The term castle can get a bit too broad when we talk about them in England. Some of the fortified manors dating from the late Middle Ages are also called “castles” but a “real” castle was built with a defense purpose in mind.
A castle was home for its owner and family, a place where guests were entertained, a local center of administration, as well as a strong building meant to defend its occupants.
Since the word “castle” has been used pretty generically to define many types of fortifications, there are many structures in England that pre-date the Middle Ages and are referred to as castles.
The first fortifications appeared in Britain around 5th century BC but the earth and wooden works proved no match for the Romans who eventually conquered the region. The Romans then built forts on a standard rectangular plan.
One of the most impressive Roman forts, still standing, is Portchester Castle. The castle is located in Hampshire. The walls of the Roman fort are said to be the most complete in Northern Europe. Visiting the Roman grounds and wall is free but there is a fee to visit the Norman Castle built in one of the corners. Climb to the top of the castle for a spectacular view of the area.
In Europe the first Medieval Castles appeared around 9th century when nobles fought for their territories by building wooden structures to defend their grounds. The first stone castles were generally centered on a tower. In 1079 the work at White Tower (at Tower of London) and Colchester Castle (Essex) started.
The Tower of London is located right in the heart of the city, on the river Thames. It is one of the greatest Medieval Castles in England. The tower is famous for its guards (called Beefeaters), the ravens, the Crown Jewels housed here and also for its long and bloody history. The ticket price (at the gate) is £16.50 for an adult and £9.50 for a child.
Colchester Castle (see photo right) is located in Essex and was built around the podium of the Roman Temple of Claudius. The castle is now home to a very interesting museum which exhibits the Roman history at Colchester (the first Roman capital of Britain). The ticket price to visit the Castle museum is £5.20 for an adult and £3.40 for a child. There are guided tours available to visit the Roman vaults, Norman chapel and Castle roof and they cost £2.10 for an adult and £1.10 for a child (available only after paying the entrance fee to the Museum).
A variation of the standard castle was a shell keep. A tall circular wall was built around the top of the motte and then all important buildings were places inside that wall. The best example for this type of built is Restormel Castle (see photo left), located in Lostwithiel, Cornwall. It stands on a hill overlooking the river Fowey. The walls of the keep are over 2.4 meters (8 ft) thick and are surrounded by a moat. Other similar shell keeps can be seen at Totnes Castle in Devon and Lewes Castle in East Sussex.
The decline of castles
Eventually the changes in society gradually led to the decline of castles. Nobles started to look for more comfortable homes while the defense was now offered by the soldiers in forts.
The changes in the way battles were fought also led to the decline. The design of old castles wasn’t strong enough to withstand cannon fire and that led to the development of new defensive structures.