Castles of the Imagination

From Wales to Syria, fortresses are monuments to an age of chivalry — but some are only castles in the air

Architecture Features History
Castell Coch, Wales, restored to its previous splendour

A passionate interest changes the way we look at a map. Standard topography gives prominence to urban conglomerations, great rivers and mountain peaks. An obsession brings different features to the fore. To the surfer it will be beaches, to the golfer, courses, to the music-lover, festivals, to the literary-minded, the haunts of favourite writers. These places assume an importance way beyond that accorded them in normal atlases.

The lens through which I redraw the map is that of the castle. Following the historian R. Allen Brown, I define this, loosely, as the fortified residence of a lord and his family, thus excluding hill forts such as Maiden Castle in Dorset or later structures built solely for garrisoning troops, such as Salses, in southern France.

I had a boy’s interest in castles that was reawakened when my own children were small. The dramatic situation of many fortresses; the excitement of exploring ruins; the pleasing combination of green sward and grey stone; the development of military architecture from the simple motte and bailey to the subtleties of concentric wards: on all this I became hooked.

Over the years, castles have taken me extensively round the British Isles, twice to Spain, and once to Syria, the castle-lover’s apotheosis. They have shaped the way my wife and I travel across France. They have been behind lengthy detours in Italy, Poland and Japan. And yet there are still trips which I long to make, in particular one which would begin in northern Cyprus, cross to the Anatolian coast, take in Rhodes and finish at Bodrum, overlooking the Aegean. Once the bug has bitten, it does not let you rest.

Although I have read a great deal about their technical aspects, my interest in castles is primarily romantic. They were undoubtedly draughty and often cruel places, but I prefer to see them as glorious monuments to an age of chivalry. It is a view shared with 19th-century Europe in its rediscovery of the Middle Ages. And it is in that century that I wish to start a journey that will lead from the restored castle via the ruin to one that no longer exists, each stage demanding more of the imagination.

My own imagination was first fired by ruins but as I have got older, I have also become interested in reconstructions. In Britain, no better example can be found than Cardiff Castle, or rather the line of buildings along the southwestern part of the curtain wall (the original Norman motte and bailey still stand). The work was commissioned by the fabulously rich Third Marquess of Bute in 1865 and carried out under the supervision of William Burges. Its chimney pieces, tiled floors and friezes, door panels, heraldic devices, murals, stained glass, paintings and sculpture afford an intriguing insight into how the 19th century saw the Middle Ages, no more so than in the timber-vaulted banqueting hall. A similar attempt by the marquess and his architect to recreate the past can be found a few miles away at Castell Coch, an overgrown ruin when they began work on it in 1875. In France, two notable examples of reconstruction are at Pierrefonds in Picardy, a 14th-century castle slighted by Richelieu and rebuilt under Napoleon III, and at La Roquetaillade near Bordeaux, which was erected by a nephew of the first Avignonese pope, Clement V (1305-14), and rescued from serious disrepair by the Marquis de Mauvesin’s family in the late 19th century. Both projects were the work of Eugène Viollet le Duc, that indefatigable restorer of medieval fabric, from Notre-Dame in Paris to the walled city of Carcassonne.

Yet historicism has its limits. In the four castles cited, the extraordinary workmanship, though admirable, tends to overwhelm. The mind is oppressed by detail, which does not ring true to the age it seeks to emulate.

Much more freedom is to be had from ruins, and here the choice is vast. Again a good starting-point is Wales, this time the north, which, along with western Syria, has the densest concentration of great castles in the world. In the 50-odd miles between the Menai Strait and the River Dee are two fortresses with walled towns attached, Caernarfon and Conwy, the concentric Beaumaris, necessary defence for its flat and marshy site, the twin gatehouses of Rhuddlan, and the majestic circular donjon of Flint. To these must be added Harlech, whose imposing gatehouse performs the role of the traditional keep. The impetus for this superb building programme, carried out by Master James St George of Savoy, was Edward I’s conquest of Wales.

Edward’s reign (1272-1307) marks the apogee of castle building in these islands, which makes North Wales a must for the enthusiast. Attention may then turn to France, whence the stone castle as we know it in Britain originates. With so much on offer, it is perhaps invidious to be specific; I would simply mention that Richard I’s Château Gaillard, built above the Seine in the closing years of the 12th century, the striped walls and towers of Angers on the Maine and the precariously perched Cathar strongholds in the Pyrenees will not disappoint. Further afield, Spain has fine castles built along the Rivers Douro and Tagus as part of the Reconquista, and the enormous Moorish fortresses of Málaga and Almería on the Mediterranean. Southern Italy was the stage for a castle-builder to rival Edward I, the Hohenstaufen emperor Frederick II, known to his contemporaries as Stupor Mundi, whose masterpiece is the Castel del Monte in Apulia. In Poland, near the Baltic, there is the colossal brick fortress of the Teutonic Knights at Marbork (Marienburg).

These are just some of the highlights of Europe’s astonishingly rich legacy from feudal times, enough to last a castle-hunter for a lifetime. But it would be surprising during such forays if interest was not awakened in Syria, from where Crusaders brought back so many new ideas about military architecture. It is here that the Hospitallers and Templars stamped their presence on the Levant by building what are considered to be the finest castles of all times.

At their apex stands Krak des Chevaliers, a 12th-century Hospitaller stronghold. Its dramatic location, guarding the gap between Homs and the Mediterranean, the sheer size of its walls and towers, the ingenuity of its concentric design, the warmth of its stone and its vaulted great hall and chapel leave an overwhelming impression of strength and grace. The art historian T. S. R. Boase described it as follows: “As the Parthenon is to Greek temples and Chartres to Gothic cathedrals, so is the Krak des Chevaliers to medieval castles, the supreme example, one of the great buildings of all times.”

Clearly visible from Krak is the massive rectangular keep of Safita. Nearly 90ft high, it was built by the Templars, who had their headquarters at Tartus on the Mediterranean a few miles away. Unusually, its ground floor is taken up by a chapel, which today serves as a Greek Orthodox Church. Above is a nobly vaulted chamber for the garrison. 

To the north of Tartus, also on the coast, is Marqab, another Hospitaller masterpiece, most of its walls as black as the volcanic rock on which it stands. In his book, Monuments of Syria (I B Tauris, 1999), Ross Burns writes of its builders: “They employed new concepts in military fortification still only tentatively being exploited in Europe, and exceeded them in scale and boldness.”

This brief survey of Syrian fortifications would not be complete without mentioning three other categories. The first is Sahyun, which was built by neither of the knightly orders. Its castle stretches more than 800 yards along a ridge between two ravines, with distant views of the Mediterranean. Its most astonishing feature is a rock-cut ditch guarding the eastern approach. The ditch measures 90ft deep by more than 65ft wide and in the middle of it stands a great stalagmite of rock, left in place to support the now vanished drawbridge. Despite these precautions, the castle fell to Saladin in 1188 and was never recovered.

Into the second category fall two Arab citadels: that in Aleppo stands on an oval hill, guarded by a monumental gateway on its southern side and surrounded by a glacis and a ditch. The one in Bosra, near the Jordanian border, encompasses within its vast walls and towers a Roman theatre with room for between 8,000 and 9,000 spectators.

Finally, to the east there are two magnificent fortresses built in the sixth century under the Byzantine emperor Justinian. The crumbling walls of Resafe are in the desert and enclose a notable church and gigantic cisterns. Those of Halabiye, thrown up by the cold, green waters of the Euphrates, are in the form of a triangle, at its apex a keep made of huge gypsum blocks.

This lightning tour through the castles of Europe and the Levant has led from the opulence of 19th-century reconstructions to stark ruins open to the wind and rain, with all the excitement that that brings in the discovery of dungeons, spiral staircases, garderobes, sally ports, earthworks, wells and the remnants of Gothic vaults. But there is still a stage to go.

I have long been haunted by photographs in Guillaume Janneau’s book on French military architecture, L’Architecture militaire en France (Editions Garnier, 1979), of the Château de Coucy in northern France. They show a huge cylindrical keep, measuring nearly 210ft from the bottom of the moat to its roof, dominating a curtain wall strengthened by four circular towers. The castle, which dates from the 13th century, was occupied by the Germans during the First World War and largely destroyed by them in 1917, an act which led to its being declared by the French as “a memorial to barbarity”.

Today, Coucy is a sad stump of its former self. But at least some of it survives above ground. The same cannot be said of Queenborough Castle, whose description in Professor Brown’s book English Castles (Boydell Press, 2004) has likewise haunted me. The fascination of this former fortress on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent lies both in its radical design and its complete disappearance.

Built by Edward III in the 1360s and named after his Queen, Philippa of Hainault, Queenborough was both circular and concentric, and surrounded by a moat, its layout anticipating the castles of Henry VIII by nearly 200 years. The outer wall was without flanking towers save for those on either side of the main entrance in the west. Opposite them on the eastern side was a postern gate. From the ground plan it is clear that an attacker, having forced the western gatehouse, would first be corralled within a line of walls with gaps in the middle and then have to go halfway round the outer court and enter another line of walls before reaching the main entrance to the inner ring or rotunda. While doing so, he would be brutally exposed to fire from the curtain walls and six flanking towers that formed the core of the castle. And if he penetrated the rotunda, he would find it compartmentalised and therefore impossible to take in a rush. 

This defensive system, which to Professor Brown has “all the simplicity of genius”, was never put to the test. The importance of Queenborough and its new, unfortified town hardly survived Edward’s death in 1377. In 1650 the castle was found to be obsolete. Soon after, it was demolished.

It was in search of this “castle in the air” that I set out for Queenborough on a fine summer’s day. It is an attractive little town, its main street running down to The Swale, the channel between Sheppey and the mainland. On the south side of the High Street is a creek, full of boats of all sizes and descriptions, among them a small fishing fleet.

I had expected to find the site of the castle in the middle of town but the local council office directed me to the top of the High Street. There, between a car park and the railway station, is a gently sloping grassy mound, on top of which are benches and the remains of a 19th-century pump house, directly above the well which formed the core of Edward’s fortress. The reason for the positioning of the castle became clear. It stood at the top of the creek, watching over a port that in 1368 became the centre of the wool trade along the coast from Gravesend to Winchelsea.

The modern town is aware of its illustrious past. A helpful notice board by the mound tells the story, and on the sea wall at the other end of the High Street the words “Welcome to Queenborough” are written below an inaccurate painting of the castle. But Edward’s “cloud-capp’d towers” have dissolved into a scene of utter banality. That is why the place is so tantalising. With cars on one side, the railway on another and a nondescript industrial block on the third, the mind races to imagine what this final florescence of royal castle building in the Middle Ages must have once been like.