Medieval Monday Holiday Edition: Turku Castle

Medieval Monday Holiday Edition: Turku Castle

No matter how I try, I can’t escape my Battle Castle calling.  I’ve just returned from holidays in Finland where I spent the weekend in Turku, Finland’s second largest city.  Turku was the historical capital of Finland: a commercial cnetre dating back at least to the 13th century, as well as religious headquarters for the Catholic church until the Reformation and administrative centre for the Swedish empire.  With some 3,000 inhabitants in the fourteenth century, it was the second largest city in Sweden.  Turku is also home to a very fine castle.  Turku Castle or Turunlinna as it’s called in Finnish, is one of a series of castles built by the Swedish overlords to secure their borders from the neigbouring Russian empire.  Construction started on a island in the 1280s, but uprising of land means it is now connected to the mainland—about three kilometers from the town centre. Having visited a lot of castle over the past few years, I can say that Turunlinna has one of the finest museum exhibitions to explain the context of the castle, geographically and historically, and did so in Finnish, Swedish and English.  Turku Castle is split between the Main Castle, which includes the oldest parts of the fortifications, and the Bailey, which was built after the land rising expanded the space available for construction.  Castle tours are available in many languages for the Main Castle.  The bulk of the exhibitions are in the Bailey, which was the administrative heart and luxurious palace. In true Battle Castle form, Turku Castle was the heart of epic power struggles.  During the reign of the great Swedish king,...
Dover Castle: Long Serving Military Site

Dover Castle: Long Serving Military Site

It was clear when we began researching castles that some sites had been considered defensive positions of hundreds and sometimes thousands of years.  We knew that Crac des Chevaliers had been the site of “an outdated Kurdish fort” and that the origins of the Alcazaba in Malaga where lost in time when Yusuf decided to further secure the location.  It’s worth considering other evidence of development at Dover.  There is clear evidence of its Roman and Saxon past.  As a result we can argue that Dover is the longest serving military site in England, through which we can trace many developments of English military history. Dan Snow provides a quick introduction to Dover as more than a castle: The Saxon church he refers has been often restored and updated, but embodies its Kentish location with chunks of local flint embedded in the mortar, like the walls of the castle itself. I was so charmed that this photo of the doors has been my cell phone wallpaper since I visited nearly four years ago. The guidebooks refer to Iron Age earthworks at the site of Dover Castle, but they never go into much detail.  From the height of the Keep at Dover Castle you do get the sense of the the earthworks which would have protected the early site. Compare these earthworks to the one that I found referenced in a guidebook to Dover Castle I found by William Batcheller back in 1828. Batchellor proposed that the origins of the church dated back into Roman times due to the presence of Roman tiles in the structure, although most modern sources claim it was around...
Medieval Plumbing and Castle Crappers

Medieval Plumbing and Castle Crappers

Lots of assumptions have been made about the state of personal hygiene and the disposal of human waste in medieval times.  But unlike towns and cities where raw sewage was dumped in the streets well past the Middle Ages, we are able to draw on numerous examples from the castles we visited to demonstrate that castle builders seemed to have a clear understanding of the vulnerability created by human waste and went to great lengths to construct strategies to deal with it. Medieval plumbing was much more than buckets. The earliest adaption we found was the so called Toilet Tower at Crac des Chevaliers.  As you may recall, Crac was constructed by the Knights Hospitaller who provided medical care and refuge to pilgrims in the Holy Land.  As a result, their castles contained a hospital wing or ward.  Very wisely, when designing Crac, they located the bank of toilets very close to the ward where they would receive great use. One of the most famous toilet castle legends dates to the siege of Chateau Gaillard.  According to this story, after having taken the Outer Bailey, Philippe Augustus’ men probed the perimeter of the castle looking for a weakness by which they could enter the Inner Bailey.  Apparently, the only opening they found was a latrine chute.  The two intrepid soldiers climbed the chute and set fire to the Chapel.  In the resulting chaos, the French were able to gain access to the Inner Bailey.  Researchers have since argued that it was a window into the Chapel itself (installed by King John) that allowed the French to take their objective.  This...
Trebuchet Balls

Trebuchet Balls

Blame it on the movies, but when I imagined medieval warriors launching projectiles by trebuchet, I never imagined the were launching stone trebuchet balls.  Dead cows, maybe. Or pots of flaming oil but not stone.  That’s why it was such a treat to actually visit the castle locations.  On three of our visits, we found evidence for this medieval practice. Dan Snow gives a sample of the stone trebuchet balls we found at Crac des Chavaliers in this vlog: There were literally piles of them scattered throughout the castle like this: We were also luck enough to spot these stone projectiles sinking into the dirt at Harlech Castle in North Wales.  It looks like it might have been a mix of larger projectiles and then some smaller ones that might have been used in a perrier. On a medieval themed vacation that included a visit to Carcassone, we also made a side trip to visit Montségur, the site of the culminating battle of the Albigensian Crusades against the Cathars, which was a siege spanning eight months from 1243 to 1244. At the small museum in the town, they had this collection of stone trebuchet balls, complete with weight. Our best guess is that they were launched from this plateau just below the castle’s location on the hill top (or Pog as they refer to it). What was fascinating for me, was to learn that even the earliest form cannons shot stone projectiles.  It wasn’t until later than the cannonballs from popular culture were in use....
King John’s Misadventures on the Continent

King John’s Misadventures on the Continent

Last week, BBC News Magazine published an article, “The Most Important Battle You’ve Probably Never Heard of“.  It struck me as interesting as it featured, as had two of our Battle Castle episodes, good old King John.  The article describes the Battle of Bouvines–King John’s last ditch effort through European alliances to reclaim the territories he had lost to the French King Philippe Augustus.  From Gaillard to Bouvines, King John’s misadventures on the continent would define his reign. John’s continental intrigues date back to the reign of his brother King Richard (the Lionheart).   While Richard was held hostage on the continent during his return trip from the Crusades, John conspired with Philippe to ensure Richard never made it home. Once released, Richard himself can only be blamed for his untimely death, sieging the castle of Chalus Chabrol as Dan Snow describes in this vlog. Richard’s death set the stage for John’s big entrance onto the stage of world history.  Succeeding Richard in 1199 (despite the existence of their nephew Arthur of Brittany, son of yet another older brother) John would attempt to hold and reclaim the English crowns possessions in France.  One of the early key events was the siege of Chateau Gaillard, build by Richard the Lionheart to control access to Paris via the Seine.  Chateau Gaillard was believed by most contemporaries to be impenetrable. Gaillard was gallantly defended by Roger de Lacy over a period of eight months and at one point King John planned an attack to lift the siege: Like the later Battle of Bouvines, John would not be successful. The subsequent fall of Chateau Gaillard...