Medieval Castle: Comparison of Roscommon and Harlech Essay

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The castle is one of the symbols of the medieval world. Its structure, arrangement, and purpose encapsulate an entire culture. The way in which these buildings were designed and used was both universal and also specific to place. Though often seen as essentially military in origin, the castle was indeed much more - a symbol in stone and earth of the aspirations and ideals of an entire society. Western Europe in the Middle Ages was a world shaped by almost constant warfare. Within the feudal structure, kings battled vassal lords, and vassal lords battled other vassal lords. Notions of chivalry grew up that attempted to control the constant fighting and guide it into channels that accrued better with the ideals of Latin Christendom. These same kings struggled to forge unified domains out of disparate entities. The medieval world was not a monolith. Different peoples with different languages, customs, and laws often existed within uneasy relationships to one another. The kings of England fought to make themselves masters of the British Isles. They claimed the right to control the islands' Celtic inhabitants along with their own Anglo-Saxon subjects. The Twelfth Century Anglo-Norman invasion and colonization of Ireland brought a clash of cultures, and did the English attempts to seize and dominate neighboring Wales. England wanted to believe it brought the superior civilization of continental Europe. Irishmen and Welshmen possessed their own ideas of higher civilization, ideas that combined the mores of the Roman and Medieval West with ancient traditions of their own. The English crown built both Roscommon Castle in Ireland, and Harlech Castle in Wales. Roscommon and Harlech symbolized both English ambition and ideals, and also the persistence and dynamism - on every level - of the Irish and Welsh peoples in whose realms these castles were built. Roscommon and Harlech are the meeting places of two cultures, the points at which intersect the ideals and aspirations of an age.

Built during the reign of Edward I, King of England, Roscommon and Harlech castles were both part of that monarch's larger campaign of consolidating control of his dominions. While claimed by the English Crown, Ireland was only partially under English control. Wales was actually conquered by Edward who, during the course of his reign, continued to fight against the resistance of the Welsh Prince of Wales. In simplest terms, Roscommon and Harlech represent the finest in military engineering in their time. Harlech is the type of a concentric castle, a fortress that is defended by a double line of walls and towers, with attackers exposed to a double line of defending fire at virtually every point.

Built substantially during the 1280s, Harlech represents the perfection of the concentric system in Edward's domains, the great towers of the inner ward being employed to enfilade the outer works and provide a murderous crossfire concentrated at the point of the single outer gate (King 1988, p. 113). Harlech combined the advantages of the concentric system with the advantages of an easily-defensible site. Situated on the top of a 200-foot high rock spur, the castle could be attacked from the land only on its eastern and southern sides, these two sides being further strengthened by the addition of a third concentric line of defense - a deep, wide ditch cut directly into the rock, a dry ditch that made mining virtually impossible (Williams 2007, p. 17). In contrast, Roscommon sits on a site that appears, at first glance, to be entirely open to attack. Yet, appearances can be deceiving. Indeed, both castles made use of a combination of water and the concentric system. Much as Harlech's water gate (on the western side of the castle) was once lapped by the waters of the sea, Roscommon was once nearly surrounded by the waters of Loughnaneane - a lake that was drained around the year 1800. Ordnance Survey maps, combined with archeological field work, reveal Roscommon Castle to have been situated near the northeastern edge of Loughnaneane, and to have been surrounded on its northern, eastern, and southern sides by a moat that was fed directly from the lake (Murphy 2003, p. 46).

Further, the apparently single line of defense that characterizes the present structure was, in fact, augmented originally by a complete concentric system. Roscommon as built in the Thirteenth Century was surrounded by outer wall that enclosed and defined an outer bailey. On Roscommon's most vulnerable eastern and southern sides, this outer line of defense extended only 10 to 13 meters beyond the inner walls (Murphy and O'Conor, 2008, p. 24). This is classic example of true concentric defense. The closeness of the two walls permits those in the inner line to give fire at the same time as those in the outer line of defense. Attackers outside the furthest line of defense are exposed to fire to both assaults at the same time while, if they break through the outer defenses, they are still covered by those on the inner.

At both castles, situational defenses are greatly augmented by the design of the buildings themselves. Entrance to the castles is through a massive gatehouse that is in many ways like a keep transposed to the perimeter defenses of the fortress. These gatehouses are self-contained strong points heavily defended by portcullises, multiple gates, murder holes and other defenses; the whole flanked by a pair of massive towers that gives further range to the defender's fire (King 1988, p. 116). The gatehouse at Harlech featured a passageway that was guarded by arrowloops that opened out from guardrooms within the thickness of the walls, the entire passage being compartmentalized by portcullises and heavy doors (Williams 2007, pp. 18-19). Attackers would be isolated at every point, with defenders free to attack from behind the safety of the walls and even from above, through the murder holes. Roscommon, too, reveals a profusion of arrowloops - now blocked up - that continues up to the line of the old battlements. The merlons on the curtain wall were also looped for arrows, thus providing a concealed place from which to fire on attackers (Murphy and O'Conor, 2008, p. 20). A reference in 1304 states that Roscommon possessed three drawbridges and portcullises at each of two gates. The portcullises, or turning bridges, were located in the passageway through the main gatehouse (Murphy and O'Conor, 2008, p. 12). The massive size of the gatehouses at Roscommon and Harlech provided ample space for not only flanking guardrooms, but also for machinery to work the portcullises and drawbridges. Basements served as storage areas or dungeons. Structural elements like stair turrets served as more than the means of communication between different rooms and floors. The stair turret at Harlech's gatehouse, while linking the building's three floors, extended the rear defenses deep into the inner ward by projecting beyond the already deep D-shaped main towers (Brown, 1970, p. 104).

Roscommon also possessed the standard three-story gatehouse, though much of its apparent form has been lost in later renovations. This gatehouse appears to have been accessible from the inner bailey through a staircase that led to its first floor (Murphy and O'Conor, 2008, p. 13). A large embrasure at the second floor level had niches on either side that might have amplified the effectiveness of archers or crossbowmen concealed in these spaces (Murphy and O'Conor, 2008, p. 13). Such apparently minor architectural considerations reveal the technical expertise of the castle builders of the time of Edward I.

Master builders and planners made the best possible use of all this space. The arrangement of the Edwardian gatehouses reveals as much about the society that built and used them as they do about the purely military aspects of castle building. Roscommon and Harlech were staging grounds for displays of English power and concepts of the feudal order. The numerous rooms in each of the gatehouses provided ample and comfortable accommodation for a large retinue. Harlech, together with the other Welsh castles built by Edward I, were intended as visible manifestations of royal power within the king's new domains. The castles were intended to overawe the Welsh, fact not lost on the Welsh princes themselves. Edward commenced work on Harlech almost immediately after conquering Wales. That work was continually interrupted in its first years by the unsettled situation. Owain Glyn Dwr captured the castle in 1404 and immediately made it the seat of his own court (Williams 2007, p. 10). Similarly, Roscommon was constructed as the seat of the king's justiciar - in effect the governor in Ireland (Murphy and O'Conor, 2008, p. 3). In the latter part of the Fourteenth Century, Roscommon was captured by the native O'Conors. Gaelic princes and kings of Connacht, the O'Conors represented the apogee of Gaelic society. O'Conor possession of Roscommon was recognized, de facto, by Richard II, and continued for some two centuries (Murphy and O'Conor, 2008, p. 26).

Whether occupied by native prices or high-ranking English officials, Harlech and Roscommon contained provisions for… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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