• Michael Smith, Author, Translator, Printmaker

Book Review: The Castle at War in Medieval England and Wales


The Castle at War is an interesting and unusual contribution to castle studies. This is because, in many ways, the castles which make up its subject seem to take a back seat to the overall narrative of this absorbing book.

Since GT Clark’s Mediaeval Military Architecture in England of 1884, the treatment of castles in many books has typically focused on the architecture, sometimes on a putative architectural evolution, or on defensive features. Simultaneously others, building on the Ella Armitage’s ground-breaking Early Norman Castles of 1912, have trod fascinating pathways and taken a broader approach by examining topics such as the role of castles in mediaeval society or in the landscape.

Both approaches have in recent times been embellished by new research and archaeological revelations which have helped to transform thinking further.

Unusually, this book does not fall into either of these categories. Indeed, we might not see this as a book about castles at all; instead it is a book about castles in their context – the context of English, Welsh and (some) Scottish history into which the castles fit. It is a magnificent compact history of the key events sweeping much of the British Isles between the Norman Conquest and the late Middle Ages, with coverage of the final days of castles in the English Civil War and beyond.

Castles as a backdrop

Instead of seeing these castles as their familiar manifestations in our minds (e.g. the great keep at Scarborough or the looming presence of Caerphilly), we are asked to see the castle as a backdrop to significant events, leading figures and national turmoil. Consequently, all the key events of mediaeval history of England and Wales are covered: the Conquest; the Anarchy; the Barons’ wars; wars with Scottish kings and Welsh princes; the Hundred Years War and beyond.

On this canvas, in the manner of Georges Seurat, the castles of these times are dotted minutely so that we can understand the fuller picture by standing back. Hence, we are rarely treated to the familiar (and nowadays somewhat tired) description of the castles we know. Instead, their illustrious names populate this book throughout as indicators of how England, Wales - and to some extent Scotland – were wracked by wars in which strongholds were won, lost and regained. This is a book of narrative: how the lands which emerged from the so-called Dark Ages remained troubled for several hundred years as great figures struggled for power and supremacy.

As a consequence, the photographs in the book are almost surplus to requirements: the castle as ruin or architectural subject is arguably unnecessary to our enjoyment. We do not need to see Cricieth on its familiar mound or the devastated stumps of Corfe, as so ravaged following the gallant defence by Lady Bankes during the English Civil War. Though these, as always, are part of the grammar of any castle book, of more interest are the maps which we can dip into to familiarise ourselves again with key locations in terms of the history described in the book. If anything, more maps to accompany each chapter would have been more in keeping with the volume.

Accessible narrative

But illustration is almost irrelevant. Spencer’s writing is easy to grasp and the narrative and sweep are attractive and easy to follow. He has been brave indeed to take on such a broad spread of history and yet weave it successfully into a compelling read. Necessarily, the focus on the castle at war means that context of castle within society has taken a back step. Hence, we avoid the concept of the castle as mystical place, aesthetic statement and, to some extent, ancestral home.

Having said this, while we learn of the arrival and rise of castles, their role in history is not truly complete unless we understand what became of them; why they declined. So, despite the title of the book, the castle at war, the building of statement castles in the later mediaeval period is important and could perhaps have been covered in greater depth. While we learn of how castles were shaped in war, a lack of war also shapes them. What do castles say about what we have become?

In such a context, the final passages of the book – particularly the Epilogue - seem strangely flat as the narrative loses its sweep and instead is almost a laconic observation of what has happened to these wonderful buildings since their heyday. Perhaps we should just accept them as emblematic of a life once lived and never to come again; war today happens far away and castles are for tourists? I suppose in a work of such stylistic readability, I am asking for a greater sense of “closure”, even hope for its hero: the castle itself.

But this is a minor point in what is a wonderful achievement. If I do have a criticism of the work it is that, somewhere in the publishing process, the in-house proof-reading cycle could have been better. While the minor typos in (particularly later) parts of the book can be excused, there are some areas which are more irritating. Early on, we read that Canterbury castle’s walls were forty metres thick rather than, as seems more likely, four metres, or twelve feet. Elsewhere, spellings of Welsh castles varied between English and Welsh (Kidwelly/Cydweli; Criccieth/Cricieth), we are treated on three occasions to a description of what constitutes a bombard; we also learn of a Prince Margaret during the Tudor period.

A contextual field companion

Yet this is not to detract from what is a book I would recommend to anyone with an interest either in castles or mediaeval history. It is not a castle book in the standard model; it is rather a companion to castle studies, helping us to understand where these ruins fit in the history of mediaeval Britain. Often, the visitor to these castles might pick up the guidebook and read the history but be left confused about where such-and-such a place fitted into the greater historical tapestry of events. With this book, they won’t. Dan Spencer has created a perfect companion for people who travel the country searching for castles: he has placed them in their deserved historic setting so we can visit them and feel their presence within a much wider context.

Read this book, know the history, go in search of castles…

The Castle at War in Medieval England and Wales

Author: Dr Dan Spencer

Publisher: Amberley Press, 2018;

Price: £20

Available here

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© 2020, Michael Smith, all rights reserved

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