"Castles tend to bag the best locations"
As an island nation, Britain is good at building castles. But castles are not just about battlements, arrow slits and pouring boiling tar on enemies below. They can also be palaces, prisons, courtrooms... even student accommodation. One thing that they have in common, however, is that they tend to bag the best locations; perched in spots with amazing views. Edinburgh Castle sits on the city centre's highest point, an extinct volcano; Scarborough Castle (pictured above) towers above rocky cliffs, while the battlements of Newcastle's Keep offer sweeping views across the city.
Once upon a time, castle-building was a full-time business. Either castles were blasted by enemy attack or building techniques improved; frequently both. Newcastle's medieval Castle Keep is the third fortification on its riverside site. First came the Roman fort, then a Norman wooden fortress (built by William the Conqueror's son and giving the city its name, New Castle), to be replaced by Henry II's tougher, stone version seen today. Walls and gates were added, of which the still-surviving 13th-century Black Gate was considered cutting edge, with a turning bridge, portcullis and guardrooms.
William the Conqueror was very fond of castles. After his victory in 1066, he made York his northern military headquarters, building not one but two castles. Frequently attacked, today's medieval remains are known as Clifford's Tower, perched on an artificially created earth mound like a cherry on an iced bun. Its elegant, four-leaf clover design is the only one of its kind remaining in Britain and it's the fourth keep built on the site. Originally surrounded by a moat, it was later used as staterooms for visiting monarchs, and as a prison.
Unlike York, which is otherwise as flat as a pancake, at Scarborough, Durham and Edinburgh, the prime spot was obvious. The only difficulty was lugging the stones up to it! Scarborough's castle sits on a spectacular headland of sheer-sided cliffs rising from the North Sea. Initially a royal castle, its construction was lavish: extensive walls, royal chamber block, a great hall and a double drawbridge. It saw plenty of action, particularly in the Civil War, and was even bombarded by German ships in the First World War.
Man the ramparts
At Durham, our old friend William the Conqueror spotted the natural advantages a mile away. Lindisfarne monks, fleeing the Vikings, had already built a shrine (later to become Durham Cathedral) on a rocky outcrop enclosed in a loop of the River Wear. Perfect, thought William, for a castle to keep out those unruly Scots. Bishops governed on the King's behalf and grew immensely powerful, lavishing their money to create a true 'palace', with a double-height great hall, the 17 metre high Black Staircase, staterooms and galleries. In 1832, the castle became the first college of Durham University - surely Britain's most impressive student accommodation - with the 15th-century kitchen still in use, though somewhat modernised.
Edinburgh Castle was designed as a royal residence as well as a fortress - although, looming over the city with its massive walls, batteries and portcullis, it looks anything but comfortable. Inside, you'll find a medieval great hall with a splendid hammerbeam roof, the 12th-century St Margaret's Chapel (Edinburgh's oldest building and, for a while, a gunpowder store), and the bedroom where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to the future James VI and James I of England.
Before the 1603 Act of Union, Carlisle Castle, guarding England's north-west border, held a critical, yet dangerous, position; with 10 attempts to conquer it, the castle is the most besieged place in the British Isles. Founded by, guess who - yep, William the Conqueror's son this time - this is a proper castle with a moat, keep, portcullis, battlements, spiral staircases and dungeons. Amazingly, it has never fallen out of use: garrison, royal residence, prison, barracks of the Border Regiment, and today it is still the home of the Territorial Army. A mighty castle, indeed.
english-heritage.org.uk (Clifford's Tower, Scarborough Castle, Carlisle Castle)
dur.ac.uk/university.college (Durham Castle)
Britain's oldest crown jewels are the crown, sceptre and sword of state of the Scottish monarchs, kept at Edinburgh Castle. Dating back to the 15th and early 16th centuries, they were buried three times to escape capture, lastly in the Second World War in case of a Nazi invasion.
Thick stone walls were not only useful for protection. Jacobite prisoners at Carlisle Castle licked moisture from them to stay alive after the castle was retaken from Bonnie Prince Charlie by the English, in 1745. It was the last siege of an English fortress.
York's Clifford's Tower was named after Roger de Clifford, a Lancastrian who rebelled against Edward ll, was captured at the Battle of Boroughbridge (1322), and hung in chains from the Tower's battlements.
Lancaster Castle, still a courtroom and, until recently, a prison, was the scene of the trial of the Pendle Witches, in 1612, who were found guilty of murder by witchcraft and hanged on the moors above the town. The last public execution at the castle took place in 1865.