Castles for everyone – fortifications on the television

In the past couple of years there have been some very good series on castles. Particularly memorable for me was 2012’s Battle Castle presented by Dan Snow which toured six world famous sites, from Dover in England to Krak des Chevaliers in Syria. Late 2014 saw not one but two series about castles on the BBC: Secrets of the Castle with Ruth, Peter and Tom and Castles: Britain’s Fortified History.

A great hall surrounded by an incomplete wall and a dry moat

Château de Guédelon in 2011, with a completed great hall and a round donjon under construction. Photo by Ronny Siegel CC-BY 2.0.

Television on demand is both a blessing and a curse. I downloaded all the episodes to watch at my leisure, but because there’s such a lack of urgency it’s easy to forget about. To cut a long story short, while I watched all of Secrets of the Castle I only managed half an episode of the second series before it expired. Hopefully it will be repeated because from the fragment I did manage to see it looked very good.

The temptation with any series on castles must be to try and cram in as many as possible. There are simply so many photogenic sites, and a cheery jaunt through time gives you a perfect opportunity to indulge. Instead Secrets of the Castle took a different approach and was based at Guédelon in France. For anyone who watched Battle Castle two years previously, Guédelon may have been eerily familiar. This is because it is not a centuries old ruin but an active building site. Since 1997 people from various countries have been using medieval construction methods to recreate a 13th-century château. Whereas Battle Castle adeptly used Guédelon to shed light on the construction methods of castles to put the finished product into perspective in terms of how much time and effort was involved, Secrets of the Castle used it as the setting to understand the community of people who lived in a castle while it was in its early stages.

The obligatory (and fun) scenes with replica siege engines were included, but so too were segments on cooking, clothing, decoration, and crafting. It was a well thought out series offering a side of the castle not usually seen. In England, Dover Castle and the Tower of London have apartments which have been decorated to recreate how they might have appeared when they were used by the king. They are strikingly garish, but the idea of the castle as dark ruinous places is hard to shake. At Guédelon plaster,  limewash, and paint were in evidence, and even kitchens were bright white, maximising the natural light.

An earthen mound with an entrance

The kiln at Château de Guédelon, where the roof tiles for the castle are fired. Photo by Ronny Siegel CC-BY 2.0.

With Time Team retired, series such as Secrets of the Castle have a very important role in helping the public understand this part of their history. It is a fun and exciting series. The only thing missing, as far as I can see, I a book to accompany the series. Battle Castle had a wonderfully illustrated book with contributions from the likes of John Goodall, Jeremy Ashbee, and Anthony Emery. The quality of the television series made a lot of sense when seeing who helped write the book.

Guédelon is an opportunity not just to understand castles better, but to bring experimental archaeology to a wider audience. The spread of camera drones means that viewers were offered many sweeping aerial shots of Guédelon. One thing which stood out was how over the course of a few years, those unfinished areas of the castle have started to grow vegetation. These little things help understand the medieval world. Hopefully a book may not be far behind the series.