Defence and Disorder - Medieval and Beyond

Click to a larger version of Dolwyddelan Castle, Lledr Valley, Conwy (Cadw): photo © Jean Williamson

Dolwyddelan Castle, Lledr Valley, Conwy (Cadw): photo © Jean Williamson

Set high on a ridge, Castell Dolwyddelan started life as a strongpoint of the Welsh prince of Gwynedd, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, who was born at an earlier fortification down by the river. From around 1210, Llywelyn ‘the Great’ built a two-storeyed, rectangular keep beside the medieval road which takes a higher course than the modern A470. Set amongst Llywelyn’s cattle farms, protected by a curtain wall, rock-cut ditches, low banks, marshy ground and a vertiginous drop, the castle was one of a series guarding the major routes through his Snowdonian heartlands. At this time, Gwynedd held sway over other native Welsh kingdoms and maintained a most uneasy peace with the Anglo-Normans of England. By 1258, Llywelyn ‘the Last’, second son of Llywelyn’s illegitimate son Gruffudd, had seized power from the rightful heirs and was styling himself ‘Prince of Wales’. His repeated refusal to do homage to the new Plantagenet king, Edward I, led to an invasion of Wales in 1277 with a forced peace treaty restricting Llywelyn ap Gruffudd’s rule to Snowdonia. Llywelyn’s brother, Dafydd, led a Welsh revolt in 1282: Edward responded with a fist of iron and a ring of his own castles around Snowdonia. Llywelyn was killed in a skirmish in December 1282, his head displayed at the Tower of London. Dafydd was hanged, drawn and quartered at Shrewsbury in October 1283. In the January of that year, Edward’s men had moved round the north coast, then south through the Vale of Conwy to lay siege to Dolwyddelan which was quickly surrendered. The new garrison was issued with white tunics and stockings to help them blend in on the snowy hills. Edward added a stone-throwing engine to the defences, a third storey to the keep and raised another tower to its west. His son, the future Edward II, was declared the Prince of Wales. Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Goch wrote a lament for Llywelyn, the last native dynastic prince of Wales, including the lines “Oh God, that the sea might engulf the land!/ Why are we left to long-drawn weariness?”
Click to a larger version of Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire (National Trust): photo © Jean Williamson

Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire (National Trust): photo © Jean Williamson

The Norman conquest of England was aided by their use of partly prefabricated motte and bailey castles: an earthen mound, with palisade and timber tower, attached to an enclosure defended by a bank, stockade and encircling ditch. Using Anglo-Saxon slave labour the one at York was finished in just six days. Rather like the American cavalry, well equipped Norman knights could weather a sustained attack, or ride out to quell rebellion and expand their frontiers. These earth and timber bridgeheads were soon replaced by stone castles of increasing strength and sophistication; every advance in tactics, weaponry, artillery, siege engines and mining techniques countered by improved designs. Grand Renaissance houses and fortified manors became fashionable, but castles still proved useful into the 1600s when some Royalist walls were able to withstand Parliamentary sieges. One of the homes of Ralph Cromwell, Lord Treasurer of England under Henry VI, Tattershall castle was constructed around 1434-55, a period when England finally lost Bordeaux to the French, and Lancastrians and Yorkists were squaring up for the Wars of the Roses. Built of red brick with church-like windows, Tattershall was not of much military value but, like many of its predecessors, it was designed to intimidate, and to project the self-image of its maker. Cromwell’s six-storey tower, visible for miles across the Fens, put the smaller tower at South Kyme five miles away into the shade. Its owner, Walter Tailboys the younger, wanted to kidnap and murder Cromwell, but the labyrinthine approach to the tower designed to slow and control visitors - across two moats, through three gatehouses, into an inner court and then into adjacent buildings to access the lower floors of the tower - made this impossible. Cromwell’s motto of ‘Have I not the Right?’ was not designed to endear him to people. Perhaps with this partly in mind, he rebuilt the neighbouring Holy Trinity church and installed a college of canons to pray for his soul.
Click to a larger version of Flodden Field, Northumberland (Northumberland County Council): photo © Jean Williamson

Flodden Field, Northumberland (Northumberland County Council): photo © Jean Williamson

Piper’s Hill monument commemorates the last and bloodiest battle fought on Northumbrian soil, marking the position, 9 September 1513, of the English right flank against the Scots on Branxton Hill to the rear (SE). Henry VIII’s England was at war with France while his brother-in-law, James IV of Scotland, had been excommunicated by Pope Julius II for remaining an ally of Louis XII. While Henry was campaigning in France, James crossed the Tweed, took Wark, Norham, Etal and Ford castles, and set up a strong defensive position on Flodden Hill with heavy artillery and well in excess of 30,000 men. The Earl of Surrey and other members of the Howard family were in the North and able to muster over 20,000 soldiers. By forced march they managed to outflank the Scots, approach from the north rather than the expected south, and cut off their line of retreat. James repositioned his artillery and moved his troops a mile north-west to meet the English advance. The Scots, equipped with 20ft-long pikes and two-handed claymores, charged headlong down the slope to meet the march-tired, outnumbered English. But the hollow proved marshy, the Scots lost tight formation allowing the English to get in amongst the unwieldy pikes with the hooks and blades of their short halberds and bills. Fighting his way on foot towards Lord Surrey, James was pierced by an arrow, slashed by a bill-hook and fell in the muddy carnage along with some 10,000 of his men including lords, earls, abbots, a bishop, and James’ 20-year-old illegitimate son, the archbishop of St Andrews. The English lost around 1,500 soldiers, took no prisoners and stripped the Scottish dead. The 17-month-old son of James was crowned king, leaving Henry VIII’s sister Margaret to run Scotland with a council. The following year, at the age of 17, Henry’s sister Mary became the queen of France.
Click to a larger version of Ratagan Bridge, Glenelg, Highland: photo © Jean Williamson

Ratagan Bridge, Glenelg, Highland: photo © Jean Williamson

James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603. From then, until 1714 when his great-granddaughter Queen Anne died without an heir, Stuarts ruled over Britain. Anne’s father, James II, had been deposed in 1688, in favour of his eldest Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange. Anne passed the 1701 Act of Settlement barring Catholics from ruling Britain. James, with his second wife and their Catholic son Prince James Stuart (the Old Pretender), had gone into exile in France where Louis XIV supported the Jacobite cause and declared Prince James the rightful heir to Anne’s throne. A Jacobite invasion attempt failed in 1708, but there was a major uprising in 1715 after George I - son of Charles I’s niece Sophia and the ruler of the German state of Hanover - had come to the throne. Prince James landed in Scotland after the battles of Preston (Lancashire) and Sheriffmuir (Stirling) to find that the rebellion had faltered. Loss of credibility and the death of his patron forced him to quit France for Rome. Following the uprising, a system of military roads, bridges, forts and barracks were built in the Highlands, under Major General George Wade and Major William Caulfeild, to facilitate the rapid deployment of Hanoverian troops. This bridge is part of the road originally built by Caulfeild, westwards from Shiel Bridge, on Loch Duich, over the mountain to the Bernera Barracks (Glenelg) securing the Kylerhea ferry crossing to Skye. In 1745 James’ son, ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, defeated government troops at the battle of Prestonpans outside Edinburgh, seized Carlisle and marched as far south as Swarkestone Bridge (Derbyshire), before turning back to the Highlands pursued by King George II’s son the Duke of Cumberland. On 16 April 1746 the Stuart cause ended in a bloodbath at Culloden (Inverness), and by 1766 the Vatican had accepted the Protestant Hanoverian dynasty as the legitimate rulers of Britain and Ireland.
Click to a larger version of Marisco Castle, Lundy Island, Devon (National Trust/Landmark Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

Marisco Castle, Lundy Island, Devon (National Trust/Landmark Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

Lundy is a small, ruggedly beautiful island situated in the Bristol Channel where it yields to the Atlantic Ocean. ‘The Castle’ above Landing Bay was built 1243-4 on the command of Henry III. The Marisco family held the island from 1150 to 1242 when it was forfeit to the Crown after William de Marisco was executed for treason. Valued for its strategic importance, Henry also ran Lundy as a royal warren and descendants of his black rabbits still inhabit the island. Their meat and fur paid for the building work, and to keep a Constable with a dozen or so servants to watch the defences. The medieval keep was largely rebuilt by Thomas Bushell, Governor of Lundy during the Civil War, who held the castle for Charles I until being forced to surrender to Parliament in 1647. Bushell added a parade ground and dug a tunnel-like cave 62ft (19m) into the rock below the castle. Bushel is reputed to have used the cave for minting royal coins. Thomas Benson, privateer and MP for Barnstaple, leased the island 1748-54 and used the cave as a contraband store and prison workhouse. The Honourable Member won a contract to take convicts to the America colony of Virginia, but made use of them on Lundy, his base for tobacco smuggling. St Govan was attacked in Pembrokeshire in the sixth-century by Lundy pirates who stole his silver bell. It was a base for Norse raiders around 800, and the Mariscos and other families took their turn in the Middle Ages. Its useful situation, about 10 miles off the north Devon coast, made Lundy open to foreign incursions including Turkish pirates intent on burning Ilfracombe, Spanish plunderers in Elizabethan times, and the French who took temporary control in the time of William III (1694-1702) and threw the island’s livestock from the cliffs. A cove on the north-east coast, adjacent to the Brazen Ward gun platform, is still known as Frenchman’s Landing.
Click to a larger version of Breedon on the Hill Lock-up, Leicestershire: photo © Mick Sharp

Breedon on the Hill Lock-up, Leicestershire: photo © Mick Sharp

There is some nostalgia for days when the village bobby would administer a clip round the ear for minor infringements, then send miscreants home for further punishment without the International Court of Human Rights being involved. Justice in the community could be rough, crudely effective in many cases, often cruel or unwarranted, highly visible and humiliating. A pillory or stocks, with adjustable holes for head and hands or feet, held criminals in a public place, exposed to ridicule and likely to have more than five portions of fruit and veg hurled at them. Wooden stocks in the church porch at St Minver (Cornwall) date from 1400, but they were last used in the 1890s to punish two boys caught stealing fruit from an orchard: the boys’ fathers gave consent for them to be clamped for three hours to avoid paying a fine at Petty Sessions. Stocks on the green at Eyam (Derbyshire) were used to punish lead miners; those at Alfold (Surrey) are accompanied by a whipping post. Inside St Helen’s church at Ashby-de-la-Zouch (Leicestershire), is a ‘finger pillory’ used to detain wrongdoers by a digit. The village of Canewdon (Essex) has stocks and a timber-framed lock-up dating from 1775. The Breedon Round House (c 1793) is built of sandstone blocks with a conical roof topped by a weathercock. It was used to detain drunks and minor troublemakers overnight, or hold more serious offenders and suspects pending appearance before the Justices or removal to a town prison. Dark and solitary, the only light coming from a small iron grill, these sobering cells were often known as ‘Blind Houses’. Breedon’s was last used in 1885, its hexagonal cousin, built of brick at nearby Worthington, was used by the Parish Constable up to 1839 when the Leicestershire Police Force was established. Adjoining Breedon lock-up is a pinfold or pound where straying animals were placed, to be reclaimed by their owners on payment of a fine to the Parish.
Click to a larger version of Ruthin Old Gaol, Denbighshire (Denbighshire County Council): photo © Mick Sharp

Ruthin Old Gaol, Denbighshire (Denbighshire County Council): photo © Mick Sharp

After John Howard published ‘The State of Prisons’ in 1795, work began here on a model establishment. Howard was particularly concerned that jailers should be given regular salaries to stop them extorting fees from prisoners - many held illegally - and their families. The Georgian era (1714-1830) was packed with law and disorder; Britain was at war at home and abroad, riots about religion, politics, social conditions, tax and new working methods an almost daily occurrence. In 1723 the death penalty was introduced for poaching, the legislation against witchcraft was repealed in 1736, sheep-stealing made a capital offence in 1741. During 1746 Hannah Carrington, a spinster of Corsham, was brought before a Justice of the Peace, found guilty by the jury of stealing a ‘shift worth 5 shillings’, publicly whipped and imprisoned for three months. In 1787 the first ship of convicts for Botany Bay (Australia) set sail from Portsmouth, and in 1817 William Cubitt’s punishment treadmill was installed at Brixton prison. In 1822, after campaigning by Elizabeth Fry and others, the home secretary, Robert Peel, reduced sentences and abolished the death penalty for more than 100 offences. By 1835 penal reformers had won the right for prisoners to have single cells, regular inspections and ‘association’ with other inmates. The four-storey, rectangular block at Ruthin was begun in 1865 in response to new standards set by the Prisons Act. Based on the design of Pentonville prison, it was topped by a bell tower and had accommodation for up to 100 prisoners. A tall outer wall surrounds the complex including ancillary buildings and a courtyard. The block included a ‘dark cell’ for punishment, and a cell for the condemned. Closed in 1916, the last person to be executed here was William Hughes in 1903, for the murder of his wife; his plea of insanity rejected.
Click to a larger version of Royal Military Canal, Romney Marsh, Kent: photo © Jean Williamson

Royal Military Canal, Romney Marsh, Kent: photo © Jean Williamson

After Napoleon Bonaparte repeatedly broke the peace terms of the Treaty of Amiens, Britain declared war on France in May 1803. By the following May, 2,000 landing craft and over 100,000 troops were being positioned on the French coast ready for an invasion of southern England. Napoleon's preparations were all too visible from the white cliffs of Dover, the low-lying land of Romney and Walland marshes considered particularly vulnerable. Work started in autumn 1804 on a 28-mile canal running from Seabrook, between Folkestone and Hythe (Kent), down to Cliff End, between Hastings and Winchelsea (East Sussex). Following the old cliff line bordering the inland edges of the marshes, the canal was built in two sections linked by the Rother and Brede rivers. Dug by hand, for a cost of some £10 million in modern terms, it was not completed until 1809. Excavated soil formed an embankment on the landward side giving protection to troops moving along the adjacent military road. On the opposite side was a towpath used by horses pulling barges. Every bridge over the watery barrier was supplied with a guardhouse for soldiers, and each 500-metre stretch was offset to allow artillery a clear line of fire down the canal. Napoleon’s invasion plans lost momentum after the overwhelming defeat of the French and Spanish ships at Trafalgar in 1805, but his army remained dominant in Europe until the battle of Waterloo in 1815. The soldiers stationed on the canal were put to stamping out smuggling on the marshes, although some of them joined in. The military road and canal were turned over to civilian use, the money raised from tolls helping to complete the project. Never put to the test of military action, the canal is now an important part of the area’s flood defences.
Click to a larger version of Hythe Martello Towers, Kent: photo © Jean Williamson

Hythe Martello Towers, Kent: photo © Jean Williamson

A line of circular forts was built along the Kentish shore from Folkestone, westwards to Seaford in East Sussex. They were the second line of defence against Napoleon’s feared invasion in the early 1800s: the Royal Navy patrolling the English Channel being the first, the Royal Military Canal inland the fallback third. Small but impressively strong, Martello towers were named from the happy coincidence of the Italian word for hammer and a similar fort at Cape Mortello, Corsica, which proved very difficult for English forces to take in 1794. These two on the beach at Hythe are built of brick, 30ft high, 25ft round with walls 6ft thick. General stores and ammunition were kept on the ground floor, the second storey had accommodation for a garrison of around 24 men, a gun was mounted on a revolving platform on the roof. By the 1820s the towers were being used by the Coast Blockade - forerunner of the Coast Guard - a naval force set up to combat smuggling. The red warning flag is flying as the towers are situated within the Hythe military firing ranges just off the public beach. Although Napoleon did not invade, Martello and other gun towers continued to be built. During the war with the USA, a pair formed part of the 1813-15 Longhope anchorage defences on Hoy (Orkney), providing protection from French and American privateers for British convoys assembling for the Baltic. Others were erected on the orders of Lord Palmerston 1850-70 against a feared invasion by Napoleon III.
Click to a larger version of Chatley Heath Semaphore Tower, Surrey (Surrey County Council): photo © Mick Sharp

Chatley Heath Semaphore Tower, Surrey (Surrey County Council): photo © Mick Sharp

On the front cover of their 1965 LP, HELP!, the Beatles used different arm positions to spell out the semaphore letters NUJV! The operators on the sandy heathland of Telegraph Hill could not afford to be so light-heartedly inaccurate: Britain was at war with France and America. A development of an earlier system, the tower was one of a line of 15 hill-top telegraph stations in use 1822-47 to send messages from the Admiralty in London to the Fleet in Portsmouth Harbour. Moveable arms on the pole could be set at different positions, each standing for a letter of the alphabet. The system also works using two human arms - with or without flags or poles - and flags on a ship’s mast. Visibility allowing, messages could be sent to Portsmouth in under 15 minutes and an acknowledgement received in two minutes or less. The system was superseded by the invention of the electric telegraph. The best example of its type, the tower with its signalling gear has been restored to working order by the Surrey Historic Buildings Trust and Surrey County Council.
Click to a larger version of Lost Heinkel, Lundy Island, Devon (National Trust/Landmark Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

Lost Heinkel, Lundy Island, Devon (National Trust/Landmark Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

Lundy is just over three miles south to north, half a mile east to west. Between the Old Light and Quarter Wall is Ackland’s Moor, a large, level field used in the past as the island’s airstrip and golf course. In the summer of 1940, the Spitfires and Hurricanes of the British RAF fought the ‘Battle of Britain’, against the heavy bombers and Messerschmitt 109 fighters of the German Luftwaffe, in the skies above eastern and southern England. Hitler needed air supremacy before he could unleash ‘Operation Sealion’, his planned invasion of Britain. As part of the invasion defence works the Air Ministry had anti-aircraft ditches dug across the Lundy plateau to prevent the safe landing of gliders and other enemy planes. Unable to wipe out Britain’s air capability, Hitler switched to the civilian targets of London and other cities using Heinkel III’s for night bombing raids. The ‘Lost Heinkel’ crashed in the middle of the island on 3 March 1941. Its scattered and burnt out remains lie within the earthworks and field walls of a medieval farmstead just south of Halfway Wall. All five crew members were captured unhurt and sent to the mainland. One of them, Elmar Bötcher, made a return visit to the island on the 50th anniversary of the crash. On 1 April 1941 another German bomber, known as the ‘Forgotten Heinkel’, failed to clear the western cliffs. Two of the crew jumped to safety, two were killed on impact and the rear gunner badly injured: all three survivors were captured. The night of 10/11 May 1941 was one of the very worst during the London Blitz: the chamber of the House of Commons was destroyed by incendiary bombs and 1,400 people killed.
Click to a larger version of Waverley Abbey Anti-Tank Obstructions, Surrey (English Heritage): photo © Mick Sharp

Waverley Abbey Anti-Tank Obstructions, Surrey (English Heritage): photo © Mick Sharp

Dragon’s teeth (from the German drachenzähn) slumber beside the peaceful River Wey, as it flows through water meadows and past the Cistercian ruins of Waverley Abbey. Dating from 1940-41, these flat-topped pyramids of reinforced concrete were used extensively on defence lines throughout Europe during World War Two. Designed to slow the progress of tanks and other infantry vehicles, and funnel them into vulnerable positions where they could be attacked, the 3-4ft-high blocks were spaced and staggered so they could not be driven through. Buried concrete platforms, land mines, barbed wire and steel beams were often added to the obstructions, but specialized vehicles and engineering techniques were devised to move them. Despite not being as effective as hoped, millions of dragon’s teeth were made and positioned, and some still lie waiting in out-of-the-way places. These examples were part of the River Wey defences along with a series of pillboxes, one of which, a little further south in Thundry Meadows Nature Reserve, has become a bat shelter. In the event of an invasion, bridges across the Wey passable by German tanks were to be destroyed. Pillboxes were positioned to defend easy river crossings and to prevent bridges falling to enemy paratroopers prior to invasion. Now becoming ‘land art’, these blocks, glowing with moss amongst fallen leaves, are eloquent reminders of the last time that Britain faced the very real threat of military invasion. Character and land have been shaped by invasion and, perhaps, even more so by the threat of those which did not happen.

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