Legends, mysteries, politics and deceit surround the walls of castles in Europe. They are reflections of the characteristics of every ruler who reigned. Castles have found place in bedtime stories, horror novels, cinema and remain to be object of fascination among travellers.
Castles have always filled me with awe. The fascination continued despite my limitations to express it. In mind’s eye the pictures of castles moved as if images in kaleidoscope. High and mighty, strong and strategically positioned, majestic, swollen with pride, with their towers and turrets rising into the sky like ambitious aspirations of those who lived in them; castles always ruled my imagination.
Castles in Books:
I was first introduced to castles of Europe and Great Britain through books. In romantic novels dwelt brave Princes and beautiful Princesses. The clichés I most recall are—The Princess, cynosure of all eyes, met Prince who would fall madly in love with her at first sight…The benevolent King looked after his subjects well… King’s brother proclaimed himself king as the royal crown fell on floor where its rightful master would gasp for breath, spear driven through his chest…The Queen, fond of young men, never missed a chance to seduce whenever an opportunity came by, while the King fought rebels on the border… The ghoulish Regent got infant Prince murdered in his sleep, the dagger piercing child’s heart… Six year old Princess being sneaked out of the castle after dark to henceforth live in estrangement because of the danger awaiting her life in her father’s house… Rebel Prince being kept chained in the cellar where even the sunlight could not peep…The evil demon crept out of his window like a lizard and scaled the straight wall until he came to the window where the beautiful Princess slept ignorant of his scheme. Castles concealed more than they revealed. That was the beauty of their existence.
The mystery appealed to me. Suspense of unfolding events heightened the anxiety. These implied for castles in books and in reality. Exploring castles has always been my passion. I love stories hidden in towers, in the folds of bed-sheets, and in the gallows. I love the glitter of crown jewels that dazzle my eyes. I admire the strength of men who wielded swords and scimitars as heavy as themselves. I love paintings that adorn the walls and portraits of dynasties now forever gone. The eyes of King or Queen seemingly follow people from the portrait anywhere they go. I am mesmerized by the nude sculptures of beautiful women, who must have lived sometime. I am taken aback by the sheer luxury of grand staircases, lighted chandeliers, objects of art, costumes, period furniture and the sense of history, visible in each stone.
Design and Defence
Castles were always as a rule built at height or on a hill to withstand onslaught of an attacking army. The natural rocky surface, often rising straight, added to the fortification. Often a moat ran around with crocodiles in it to make meal out of a trespasser. A bridge, wooden, that could be lifted to ‘lift up the access’ as they say, was an essential part of the entrance gate. The road up to the King’s chamber was often serpentine and had many arched gates to hold back a horde of intruders. The mechanism to throw boulders by catapults or just roll them over the incline was impressively designed. Some even had slits in the parapet from where archers could lob a stream of arrows and beat back an invading army. The square or rectangular motifs were seldom followed. The more sides a castle had the better; quadrangular, hexagonal, octagonal or even semicircular. This made it easy to fortify and difficult for an attacker to conquer. The towers were built high to conduct watch and ward operations. The location of the ammunition dump was a secret only few knew. Soldiers were mostly housed in the basement quarters.
Some kings built parapets so wide that four horsemen could ride side by side at once. The idea was to create an awe upon the feared attackers.
Life and Times
Life in castles was both opulent and hard. It was uncertain too. Future could bring another castle to rule or a misfortune could take away even the one in hand. Conquest and doom lived beside each other. The rulers collected priceless objects of art, paintings, sculptures, carpets, furniture and evidently jewels from all over the world. The dresses matched the age. Everything was properly done whether a court ceremony in full regalia, a secret wartime confabulation or an occasion to celebrate. An English film ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ has very evocatively filmed life in an English castle.. The nobility lived upstairs, while the army of attendants, maids, chefs, coach boys, gardeners stayed downstairs. Their lives followed two different patterns, nonetheless dependent on each other. The Baron living upstairs could be a great moralist as long as he was upstairs but, when in the darkness of night he sneaked to the bedroom of his favourite maid he would lose his pretensions of morality to her bed. Life was always very enchanting in a castle!
Intrigue and Deceit
If one sentiment ran common through all the castles, it was intrigue backed with deceit. Sons plotted against their fathers. Queens manoeuvred against kings. Brothers schemed against the King to inherit throne. Important courtiers and confidantes manipulated decisions to suit their interests. Many times as I wander through castles I find stories of Queen’s lover hacked to death by sword in her bedroom by the King who secretly suspected and accidentally found out the affair; tales of Princes returning to court after a conquest and presenting the head of vanquished rebel on a platter to his father; lives of young Princes being snuffed out in bed on their uncle’s order, who wished to be King and desired to remove all obstacles; the tower top where ravens tore flesh out of the body of defeated and captured warriors; the secret passage that facilitated the flight of the defeated King and his family.
Some Famous Castles
• Tower of London, England
The most famous landmark of the city, Tower of London is across the Tower Bridge. This is where perhaps royal fortunes were made or equallyundone. William I, in 1078 AD built the
White Tower and thus was born the Tower of London, both famous and infamous in history. The Tower evokes mixed feeling of intrigue, fear, pomp and gaiety. In one corner, the Bloody Tower hides remorse of the two princes whose lives were plucked off from their young bodies. Raven Tower inflicts a chill as it reminds of the cringing prisoners, feasts of the tower ravens. In the chamber where knights where anointed, pride and all other glorious traditions associated with royalty, come alive. Battle honours, success, fame, loyalty to the crown, everything that was considered lofty is seen by mind’s eye. The sparkling Crown Jewels in the Jewel House and the irresistible Koh-INoor diamond embedded in the RoyalCrown create stars in daylight!
The gleam lasts until the sight of earth cordoned off as a memorial. This is the Site of Scaffold, where executions by the order of His Majesty the King were carried out. Henry VIII got two of his wives beheaded at this spot! Others to lose life here were a princess, a viscountess, an uncrowned queen, an Earl and a Lord. May lord have mercy on their souls!
• Cardiff Castle, Wales
Cardiff Castle’s history began with the first Roman fortress built in 1st century, AD. The Normans conquered it in 11th century and an impressive fortification was done in Castle in the 19th century. The Castle is not very huge and is built of crème-coloured stones and greyish bricks. The Castle wall is impressive and stands above a moat made for defensivereasons.
Straight inside, on a mound, is the Norman Keep, a tower now partly in ruins but harbours pride and charm. From top one can get the ‘watch n ward’ soldiers view of the place. To the left is an assortment of a slim turret, towers, a steeple, all being part of a large characteristic British castle. These apartments were extended for the 3rd Marquess of Bute by W. M. Burges, an architect and have been profusely decorated. The interiors are spectacular. The most famous rooms of this section are Banqueting Hall, Winter Smoking Room, Lord Bute’s Bedroom, the Small Dining Room and the Nursery. The walls, the ceiling, the fireplace, every inch has either painted designs, carved features, or stunning sculpture to boast off. The 15th century Medieval Hall hosts a traditional Welsh Banquet for which booking must be secured in advance.
• Edinburgh Castle, Scotland
Entrance to this grandiose castle is through the Portcullis Gate, which stands on the site of medieval Constable’s Tower. The gate was built after the lang siege of 1571-1573 AD as main entrance to the Castle. As I sauntered inside the premises the aged stones of the Castle spoke to me in a faint whisper and told me how history and pride of the Scot Nation was deeply interwoven with Edinburgh Castle, its occupants and its events. I discovered that there was never a dull moment in the life of this Castle, there was never a pause in its changing fortunes.
This castle signified power and glory. Whoever had it held temporal sway over Scotland. King Edward I of England invaded and captured the castle in 1296 AD. But, fortune always favours the brave. Sir Thomas Randolph, nephew of King Robert the Bruce, wearing cloak of the night on March 14 1314, scaled the precipitous north face of the rock and surprised the English garrison. With invasion of the Castle, Robert the Bruce ordained that it be dismantled “lest the English ever afterwards might lord it over the land by holding the castles.” Three months later, after reorganisation and strategic planning, the English army had to taste defeat at the Battle of Bannockburn. The Castle has seen many sieges in its lifetime. The Lang Siege of two years saw the castle besieged by the King’s supporters because Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange, the keeper, decided to support the exiled Queen. The siege ended in May 1573 after a devastating bombardment and Sir Kirkcaldy’s execution.
Again in 1689 AD, the Castle saw its last siege when the English besieged it for three months. In 1688 AD Protestant William of Orange landed in England and the Catholic James VII of Scotland & II of England fled. William, and his wife Mary (James’ VIIs elder daughter) were proclaimed joint sovereigns of England. Scots remained undecided. At the end of three months siege the Duke of Gordon, Governor of Edinburgh Castle surrendered. William and Mary accepted the Scottish Crown. The Castle was picketed in 1715 AD & 1745 AD by the “Old Pretender” and “Bonnie Prince Charlie” but to no avail.
• Bavarian Castle, Germany
Neuschwanstein Castle near Munich, in the Bavarian Alps of Germany is the most famous of three royal palaces built for Louis II of Bavaria, sometimes referred to as Mad King Ludwig. Embarked in 1869 and left unfinished on Louis’s death in 1886, the castle is the embodiment of 19th century romanticism. It is set with towers and spires and is spectacularly sited at a height over River Pöllat Gorge. King Ludwig II said. “I intend to rebuild the old castle ruins of Hohenschwangau by the Pollat Gorge inthe genuine style of the old German Knightly fortresses… the spot is one of the most beautiful that one could ever find. ”
The castle had running water on all floors. The spring which supplied the castle with excellent drinking water was located 200 meters above the castle. There were toilets equipped with automatic flushing on every floor. The entire building had warm air heating system and hot water system at kitchen and bath! The Throne Room designed in elaborate Byzantine style was created as the Grail-Hall of Parsifal. It was inspired by the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.
American tourists recognise Neuschwanstein because the Cinderella Castle in Disney Land was modelled on it. Life in castle was tumultuous and celebrated only the brave and fortunate. Guile, deceit, diplomacy, spilling of blood; nothing mattered as castles changed hands and masters in their turbulent existence.