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By Edward Blanchard
In the many hundreds of years since the days of Roman Britain, the island which makes up England, Wales and Scotland has become studded with thousands of castles, fortifications and towers. Even major highlights of the apparently unending wars which swept over this land would make for lengthy reading, and a solid understanding of them could consume a lifetime of study. So it is not surprising that as I was once driving along the southern coast of England, I chanced upon the dramatic ruins of Corfe Castle which was partly destroyed on the orders of Parliament in 1646. The resulting demolition is still clearly evident today, and the jagged sections of the castle's remaining walls are a popular destination for photographers, historians and tourists. These enduring ruins are also a clear reminder of just how powerful Corfe Castle was during its hundreds of years of very active service. Its relative remoteness, commanding location and extremely heavy construction combined to create a nearly impregnable position which took Parliamentarian forces three years to reduce by siege at the height of the English Civil War. Long before that however, the castle's location had been strategically important for the entire region. It was already a major state holding by 1100 when it was a depository for the English King's treasury, and by 1200 it had become an important arms depot and prison. By 1400 it appeared much as it did over two hundred years later when it acquired its final fame and destruction.

Corfe Castle
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One of the landmark events that helped to boost the construction of such castles was the Norman invasion of 1066, which signaled a fundamental change in the lives of the island's inhabitants. After King Harold's defeat at the Battle of Hastings and the subsequent consolidation of power by William the Conqueror, the victorious Normans began a forced indoctrination of the populace into the ways of feudalism. William wasted little time acting to enforce the Norman system of government, and not surprisingly he was long regarded as an alien ruler. Key instruments in the enforcement of the new feudal regime were castles and fortified residences. Before this time, most fortifications followed the lines of earlier Roman positions and Saxon burghs — public works which offered general protection to whole villages and towns. The new ruling order called for heavily fortified private strong points which would intimidate the locals into a more passive role. The resulting medieval "building boom" of castles began a cycle of constant additions and upgrades until even the original Norman works were nearly lost within much larger fortresses. The final result of this long period of war and development is a landscape studded with elaborate castles and piles of stone. Quaintly romantic to modern tourists, but the source of creative inspiration to the designers and destructive labor to the warriors of the time.

Edinburgh Castle
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Far to the north of Corfe Castle, Edinburgh Castle in Scotland probably started off as an Iron Age fort and so its current form is not the direct result of the Normans. Hundreds of years of constant construction and destruction have obliterated all traces of earlier occupation at the site. The oldest records which mention Edinburgh are from the reign of Malcolm III in the 11th century. Even then, it is believed that the fortress was little more than a wooden stockade surrounding a few buildings perched up on the highest rocks. The central portion of the castle was located beyond the hilltop hospital buildings seen in the photo, and the Great Barmkin Wall, visible around the lowest part of the slope, was not built until 1677. The castle exchanged hands many times during its hundred years of regular use, but it was not until 1573 that it suffered its first modern siege. Then, and again in 1650 and yet again in 1688, the castle came under bombardment by siege cannon. And though it surrendered several times due to bombardment, it never fell to any direct assault.

York Gate
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Back down in the heart of England, the city of York is unusual because it still possesses much of its original curtain wall. Most cities across Great Britain tore down their medieval era fortifications during the Industrial Revolution. York however, had a long and colorful history of involvement in the many wars which swept across England, and its fortifications had survived many battles. Before their downfall at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, Yorkist Kings had controlled England and their royal crest can still be seen over the old city gates – which have been modified to allow the passage of auto traffic. The slots used by archers have also been widened over the years, a common occurrence in many medieval ruins today. Many sections of the York fortifications were built upon old Roman works which were usually of superior design and construction. A multi-angular tower forming the northwest angle of the York city wall is a good example of Roman masonry with medieval stonework added for height. York Minister, one of Britain's great cathedrals, towers at the heart of the old walled city and it is impressive in its own right. The cathedral stands on the site of the old Roman headquarters district, whose ruins can be viewed in a small underground museum. During the 1980s, major repairs to the church were required due to the shallow foundations upon which the main towers were built. Poor medieval planning resulted in sections of the building falling more than 10cm out of plumb and in some areas the walls were in serious danger of collapse.

Clifford's Tower
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Inside York's curtain wall, Clifford's Tower was built on the packed earth mound or motte of an older Norman castle which had been built after 1066. It is a quatrefoil shaped keep, which was apparently built in the 13th century, despite the claims of the official guide of its 14th century construction. It is also where hundreds of Jews were trapped and burned to death during one of the anti-Semitic outbursts in England.

Windsor Castle Entrance
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Windsor Castle is one of the great fortified palaces left in Europe today. Edward the III's improvements from 1350 to 1377 alone cost over 51,000 pounds, which is the greatest sum of money spent on any one project during the entire Middle Ages. All of the main features of a medieval castle are there, beginning with the typically Norman motte in the center of the complex, predictably begun shortly after William the Conqueror's arrival. Its slope is visible just above the pedestrian gate in the foreground of the castle photo. The castle is of course still home to the royal family and has only just recovered from a catastrophic fire which gutted parts of it.

The White Tower
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The White Tower at the Tower of London was begun in 1076 as one of William the Conqueror's fortified residences. It was strategically placed next to an existing Roman wall, and its approaches were originally guarded by a palisaded ditch. From 1190 to 1285 a curtain wall and moat were added – a layout which remains essentially intact to this day. The fortress was surrendered several times during the Middle Ages when the kings found themselves without the support of the people, but only during the Wars of the Roses was it actually brought under bombardment. Even though the fortress became notorious as a prison for the rich and famous – many of whom were executed on the grounds – its original purpose was as the fortified residence for the Norman Kings. As can be seen in the photo, the White Tower is an extremely rare relic of the medieval Norman ideal of centralized power and control.

Stirling Castle
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Back up into Scotland, a visit to the famous Stirling Castle brings us to one of the most vital positions on any route into the Highlands... any route being taken by an invading army that is. The first major medieval construction at the site was commissioned by Scottish King Alexander I, who ordered its construction around the turn of the 12th century. Within 70 years it had changed hands for the first of dozens of times as competing Scottish and English factions fought for political control of the region. Two major battles were fought within sight of the castle during the time of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce: the Battle of Stirling bridge, fought immediately to the north; and the Battle of Bannockburn, which was fought only two miles east of the castle. In more recent times the castle acted as the home depot for the Argyl & Sutherland Highland regiments which were raised there during the Napoleonic wars. Their regimental museum is one of many fantastic features of the castle grounds which overlook the old city of Stirling and the surrounding countryside.

With so many medieval castles to choose from, it can be difficult to decide which ones to visit. Other important British castles not shown here include Dover Castle, which represented another massive project during its time, and Caernarfon Castle, which was built on the site of a previous motte-and-bailey fortification, and which grandly houses large residential and administrative areas. The astonishing fact is that even though there are so many fortresses around Great Britain, most of them saw some combat — often on a considerable scale. For many hundreds of years, the entire island experienced repeated spasms of warfare which were sometimes postponed only long enough to fight the French or the so-called pagans in the East. That such a small population maintained such a sustained level of conflict seems amazing by today's standard. A peaceful Britain is obviously a more pleasant place to visit than a war torn land of highway-robbers and marauding armies.
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