Where are the best Norman sites in Britain?
One of the best-preserved Norman fortifications in England, Rochester Castle was built at a strategic crossroads in the years following the Norman Conquest. The castle saw several early iterations during the sometimes-tumultuous years after the conquest and it was in 1127 that a more permanent fortification was constructed. King John besieged Rochester Castle during the uprising of the barons, with the castle suffering significant damage in the conflict. The castle was also damaged a century later during the Peasants’ Revolt. Over the centuries that followed Rochester Castle remained as an active fortress until the sixteenth century when it fell in to disrepair. Today the castle has been largely restored and is open to visitors under the custodianship of English Heritage.
Pevensey was the site where William the Conqueror landed in Britain on 28 September 1066 and the first castle he built. Originally a timber structure, this was replaced by stone in the 12th century, the beginnings of the Pevensey Castle we see today. With an imposing gatehouse, bailey wall and square keep, this became a mighty fortification that survived several attempts to breach its walls, most notably in a siege carried out Simon de Montfort against the sheltering supporters of King Henry III in 1264. It was reinforced several times over the centuries, its picturesque ruins now under the remit of English Heritage.
Hastings Castle was originally built as a timber structure a short time after the Norman invader William the Conqueror landed in England in 1066. This was not far from the site where, shortly afterwards, William decisively defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, thus achieving the conquest of England and being crowned King William I. However, it was only in 1070 that the Norman king gave orders to transform Hastings Castle into a fully fledged stone fortified castle, the ruins of which can be seen there today. Destroyed and rebuilt several times, today, Hastings Castle is open to the public, who can tour its ruins and enjoy a short presentation on its history.
Colchester Castle is a beautifully preserved Norman stronghold with a rich history dating back to Roman times. Built from 1076 (some say from 1069) and completed in around 1100, it was constructed under the order of King William I for use as a royal fortress. Colchester Castle would go on to serve several other roles, including being besieged in 1215 by King John and becoming the site of interrogation and jailing of “witches” in 1645 by a self-proclaimed Witchfinder General called Matthew Hopkins. It was also a private home and a library at different times. One of the most fascinating aspects of Colchester Castle is its keep, which is said to be the largest example of a Norman keep Britain. The grand size of this central tower is a legacy from Roman times as it was built on the foundations of a vast Roman temple known as the Temple of Claudius (said to date back to the 1st century AD).
Richmond Castle in North Yorkshire is a picturesque ruined Norman Castle which was originally built to help secure Norman control of the North of England. The castle was built and strengthened throughout the Norman period with Henry II and Henry III extending its fortifications. It’s thought that the castle fell out of active use in the 14th century and slowly fell to ruin. Despite this, the castle has more surviving 11th-century architecture than any other castle in England, including its impressive Norman keep.
6. Corfe Castle
Corfe Castle is the stunning ruin of a castle which has been everything from a royal residence to a military stronghold and even a prison. It was built by William the Conqueror in around 1066, although even before this, the site was of great historical importance, Indeed, it is said that King Edward the Martyr was murdered here in a plot to position Ethelred "the Unready" as monarch. Corfe Castle was expanded and altered several times, especially in the 12th to 13th centuries under King John. Not only did he further fortify the castle, he also used it as a prison and even a home. Sold by Elizabeth I in 1572, it became the grand private home. The demise of Corfe Castle and the cause of its current ruined state came with the English Civil War, when it was demolished by the Parliamentarians.
Goodrich Castle in Herefordshire is one of the most picturesque medieval ruins in the UK. The first recorded structure to be built on its site was constructed in the late 11th century by an Anglo-Saxon thegn who retained his lands after the Norman Conquest. However, it is believed that the site may have been used as a fortification for far longer. The original wooden structure was replaced by a stone fort in the mid-12th century and the living quarters and fortifications of Goodrich Castle were extended over the next 100 years. Goodrich Castle is perhaps best known for the part it played during the English Civil War, when it became the focus of a bitter siege between Royalist and Parliamentarian forces. Whilst not destroyed after the war, it was intentionally damaged to ensure it could no longer serve as a stronghold. By the late 18th century, Goodrich Castle was seen as a idyllic ruin and was therefore never fully restored.
It was King Henry I's treasurer, Geoffrey de Clinton, who built the vast Norman keep of Kenilworth Castle in the 1120s. Kenilworth earned the status of royal castle over the coming centuries and underwent a series of changes, both under the remit of Henry II and under King John, who put into place greater fortifications from 1210 to 1215, solidifying its role as a stronghold. In fact, so impenetrable was the stronghold by this point that when it underwent a great 6-month siege by Henry III in 1266, its resident rebels only faltered when they ran out of food. Bothoth Lancastrians and Tudors alike enjoyed time there while, under Elizabeth I, Kenilworth Castle became the property of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and the Queen’s one true love. He made extensive changes to the castle to make it fit for his queen and her entourage. Kenilworth Castle finally met its decline after the English Civil War.
Castle Rising is a ruined Norman fortification in Norfolk which is now one of the best preserved castle-keeps in England. First constructed by the Anglo-Norman lord William d'Aubigny in 1138, it later became the palace of Queen Isabella, widow of Edward II and mother of Edward III. Surrounded by twenty acres of expansive earthworks, the castle would have been the very symbol of a medieval fortress. Within the castle can also be found the remains of an early Norman Church. Castle Rising passed to the Howard family in the 16th century and though it remains in their ownership today it is periodically open to the public in partnership with English Heritage.
10. Durham Castle
Durham Castle was originally commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1072, intended to ensure Norman control in the North of England. Once under Church control, each bishop, on his appointment, would put his own stamp on the castle, and duly altered it to reflect his own glory. However, despite the many changes, Durham Castle retains the layout of a Norman motte and bailey castle. It has a well preserved Norman chapel, dating from 1080, and many other features of interest.