The Normans announced their occupation of Britain with a prolific spell of castle-building in the years after William the Conqueror’s 1066 invasion. These commanding stone fortresses were unlike anything the country had seen before, taking full advantage of Britain’s stone resources in ways that would have seemed inconceivable to the Anglo-Saxons.
Norman castles exuded an air of impregnability and power which would have left few in doubt that they were here to stay. Indeed, the durability of these imposing architectural statements was such that many of them are still standing more than 900 years later. Here are 11 of the best to visit.
The stone remains found here today were not actually built by the Normans but they do lie on the asupicious site where William received the English surrender in 1066. About four years after that surrender, William’s half-brother, Robert of Mortain, built a timber castle on the site in the traditional Norman motte-and-bailey style.
It wasn’t until the following century, however, that the castle was rebuilt by Thomas Becket, the right-hand man of Henry II. This rebuilding probably included the castle’s huge stone curtain wall.
Occupying an imposing hilltop position on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset, Corfe Castle was founded by William shortly after his arrival in 1066. As such it is a fine example of early Norman castle building and, thanks to restoration carried out by the National Trust, an evocative and fascinating site to visit.
As the site of William’s arrival to England on 28 September 1066, Pevensey’s central place in the story of the Norman conquest is assured.
It also became the site of William’s first fortification on English soil, a swiftly erected structure, built on the remains of a Roman fort, to shelter his troops before they marched to Hastings. William’s temporary fortifications were soon expanded into an impressive castle with a stone keep and gatehouse.
Colchester boasts the largest surviving Norman keep in Europe and the distinction of being the first stone castle that William ordered to be built in England.
The site of the castle was previously home to the Roman temple of the Emperor Claudius when Colchester, then known as Camulodunum, was the Roman capital of Britain.
A particularly fine example of 12th Century Norman castle building, Castle Rising in Norfolk boasts a large rectangular keep that showcases both the power and ornate detailing of Norman architecture.
Between 1330 and 1358 the castle was home to Queen Isabella, otherwise known as the ‘She-Wolf of France’. Isabella played a part in the violent execution of her husband Edward II before being retired to a lavish form of incarceration at Castle Rising, where her ghost is still said to walk the halls.
One of Britain’s most impressive historic sites, Dover Castle stands proud above the white cliffs overlooking the English Channel.
Its strategic position was already well-established by the time the Norman’s arrived – the site was fortified as long ago was the Iron Age before the Roman’s built two lighthouses here, one of which survives to this day.
William initially built fortifications on the site upon arrival in Dover, but the Norman Castle that stands today started to take shape during the reign of Henry II in the second half of the 12th century.
Widely considered to be among Britain’s finest monastic ruins, Wenlock is a tranquil and beautifully decorated Norman priory in Shropshire.
Founded as a priory for Cluniac Monks in the 12th Century, Wenlock was continually expanded until its dissolution in the 16th Century. The oldest remains, including the Chapter House, date back to around 1140.
Founded by the Normans in the 1120s, Kenilworth is undoubtedly one of the country’s most spectacular castles and its ruins provide a fascinating insight into 900 years of English history. The castle was modified throughout the centuries but it retains its impressive Norman keep.
Combining magnificent architecture with a stunning, moat enhanced setting, it’s little wonder that Leeds Castle has been described as the “loveliest castle in the world”. Located in near Maidstone in Kent, Leeds was founded by the Normans as a stone stronghold in the 12th Century.
Though few architectural features survive from that time due to extensive remodelling, the cellar beneath the heraldry room and the two-light window at the end of the banqueting hall are reminders of the castle’s Norman roots.
The White Tower
Initially built under the command of William in the early 1080s, the White Tower remains the dominant feature of the Tower of London to this day. Providing both accommodation and the castle’s strongest point of defence, the White Tower exemplifies the Norman emphasis on the keep as a symbol of the Lord’s power.
It’s easy to see how this iconic tower quickly became a commanding representation of Britain’s impregnable defences and military might.
Arguably one of the most important archaeological sites in the south of England, Old Sarum’s history stretches back as far as the Iron Age, when a hillfort was situated on the site. The Romans then settled the site, calling it Sorviodunum, before William recognised its potential and had a motte-and-bailey fortification built there.
Old Sarum was, for a while, a key administrative centre and bustling settlement; it was even the site of a Cathedral between 1092 and 1220. Only the foundations remain but the site nonetheless offers a fascinating impression of a long-forgotten Norman settlement.