Saturday, February 14, 2009

Nunney, Somerset

What's that château for?

Castles. Bastions in the defence of the realm, of course. Homes of grand feudal lords, to be sure. But also status symbols to impress the knight down the road. And what better status symbol for a knight who had done well in the Hundred Years War than a castle in the French style in the middle of his English domains?

That must have been the thinking behind Nunney Castle, a small building like a miniature Bastille in a quiet Somerset village. It was built for Sir John Delamere in 1373, and it was said that he paid for it with ransom money he collected during the wars in France. It’s just four corner towers connected by lengths of high stone wall, the latter so short on two sides that the towers are nearly touching. The four towers originally had conical roofs, and a protruding walkway ran around the tops of the walls, linking the towers at the upper level. The whole thing would not have seemed out of place in an illustration for a fairy-tale, and was not unlike some of the châteaux forts that Delamere would have seen in France.

Curiously, although there is high, defensible ground nearby, land that would have made a good site for a castle, Delamere chose to build down in the village, near the river. One advantage of this site was a ready water supply to fill the moat. But one can’t help thinking that Delamere put his castle where he did so that it would be seen and admired by the neighbours.

The drawback was that an enemy could take up a position on the nearby high ground and blast holes in the castle walls. Nunney Castle got blasted during the English Civil Wars of the 17th century, when Cromwellian artillery blew a big hole in one wall and the building’s military career was over.

Writers about castles used to stress the solid, soldierly, utilitarian aspect of these buildings, treating them as the homes of hardened war leaders and as bases for military operations. All that is true, and yet the more you look at castles, the more you see that there’s more to them than that. Recent research has revealed, for example, that the lumps and bumps in the ground around many medieval castles are the remains not of defensive works but of ornamental gardens. Fancy windows, especially ones placed high up, out of arrow range, also hint at status-conscious owners. Many castles, especially ones built, like Nunney, in the later Middle Ages, seem at least partly built to impress. And even in its ruined state, impress this one still does.


Peter Ashley said...

I've always wanted to go here. Those towers huddled-up together for warmth. Great pic.too

Zoe Brooks said...

Can't help thinking that he should gone back to France and nabbed a few more French nobles to pay for the walls, beats going back to the bank manager anyway.

Philip Wilkinson said...

H'm, yes. One way of avoiding the 14th-century credit crunch, I suppose.

Neil said...

Status anxiety is always with is, like the poor. Which is lucky for the rich man, because what's the point of being a rich man in a castle without a poor man at your gate?

Thud said...

bloody nouveau riche.