King of the Castle

Devizes "castle" was a rude affair - no more than an earthen mound with a couple of ditches ringed round it.

This was a "motte and bailey" - a vital component of the Frenchmen's success in subduing the English. They sprouted up all over the occupied territory.

As William of Normandy parcelled out England to his henchmen, they set about securing their positions against the sullen Saxons. At strategic points in their territory, the new Lords established garrisons and castles.

Usually using forced local labour, a mound of earth was raised, dug out of a circular ditch. If there was an existing hillock, it would be incorporated into the "motte". Some mottes rose as high as eighty feet, but most were no more than 30 feet high. The motte was then crowned with a wooden tower.

Around the motte was a broader enclosure - a few acres in extent. It was usually measured to ensure that all parts of it was within bow-shot of the motte's tower. This "bailey" was defined by a further ditch - its inner edge raised into a rampart, topped with a wooden pallisade.

It doesn't sound like much of a military installation, but the motte and bailey was as decisive in the eleventh century as the tank was in the twentieth.

It worked like this:-

  • The garrison could accomodate the men and their horses on the bailey, behind the protection of the ditch and pallisade. This first line of defence wouldn't hold back a concerted attack, but it would keep off any casual, opportunist raids.
  • If a concerted attack was engaged, and the outer bailey was breached, the men would simply retreat up the motte, from which they could hold off vastly superior forces.
  • In extremis, if the Saxons managed to unite their forces in sufficient number (not particularly likely) the Norman forces could retreat to the safety of the tower (the Keep), from which they could rain down arrows on the attacking forces. Eventually, the attackers would retire to lick their wounds, or fall out amongst themselves, or re-enforcements would arrive from a nearby garrison.
This was how the West was won.

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