Buildings have biographies

Every so often I check Google Scholar to see if there are new papers related to castle slighting. The term doesn’t feature very often in titles, so a good check is to see who cites existing works on the topic, which at this stage essentially means Lila Rakoczy’s work, particularly her doctoral thesis.

That’s how I came across Rachel Askew’s article in the European Journal of Archaeology, “Biography and Memory: Sandal Castle and the English Civil War“. This excellent paper discusses Sandal’s role in the conflict and concludes that it was used by Royalists because of its link to Richard III rather than because of strategic or landscape significance. The way a castle’s significance is linked to its owners – its biography as Askew puts it – comes through in the way some were slighted in the Middle Ages.

She delves into the history of the castle to explain its link to royalty, particularly Richard III’s attempted development of the site as a regional centre of administration, and how this contributed to its importance in the English Civil War beyond the (somewhat ailing) strength of its walls.

Askew makes astute use of material culture to show that habitation of the castle was significant as an affront to Parliamentarian sensibilities. Animal bones and artefactual evidence show that the Royalist garrison ate venison, usually reserved for the social elite, and conducted festivities which were likely disapproved of by Parliamentarians.

All this analysis is despite the fact a bulldozer was used to quickly remove the demolition levels in the 1960s and 1970s so that archaeologists could focus on the medieval levels. This leads Askew to an astute observation: this focus on the medieval period is often symptomatic of castle studies, whether looking at a single site or castles as a whole. Most works treat post-medieval activity in less detail. That is certainly the case in my thesis which terminates at c1500. In fairness that was strategic as Lila Rakoczy’s excellent 2007 thesis treated slighting in the English Civil War and I haven’t been able to find much evidence of slighting between then and c1500. That doesn’t entirely excuse me, and when setting out I considered exploring how castles were used after they were slighted which would somewhat have addressed this, but there was plenty of material to discuss before I ever got that far. She makes an interesting point that battlefields sometimes had religious buildings constructed afterwards. I haven’t noticed this in relation to castles slighted in the Middle Ages, but it’s a fascinating avenue of research. Was the religious building meant to memorialise or heal the conflict?

The biographical approach to understanding the castle takes into account its changing uses and how it was perceived over time. In my own research the treatment of castles is closely linked to their most recent owners, but there are some instances where the deeper biography of the place is a factor. One particularly interesting example from the Middle Ages is the destruction of Deganwy in 1263. It has a complex history, changing hands between Welsh and English and with Llywelyn the Great and Henry III both undertaking construction work there. Because of the link to Llywelyn, when the Welsh recaptured the castle in 1263 they could have left it intact. However they instead chose to almost completely level the site because it had become a symbol of English rule. Llywelyn’s role in rebuilding the castle was not forgotten, and a carved head with a crown may have been viewed as representing Llywelyn. This would explain why it was carefully buried instead of damaged like the rest of the castle. Moreover, when Edward I conquered Wales nearly 20 years later instead of rebuilding the castle which was the site of an English defeat and linked to Llywelyn the Great – a figurehead of Welsh identity – he chose to found Conwy on a separate site. The area a mile to the south west was easier to access because it was on low lying ground rather than on top of a hill, and had access to the sea which would have contributed to the decision to use a new site, but the significance of Deganwy’s biography in choosing not to revive it seems clear.

If you have access to the journal, Askew’s paper is an excellent read and well worth the time. I’m glad I’ve finally got round to ticking that off my reading list.

The lead photo is in the public domain and available here. Same for the second photo, available here.