Bodiam in Sussex has been described as the most written about and photographed castle in the whole of Britain. This is not just because it’s a wonderfully photogenic site with opportunities to show off even an amateur’s camera skills.
Bodiam doesn’t figure on our database because its not a park or garden in the traditional sense but for the last 30 years it has been at the centre of a vigorous academic debate as to its purpose and function which is perhaps not as obvious as you might think. In short its been a debate about whether Bodiam is just a castle in the traditional sense or something much more elaborate and significant: an entirely artificial mediaeval landscape.
Read on to find out more…In October 1385, Sir Edward Dallingridge had secured a license from Richard II entitling him to ‘strengthen with a wall of stone . . . and construct and make into a castle his manor house at Bodiam, near the sea in the county of Sussex, for the defence of the adjacent county and resistance to our enemies’. The Hundred Years War was well underway, and the French had in recent memory attacked and burned the nearby ports of Winchelsea, Rye and Folkestone, so the implication of such permission appears obvious. Bodiam was planned as part of a defence system to counter possible French invasion.
Bodiam certainly looks like every child’s idea of a castle. A great mediaeval stronghold with massive walls around a central courtyard, rising up and over a wide moat. The fact that it doesn’t have a central keep, but a great gateway and four squat cylindrical corner towers is in line with contemporary military engineering of the mid-late 14th century.
The moat is nearly 200 feet across at its widest and would probably have provided a partial, if not totally effective counter to the destructive power of catapults and other assault weapons. It also meant that the castle couldn’t be undermined. To get to the main entrance meant crossing a causeway, then a removable bridge before reaching the Barbican on a small island in front of the gatehouse itself.
The gatehouse was well defended too with its twin towers and machicolations [the holes in the overhanging projected floor through which missiles could be dropped onto anyone who did manage to get across]. Furthermore there are keyhole gun ports in the ground and first floor rooms, for the use of early ordnance.
So, all in all, the case for seeing Bodiam as a ‘real’ castle is powerful. However, in the 1980s and 1990s this traditional view has been challenged. It’s been suggested that many of the supposedly defensive features were symbolic rather than fully functional shows of strength. Indeed some have gone further and argued that Bodiam was built largely, if not entirely, for show.
What could possibly make anyone think that? [Feel free to skip the next couple of paragraphs if you’re not wildly excited by the minutiae of military engineering!]
I’m not a military engineer or medievalist but there seem to be several anomalies in Bodiam’s apparent military strength. For example why would a defensive castle have several large mullioned windows overlooking the water? Why is there no evidence of other defensive ploys such as chain holes, pivots or pits? And while the gateway looks impressive, the portcullis and doors must have been rather meagre given the size of the openings to hold them.
The battlement crenellations are not particularly strong, just single blocks and there are no archery loops – in other words they are not truly defensive but merely a decorative screen.
The gun ports are apparently also not particularly useful as their sills are horizontal rather than downward sloping and in any case would not have allowed any sight of the approaches! You might have thought that none of this would have mattered since they were protected by the moat. However, when archaeologists investigated the embankment they calculated that a breach could have been cut through by half a dozen labourers using picks and shovels in well under a day.
So… What is going on? Did Sir Edward have a useless military architect? The answer is probably not, because although Bodiam looks impressive, there’s always been an element of show and intimidation, designed to wow a visitor or an enemy. Maybe at Bodiam it was more than just an element and actually overrode other considerations.
Sir Edward Dallingridge had started life as the younger son of a not particularly important local landed family. They had risen in status and wealth through a string of lucrative marriages and Edward continued that tradition by marrying Elizabeth Wardedieu, a wealthy heiress. Amongst her inheritance was, surprise surprise, the manor of Bodiam.
Edward had served under the local powermonger, the Earl of Arundel, in the wars with France and had gone on to fight in Italy. When he returned to Sussex his connections with the earl stood him in good stead and he became an MP. By now he had also inherited property from his own family, and wanted to assert his new place in society. Selling off the outlying estates he concentrated his landholdings around Bodiam, and once he had got his licence to build the castle he was on his way to saying that he had arrived socially and politically.
Normally one of the ways of doing this was to take the existing manor house or Castle and expand or rebuild. The existing manor was near the church on a rise with good prospects but Dallingridge didn’t do that. Instead he decided to build on a new low-lying new site, close to the river Rother and the sea. [The medieval shoreline was completely different as can be seen from the map.]
This meant there were no topographical problems for the builders to overcome and materials were easy to import by boat. But I suspect most importantly it also allowed the new castle form the centrepiece of a much larger project which would not have been possible on the hilltop site.
He also obtained permission to divert the river Rother to power a mill at the new site, and to hold a market and a fair at Bodiam. A mill was a crucial building to an agricultural community, as was a regular market, and an annual fair. Together they made the castle the focal point and the seat of power for the neighbourhood. But that’s not all…
The castle is surrounded by extensive earthworks and in the late 1980s Royal Commission on Historic Monuments carried out extensive surveys which established without doubt that the majority were the remains of elaborate terraced walkways, gardens and man-made interconnected ponds and sheets of water. Between them they transformed the landscape and gave the new castle huge visual impact.To the south of the castle lies an area which used to be known as the tiltyard, probably because it was banked around a flat interior that might have been suitable for jousting. In fact it’s probably just a remodelling of the mediaeval millpond for Sir Edward’s mill.
This too was part of the manipulation of visitors experience as they approached the castle. It’s hard to remember that this would have been the biggest and most impressive building that many would ever have seen, and as they followed the main approach paths their view of it would have been changing continuously.
Arriving from the river the visitor would have passed along the south side of the millpond and see distant views of the castle across the water, then as they got closer probably only the upper part of the Castle would have been in view.
The path then led upwards to top of the moat embankment and suddenly the whole castle must have appeared to rise up straight up from the water, especially as there was no berm [or strip of land between the moat and the foot of the castle wall]. This creates an optical illusion, making the fortress appear larger than it actually is, especially on a clear day when the reflection ‘joined’ onto the actual building apparently without interruption.
I hope you’re suitably impressed so far, but prepare to be more impressed still, because this visually manipulative approach isn’t all.
On the slope that runs north up to the former manor house, some 30m [100 feet] higher than the castle itself are more earthworks. These formed a series of broad terraces apparently in front of a building. Previously thought to be a 17th-century military work the RCHM excavations show they were actually medieval in origin and probably a Pleasance or summerhouse.
Did this serve as a viewing platform to look over the castle during its construction, or perhaps later to take in the scenery, including the castle, the Rother and even the sea?
The interpretation of this site by Roberta Gilchrist [now Professor of Archeology at Reading University] is where Bodiam’s story takes an interesting twist. She argues that Pleasances and viewing platforms like this were often spaces for the elite women of the household to ‘take their leisure’.
But at Bodiam there was a double whammy because of the extensive use of water. Mediaeval medicine and philosophy held that the body was made up of four basic elements: fire, water, earth and air, the balance of which influenced the nature of each individual. Water was seen to have the most changeable nature and was particularly associated with women. And here’s the significance. Bodiam was the inheritance of Lady Dallingridge. Her coat of arms was up on the wall, alongside those of her husband. He would have been away a substantial part of the year, at court or parliament, and she would have been left in charge of the household and estate.
Gilchrist’s suggestions are largely supported by Matthew Johnson [formerly Professor of Archaeology at Southampton]. He also notes that there was a trend in the later middle ages to protect the rights of heiresses through a variety of legal stratagems, including the public pairing of arms as at Bodiam. Johnson argues that although Dallingridge may have been away and his “place at the hall table or watching from the battlements …empty… his structural position in the community was taken by his wife.”.
The Royal Commission survey concluded that the earthworks surrounding Bodiam “form an elaborate and contrived setting for the building of a coherence not previously perceived… Most striking is the use of sheets of water to create a staged landscape, not only to be passed through, but to be viewed from above. Such contrivances are most familiar in late 16th and 17th-century gardens in England” However they go to say that while this might be “a very Elizabethan fantasy landscape there is absolutely no documentation” to suggest a later date. ” Indeed if the whole landscape setting encapsulated in these earthworks, is of late mediaeval date… it might give more weight to the idea that this is an ‘old soldiers dream house’ ”
But either way – whether it was him, her or both of them the Dallingridges surrounded their castle with by lakes, a model village and a profitable mill and fishing ponds and gardens which anticipates by over three centuries the landscape management of a mansion setting usually associated with someone like Capability Brown.
If this has inspired you to want to find out more about Bodiam and its landscape then good places to start are:
Sylvia Landsberg, The Medieval Garden, 2003
Recent archaeological investigations by University of Southampton can be found at: