Here to return to
QUITE apart from its history, Warwick Castle itself satisfies our ideas about the surroundings of mediæval chivalry, partly because it is so well maintained by the present Earls, and partly on account of its architectural features. It is a castle of bold effects and sweeping lines, in many ways more French than English in its inspiration. The massive strength of the barbican and gatehouse is relieved by the tall towers behind, connected high in the air by a graceful stone arch; Guy’s Tower and Cæsar’s Tower, both polygonal, stand like tall sentinels at the flanks of the northern curtain wall; and, on the southern side, the broad sweep of the palace itself extends along the bank of the Avon, which flows below past the ruins of the old bridge. Certainly, if Warwick could still boast the shell keep upon the mound at the western end of the enceinte, it would be known as one of the most splendid of European castles.
Warwick, in common with most of the English castles, has been ascribed to the Romans. The later twelfth-century circular keep at Conisborough was, according to a triumphant antiquary, “built and in use in Pagan times,” and he even found within it “a niche for an idol”; and Restormel was “even of earlier date than Conisborough itself.” From the same source we learn that the Norman keep at Norwich is “a most noble specimen of Saxon architecture,” for “certain it is that all its ornaments are in the true Saxon style,” while Colchester was the work of Edward the Elder.
So, in consideration especially of the ground plan of War wick, one is doubtful also of its ascription to Ethelfleda, “the lady of the Mercians,” as a part of the reconquest of the Danelaw carried out under Alfred’s successors. Possibly the mound was thrown up by the Saxons, though more likely the Saxon defensive work took the form of a stockade around the town of Warwick. The actual castle, as we see it — in the Norman form of a mound surmounted by a keep with a walled enclosure adjacent to it — was undoubtedly founded by William the Conqueror on his way north after the siege of Exeter. But the connection between Ethelfleda and William lies in the fact that Warwick is one of an almost complete series of castles on or near the county towns. The shire system, which spread through England with the expansion of Wessex, was taken over for military, judicial, and fiscal purposes by the adaptable Normans.
The ground plan of Warwick is, in fact, surprisingly Norman. The earliest of its buildings, as they stand to-day, probably does not go back before the end of the thirteenth century, and one might expect a score of modifications in the ground plan to have been introduced by the active Earls of Warwick, who would be in a position to profit by the experiences of the Crusades and foreign wars. Perhaps the absence of the keep (the ruins of which were noted, however, by Leland, the Tudor antiquarian) is a case in point. It may have been gutted in Tudor times; but, on the other hand, it may have gradually fallen into disrepair when the strength of the curtain walls began to be of more importance than the strength of the citadel. For the rest, the situation of the domestic buildings along the east wall of the enclosure is in keeping with the dispositions of a Norman mound-and-bailey castle.
In the elaboration of the barbican and the projection of the corner towers the ground plan betrays work of post-Norman builders which is unmistakable in elevation. The military aspect of Warwick continued to be emphasized during a period in which other English castles were becoming palaces and manor houses, and the manifestation of a French tradition at Warwick reflects the fact that the science of castellation was being for gotten in this country. The founder of the present building is believed to have been Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, who led the English vanguard at Poitiers. He died in 1369 of a disease contracted during the campaign, and the work carried on by his son was completed in 1394.
The most commanding features are the two polygonal towers on the flanks of the northern curtain wall. In every characteristic they approximate to the French tradition inaugurated by Philip Augustus. Guy’s Tower, 128 feet high, may be contrasted with that of the contemporary rectangular towers at Raby, the loftiest of which is only 81 feet high, and depends for its strength upon the thickness of its walls. Guy’s Tower and Cæsar’s Tower have more strategic value. Their parapets are boldly corbelled outwards with a row of machicolations, and they are provided with central turrets rising some distance above the level of the rampart walk. The floors of both towers are strongly vaulted as though to enable them to bear the weight of siege engines. It is interesting, by the way, to notice that castle towers sank with the increased use of artillery. The weight of the gun, the shock of its recoil, the low trajectory of its fire, led to the introduction of the low drum tower, which finally sank to the bastion perfected by Vauban in France, so that the high towers of Warwick mark the perfection of a mediæval tradition that was soon to die out.
The barbican and gatehouse in the same curtain wall complete an inspiring picture. The barbican is flanked by drum towers pierced with cruciform loops. On the heavy iron hooks which stud the towers, wool sacks are said to have been hung as a defence against musketry in Warwick’s last defence against the Roundheads. The archway of the barbican contains a portcullis, still in working order, and heavy double doors. The barbican passage, resembling that of Alnwick, is long and narrow, with galleries in its walls, so that an almost inviolable protection is given to the gatehouse, above and behind which is the building called the Clock Tower, joined by an upper story and by a stone bridge at the level of the ramparts.
Of the other towers, the Bear and Clarence Towers on the west side are either ruined or unfinished. But the history of Warwick’s purely military fortifications does not end with the Middle Ages, for the gatehouse on the western curtain and the Water Gate between the mound and the domestic buildings are both of the seventeenth century, and both have stood a siege.
The older Warwick was a pivotal point in the Evesham campaign, and in 1321 the Earls of Hereford and Lancaster held it against the monarchy. But the present structure is bound up with the families of Beauchamp, Earls of Warwick, the Nevilles, and the Grevilles, who now hold the title. The story of the King Maker besieged in such a castle as this would make interesting reading, but, unfortunately, the Wars of the Roses were a series of campaigns in open country with few sieges.
James I granted Warwick to Sir Fulke Greville, the ancestor of the present owner, who spent large sums in restoration, and only just in time. For, in the Civil Wars, Warwick was on the Parliamentary side and besieged by Lords Northampton and Derby. In this case, as in many others during the Civil Wars, the splendid promise given by artillery at Bamburgh was belied. No immediate breach was made in the strong walls, and although Sir Edward Peto, captain of the garrison, hoisted a winding sheet and a Bible expressing both his expectations and his trust, the garrison was successfully relieved by Greville, who was himself shortly afterwards killed at Lichfield.
The domestic buildings are largely of the late fourteenth century. The internal decorations were carried out in Stuart days, except for those parts which were gutted by fire one hundred years ago. The hall lost in the fire its old furnishings, but the Grevilles were assisted by the whole nation to rebuild the historic residence. In the course of this restoration the roof was raised, the old clerestory windows restored, and the polished floor of red and white marble was brought from Venice. Fortunately the priceless collection of paintings, the fruit of many a Grand Tour in the eighteenth century, was preserved from the flames, and only a portion of the collection of armour was destroyed.
Warwick Castle, then, is simple in plan, but ideally picturesque. It has grace combined with its strength. It is an ornament to a beautiful county, and a curious example of an English castle in which the military and domestic aspects are held in a just and natural balance.