Why bother with castle slighting?

Though castle slighting sounds like a pretty narrow subject, it has wide reaching implications. For the study of castles, it helps us understand how these buildings were perceived and treated and extends far beyond the countries I focused my attention on (England, Scotland, and Wales). It also sheds light on how medieval society functioned, and the role of castles within their wider setting. And just as importantly, it has implications far beyond the Middle Ages.

If you come across a slighted castle, there are two things you’ll likely find out: (1) it was probably slighted by Oliver Cromwell and (2) it was done to prevent it being garrisoned by the Royalist enemy. Number (1) has its own issues because it wasn’t just Parliament who slighted castles, that’s just what we have best contemporary documentation for. Number (2) is the simplified narrative you are likely to find around any slighted castle.

Dryslwyn Castle which was slighted by the English in the early 15th century rather than Oliver Cromwell, and may have been a physical act of closure at the end of the Glyndwr rebellion. Photo by James Stringer, licensed CC-BY-NC.

The trope that castles were slighted to prevent your enemy from using them was just one aspect of a much bigger and more complicated picture. Slighting gets to the heart of what made castles important: the combination of status symbol, social meaning, architectural symbolism, and of course military roles. There were many reasons for slighting castles, and they varied based on who was doing the damage and who the owner was – as well as where the castle was and when the slighting was taking place.

Visit one of Edward I’s castles in Wales like Caernarfon and Conwy and you will notice the vast town walls which connect to the castle. Castles and towns were closely linked, and a castle could create its own economy: the people living there would need to buy things and the lord of the castle might establish a market outside the castle so he could tax traders. If this there wasn’t a town there already, it might end up with one growing because of the castle. But what happens to a town’s economy when you remove the castle as a contributor?

In a nutshell, urban archaeology tells us it’s a complicated picture and the castle was one of many factors which could affect a town. It goes beyond economics, and locals reused building stone from a slighted castle. Once slighted, castles were sometimes repaired but when they were abandoned they became one of the best sources for good building stone in an area. That can make the archaeology of the castle complicated as you might find the initial slighting is overlain by destruction layers caused by people popping by the castle to pinch some stone for a new fireplace!

Deliberate destruction is something you find throughout history: from Ancient Egyptians and Romans chiselling away inscriptions or statues of political figures to the 2003 Iraq War when a crowd toppling down a statue of Saddam Hussein become an iconic image of his defeat. As I mentioned in the first in this series of blog posts, slighting is the process of damaging a building to remove its value. Destruction like this is meant to convey a specific meaning. Castles provide a well-researched field in which ideas and theories about destruction can be formed and tested. The approaches developed for castle slighting can be applied to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, prehistory, or even the present day.

Rievaulx Abbey was deliberately damaged after the Pilgrimage of Grace, but it’s rarely referred to as slighting because the term is typically used for fortifications. Photo by Archangel12, licensed CC-BY.