Motte and bailey castles appeared in England after the Norman Conquest of 1066. Motte and bailey castles were a common feature in England by the death of William the Conqueror in 1087. Their construction was the start of what was to become a massive castle building programme in England and Wales.

When William landed at Pevensey in 1066, he immediately set about building a castle to protect himself and his most important men. William was a highly skilled and feared soldier who had learned his military skills in northern France. The Normans achieved great fame for their castle building. Why was this so?

French kings had gained a reputation for building castles. This was their way of coping with the constant attacks by Vikings from Scandinavia. The kings of France had little idea on how to defeat the Vikings. French noblemen took to protecting themselves in fortified buildings that were known as castellans – these served as private fortifications in which people and animals were protected from these feared invaders

Some of the Vikings eventually stayed in northern France and the Norsemen became the Normans. They had been impressed with the French castellans and adopted them; the most popular design was the motte and bailey. In these castles, there was a fortified building (the castle) on top of a man-made hill called a motte. This served as a final fighting place where soldiers would retreat if the rest of the castle had been breached. The castle on the motte was reached either by wooden stairs that could be destroyed if the castle itself was attacked or by a ‘flying bridge’ that connected the bailey to the castle. In the bailey, people and animals lived in relative safety in times of peace as they were surrounded by a large wooden fence that kept out attackers and wild animals.

The first record of a motte and bailey castle in France appeared at the start of the 11th Century. The first recorded motte in England was in 1051 when French castle builders were building one for the English king in Hereford. However, the French were unpopular with the local population and the French builders left without anything substantial being built.

After his victory at Hastings in 1066, William moved around the south coast to Dover. Here he built his third English castle after Pevensey and Hastings. The motte and bailey castle at Dover took just eight days to build – according to William of Poitiers who was William’s chaplain. Was such a feat possible?

Building castles then was very labour intensive. William and his men were invaders and his army would have had to be on a constant guard especially in the immediate days after Hastings. Research on one of William’s motte and bailey castles at Hampstead Marshall shows that the motte contains 22,000 tons of soil. This motte took fifty men eighty days to build. Using this as a guide, the motte at Dover would have needed 500 men to complete in eight days. It is possible that local towns people were coerced into working extremely hard to complete the task. However, building a motte was a skilled achievement. The mottes were built layer upon layer. There would be a layer of soil that was capped with a layer of stones that was capped with a layer of soil and so on. The stone layers were needed to strengthen the motte and to assist drainage.

William accepted the surrender of the Anglo-Saxon nobles at Berkhamsted Castle, north-west of London – arguably his finest motte and bailey castle. This meant that he did not have to fight for London – and the people of London were spared their city being torched.

William started his reign as king of England with uncharacteristic diplomacy. He allowed the Saxon nobles to keep their land and he tried to learn English. However, for two years up to 1068, he was faced with rebellions throughout his new kingdom. William responded by marching his feared army to a trouble spot and re-asserting his authority. He then had a castle built there – a very visible sign of the Norman’s power. Castles were built in Exeter, Warwick, Nottingham, Lincoln, Huntingdon, Cambridge and York. However, this series of castle building did not cause the problem to disappear. Those who rebelled against William’s power, gathered in the north of England. In 1069, they targeted the most obvious sign of William’s authority – the castle of York. This castle was not heavily defended and the Normans soldiers there were beaten and the castle was burnt to the ground.

William was furious and decided to lay waste the north of England – the so-called “Harrying of the North”. Norman soldiers destroyed anything that might have been of use to those who lived in the north. It is thought that as many as 100,000 people died of starvation. York Castle was also rebuilt. It was now that William took away land from the Saxon nobles and gave it to his own nobility. Each Norman nobleman who received land was expected to build a castle there. It was now, after the “Harrying of the North”, that castles were built across a great deal of England. Each Norman knight was an invader and building a motte and bailey castle for himself and his soldiers was basic commonsense as they were highly unpopular with the Saxons.

One of William’s closest acquaintances was Roger of Montgomery who became earl of Shropshire. This land bordered Wales and the area was seen as a refuge for thieves and villains. In many senses, it was seen as bandit-country then. As a result, Roger embarked on a major castle-building programme with over 70 motte and bailey castles built. They were quick to build, a visible sign of the Normans power and by 1070, the Normans had great expertise in building them. This is why the English/Welsh border has so many surviving mottes near it.

No-one is quite sure how many motte and bailey castles were built in England by the Normans. However, by counting the number of mottes that exist in England, archaeologists believe that the Normans built around 500 – one every two weeks between 1066 and 1086. They were used to keep the Saxons tamed. After William’s response to the rebellion in the north of England, many areas were simply too scared to rebel. Motte and bailey castles were a sign that feared Norman soldiers were never too far away.

Once the people of England had been tamed, William moved onto grander castles. With the population of England seemingly subdued, William started a programme of building stone castles. No original complete motte and bailey castles exist in England, but the huge stone fortifications William started certainly are.