially during the first two years (1066-1068).

In order to enforce his rule, William built even more castles. But these castles had a side effect. These castles as visual marks of foreign oppression (more on the visual impact on the native population later) triggered the Anglo-Saxons into rebellion.

In 1069 a large rebellion began that was even able to conquer Wiliams castle in York, massacre most of the norman garrison, and burn the wooden building down. (more on How these castles were built later).

William’s answer apart from punishing the rebellious regions was simple.

After the rebellion of 1069 William, the Conquerer parcelled the land and gave the rule over each parcel to a Norman who would then build castles to secure his rule. So over the first 20 years after Wiliams coronation in 1066 more than 500 castles were built.

Now we found out that castles were an effective way to control the land and secure William’s rule. But I think it is safe to say that it is better to keep the population from rebelling than to have to defeat a rebellion.

Because of that castles also had another important function. And that was to intimidate the native population.

Dominating & Intimidating the native population

In order to prevent rebellions, Wiliam made sure that the native Anglo-Saxons had the signs of Norman rule insight. And that is meant quite literally.

Many of the castles Wiliam the Conquerer built were either close to or even integrated into already existing Anglo-Saxon settlements. That had several advantages:

  • Recycling materials saved both time and money
  • Having a Norman castle inside an Anglo-Saxon settlement was a constant reminder for the villagers who were now in charge
  • The surrounding lands could be controlled from the castle
  • It made sense to build a castle inside or close to an already existing village since building and maintaining a castle needed workers and servants

It is estimated that around 2/3 of the cities that were founded between 1066 and 1150 had connected castles. More on how such a connection could look in the following paragraph.

The use of castles as a measure of dominating and intimidating the local population also shows when we look at where Wiliam built castles.

Most of the time Wiliam built castles in places where rebellions had taken place. His goal must have been to prevent further rebellions by intimidating the local population with the presence of a castle as a sign of Norman rule.

But apart from the already presented reasons, there was also another more peaceful reason why William built castles.

Castles as centers of Justice and Administration

The closeness between settlements and castles had another big benefit that is linked to the function of castles.

Castles were not only built for military purposes but also served as centers of Justice and Administration.

As already mentioned. After the rebellion of 1069, Wiliam had started to parcel the land and give these parcels to Normans who would then rule the land. But ruling these parcels took a lot of administrative work.

So over time castles developed into centers of Justice and administration not only because of their location close to settlements but also because the responsible Norman nobleman was living within the castle.

And there we have it. The 3 reasons why Normans built castles. So let`s now turn to the questions of what type of castle was built, how these castles were built, and how long it took to build them.

What type of castle did the Normans build?

The Normans built so-called Motte and Bailey castles. These two parts of a Norman castle had different purposes so we will look at them separately.

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Motte and Bailey Castle

Please note that the keep in the video is made of stone. Normally these early keeps were made out of wood and later replaced by stone structures. More on that later.

The Motte

The Motte was the part of the castle that had the best fortifications. The Motte consisted of a keep, the so-called Donjon“, that was built on top of an artificially raised hill and that was surrounded by wooden palisades. The earth for the hill was in parts from the ditch at the foot of the hill.

The name „Donjon“ comes from the Latin word Dominium and can be translated with lordship. So it seems like the Donjon was not only a military structure that served as the last retreat and as a watchtower but also a sign of Norman Authority and might.

And that fits pretty well to the already mentioned reasons why the Normans built castles!

The Motte (and the Bailey) were built out of wood. More on that in the next paragraph.

And while some Mottes were spacious enough to hold one or several rooms for the Lord and his family most Mottes were not permanently inhabited. Since the Motte was built on an artificial hill the entire building complex was rather crowded and without space for necessary buildings like stables or warehouses.

These types of buildings were placed in the Bailey.

The Bailey

Just like the Motte the Bailey was also protected by a surrounding palisade and a ditch. And just like the Motte the Bailey was also placed in an area that was easy to defend although it was not built on an artificial hill.

The purpose of the Bailey was to hold the farm buildings as well as stables, workshops, and warehouses. The Barracks could also be found within the Bailey.

The Bailey and the Motte were connected, either by a flying bridge or by steps that were cut into the Motte. Because of that closeness, the Bailey was sometimes shaped in the form of a kidney and comprised a part of the hill with the Motte on top.

Now we have clarified the Terms Motte and Bailey. Let`s now find out how that type of castle was built and why it was so successful.

How did the Normans build castles?

The early Norman castles were made out of wood and earth.

First, a ditch was dug around the area where the artificial hill with the Motte should be placed. The earth that was dug up was pilled up to create the hill. But since a hill that only consisted of soil would have quickly been washed away the Normans piled up alternating layers of rocks and earth.

That by the way can be seen when looking at the Bayeux Tapestry. There you can see Mottes. And the hills on which the Mottes are situated have layers with two different colors.

By the way. If you watch the English landscape carefully you can still find these artificial hills on which long-gone castles have been built.

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What is left of a Motte and Bailey castle?

The Palisades of both the Motte and the Bailey as well as the buildings within these defenses were made out of wood.

That had its benefits but also its disadvantages.

While wood was cheaper and much easier to process than stone it was also a lot less durable. The early Norman castles that were made out of wood quickly started rotting away. So many of these wooden structures were soon replaced by more permanent castles made out of stone.

A good example of that is the building that would later develop into the Tower of London. Originally, William the Conqueror had built a wooden castle in 1078. And a few years later a stone building was added by his son William II. The same also happened with Windsor castle but also with other castles.

The size of these castles depended on the situation. Large Mottes had hills that could be up to 32 yards high and have a diameter of up to 98 yards. But these big fortifications were rare since it took a lot of work (and money) to pile up enough earth for such a large hill.

The size of the Keep also depended. When the owner of such a fortification was rich enough a keep could consist of multiple rooms and sometimes even a cellar. But most keeps were built in a much more simple way and were often not much more than a wooden tower.

The size of the Bailey, yes you guessed it, also depended on the circumstances. While some castles (Windsor castle for example) had multiple Baileys other castles had only small baileys that consisted of little more than a few farmhouses.

In general, it is safe to say that every Motte was different. But they all shared the 3 mentioned purposes. And these purposes made the Motte-and-Bailey castle extremely useful to the Normans.

Especially because they were originally built of wood these fortifications could be built much faster than a stone castle.

Let`s find out how long it took to build such a Motte.

How long did it take the Normans to build a castle?

Once again the answer is obviously it depends. So since giving a general number doesn`t work I think the best idea is to look at a specific castle and see what the source stell us about the building time.

According to William of Poitiers, who chronicled William’s conquest of England, the castle of Dover was built within 8 days. According to modern estimations, it would have taken around 500 men to finish the castle within 8 days.

500 men who would simultaneously build at a castle is a lot so the source should be taken with a grant of salt. But I think it is clear that even though 8 days to build a castle might be a bit ambitious a wooden Motte-and-Bailey castle was much faster to build than a stone castle.

And as such, it satisfied William’s goal of quickly creating a network of fortifications to secure his victory at Hastings and his rule over England.

I hope you enjoyed our trip into the world of the Norman castles. For more information on the Middle Ages, especially the 3 periods of the Middle Ages and the question of whether or not that division into 3 periods makes sense (especially in regards to England) you might want to check out my article here.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer