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  We knew that Crac des Chevaliers had been the site of “an outdated Kurdish fort” and that the origins of the Alcazaba in Malaga where lost in time when Yusuf decided to further secure the location.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...
Five Tips for Sieging your Favourite Medieval Castle

Five Tips for Sieging your Favourite Medieval Castle

  After having visited all of our Battle Castles over the past few years, we’ve noticed there’s a few things you can do to get the most out of your visit.  Some castle sites are huge, covering a number of acres, while others are quite compact, so a strategy is key.  Our expert Benjamin Michaudel, who accompanied us to Crac des Chevaliers in Syria, pointed out that what we now see is only a skeleton of the former castle–all of the muscle and tissue scraped away by rain, wind and time.  It’s hard to imagine the gardens and green spaces, the frescoes and the tapestries, but would have been present, adding colour and warmth to the structure.  Don’t forget to use your imagination!  Here are five tips for sieging your favourite medieval castle. Buy the guidebook (before).  English Heritage and CADW have fabulous guidebooks.  Get it ahead of time and make your list of must sees. Take a tour, guided or audio.  Malbork Castle in Poland has great system of registering their guides.  Guides take a test to prove their knowledge of the castle.  They can point out things most people don’t notice. Get there early.  Take it from us, castles are best without the crowds.  It stokes your imagination to hear the wind whistling through the battlements. Take a flashlight.  There are lots of dark corners and you don’t want to miss anything. Fuel up.  There is nothing worse than rushing through just because you are hungry.  Take snacks and plan a few breaks.  Use the time to check off your list and lay out your next plan of attack. While you’re there, be sure to...
Damage at Crac des Chevaliers Revealed

Damage at Crac des Chevaliers Revealed

Film footage broadcast earlier this year shows the damage at Crac des Chevaliers castle near Homs, Syria.  The story broadcast by Channel 4 news revealed extensive damage to the loggia located to the side of the Knights’ Hall and adjacent to what was once the Chapel. Crac des Chevaliers was constructed by the Knights Hospitaller starting in the late eleventh century on the site of a Kurdish fort.  The castle is renowned for extraordinary limestone facing and meticulous workmanship. Having survived earthquakes and an attempted siege by the great Saladin, Crac des Chevaliers fell to the Mamluk Baybars in 1271.  During the recent Syrian civil war, Crac des Chevaliers was occupied by rebel forces who likely captured it for its strategic position and symbolic value.  Footage in the summer of 2013, showed the castle under attack from government forces, but it was not reoccupied by government troops until March of this year. Crac des Chevaliers was named a UNESCO Heritage Site in 2006.  The damage to the castle, the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo and countless other sites in Syria highlight the archaeological cost of the civil war which began with protests in March of 2011 and has now claimed more than 160,000 lives and displaced nearly three million refugees.  Despite peace talks and a presidential election, there appears to be no end it sight. Well into the fourth year of this conflict, we’re reminded of the words once carved here in stone, wishing the occupants of the castle wealth, beauty and wisdom but warning them of pride, which could be their ruin.  ...