In 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, became William I, king of England, known as William the Conqueror. This heralded the start of the Norman period and the building of some of Britain’s most impressive castles and strongholds.
Whilst some are in ruin and others have been altered significantly, there is no doubt that the strength of Norman construction has formed the foundations for many of the country’s most important sites.
From castles such as Pevensey, Hastings and Rochester to the Tower of London, Norman times left a solid imprint on British soil.
1. Rochester Castle
One of the best-preserved Norman fortifications in England, Rochester Castle was built at a strategic crossroads in the years following the Norman Conquest. The castle saw several early iterations during the sometimes-tumultuous years after the conquest and it was in 1127 that a more permanent fortification was constructed.
King John besieged Rochester Castle during the uprising of the barons, with the castle suffering significant damage in the conflict. The castle was also damaged a century later during the Peasants’ Revolt.
Over the centuries that followed Rochester Castle remained as an active fortress until the 16th century when it fell in to disrepair.
Today the castle has been largely restored and is open to visitors under the custodianship of English Heritage.
2. Pevensey Castle
Pevensey was the site where William the Conqueror landed in Britain on 28 September 1066 and the first castle he built.
Originally a timber structure, this was replaced by stone in the 12th century, the beginnings of the Pevensey Castle we see today. With an imposing gatehouse, bailey wall and square keep, this became a mighty fortification that survived several attempts to breach its walls, most notably in a siege carried out Simon de Montfort against the sheltering supporters of King Henry III in 1264.
It was reinforced several times over the centuries, its picturesque ruins now under the remit of English Heritage.
3. Hastings Castle
Hastings Castle was originally built as a timber structure a short time after the Norman invader William the Conqueror landed in England in 1066. This was not far from the site where, shortly afterwards, William decisively defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, thus achieving the conquest of England and being crowned King William I.
However, it was only in 1070 that the Norman king gave orders to transform Hastings Castle into a fully fledged stone fortified castle, the ruins of which can be seen there today. Destroyed and rebuilt several times, today, Hastings Castle is open to the public, who can tour its ruins.
4. Colchester Castle
Colchester Castle is a beautifully preserved Norman stronghold with a rich history dating back to Roman times. Built from 1076 (some say from 1069) and completed in around 1100, it was constructed under the order of King William I for use as a royal fortress.
Colchester Castle would go on to serve several other roles, including being besieged in 1215 by King John and becoming the site of interrogation and jailing of “witches” in 1645 by a self-proclaimed Witchfinder General called Matthew Hopkins. It was also a private home and a library at different times.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Colchester Castle is its keep, which is said to be the largest example of a Norman keep Britain. The grand size of this central tower is a legacy from Roman times as it was built on the foundations of a vast Roman temple known as the Temple of Claudius (said to date back to the 1st century AD).
5. Richmond Castle
Richmond Castle in North Yorkshire is a picturesque ruined Norman Castle which was originally built to help secure Norman control of the North of England. The castle was built and strengthened throughout the Norman period with Henry II and Henry III extending its fortifications.
It’s thought that the castle fell out of active use in the 14th century and slowly fell to ruin. Despite this, the castle has more surviving 11th-century architecture than any other castle in England, including its impressive Norman keep.
6. Castle Rising
Castle Rising is a ruined Norman fortification in Norfolk which is now one of the best preserved castle-keeps in England.
First constructed by the Anglo-Norman lord William d’Aubigny in 1138, it later became the palace of Queen Isabella, widow of Edward II and mother of Edward III. Surrounded by 20 acres of expansive earthworks, the castle would have been the very symbol of a medieval fortress. Within the castle can also be found the remains of an early Norman Church.
Castle Rising passed to the Howard family in the 16th century and though it remains in their ownership today it is periodically open to the public in partnership with English Heritage.
7. Durham Castle
Durham Castle was originally commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1072, intended to ensure Norman control in the North of England.
Once under Church control, each bishop, on his appointment, would put his own stamp on the castle, and duly altered it to reflect his own glory. However, despite the many changes, Durham Castle retains the layout of a Norman motte and bailey castle. It has a well preserved Norman chapel, dating from 1080, and many other features of interest.
8. Battle Abbey and Battlefield
Battle Abbey and Battlefield was the site of the Battle of Hastings in October 1066 where William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, defeated King Harold II to become William I, King of England. King Harold was killed in the clash. William built Battle Abbey the Conqueror to commemorate those who died in battle. Today it is a museum which explores this victory and the events which led up to it as well as its aftermath.
9. Dover Castle
Dover Castle has been a vitally important fortress in English history, leading it to be known as ‘the key to England’. Perched high on the England’s coastal white cliffs overlooking the shortest crossing between the island and mainland Europe, the first incarnation of Dover Castle was built in the 11th century by William the Conqueror. Fresh from his victory at the 1066 Battle of Hastings, he built a castle of timber and earth.
Over the centuries, Dover Castle would be improved, expanded and renovated, but throughout this time and until 1958 it would be continually garrisoned. Today, Dover Castle is managed by English Heritage and is open to the public, providing a fascinating insight into the fortress’s history.
10. The Tower of London
Before it became the infamous prison, the Tower of London, originally known as the White Tower, was a fortress-stronghold. Commissioned by William the Conqueror, work on it was underway by the 1070s and it would continue to play the same defensive role until the late 19th century.