What is castle slighting?

This is the first of a series of posts exploring some key aspects of castle slighting.

Last month I was examined on my thesis, the culmination of years of researching castle slighting. My student record shows that I began my PhD in 2012, but I started thinking about this subject in 2010 towards the end of my undergraduate degree. A post-graduate degree seemed like a fun next step as there were no exams and it would let me research castles even more. Before I had even been accepted onto the course I had decided the topic of my dissertation: castle slighting. One year and 20,000 words just scratched the surface, so eventually I took this topic and developed it into a PhD.

But what is slighting and why have I spent six years researching it?

In short, slighting is the process of damaging a building to remove its value. For castles, this can mean compromising its defensive, social, and administrative uses. It’s also worth thinking about what it isn’t. It’s not damage caused by a siege, or stones stripped away by robbing later on. So when King John’s men undermined a corner of Rochester Castle’s great tower, that was simply the kind of damage caused by a siege. The reason for driving the mine under the tower was to force the defenders to capitulate. When a place was slighted, the damage had a different meaning. But had John knocked down the tower after he captured the castle that would have been slighting.

There are plenty of slighted castles about the place, and some of the most striking ruins have been slighted: Kenilworth, Corfe, and Scarborough to name just three. It’s the kind of thing that grabs the imagination, but the explanation for castle slighting has usually been pretty simple. It was done to prevent an enemy from using a fortification against you. It looked to me like a potentially rich subject that would repay closer scrutiny. With plenty of rebellion and political power plays providing a backdrop for many cases of slighting, I expected it to be fun to research and to have some interesting conclusions come out of it.

Corfe Castle was slighted in the 17th century. The ruins are a lot more glamorous than most of the sites I looked at. Photo by Jim Champion.

So I began my journey into slighting combing through books, journals, and excavation reports. With archaeological interest in castles stretching back to the 19th century – with varying degrees of documentation – there is no shortage of information on the archaeology of castles. Lila Rakoczy examined slighting caused by the English Civil War, but no one had attempted to do the same for the Middle Ages.

Most castles weren’t slighted; if I had to guess, I’d say perhaps 10% met this fate so it made sense to make my study broad. I looked at the whole of the Middle Ages and England, Scotland, and Wales. If you’ve picked up a book on ‘English’ castles you’ll probably notice that it treats Wales as part of England and doesn’t mention Scotland at all. There were different circumstances in each of these countries for the building and use of castles, but I wanted to examine them altogether to see how slighting varied based on context.

The ruin of Kenilworth is one of my favourite castles, and the 17th-century slighting is such an important part of the place’s history. For most castles slighted in the Middle Ages we don’t have majestic ruins as the extra centuries of decay have reduced most sites to buried archaeology. I’m not jealous, honest, because at least I had Bothwell Castle to provide a healthy dose of style. But the architectural skeletons which still stand give an idea of how some slighted sites may have appeared centuries ago.

Get an eyeful of Bothwell Castle, isn’t it fab. Slighted in the 14th century. Photo by Robert Brown.

Archaeology has a huge amount to tell us about how, when, and even why buildings were demolished. This isn’t something restricted to castles, but can be seen throughout history.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting some more thoughts here on slighting, and guiding you through a subject which has fascinated me for years. I hope you find it interesting too!