Author Article by John Goodall: Bringing the English Castle to Life

JOHN GOODALL’s stunning new book The English Castle: 1066 – 1650 brings to life the history of English castle over six centuries, exploring the varied architecture and their changing roles in warfare, politics, domestic living and governance. Here the author discusses the inspiration behind this ambitious project and explains how studying the historical context of buildings helps to bring them to life.

Article by John Goodall

One of my grandfathers was wounded at Gallipoli and at home there is a small box that contains a compelling collection of personal mementoes from this campaign: some balls of shrapnel removed from his body (he carried one in his elbow to the grave) and some buttons cut from the uniform of a dead Turkish soldier. To someone who knew nothing about him or the family, this box and its contents would mean nothing at all. Yet as soon as their context is understood, they vividly evoke the personal experience of war, not to mention the human suffering it engendered.

It is always fascinating and poignant to handle objects that are known to have been used, collected or admired in the distant past. So too, for me, is it a powerful experience to enter a historic building. In a cathedral, a parish church or an old house, the modern visitor is confronted by a space created by and familiar to previous generations. I relish such encounters in part for the romanticism and beauty of the surviving architecture. Nevertheless – like the stranger handling my grandfather’s memorabilia – I also want the contextual information that in one way or another brings the space sharply to life as the product of specific historic circumstances.

This book is the product of my own attempt to present that information for a whole class of buildings over a huge span of time. With its help, I hope that readers will be able to enjoy visiting castles – whole, ruined or vestigial – more intensely than before and to see them for what they truly are: compelling monuments to England’s social and political history. All this without any diminution of the pleasure they take in the breathtaking setting or magnificent architecture that so many of them boast.

The book aims to perform this ambitious task in two ways. First, because so many of the buildings it describes are ruinous or have been radically adapted over time, it seeks to explain how the surviving physical evidence of castles can be quarried for information and interpreted. This is largely done through a wealth of illustration including photographs, antiquarian pictures and reconstruction drawings, all of them captioned at length. Second, the text attempts to explain architectural change against a detailed background of political and familial history.

It is hard to imagine a more diverse category of architecture than the castle. As living residences, ruins or earthworks, moreover, these buildings exist within almost ever land and cityscape of the 21st century. To such an extent that everyone in Britain has a local castle of their own. Hopefully, this book will fire its readers to discover and research their own. If it does so, it will have more than served its purpose.

John Goodall is architectural editor of the weekly magazine Country Life, and is the author of The English Castle: 1066 – 1650, available to buy now from Yale University Press. Click here to view his official website.

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