Tag Archives: Castles

The Sanctuary (Italy Pt IV) 

With a loud crack of thunder, the heavens opened. The ferocity of the deluge sent victims scattering for shelter. The morning’s blazing sunshine had lulled us into a false sense of security. As such, it was thin tops and carrier bags hurriedly commandeered as hoods and umbrellas. The high, stone walls provided little cover, so we skittishly hopped from one closed doorway to the next, exchanging a few inches of shelter for another. Criss-crossing the courtyard in this manner, I eventually reached the bowels of the ancient building.

We weren’t the first to use this aged structure for sanctuary. There exists an underground tunnel connecting it to the Vatican. In 1527 the German Emperor, Charles V, and his forces sacked Rome. You might imagine a faithful pope would stand firm in Christendom’s holiest site. Trusting his fate to God. Instead, Pope Clement VII hitched up his robes and scurried down the tunnel to safety. Three-quarters of his elite Swiss Guards died defending his escape. Clearly Clement wasn’t a strong believer in Jesus’ proclamation ‘Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul…’

Rain. The tourist’s bane. Now safely sheltered, I stood at the mouth of a stone corridor eyeing the dismal drizzle’s dogged descent. Fellow tourists would periodically rush down the metal steps in search of sanctuary. The corridor led from an open courtyard deep into the bowels of the ancient fortress. We gathered at the entrance, eyes to the skies, waiting for a break in the bleak blanket.

There’s another famous pope-related story associated with this place. This pope wasn’t escaping an attack; he was initiating one. In 590 St. Gregory the Great had a vision of an angel unsheathing a sword atop the building. He interpreted it as a sign of an end to the plague which had gripped the city. The vision inspired him to lead a procession to the church of Santa Agata in Surburra. Upon arrival a sudden clap of thunder supposedly caused an idol to miraculously fall apart.

Upon his return, Gregory the Great saw another vision of the angel wiping blood from his sword before sheathing it. The pope interpreted this as a sign that God was appeased, although, that didn’t stop him destroying numerous other sites around the city. A more prosaic explanation for his actions was told by a 15th-century traveller. He claimed that, in response to the ongoing plague, Rome’s populace had begun worshipping pagan idols in desperation. So Gregory destroyed them. Either way, it was this purported event that gave the building its current name: Castel Sant’Angelo – literally translated as ‘Saint Angel Castle’ – in honour of the angel.

Time wore on and the rain poured down. It was the type of downpour where thirty seconds exposure meant soaked to the bone. The rain’s solemn drumbeat marked the frustrating passing of wasted time. For the moment, my busy itinerary had to be put on hold. But I wasn’t the only one. Quite a gathering had amassed at the courtyard entrance. Our glum looks and impatient eyes fixed upon the unleashed heavens. Bored children began playing in the growing puddle that slowly oozed and slithered its way across the uneven granite floor.

I first spotted the castle as I crossed Ponte Sant’Angelo bridge. To be fair, it was hard not to. Positioned directly in front of the bridge and measuring sixty-four metres in diameter, you’d be hard pressed to miss it. It looked like a giant, stone snare drum had fallen from the sky.

By the 2nd century the Roman’s Imperial tomb was almost full with emperors and their families. Emperor Hadrian concluded a new grand tomb was required. Hadrian, and all subsequent emperors, were interred there. It was later realised that the massive construction formed an ideal base for a fortification, so by the Middle Ages the tomb had been modified into Rome’s greatest castle. The modifications were significant enough that the original Roman structure is largely unrecognisable today. It was later acquired by the papacy and used as a refuge from danger, as Pope Clement had done, but was later used as a residence. In the early 20th century it was converted into a museum, it’s purpose today. It features various exhibits of paintings, pottery and antique weaponry. Sadly, much of the tomb’s urns and ashes were trashed and scattered during a Visigoth attack in 410AD. And a later goth siege in 537AD resulted in much of the decorative bronze being looted and lost.

The rain didn’t appear to be in any rush to depart. The humidity had turned the cold, roughhewn stones clammy to the touch. I began deliberating over whether to accept my fate and brave the downpour. Typically, it was the one day I’d forgotten to take my umbrella. Numerous street sellers sold them. But the rain’s ferocity would have soaked me by the time I reached them, rendering the purchase somewhat redundant. That’s something I have to complement Italy on: The street sellers are flawlessly efficient. When the sun was shining they were loaded with selfie sticks. The moment rain struck, the sticks immediately disappeared to be replaced by umbrellas. I couldn’t understand how they managed this so swiftly. On occasions it felt like I shifted my gaze from a selfie-selling street seller to the sky, noted it had begun to rain, gazed back only to find the same street seller was now offering me an umbrella and the selfie-sticks were nowhere in sight. “How did you…do… that!?”

I clearly wasn’t the only one debating whether to accept my fate. Many dispirited eyes, eyed the grim, sodden skies. Occasionally someone would shrug in defeat and head out into the downward drift, leaving others exchanging contemplative glances. The deluge of dank droplets penetrated even the stiffest resolve.

It reminded me of long, childhood Sunday afternoons. Sat by the window waiting for a break in the rain so I could go outside to play. Time was wearing on and the sulky skies looked as tempestuous as ever. My bursting itinerary was bugging me to accept my fate. I couldn’t rely upon the castle’s protection forever.

My time in Rome was fleeting. My plans couldn’t be endlessly postponed awaiting the perfect weather. Sometimes you just have to brave the storms and make the most of it. A bit like life, I suppose. You can’t continually delay until the perfect moment arrives. You’ll never do anything. And, arguably, right now is the perfect moment, as it’s the only one you’ll ever have.

With this in mind I took a look around. The once crowded corridor had thinned considerably. The unremitting rain had eroded much staunch defiance. The wearing time had worn down my resolve too. To quote Tracy Chapman “If not now, then when?” I took a last glance at the sullen skies, shrugged my shoulders and headed out into the rain…

 

Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon. – Susan Ertz

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Yarmouth Castle

This is the last post about my trip to the Isle of Wight. The first can be found here. 

When I was around eight years old my class in school held a castle building competition. We were divided into teams, given a pile of boxes, scissors, string and Sellotape and the timer was started. I’m not sure why, but I became adamant that our team’s castle should be replete with a working drawbridge and portcullis. This, due to the time constraints, caused some consternation among some members of the team. A degree of teacher diplomacy was called upon, and I was eventually awarded a splinter group within our team to build the drawbridge and portcullis. We won the competition. I felt rather satisfied that our castle’s working drawbridge and portcullis was named as a deciding factor in the win.  

Still, this small success is no evidence that I could have made it as a successful castle builder. I was so determined that it should have a drawbridge and portcullis that I had little concern for anything else. If I’d have been a castle builder during the Medieval period no doubt I would have been standing back to admire my fancy gatehouse with working drawbridge and portcullis when the enemy arrived and I was asked, “Maybe we should have built some walls as well?” 

The competition was inspired by a project we were doing on castles. It was this project, and the subsequent trip to Porchester Castle, that sparked my early interest in these ancient defences. But I wasn’t the only one keenly interested in castle defences.  

Much like Southsea Castle (discussed in my previous post), Yarmouth was designed differently to Henry’s earlier castles. It was square and featured a new ‘arrow-head’ bastion protruding from its southeast corner. This new style of bastion, developed in Italy, made the castle one of the most innovative military buildings in England. Most of the castle’s firepower was directed out to sea, leaving it vulnerable to land attack. For this reason a moat was dug on the land side. The new bastion was positioned at the corner of the moat and enabled the garrison to provide flanking fire to protect the moat-side walls. Any would-be attackers who tried to get close to the walls could easily be despatched.  

The arrow-bastion revolutionised the design of fortresses, although the example at Yarmouth was initially somewhat lacking. The stone walls designed to protect soldiers from enemy fire were too short. Later alterations addressed the issue. It appears that Henry’s designers were experimenting with the concept before fully understanding it.  

Yarmouth was the last of Henry’s castles. Not long after Southsea’s completion a French fleet approached Portsmouth, on 18th July 1545. They were retaliating for an invasion by Henry the previous year. Owed to a long standing dispute, Henry still believed he, as king of England, was the rightful king of France. The fleet landed on the Isle of Wight. The next day a naval battle occurred in front of Southsea while Henry watched from the mainland. It was during this battle that his beloved, and infamous, flagship the Mary Rose sank.*  

Until the French fleet’s invasion, it was considered unnecessary to build a castle on the island. But by landing there they were beyond the reach of the mainland’s guns. The local militia defeated them, but the defensive weakness had been exposed. It was decided to build Yarmouth Castle. It was completed in 1547, after Henry’s death. It never saw action, but was garrisoned until 1885.  

This is how it originally looked: 

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But the castle has been altered significantly since its construction. Its original courtyard was filled in during the late 16th/early 17th century, and in 1670 the outer earthworks were removed. The moat was also filled in and a house was built – now the George Hotel. 

This is how it looks today: 

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Much like Southsea, Yarmouth’s only major action took place during the English Civil War. It was held by a Royalist captain, but he was clearly more sober and sensible than Southsea’s captain (as discussed in my previous post). When the Parliamentarians arrived the captain acknowledged that his tiny garrison was unlikely to repel such a large force, so he surrendered.  

The castle’s displays explained how the town of Yarmouth once exerted Parliamentary influence vastly disproportionate to its size. During Elizabethan times, Yarmouth’s burgesses (local officials) were able to send two MPs to Parliament. This situation continued until 1832, despite Yarmouth only possessing around six hundred residents. Birmingham, meanwhile, with a population of nearly 150,000, didn’t have the right to send any! 

In 1763, Yarmouth’s mayor was chosen during a meeting in which only he and one other burgess was present. This seems a little unseemly. Especially when the following year the same situation occurred, only with the two swapping places! It’s no wonder Yarmouth gained a reputation as a rotten borough. It still enjoys prestige beyond its size though. It’s Britain’s smallest town (unlike villages, towns have the right to hold regular markets, appoint mayors and construct town halls). 

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*As an aside, I visited the Mary Rose during a school trip in, I believe, the same year as the castle building competition. It was behind glass while being sprayed with water as part of its preservation. I remember wondering how long it would take to complete the process. That was back in the 1980s (it was raised in 1982). It’s scheduled to go on full display in the summer of 2016. It seems incredible that it’s taken so long. What an astounding amount of work it’s taken to preserve such a magnificent treasure. I’m thinking I might have to pay it a visit… 


Southsea Castle

The Battle of Hastings was a ferocious and bloody battle that left, by some estimates, 6,000 dead, but it wasn’t the end of the struggle for William. He still had a deeply hostile and resentful populous to pacify. Fortunately, he had some cutting-edge military technology at his disposal. William introduced the vanquished populous to a new innovation bought over from the continent: the castle. 

Initially Norman castles were simple, hastily constructed affairs. They consisted of a motte (an earthen mound) and a bailey (a flattened area surrounding the motte). The earthen mounds had steep sides rendering them difficult to attack. The bailey was often enclosed by a wooden palisade and wooden buildings were often constructed upon the motte. The castles could be quickly built and easily defended. It was this innovative military tactic that allowed the Normans to conquer and pacify the vast territories they did.  

Despite the great advantage of these castles attackers soon recognised the Achilles heel of the wooden palisades: fire. A sturdier construction was needed. Soon the wooden palisades and buildings were being replaced by stone keeps and enclosures. These new sturdier castles took more time and were more expensive, but were harder to attack. As the stone buildings grew in size they became too heavy for the handmade mottes, so they became the keeps, the last stronghold of the castle. The Tower of London, arguably the most famous example, became the first stone keep in England.  

As the use of stonewalls and keeps increased, attackers were forced to modify their tactics. Their three options were to dig under the walls, climb over the walls or break through the walls. In response castle designers adapted their designs again. Gatehouses were built to strengthen the entrances. Parapets and turrets were added to aid defence of the walls. Sometimes even moats were dug to stop attackers approaching the walls. As this arms race soldiered on, eventually a completely new design of castle emerged: concentric castles. 

Early attackers to concentric castles were likely celebratory upon penetrating the castle’s outer wall, at least initially. But undoubtedly their merriment would have been extremely short-lived. Beyond the first wall was a second, higher wall. Along its top were positioned archers raining arrows upon them. They were now stuck between the two great walls with nowhere to shelter. They were trapped in what was aptly dubbed ‘the death area’.  

As time wore on a more peaceful era emerged, negating the need for such grand fortresses. In response castles began to be built, and adapted, more for comfortable accommodation – as well as great displays of wealth. 

Until not long ago I was only familiar with the Medieval castle designs described above. But Henry VIII’s questionable marital liaisons and belligerent behaviour reignited hostilities with the great European powers of France and Spain. This created a renewed need for defence. But technological advances rendered large, flat walls easy targets and flimsy resistance against the period’s ferocious fire power. A new approach was needed. The solution was short, solid, squat, cylindrical constructions. I first encountered this alternative style when I visited the wonderful Deal Castle. I was immediately won over. Look at how unusual it appears from the air:  

Deal Castle

As you can see it’s made from a series of squat concentric circles. In fact, whether intentionally or not, from the air it’s shaped like a Tudor rose. Henry built around forty such forts along England’s southern coast. Many have since been destroyed. Many have been converted for accommodation or other such uses. There are around twelve, in various states of repair, open to the public. I’ve posted about some previous trips here and here. 

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One such castle, Southsea Castle, is situated in the town of Portsmouth. Across the water, on the Isle of Wight, is Yarmouth Castle. My intention of visiting these two castles was the motivation behind my Isle of Wight trip. This post, and the next, is about my visits. 

Southsea Castle was built to defend the incredibly important port of Portsmouth. It’s believed Henry himself played a role in its design. His adoption of the latest design innovations from the continent resulted in a departure from the rounded concentric forts, such as Deal. Southsea possess angled walls, increasing flanking capacity. Another defensive innovation was the manner in which the courtyard featured four walls, confusing any would-be attackers. The castle was hastily constructed in less than six months during 1544. The swiftness was owed to the ongoing threat from a French attack.  

The French attack never arrived. As is the case with many of Henry’s castles, Southsea didn’t see any action until the English Civil War broke out in 1642. It was not long after war broke out that a Parliamentarian force surrounded the castle. The Royalist commander of the castle, Captain Challoner, was too drunk to surrender and rather cheekily asked them to come back in the morning. Ignoring his inebriated request they approached from the undefended sea side and climbed over the walls in the early morning. The garrison of twelve men wisely surrendered to the four hundred besiegers with no loss of life. It was the only time the castle was captured.  

The castle served as an active military base for over 400 years. Military service ended in 1960, but easily could have done so sooner. Due to its dilapidated state, Southsea was nearly demolished in 1814. Thankfully it was instead renovated with the addition of more guns and a larger garrison. Today it’s is free to visit. I assumed this meant there wasn’t that much to see, but I was wrong. The castle is still complete and there’s plenty to see and do. I was quite surprised. I would happily have paid to visit, so it’s definitely worth visiting for free.  

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Hurst Castle – Spitting Distance From The Coast 

I recently demonstrated my tendency to tell the most action-packed and adrenalin-fuelled stories when I blogged about an old rock. Unwilling to give readers time to regain their breath from such a rip-roaring and riveting read I decided to up the ante and go full nuclear. This post isn’t about a rock. It’s about a whole pile of rocks. Strap in people. Things are about to go loco.  

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Around 10,000 years ago the sea level along England’s south coast was twenty metres lower than today. As a consequence, the Isle of Wight was still connected to the mainland via a chalk ridge. The area was a dry wooded valley forming the lower part of a river system. Remains of Stone Age villages and even an ancient log boat indicate the region supported a thriving human community. 

By around 8,000 years ago the waning Ice Age resulted in the sea level increasing by ten metres. The encroaching sea soon eroded through the soft, chalky, rock flooding the area, creating the Isle of Wight. Not long after this dramatic change, the Spit began to grow. 

The Spit is a long shingle bank built naturally by the action of the sea. The stones are transported by water currents from the village of Milford and Hordle cliff and deposited on the bank. Over thousands of years this action has built the formidable natural barrier that exists today. The Spit not only shelters the coast from the worst excesses of the sea. It has also allowed an ecologically important marshland to develop behind it. 

The Spit is hugely important to the area. Without it the village of Milford would flood. The northwest coast of the Isle of Wight would suffer increased erosion, and the salt marsh’s fragile ecosystem would also be destroyed.  

When I crunched my way away the top of the energy-sapping barrier it was a serene summer’s day [would the photos contradict this? Was it not grey?]. There was a light breeze drifting into shore. The waves lapped lazily against the pebbled beach. It was calming and charming. It was also a world away from the conditions during one notorious night in 1989. 

England’s southern coast can be idyllic during the summer months. But the winter months, by contrast, can often be ferocious. The fierce Atlantic storms that routinely batter the coastline can cause chaos for the region’s inhabitants. And so it was on one memorable night in the winter of 1989 when a storm hit this part of the coast. You might assume that the Spit, being a massive pile of stones, would be a difficult thing to shift, but you’d be very wrong. 

The storm was so ferocious that the Spit was pushed back 80 metres. The height of the beach was reduced by three metres, and 800 metres of beach was flattened. In total, the storm shifted around 200,000 tonnes of shingle. And all this occurred during a single night. If nothing else, it serves as a potent reminder of the ocean’s immense power. 

Ordinarily, shingle beaches serve as perfect natural defences. The sea’s force is absorbed by the movement of all the individual stones. This means that even the fiercest storms can normally be tamed. That is, so long as the Spit remains.  

The various seawalls and groynes built during the 19th century have interrupted the process of shingle replenishment. It’s this that left the Spit so vulnerable to the effects of the storm. Surprisingly, even today the issue hasn’t been resolved. The Spit is currently being maintained by routine additions of shingle, but a long-term solution is required. The walls and groynes are necessary to protect local properties, so they can’t be removed. The Spit needs to be rebuilt, but there’s been a long debate about how.  

A design has now been finalised. Unfortunately, it requires 580,000 tonnes of shingle and 120,000 tonnes of rock. If that amount of shingle was to be brought to site by road it would require 28,000 lorry loads. It’s a remote rural area serviced by quiet country lanes, so it’s fair to say that such an influx might not go down well with the neighbours.  

As the waves slowly wash away the Spit the displaced shingle is deposited at underwater banks of shingle. Over the thousands of years the banks have grown to comprise over 80,000,000 tonnes of shingle. It was realised that this could serve as the ideal source of shingle. Initially, this aroused environmental concerns, but calculations showed that it would be equivalent to removing a single spoonful from a bag of sugar. And using shingle from the banks has been calculated to save £600,000 from the cost of shoring up the shingle bank.  

The decision about the long term solution still sits with the government. If given the go ahead, the Spit will be significantly larger. The crest of the beach will be two metres larger and its width will increase by twelve metres. Simultaneously, the volume of the beach will double. In light of this, I’m glad I made my trip when it did. It was tiring enough trudging along all the shingle already. If it was any bigger I might have had to keep stopping for breathers!  

But why was I even walking along the Spit anyway? Well, I’m gradually making my way around all of Henry VIII’s castles (those that are extant and open to the public that is). I’ve previously posted about my trip to Calshot Castle here. The next of Henry’s castle to tick from my list was Hurst Castle. It’s situated overlooking the Solent and was built to guard Southampton. It was so well positioned that it never actually fired its guns. Any would-be attackers opted to enter the Solent from the east in order to avoid its formidable artillery. It’s also positioned at the end of the Spit. So, after a long stroll, I reached the castle which featured several displays detailing the story of the Spit.