Hen Domen

This artist’s impression of Hen Domen, based on the archaeologists’ findings, shows how the castle might have appeared in the twelfth century.

How were these buildings actually constructed? The trees, as you might expect, were felled using axes and dragged to the site by animals in order for construction to begin. The

After his coronation, William was faced with the dilemma common to many conquerors: how to rule his new subjects with fairness, and at the same time reward his victorious comrades-in-arms. Having claimed to be the legitimate successor of King Edward, he wanted to prove to the English that he would be a good king, willing and able to uphold the laws and customs of his predecessor. At the same time, however, he had an army of seven thousand men at his back, all recruited by the promise of rich pickings, and all now hungry for payment. In the early days of his reign, we see William trying to balance these contradictory expectations and demands. Certainly, many Normans grew rich at the expense of Englishmen. Plunder and booty—which the Continental chroniclers called “gifts”—were shipped back to Normandy in large quantities.

Yet even as churches and monasteries were being pillaged, William was being lenient and generous in his dealings with the governing class of England. Of course, a lot of aristocrats, including Harold and his brothers, had perished at Hastings, but there was little anyone could do about that. To those who survived, however, William was quite charitable, allowing them (once they had sworn allegiance, naturally) to remain in possession of their existing lands and titles. When it came to governing his new subjects, the king exhibited the same sensitive streak. Letters drafted by his ministers continued to be written in English, and William was so keen to make a good impression that he even started learning the language himself. He seems to have believed that, given enough time, the English and the Normans could settle down and live happily side by side.

But William’s lenient approach did not endear him to the English. On the contrary, treating them with kid gloves actually provoked the opposite reaction. In the first five years of his reign, William faced a series of rebellions up and down the country. His response was to deal with them in much the same way as he had dealt with his opponents in Normandy. At the first sign of trouble, he marched his army into the affected region, put down the insurrection, and began to build a major new castle. These new royal foundations were, almost without exception, constructed in the larger towns and cities of England, where the population and the resistance were most concentrated. The king had already enforced his authority in London in the weeks immediately after his coronation, building a castle in the southeast corner of the city. When, early in 1068, the first rebellion broke out in the West Country, William wasted no time marching his troops down to Exeter and repeating the exercise. Likewise, when in the summer the two English earls who controlled the Midlands and the north cast off their allegiance, William pushed his way northward, establishing castles at Warwick and Nottingham. When he reached York, he began the construction of the giant motte that still stands in the city center (Clifford’s Tower). Returning south, the king planted three more new castles at Lincoln, Cambridge, and Huntingdon, mopping up pockets of resistance as he went.

None of this, of course, was especially good for Anglo-Norman relations. When building these new castles, the king and his engineers showed little concern for the English inhabitants of the town or city in question. Nothing was allowed to stand in the way once the optimum site had been selected. At Cambridge, twenty-seven houses were razed to the ground to clear a space for the works to begin. In Lincoln, the number of dwellings destroyed was 166. But while William showed few or no scruples about building castles over people’s homes, he could at least claim to be acting out of strategic necessity. Outside the towns and cities, the king was still reluctant to indulge in any wide-scale disinheritance of Anglo-Saxon landowners.

A handful of his leading men had been rewarded with grants of land at this time, and they were busy asserting their own authority in similar fashion. In Sussex, for example, a number of Continental-style lordships, each organized around a castle, were created immediately after 1066. But how far castle-building extended in general is not known. Writing just one year after the Norman invasion, a monk at Worcester said that, when the king was away in Normandy, his regents “built castles far and wide throughout the land, oppressing the unhappy people.” How much this statement reflects the general situation, however, is open to question. One of the regents, William Fitz Osbern, had been made earl of Hereford, and constructed several castles in the Severn valley region before 1070; our Worcester monk may have heard more horror stories about castles going up than most people. We should also perhaps allow for the fact he was clearly very depressed about the Conquest in general.

“Things went ever from bad to worse,” he said in his next sentence. “When God wills, may the end be good.”

What did transform the situation, however, was the great rebellion of 1069. It was a response, in part, to William’s castle-building program of the previous year. The king’s new foundations were seen as a provocation—an invitation, even, for the English to rise up and smash them. When the men of Northumbria and Yorkshire rose early in the year, the lightly defended motte and bailey at York was an obvious and tempting target. William soon retook the castle and ordered the construction of another, but the city still fell for a second time in the summer. On this occasion the northerners came in greater numbers, aided in their rebellion by the arrival of a Danish army.

“Forming an immense host, riding and marching in high spirits, they all resolutely advanced on York and stormed and destroyed the castle, seizing innumerable treasures therein, and slaying many hundreds of Frenchmen.”

For the third time in eighteen months, William was obliged to move his army into Yorkshire and retake its principal city. On this, his final attempt, defeating the rebels took considerable effort, and the Danes had to be paid to withdraw. By the time he rode triumphant through the smoldering ruins of York, the king himself was fuming.

Dealing with the rebellion of 1069 appears to have caused something inside William to snap. He had, after all, tried to be nice to the English, letting many of them keep their lands and promising to uphold their ancient laws and customs. Yet all they had done in return was repay his generosity with contempt, and force him to spend time, money, and energy in putting down their insolence. What’s more, even now, after three years, they showed no signs whatsoever of giving up. So, since the softly-softly approach had evidently failed, William now allowed the more brutal side of his character to take over. After a somber Christmas in York, he divided his army into small contingents and sent them out into the countryside of Yorkshire and Northumbria. Their mission was to burn crops, homes, and livestock, in order to render the entire region incapable of supporting human life. Modern historians have dubbed this the “Harrying of the North,” but only a contemporary author can fully capture the horrific consequences of the king’s decision. One northern chronicler described it thus:

So great a famine prevailed that men, compelled by hunger, devoured human flesh, [and also] that of horses, dogs, and cats . . . [Some] sold themselves to perpetual slavery, so that they might in that way preserve their wretched existence; others, while about to go into exile from their country, fell down in the middle of their journey and gave up the ghost. It was horrific to behold human corpses decaying in the houses, the streets, and on the roads, swarming with worms while they were consuming in corruption with an abominable stench . . . There was no village inhabited between York and Durham; they became lurking places to wild beasts and robbers, and were a great dread to travelers.

In retrospect, the Harrying was seen as the most savage and merciless act of William’s whole career. At the time, however, the king regarded it as just the beginning of a new direction in royal policy. If the English did not want him as their king, and were never going to give him their love or loyalty, why should he worry about respecting their laws or customs? This cold logic soon translated itself into action. Not only did William abandon his English lessons, and start spending much less time in England; he also decided there was no point in upholding the rights of Englishmen when there were loyal Normans who needed rewarding. In the year 1070, therefore, he deposed many native bishops and abbots, including the archbishop of Canterbury, and replaced them with Continental newcomers. In the same year, the king permitted English monasteries to be plundered for cash.

The biggest change, however, was not felt in church cloisters, but in the countryside at large. In the wake of the English rebellions, William created huge new blocks of power for his most trusted followers, and charged them with holding down their new territories by whatever means they chose. Above all else, this meant building many hundreds of castles.

One of the main beneficiaries of William’s change of heart in 1070 was Roger of Montgomery. Roger was one of William’s oldest and closest friends: we first spot the pair of them together when William was in his late teens, and their friendship may have stretched back even earlier. Two major things underline the degree of trust between the two men. First, when William set sail for England in 1066, Roger was the man he left in charge of Normandy during his absence. Second, when Roger joined William in England shortly after the invasion, the king rewarded him with large grants of land. Roger was one of the individuals who profited from the early redistribution of property in Sussex, and in 1070 he received an even bigger prize. In the carve up following the Harrying of the North, William made Roger earl of Shrewsbury (or Shropshire).

This was a very large gift, and it catapulted Roger right to the top of English society. In the list of the top ten Normans in England after 1066, Roger ranks number three—below William himself and his half-brother, Odo, but above the king’s other half-brother, Robert. With great power, however, came great responsibility. As earl, Roger was expected to keep order in the region, and also to defend the English border with Wales. Shropshire, like Yorkshire, was one of the remotest and wildest parts of William’s new kingdom. In order to carry out the task appointed to him, Roger built several new castles. One of the most important of these, to judge from its name, was the one he called “Montgomery,” after his own home town of Montgommeri in Normandy. This castle, a perfect little motte and bailey, still survives, but for centuries it has been known by its Welsh name, simply meaning “the old mound.” It is called Hen Domen.

Hen Domen provides an interesting contrast with castles built by William the Conqueror at around the same time. Rather than being constructed in the middle of a town or city, Roger of Montgomery’s new castle was built in the open countryside. Despite its isolation, however, it was of crucial importance for Roger in controlling his earldom. He picked the site in order to command an ancient crossroads, and also to control the traffic across a major ford on the River Severn. Today the castle is no less lonely than it was nine centuries ago. It squats between two farmers’ fields, is overgrown by trees and bushes, and looks for all the world like nothing more than a woodland copse. But despite its apparent obscurity, Hen Domen has once again become very important. In fact, it is one of the most talked-about castle sites in Europe.

For a period of almost forty years, Hen Domen was the site of a massive archaeological dig. Every summer, from the early sixties to the late nineties, archaeologists gathered at the castle for weeks on end to try to uncover its secrets. With a total of over two years spent digging, this was the biggest and most sustained archaeological investigation of its kind ever undertaken. Thanks to the work done at Hen Domen, a great deal has been learned, not only about the nature of early castles, but about what life was like within their vanished wooden walls.

In itself, Hen Domen has good reason to be considered special. Although it is only a small- to medium-sized motte and bailey, the strength of the castle’s defenses reflect both the high status of its builder and the dangerousness of its position on the border. As at the royal castle at Berkhamsted, built by either William or his half-brother Robert, we find multiple lines of defense. Three earthen ramparts ring the whole site, forming two deep ditches around the castle. Anyone approaching with hostile intent would have had to cross the first ditch, climb over a wooden fence with a fighting platform behind it, and then negotiate another, deeper ditch—all this before they reached the castle’s main walls, which stood twelve to fourteen feet high.

Of course, it is impossible to say exactly what stood above the ground by digging underneath it. Nevertheless, the excavations at Hen Domen permitted some reasonable estimates. They revealed two rows of post-holes, one set behind the other, which indicated that the walls must have been backed by a fighting platform, raised off the ground by the posts. In order to allow a man to pass underneath it, the platform must have been raised to a height of at least six or seven feet. Similarly, a man standing on top of the platform would need to be protected from attack, so we must assume that the wall rose at least another six or seven feet in front of him, bringing the total height of the wall up to the suggested height of twelve to fourteen feet.

In a similar fashion, the archaeologists were able to estimate the size of bailey buildings at Hen Domen. Certain post-holes were evidently home to very large timbers, and from the scale of these foundations the overall shape of the buildings can be guessed. At the foot of the motte, for example, the archaeologists uncovered the remains of a very large building. In all probability, this was the castle’s great hall. Judging by the massive size of its foundation ditch, the hall stood two stories high, providing space downstairs for storage, and a main first-floor room where Roger and his household would have sat and dined. Behind the hall the team discovered evidence of a flying bridge of exactly the kind depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. Again, it was the size of this structure that was striking. The foundations (and also, remarkably, a surviving timber that was found preserved in the ditch) indicate that the bridge must have been twelve feet wide; large enough to ride a horse up, if necessary. Finally, on the top of the motte, the diggers uncovered evidence for a great tower—or rather, several great towers, for it seems that the buildings on the motte were replaced several times over the years. Again, the scale of the foundations suggest that the greatest of these towers was at least two stories tall.

How were these buildings actually constructed? The trees, as you might expect, were felled using axes and dragged to the site by animals in order for construction to begin. The trunks, however, were not cut to shape using saws, but by the more efficient process of splitting. Starting with a large oak tree, wooden or metal wedges were driven into the trunk along its length, using a wooden mallet or hammer. Eventually a crack would open and, with a little encouragement from crowbars, the tree would split in half. After this, the process could be repeated several times—the half could be split into quarters, the quarters split into eighths, and so on. In fact, if you had a good-sized oak tree, it was possible to get over a thousand square feet of planking from a single trunk. Once you had produced enough timber in this manner, you could start building with them right away—provided your boss wasn’t too concerned about the rough quality of the finish. If, however, he demanded smoother surfaces on his castle walls, these could be produced by working the split wood with an axe, and then dressing it with a smaller, subtler tool called a T-axe.

Other materials besides timber went into constructing an early castle. The walls of buildings could be built or reinforced with clay, as well as the well-known “wattle and daub.” When it came to roofing, slate tiles may have been used in some cases, but no such slates were ever uncovered at Hen Domen. Thatched roofs may also have existed, but using thatch obviously meant that there was a much greater danger from fire. Bearing both these things in mind, the archaeologists assumed that the roofs at Hen Domen would also have been made of timber, built either from planking or by using shingles. There was nothing low-status about any of these materials—especially wood. Roger of Montgomery was a very powerful man, and wood was his material of choice. Likewise, the castles built by William the Conqueror and his brothers were constructed in almost every case from earth and timber. The diggers at Hen Domen were slightly disappointed that none of the buildings there seem to have been very ornate—no carved timbers were uncovered. Roger’s castle, it seems, was not a fancy example like the one at Bayeux on the Bayeux Tapestry, with its dragon’s head over the doorway. Nevertheless, the size and number of the buildings was in itself revealing. It gradually became clear to the archaeologists at Hen Domen that they were not uncovering a small huddle of shabby-looking structures, but a site that was thickly planted with buildings, built on a scale that matched the fabulous descriptions of the chroniclers.

The only genuine disappointment for the archaeologists at Hen Domen was the limited number of “small finds” they uncovered, and the fact that none of these items suggested a truly aristocratic lifestyle. There were no brooches or jewelry to compare with the finds at Threave (see Chapter Five); the most exciting find was half a wooden bucket. Of course, we can make certain allowances for the lack of luxury items. This was a castle, not a town or a battlefield; people were not necessarily dropping and losing things all the time. They must have had rubbish pits in which to throw away their unwanted or broken items, but these were never found: despite digging for forty years, the archaeologists only had time to excavate half the bailey. Who knows what treasures—or rubbish—might be concealed in the other half? Hen Domen has by no means given up all its secrets.

But even with all these excuses, the inescapable conclusion was that life at Hen Domen was not exactly luxurious. It was not a place where Roger of Montgomery turned up with his precious things: certainly no gold or jewels, and probably not even much money—only one coin was found on the site. In its early days at least, it was a garrison castle, manned entirely by knights and soldiers, whose standard of living was basic, not to say Spartan. Only two of the bailey buildings showed signs of being heated by fires and, to judge from the animal bones that were found, the diet of the occupants was quite simple. They typically ate beef, mutton, and pork, and from time to time they got to dine on deer—a slightly classier dish. All this food, however, could be sourced locally; there was no indication that fancier foodstuffs ever found their way to the castle.

But this would not have been unusual. In the eleventh century, knighthood was still a long way from the fine living and pageantry of the late Middle Ages. In Roger of Montgomery’s day, it was not such an exclusive club; knights were numbered in thousands, not hundreds, and the poorer ones were not much better off than peasants who had done well for themselves. The men whom Roger sent to Hen Domen to guard the fringes of his earldom no doubt cursed the cold and criticized the cooking. But their experience was probably little different from that shared by Norman knights all over England.

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