Sunday, 18 December 2016

Bodiam Castle: the film star with the enigma


   Bodiam Castle has starred in TV series and Hollywood feature films because of its aura, beauty and charisma: historians have debated if this showiness was its true purpose rather than military defence and so there is a central enigma behind the celebrity smile.
   The question would seem to be answered by a public document issued on 20th October 1385 by King Richard II to Sir Edward Dalyngrigge or Dallingridge, the owner, which gave him permission to "strengthen with a wall of stone and lime, crenellate and make into a castle his manor house at Bodiam, next to the sea, for the defence of the adjacent country and resistance to the king's enemies." The idea of such a licence  was to narrow the scope for castle building or adding battlements and meant that not every upstart could do so on a whim and thereby threaten the power of the crown. Yet Sir Edward built his castle further up the hill from his house and endowed it with features which would not have served as a strong defence but which did bring him status because of their lavish nature. Bodiam is a 10-mile march from the sea, access by the River Rother was not very threatening and Sir Edward was probably anxious to rise in society from being a knight to a member of the higher lordly aristocracy. Ownership of a castle provided that upward mobility, particularly if this possession appeared to be for the public good and safety of the realm. The licence proved to the neighbours that he was the possessor of a castle not a house.

The moat
   Ignoring the silly and demeaning bunting, one can see here that the moat emphasises the grandeur of the castle by setting it in a sea of reflections and by isolating it from surroundings that might make it look smaller. Moats were used as defensive feature because they impeded access to the walls which could be undermined if soldiers came close. Yet this one, although 6 feet deep and broad, is held in place along half its length by a dam which could be easily breached and it is not strengthened by stonework. Originally there were 6 (fish?) ponds making it part of extensive watery landscaping - hardly a military necessity - and the presence nearby of natural springs may have induced the designer (probably Henry Yevele, a royal mason) to suggest the new site, the moat etc giving the building symbolic and aesthetic appeal. Because it is not squeezed onto a rocky platform dictating its shape, the designer had a free hand to create a nearly square, regular and symmetrical plan. The weather was dull when I took these photographs but Bodiam is at its Mona Lisa best in shimmering sun or mysterious mist.

The windows etc
   You can also see that the external windows are larger than a truly military castle would have demanded: the South and East walls have huge ones and the others are vulnerable including those in the hall and the 3-light Gothic window in the chapel. The arrow-loops are narrow and awkwardly placed, the gun-openings inflexible and the murder holes through which all kinds of nastiness could be poured onto the enemy are small. The battlements, the main object of the licence, are not all full sized, being half scale on the turrets and in miniature round the rims of chimneys and on the main fireplace (why have crenellations in those places except for ornament?) The magnificent gatehouse, which boasts some of these apparently warlike features as well as twin projecting towers with machicolations, could not have had a drawbridge because of the design and, anyway, a hostile force could have attacked through the poorly defended rear Postern gate. Guests would have entered there, full of admiration after viewing the parks, farmlands and hunting grounds. Most importantly - there is no keep. Have a piece of CAKE if you had noticed!

Domestic apartments and arrangements
   Bodiam Castle rejoices in 28 en suite toilets (mostly draining into the moat) and 33 fireplaces, hospitable accessories for a family's visitors but far too lavish for a garrison. The range of domestic buildings, including pantry (French "pain"), buttery (French "bouteille") and kitchen were in the handsome central courtyard and, together with the Great Hall, placed opposite the main gate. Sir Edward's (note that I am avoiding spelling his surname!) private apartment was on the upper floor and would have been splendid, although his wealth may not have extended to tapestries, merely to painted hangings.  All would have been affluent, comfortable and classy. There is even evidence that there was a separate banqueting hall or gazebo even higher up the hill with views of the surroundings and the splendour of the castle.

Backdrop to Sir Edward's situation.
   Although in the 12th and 13th centuries the country was in turmoil, by the later 14th century the atmosphere was calmer, despite the peasants' revolting (I nearly wrote "being revolting"), rebellion against the king and a threat of dangerous French invasion by armada after their recent burning and raiding on the south coast as part of what we now call the Hundred Years' War. There is no evidence, though, that Sir Edward was terrified by this and he had made many excursions across the Channel to commit similar actions. If there were battles they were pitched in open fields rather than being castle sieges. At the moment of applying for his licence Sir Edward was facing imprisonment over his dramatic quarrel with the eminent John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, over the murder of his sub-forester, William Mouse, (love that name!) and may have suddenly wanted proven respectability. As he was from a comparatively humble background, having married a wealthy heiress and made a mint on the continent, he probably wanted to accentuate his position. His income of around £200-300 p.a. was very comfortable but not sufficient to pay for this extravaganza and, although he sold off some of his wife's lands from 1381 onwards, we may assume that some money came from foreign pillaging, ransoms and sale of captured French knights' armour (typically worth £400) in the company of Sir Robert Knolles or Knowles, who was reputed to have made 100,000 gold crowns as a mercenary and whose arms are displayed over the Postern gate. (Consistency of spelling became a fetish much later - in the 18th century.)
The full Monty - though not necessarily French
Not only is Bodiam Castle alluring in its beauty but it raises intriguing questions about the definition and function of castles in the late 14th century as well as causing some disquiet about the chivalry of knights such as Sir Edward. Chaucer's portrait of the knight in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales has been taken at face value as the picture of a perfect chivalrous gentleman of roughly this period but has been proved definitively - in my opinion - by Terry Jones to be a scathing description of a ruthless mercenary. Sir Edward was not of that ilk but may have built his fantasy castle on some ill-gotten gains, at least considered by modern standards. It was later owned and restored by John Fuller, George Cubitt and Lord Curzon. I bet they didn't string up manky bunting. You can play at spot-the-W.W.II-pill-box on your way out: use the loos nearby on your way in - go before you go.
    My keen-eyed readers will have clocked that Bodiam is far from the Welsh Marches and its buses but there are interesting contrasts and comparisons with castles there: it is similar to stunning Raglan Castle in being a Toff's residence and very different from isolated White Castle whose purpose was entirely military. The vast Caerphilly Castle is also enlarged and mirrored by lakes which are truly defensive. An earlier fortress such as imposing Chepstow Castle conforms to the linear structure of the threatening cliffs and was built to emphasise Norman political power whereas the designer of Bodiam had a free space to exploit as he chose and probably was instructed to underline personal prestige. Another Welsh connection is that, in the 1380's, the great magnate, the Earl of Arundel, put sir Edward in charge of his estates in Wales. My verdict on the main debate is that it was built as a castle, looks like a castle and so is a castle and that Sir Edward of the unpronounceable surname just wanted to indulge himself with a seductive folly. The rest of us will have to be content with CAKE.

For opening times and activities and a chance to complain about the bunting click here.

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