Distant voices: John Goodall on The Castle: A History

In a special piece for the Pevsner audience, The Castle author John Goodall reflects on the difficulties of instilling the essence of great architecture into words on a page; a task that Nikolaus Pevsner himself must have grappled with. Pevsner’s idiosyncrasies, turns of phrase, and likes and dislikes are often touted as what make his guides – and the revised volumes updated by his authorial successors – so vivid and engaging to read, even if one is miles away from the building being described. Yet that is still the underlying assumption with a a Pevsner volume: that the reader will one day follow in the author’s footsteps and seek out the nooks and crannies he or she is chronicling. They expect us to…there are even perambulations for us to follow and paths for us to take set out explicitly in the text. What then for an architectural historian who has set out to write a book based upon the narrative of a single building type, and for whom the accepted scenario is that the reader has not seen, and may never see, what is being described?

It’s the fate of architectural historians–myself included–to spend much of their time attempting to transform the buildings we love into words. It’s necessarily a thankless task because architecture really has to be experienced in order to be understood and enjoyed; you must walk through buildings to appreciate them and understand the contrasts, moods and effects that they create. Often these qualities, so obvious to the beholder, are extraordinarily difficult to convey in prose and, even when the physical experience can be strung together in sentences, the words are inevitably so much less engaging than the reality.

This book, The Castle: A History, does not—indeed it cannot—escape from this problem. Instead, it attempts to inflect it in a way that is both engaging and unexpected. While it contains many words that are my own, the whole is really constructed around those of other people. The idea has been to draw together in a single overarching chronological narrative, from a wide variety of sources including correspondence, court records, chronicles, poetry, building accounts, and even novels, a group of texts that illuminate the role of castles in our history as well as the changing perceptions of these buildings over time. In the process it explores a myriad of subsidiary themes from questions about how castles were designed and built to how they operated and what the realities of life within them were.

Presenting the story of the castle in this way has many advantages. One of these is the immediacy of reading descriptions of events written by those with a living connection with them. What is to us remote history assumes the character of something closer to reportage. Such accounts also humanise the past—as well as castles themselves—and allow us to understand wider historical realities through specific circumstances. Multiple voices additionally offer diverse perspectives; we all see the things around us through different eyes, with different associations, and with different sympathies. Castles are no exception to this rule and it’s essential to remember that when thinking about them. They can be splendid residences, expressions of lordly power and serve as the backdrops to magnificent entertainments. But they can also be bastions in war, tools of tyranny and the means to personal aggrandisement.

The heads of lions or leopards – royal beasts and also heraldic emblems
of England – set in one of the gatehouse vaults built by Edward III
in the Tower of London. Photograph by John Goodall.

Finally, it is an incidental advantage of this approach that the book itself can be read and used in different ways. I hope that some people will use it conventionally and read from cover to cover. It also becomes perfectly possible, however, to read it in segments, to open a page at random and work backwards or just cherry-pick. Grand historical narratives certainly have their place—and I have already written one in the tome called The English Castle—but this book is conceived as an antidote to them; instead of presenting a great rolling argument it’s meant to be more of a firework display with details to amuse, catch the attention and provoke thought.

One important way in which the narrative of this book will hopefully come as a surprise to general readers is in its chronological scope, with anecdotes drawn from the Classical world to the contemporary one. Indeed, it actually finishes with a nod towards the castles for the future (not that we can know what they will be). After all, castles are a building type that we actively continue to live with, even though they exist in many different conditions, including as earthworks, ruins, country houses and the imagined buildings of films and computer games.

The early-14th-century inner bailey or Keep of Alnwick Castle, Northumbria, as reworked by Anthony Salvin. Scott was offended by the spectacular Italiante interiors that the Duke of Northumberland created inside this newly-medievalised buiding. A 21st-century visitor, however, can still marvel at them. Photograph by John Goodall.

If this book has a fundamental aim it is to encourage people to appreciate, enjoy and value castles more fully than before. One measure of its success would simply be that it inspires readers to go out and look at castles in the field afresh. They might even take this book with them. In this regard I would conclude with a slightly quixotic observation. I think it’s very easy to feel confident—through steadily more sophisticated archaeological investigation and in-depth historical research—in our ever-growing, collective knowledge of these buildings. That growth of understanding is real and exciting but what still strikes me most as I walk round castles, however, is how much of their history is irrecoverably lost. Indeed, the more we know, the more apparent the sheer scale of our ignorance. This book will not only hopefully allow readers to confront that void without feeling overwhelmed by it, but to relish what we do know about these buildings in spite of it.

John Goodall is the architectural editor of Country Life magazine. He is the author of The English CastleParish Church TreasuresGod‘s House at Ewelme, and English House Style.

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