Genre: History Age Range: Adult Star Rating: 4 stars Series: no
Beginning with their introduction in the eleventh century, and ending with their widespread abandonment in the seventeenth, Marc Morris explores many of the country’s most famous castles, as well as some spectacular lesser-known examples.
At times this is an epic tale, driven by characters like William the Conqueror, King John and Edward I, full of sieges and conquest on an awesome scale. But it is also by turns an intimate story of less eminent individuals, whose adventures, struggles and ambitions were reflected in the fortified residences they constructed. Be it ever so grand or ever so humble, a castle was first and foremost a home.
To understand castles—who built them, who lived in them, and why—is to understand the forces that shaped medieval Britain.
Synopsis taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.
After quite a few disappointing history books back to back, this one was an absolute delight. With discussion of the greater political climate of Britain, this book looks at the evolution of castles over six centuries and their changing role. Mainly focusing on England and then Edward’s conquest of Wales, there is also a chapter devoted to the Scottish Castles of the 15th century.
This is less a look at the general history of the country than a detailed look at the buildings – and their owners. I’m quite glad that the country-level history was sparse as I do know it well, so I probably would have got bored if most of the book was re-hashing that. Other readers might not agree there, but I think there was enough background for those not as familiar. Plus lots of delightful titbits about society as a whole.
The book is structured around examples of specific castles and their (at times) rather dramatic history. These helped really drive home points and structure the chapters. It makes for a good through line.
I particularly appreciated that I knew several of the main castles used. My family are very into visiting castles and historic buildings on holiday (some of us more than others!) and it really helped to bring the book to life as I didn’t have to rely on the images. Rochester Castle (which I was very pleased with myself for identifying as the cover image) is the last castle I visited, and is the main subject of chapter two. Bodiam Castle (the main castle looked at in chapter 4) holds quite a special place in my heart as it’s the first castle I remember my grandparents taking me too. That chapter also tied in greatly to my other historical research, which led to many DM squeals to bemused friends.
The writing was also really engaging. There were some really voicy sections, particularly when he used a rather modern phrase that counterbalanced the more formal prose. It’s not a “stuffier” academic text.
But, for me at least, the mark of a really good history book is how often I reach for my laptop to do more research. If I have to keep googling things for clarity, that’s not good, but if I’m eagerly searching out more information because the book makes me want to know more than can be encompassed by the pages, then it’s done its job. And I was constantly googling (and even emailed a British historical trust for further information!)
Read my reviews of other books by Marc Morris: