Bodiam Castle: Medieval Ruins and Structural Secrets

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This is Bodiam Castle in East Sussex. From the photographs, you can clearly see that it’s a pretty spectacular construction. Indeed, it looks like the kind of castle immortalised in books and films as the type of defensive military stronghold we all associate with knights and soldiers, sieges and battles – “everyone’s idea of what a medieval stronghold should look like”, as the guidebook puts it.

It certainly has all the outward trappings of a classic medieval defensive building, although now ruined inside: thick stone walls and tall towers with battlements, a wide surrounding moat, a rare 14th century wooden portcullis, arrow slit windows, murder holes in the ceiling of the gatehouse (and even a much later piece of defensive kit in the shape of a World War Two-era pill-box) – all the things you’d expect to see in such a castle. Ostensibly, it is such a castle, and it has the kind of history you might expect from that too.

Bodiam was built during the 1380s by Sir Edward Dalyngrigge, who was born into a minor Sussex gentry family. He was a soldier, and had served abroad in the Hundred Years War before returning home and becoming influential in local politics as a JP and a MP. He married well, to a wealthy woman called Elizabeth Wardeux, and inherited a great deal of property both from his own family and from hers.

Included in this frankly enormous inheritance was the manor of Bodiam, and Dalyngrigge had big plans for the site. But before he could begin creating his dream property he needed what was rather wonderfully known as a ‘Licence to Crenellate’ from the king, which meant he could add defensive battlements (crenellations) to the building. The licence was issued in 1385 and gave Dalyngrigge 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.

But all may not actually be exactly what it seems here. Like any building of great age, Bodiam holds secrets within its walls – and its biggest secret concerns its true purpose. In recent years, a re-evaluation of the castle has uncovered some puzzling questions about its construction. Was it, as it initially appears, really built as a serious military fortification? Or was it instead designed as a sophisticated and grand house “with the architectural trappings of defence”, which aimed to impress visitors and loudly proclaim Dalyngrigge’s wealth and social status?

It has been argued that the militaristic wording of the licence is “empty rhetoric”, perhaps similar to the often inaccurate computer generated letters we get from companies today, with our personal details inserted into a standard set text (indeed, Bodiam was less “next to the sea” as at least ten miles away from it in the fourteenth century!). It could also have been the result of the ex-soldier Dalyngrigge making all the right noises to the king to get what he wanted – the noble status associated with owning and living in a castle, military stronghold or not.

And despite the forbidding appearance of the castle, there are some odd little defensive weaknesses that suggest it was not necessarily built as a military fortification. These include the structure of the dramatically constructed Gatehouse, where any important defensive drawbridge could not have been built as the portcullis would have got in the way of its mechanism, and the arrow loops and gun openings appear to be both incorrectly sited and of the wrong shape to be used effectively. And those murder holes? Probably decorative, since they seem too small to have been used at all.

However, there is still much debate on this fascinating historical subject, and, as yet, no academic consensus on whether Bodiam was strictly defensive or an example of “chivalric display and social advertisement”. This means it is, of course, entirely possible that these intriguing questions may never be fully answered, but they will hopefully make historians look at such buildings in a very different light in the future – because the past, however it shows itself in the present, is not always what it appears to be.

Information and quotes in this post are from the Bodiam Castle guidebook, written by John Goodall (2005 edition).

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3 comments

  1. shmoo7275

    I’ve visited Bodiam a couple of times and I too suspect it’s defensive utility was secondary to its purpose as a status symbol. There was real worry over the possible threat of French invasion in the 1370s and 80s, so I can imagine that Richard II and his advisers may well have thought that it couldn’t hurt to have another castle in the south-east but I think Dalyngrigge played on that to do a little social climbing. I doubt anybody seriously expected the castle to be used. It is an impressive edifice (from the outside) and well worth a visist. Is the moat still full of fish?

    • trickygirl

      Agreed. I suspect it was built as a bit of both. It certainly looks the part – and that could be an effective deterrant to any would-be invaders. The moat is certainly still full of the most enormous fish, which everyone mentions! Lots and lots of ducks too.

      Incidentally, the day we visited Bodiam we also went to Battle Abbey, and I have some photos from there coming up soon…

  2. Pingback: The Ducks of Bodiam | Another Kind Of Mind

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