The Castles at War in Medieval England and Wales by Dan Spencer


If you’re interested in learning more about castles, along with some English and Welsh history, look no further, Dan Spencer’s latest release, The Castle at War in Medieval England and Wales covers their long history from the time of the Norman Conquest to the seventeenth century. This book looks at the function of the castle - from its inception as a military fortification, to its evolution as an important administrative center, and residence. Spencer give readers a view of the crucial role castles played in the history of England and Wales. What are some of those take-always?

A burgh by any other name: early castles

The book begins by looking at ways in which Anglo Saxon defence differed from their Norman counterparts. The English did not have castles, but used “burhs”, fortified settlements, to defend against invasions. These came out of the Viking raids that occurred between the eighth and eleventh centuries.

Castles played a prominent role during the Norman period of England’s history. According to chronicler, Orderic Vitalis (1075-1142), the purpose of the castle at this point wasn’t to protect one from outsiders, but from the conquered locals, “These castles were intended to provide places of safety for the invaders in a hostile land” (p.26). William the Conqueror (1028–1087) saw to the initial phases of construction at Dover castle, by improving on an existing Anglo-Saxon fortification there. The use of old Roman or Saxon fortifications was common as a way to establish a base from which to build a stronger structure and to be able to defend against retaliatory attacks from the angry populace. William then went on to oversee the construction of the Tower of London in order to gain better control over the city, and, according to Vitalis, ‘as a defence against the numerous and hostile inhabitants’, (p.28).

Did you know…The first castles were recorded in France in the ninth century but there were problem with definitively pinpointing the first reference to a castle due to language differences.

William had to handle numerous rebellions after conquering England because the inhabitants felt oppressed by taxes, and were angry at being displaced by Norman and French nobility who often destroyed homes to build castles. The Normans often displayed their wealth by castle building, and used the structures as a means to assert control over an area. Castle building was active during this period, as William put down uprisings and rebellions, and then installed castles to ensure future compliance.

As for Wales, while incursions were made into the region at this time, nothing serious came of them because William was occupied with maintaining control in England and Normandy.

Counter-castles and big spenders

Spencer then moves chronologically through history to pinpoint moments where castles were key in the outcome of a conflict. One such example was the conflict between the Empress Matilda (1102–1167) (daughter of Henry I (1068–1135) and her cousin, Stephen of Blois (1092–1154). During this period, know as the Anarchy castles played important roles with many “counter castles” built in retaliation. Once the contest between Matilda and Stephen ended, with Henry II taking the throne on October 25,1154, he had these unauthorised “adulterine” castles demolished or taken into royal hands (p.76). He swiftly brought the nobility in line and managed to get the Welsh to acknowledge him as their overlord.

Did you know....An Adulterine castle was one that was built during the Anarchy (1139–1154) without royal permission. Well over 1,000 castles of this type were built in the twelfth century, but sadly, over half have been destroyed since that time.

Spencer also demonstrated that many English’s kings spent a fair amount on castle construction. Henry II spent a lot of money on castle building. Henry II (1133–1189) was known as a great castle builder; he completed what William had started in Dover, and built the castle to much of the way we see it today. According to the Pipe Rolls of the Exchequer, between 1155–1189 he spent £21,000 on castle construction and maintenance. (P. 81) While Henry II built and spent an extensive amount on castles, the building of new structures slowed over the course of the twelfth century because new castles were now entirely constructed from stone, as opposed to wood, so they took much longer, and were more expensive to build.

Spencer goes on throughout the book, almost reign by reign, detailing how various English kings used castles to their benefit or, conversely, how castles were used against them to their detriment during times of war and rebellion (many of those being Welsh).

For example, there was another flurry of castle building under Edward I (1239–1307). He built four new castles that are now classified as UNESCO heritage sites: Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy, and Harlech. Three of them were built in a new style that focused more on gatehouses and rounded towers than square towers and a keep. After Edward I defeated Welsh in 1282, he had a series of new castles built to demonstrate to the Welsh that his conquest was permanent.

The castles were built in strategic locations along the coast so that they could be supplied by sea. However, that didn’t stop the Welsh from rebelling two more times, once in 1287, and in 1294, with 1294 being a serious rebellion that saw Edward at one point, besieged in one of his own castles until a sortie routed the rebels. Castle warfare figured strongly in Edward’s war with the Scots.

From the late fourteenth century, castles were supplied with firearms.

Interestingly, Spencer noted that castles didn’t play a major role in the Wars of the Roses during the fifteenth century, as the fighting ended up being more on battlefields than in castle sieges. It wasn’t until the Tudor period that England engaged in another castle building frenzy under Henry VIII (1491–1547).

Structural shifts: Tudor castles

Once Henry VIII broke with the Church, Pope Paul III (1468–1549) encouraged Catholic countries to invade England and a series of castles and defences in anticipation of this were built. According to Spencer, they were known as the ‘Device of the King’, and they were installed with small garrisons along weak points on the coastline. Henry VIII spent an astronomical £376,000 for the Device project by the time of his death in 1547, and most of that money he had pilfered from the monasteries during the Dissolution.

Henry VIII ushered in a new period of castle building but these structures were unlike their their medieval predecessors. They were smaller, and had thicker walls built specifically to repel the use of gunpowder weapons. They were also stripped of their function as centres of administration or residences and equipped with only small garrisons. Gone were the imposing structures of yore, now supplanted by short, squat, functional buildings.

In terms of residential “castles”, they were still built but served no practical use in warfare. Spencer suggested that there emerged a distinct separation between castles for residence, and castles for warfare during this period. This resulted in many medieval castles falling into ruin since they were no longer in regular military use.

The decline of the castle during the Early Modern Period

Many medieval castles in England and Wales were destroyed in the 1640s during the First English Civil War (1642–1646). They were demolished to prevent their use by Royalists during the conflict. Although some like the Henrican Deal castle were preserved for warfare and held a small garrison.

The castles that survived received a renewed interest with the Victorian obsession with medieval history during the Gothic Revival. The now ancient structures drew tourists, and the government had them protected and preserved. Many castles were also rebuilt in classical styles during the late sixteenth century.


Spencer does an excellent job of walking the reader through the history of castles in England in Wales, while touching on important pieces of history where they played key roles. Given that castles were initially used as fortifications and primarily served military functions, the book is obviously heavily focused on warfare. For those interested the history of England and Wales told from a military perspective, this book is a fantastic resource. Spencer’s research is thorough, this is after all, his speciality (medieval warfare and artillery), and that passion is evident on every page. It seems like this book has the makings of an entry point in a collection of books on castle warfare across Europe. If that isn’t the direction that this is going, it remains a great book on castle functionality and warfare, fit for any medieval military enthusiast.

About the Author

Dan Spencer.jpg

Dan Spencer is an expert in late medieval warfare, particularly on the subjects of gunpowder artillery and castles. He has experience of writing for both an academic and popular audience, which includes conveying cutting edge scholarly research in a format accessible to non-historians. He has written a number of articles in academic journals as well as co-authoring, The Agincourt Companion (Carlton Books Limited, 2015). He is the main contributor to the website and co-designed the Future Learn open access online course – ‘Agincourt 1415: Myth and Reality’. His knowledge of castles and warfare has also been enhanced by his experience of teaching the subject to undergraduate and international students at the University of Southampton.