Have you ever wondered why castles were built exactly where they are?
I don’t mean why they were built at all, just how and who decided where the first spade went in. I wonder about the pre-Conquest landscape – largely without castles as we know them – and the nature of the Norman invaders, riding about the countryside (presumably often hostile countryside), determining the precise spot on which these alien buildings would be erected.
In the absence of a helpful set of Ordinance Survey maps, how did they make those decisions? Did they have a hoard of surveyors, architects and castle-designers offering their services to the victors of Hastings? Was there a handbook on castle building they could refer to, how did the man on the horse know what he wanted his castle to look like?
(You can tell I haven’t been sleeping well can’t you…)
I just have this image in my mind of all these Norman knights riding around, pointing at hills and saying ‘Alors! Contruisez-moi un chateau la-bas! Vite! And a retinue of workmen with clipboards and abacuses (what is the plural for abacus?) following them around, tugging their forelocks.
Goodrich in Herefordshire, between Monmouth and Ross-on-Wye, is one of those truly defensive castles which appears to have grown organically out of the rock it sits on, and even today I think you’d nominate any architect who could come up with it’s design for an award. When you walk around it’s difficult to decide in some places where the building actually begins. How did they do that in the days before computers and 3D modelling?
In fact very little is known about the origins of the first castle at Goodrich.
It was probably first a wooden affair, rebuilt in stone about 1120. At the beginning of the thirteenth century it was given by King John to one of my historic heroes William Marshal (he of Pembroke Castle fame), and he had further work carried out, which in turn was rebuilt around 1280 as relations with the Welsh made the area increasingly dangerous and required stronger defences to be added.
Much of what you see now dates from that time and you can see similarities with the castles Edward I was having built in Wales around then.
Over time Goodrich was altered to make it a more comfortable residence, without compromising its defensive capabilities and if you were a high status visitor in the fourteenth century, you’d probably have been very comfortable staying there.
But as with so many other castles, it was besieged during the English Civil War and was heavily bombarded – you can still see the mortar ‘Roaring Meg’ which did so much of the damage. Later the castle was slighted to prevent it being used again.
After that, it was only a matter of time before it crumbled into ruins. Although in the eighteenth century it became popular with the romantic poets and painters who fell for its decaying charms.
If you haven’t been to Goodrich, don’t miss an opportunity to go. It’s got everything a textbook castle should have and is an ideal place to explain castle basics. It’s definitely what I call ‘a proper castle’.
If you want to know more about the building and history of Goodrich, this is the link to the Wiki page.
If you’re visiting check here at the English Heritage website for opening times and prices. By the way, the cafe at Goodrich is particularly good and the last time we were there they served the best cheese scones I’ve ever tasted.
Oh and if you were a fan of the TV series a few years ago ‘Merlin’ – you might recognise parts of the castle, an episode was filmed there back in 2009.