Building a Stone Fortress

 

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Building a Stone Fortress

 

Text copyright by Lise Hull
Photographs Copyright by Jeffrey L. Thomas

Above: the West Gatehouse at Rhuddlan Castle

 

Even today, centuries after they were active in British history, castles demonstrate the majesty, power and wealth of their noble builders. By the end of the 12th century, stone castles became more elaborate, the obsession of several powerful personalities who felt pressure to prove their own value by constructing these towering piles. While Edward I used the stone fortress as an effective means of dominating a rebellious Welsh populace, and gave us several of the most impressive structures in the world, his fortresses also reinforced his status as a wealthy and privileged ruler. The Angevin kings, Henry II, Richard I, John and Henry III, collectively spent tens of thousands of pounds on their castles, in pursuit of reputations as men of incomparable authority, prosperity and quality. It is incredible that the monarchy could afford such building projects, for the financial coffers were limited; the kings were not individuals of unbounded wealth, as they wanted their subjects to believe.

Organizing and erecting a stone castle was a daunting task which involved enormous outlays of material, manpower, time, and money. Stone was quarried as close to the site as possible, but decorative rock was often transported from special outcrops which were located at some distance, increasing expenses considerably. In addition, although timber took on a secondary role in castle construction (as framing, flooring, ceilings, and scaffolding), it became very costly since it was still required in great quantities and had to be brought to the site from far afield, due to the depletion of nearby forests. Other expensive building materials included lead (for roofing), iron and tin, initially mined in England and later taken from Welsh sources.

Labor costs could be enormous, since skilled workers were essential to stone castle building. Specialists were often brought in from all parts of the kingdom to work on a castle, including: the master mason, quarrymen, woodcutters, smiths, miners, ditchers, carters, and carpenters. At times, as many as 2000 men were conscripted or hired for a particular project. The following quote from Master James of St. George (Edward's ingenious master mason) gives us a glimpse into the building requirements for the splendid Welsh castle at Beaumaris. Addressing the king's Exchequer, Master James wrote:

In case you should wonder where so much money could go in a week, we would have you know that we have needed - 400 masons, both cutters and layers, together with 2000 less skilled workmen, 100 carts, 60 wagons and 30 boats bringing stone and sea coal; 200 quarrymen; 30 smiths; and carpenters for putting in the joists and floor boards and other necessary jobs. All this takes no account of the garrison mentioned above, nor of the purchase of material, of which there will have to be a great quantity... The men's pay has been and still is very much in arrears, and we are having the greatest difficulty in keeping them because they simply have nothing to live on (McNeill, 1992).

Follow this link to read the full text of this letter.

 

Below: the unfinished wall walk at Beaumaris Castle in north Wales.

 

Weekly wages for these workers averaged from four shillings for a master mason to six pence for a woman laborer. James of St. George earned two shillings a day, plus 100 marks while constable of Harlech Castle. By today's standards, these wages seem minimal, but at the time they would have enabled Master James to live very comfortably.

Not surprisingly, a stone castle took a great deal longer to complete than any earth and timber stronghold. Major construction work occurred only from April to November, and was directly dependent on weather conditions. The building process itself was cumbersome, and estimated rate of ten feet of elevation per year (Fry 1981). Henry II's castle at Orford, for example, took eight years to build and the mighty Dover Castle required ten years. In contrast, Edward I's fortresses in north Wales took an average of between five and seven years, with the exception of Beaumaris (never finished) and Caernarfon (also never completed, even after an incredible 45 years!). With all the limitations mentioned above: the weather, the sheer mass of building material, and the availability of skilled labor, funding and wages, it is truly amazing that these architectural wonders were ever finished.

 

Lise Hull owns and operates Castles of Britain, an information and research web site providing a wide range of information on the castles of Britain. Mrs. Hull has a Masters Degree in Historic Preservation, and has visited well over 160 castles in Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland. She welcomes any and all questions concerning the castles of Britain, and invites people to visit her web site or contact her directly via e-mail at: castlesu@aol.com.

 

 

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