If you are a regular reader of my blog you will know that we have visited a lot of country houses, stately mansions, castles, cathedrals and churches. There is a lot of history contained in all these and the more buildings we have visited the more discerning we have become, I hope, and the more our sense of all that history has developed. Speaking as someone who is broadly on the left of the political spectrum and who grew up in Britain experiencing what is still, despite all improvements, a society permeated by class differences, I tend to react to these various properties from an historical and class perspective.
At the same time these different building types tell us much about the trajectory of wealth and power on “this sceptred isle”. There are not many buildings that pre-date the Normans. It is with the conquest that serious building in stone begins. Our Anglo-Saxon and Celtic forebears built mainly with wood and although there are many archaeological sites wherein we can detect the remains of post-holes and such like these are not very interesting unless accompanied by something like the Sutton Hoo treasures.
Norman castles are all about power and conquest and it is no coincidence that they are found primarily along the “Marches”, that is the borderlands between England and the wild places of Wales and Scotland. They were built to defend against attack and to command the surrounding countryside. Many though, were never attacked or besieged as the subject peoples did not have to means to do so and there were no further invasions from beyond the islands to defend against. It isn’t really until the Civil War in the mid-seventeenth century that any of these castles actually come under attack and then only if they are still occupied as homes by “great families” siding with the King. Indeed, by this time any newer castles that have been built were intended more as homes with ornamental defences than as truly defensive castles and many the old Norman castles were already ruins.
Alongside the castle building is the massive burst of cathedral and abbey construction from the late 11th century through to the mid-fourteenth century. What we are seeing is the power and wealth that is derived from possession of land and the extraction of taxes and tithes from the peasantry in visible form. The surplus value appropriated by the ruling class and the church is solidified in castles, cathedrals, abbeys, jewellery and finery and squandered on wars. Capital accumulation there wasn’t.
Touring around we have visited quite a few late medieval towns and country houses and inevitably we find that the wealth is increasingly being derived from the cloth industry and sheep. The houses are now being built by sometimes fabulously wealthy wool merchants. Trade, not just land is important. Certainly the wealth of the Cotswolds, for example, was built on the cloth industry. Many fine buildings were erected and later, when this trade declined the environmentally destructive industries that drove the industrialisation of Britain had no place there which is one reason the area is so delightful today.
So finally, Stokesay Castle, which is, by all accounts, the finest and best-preserved fortified medieval manor house in England . It was constructed at the end of the 13th century by Laurence of Ludlow, who at the time was one of the richest men in England and, guess what, the leading wool merchant in England, who intended it to form a secure private house and generate income as a commercial estate. Wikipedia has this to say about Laurence:
“Laurence exported wool from the Welsh Marches, travelling across Europe to negotiate sales, and maintaining offices in Shrewsbury and London. He had become the most important wool merchant in England, helping to set government trade policies and lending money to the major nobility. Stokesay Castle would form a secure personal home for Laurence, well-positioned close to his other business operations in the region. It was also intended to be used as a commercial estate, as it was worth around £26 a year, with 120 acres (49 ha) of agricultural land, 6 acres (2.4 ha) of meadows, an expanse of woodland, along with watermills and a dovecot“.
What is important about this is that it illustrates how wealth could be parlayed into power but that trade alone was not a sufficiently reliable form of wealth. Laurence, instead of building a large house in a town chose to build a fortified house on land that he had bought. This was actually quite unusual at the time but what do we find over the coming centuries? Precisely this attempt to consolidate wealth from trade or industry in land to secure it for their descendants and to move their families into the aristocracy through marriage and ennoblement.
Although Stokesay may have been able to protect Laurence from any small attacks in his day it was only ever attacked once which was – surprise, surprise, – during the Civil War when Parliamentary forces detoured en route south from Shrewsbury to take it thinking that it was a real castle that needed neutralising.
“The Royalist garrison, led by Captain Daurett, was heavily outnumbered and it would have been impossible for them to effectively defend the new gatehouse, which was essentially ornamental. Nonetheless, both sides complied with the protocols of warfare at the time, resulting in a bloodless victory for the Parliamentary force: the besiegers demanded that the garrison surrender, the garrison refused, the attackers demanded a surrender for a second time, and this time the garrison were able to give up the castle with dignity.”
Hooray! There is much more to be said about all this but it must wait for the follow up to this post. One point to note though from the pictures above is how many houses that date back to medieval or at least Jacobean times were re-modelled over the centuries by successive owners. Additions and reformulations were carried out in whatever was the current fashionable style creating an architectural and social history that we can still see today.
In my next post I shall be looking at Lyme and Chatsworth Houses and have much more to say about wealth and power and those at the bottom of the pile.