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Anglo-Saxon Towers of Lordship and the Earliest English Castles

Anglo-Saxon Towers of Lordship and the Earliest English Castles

Lecture by Dr Michael Shapland FSA

It has long been assumed that England lay outside the Western European tradition of castle-building until after the Norman Conquest of 1066. It is now becoming apparent that Anglo-Saxon lords had been constructing free-standing towers at their residences all across England over the course of the tenth and eleventh centuries. Initially these towers were exclusively of timber, and quite modest in their scale, although only a handful are known from archaeological excavation. There followed the so-called 'tower-nave' churches, towers with only a tiny chapel located inside, which appear to have had a dual function as buildings of elite worship and symbols of secular power and authority. Because the Anglo-Saxons constructed their secular buildings almost exclusively from timber, whereas the Normans commonly built theirs from stone, no secular buildings whatsoever are known to survive above ground in England from the entire period between the departure of the Roman legions and the aftermath of the Norman Conquest. In contrast to the hundreds of Norman castles and manor-houses still to be found across England, tower-nave churches are the closest thing that archaeologists are going to get to the standing architecture of the Anglo-Saxon secular elite.


This lecture is timed to coincide with the publication of the first full-length study of these exceptional buildings (Oxford University Press, Jan/Feb 2018), many of which still stand incorporated into the fabric of Norman and later parish churches and castles. Adopted by the secular aristocracy of the 10th and 11th centuries to adorn their own manorial sites, it observes that many of the known examples would have provided strategic advantage as watchtowers over roads, rivers and beacon-systems, and have acted as focal points for the mustering of troops. The tower-nave form persisted into early Norman England, where it appears to have influenced a variety of high-status building types, including the keeps and gatehouses of the earliest stone castles. This lecture concludes that we should see Anglo-Saxon towers of lordship as part of the wider tradition of aristocratic tower construction across Western Europe during the later tenth and eleventh centuries.