03.12.02, Rickard, The Castle Community

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Beth Hartland

The Medieval Review baj9928.0312.002


Rickard, John. The Castle Community: The Personnel of English and Welsh Castles, 1272-1422. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2002. Pp. xii, 562. ISBN: 0-851-15913-3.

Reviewed by:
Beth Hartland
University of Durham

John Rickard's The Castle Community is not a work of military history in the once conventional sense of that term; as he says, "the aim is to add the human element to the stone, earth and timber of traditional castle studies" (1). That human element is essentially a political one, as Rickard seeks to explain in his introduction the relationships between castle owners and castle constables and between these communities and networks of local, regional and national power. The period that Rickard has chosen to study saw important changes in the composition of "the castle-owning community," and Rickard discusses the implications of these and other changes fully in the 51page introduction to his lists of castle personnel.

As Rickard demonstrates, this period did not only see a huge increase in the number of castles [[1]] in use from 337 in 1272 to 583 in 1422, but also witnessed a major shift from royal dominance of the ownership of castles in 1300 to the proliferation of castle building by men of knightly rank or below in the mid-fourteenth century. Rickard counters Coulson's argument that most new castles were primarily intended to be status symbols rather than working fortifications -- most castle building was focused on the northern border and military threat was clearly the prime incentive to construction there. Whilst the Edwardian castles in Wales formed the last major Crown castle-building project, the Crown remained the greatest single owner of castles; in contrast, two-thirds of castle owners across the entire period in question owned only one castle. Nevertheless, this period saw the increasing importance of the knight as a castle owner: one third of castle owners whose rank is known were knights, a more impressive statistic given the decline in the number of knights in general across the period. (The rise in the number of esquires across the same period was not reflected in castle ownership). Rickard also points to the resilience of the castle-owning community, noting that families whose castles were declared forfeit during times of political crisis were usually found in possession or at least serving as castle constables within a generation.

Due to limitations of evidence (the identities of only seventy-five constables of private castles are known) Rickard's discussion of castle constables centers on those men who acted as constables at royal castles. These men fell into two largely distinct groups: the constables of county castles, and the constables of independent royal castles.

The position of constable at county castles was filled by the county sheriff, and his duties in this capacity were subordinate to his duties as sheriff. It therefore seems that questions of motivation (which are not discussed in the introduction) should focus on those men who served as constables at independent royal castles. Rickard shows that the "sheriff-constables" served terms of office of one year's duration, were local men, and did not tend to serve as constable at any other castle. Of the forty percent of all castle constables who have been identified as knights, only one quarter served as constables of county castles suggesting that most of the declining numbers of knights were reserved for duty at more militarily sensitive posts and, indeed, sixty-five percent of knightly castle constables served at independent royal castles.

The constables of independent royal castles did not only differ from their counterparts in the county castles in terms of rank. Rickard explains that their terms of office were much longer (ranging from fifty-five months at Scarborough to nine years at Windsor), they were not necessarily local, and they tended to have greater levels of experience as castle constables. Their primary role was as castle constable, although the constables of some independent royal castles had other important duties to fulfil. In particular, at Dover the constable was also Warden of the Cinque Ports, and controlled the shortest route to the continent; at the Tower of London, the constable was in charge of the royal armoury, mint and menagerie; and at Windsor (a royal residence and the base for the Order of the Garter) the constable took direct orders from the king when in residence. Members of the king's royal household were more important as constables at these castles than elsewhere in England and Wales.

Rickard's discussion of castle constables seems to suggest that most of the men who served in this capacity did not make a career of it. Indeed, the vast majority (seventy- eight percent) served as constable at only one castle [[2]], although they may have served at that castle for more than one period of service. As Rickard shows, this does not mean that castle constables were largely inexperienced since this seventy-eight percent represent only fifty-five percent of constable appointments, with the result that almost half the constables serving at a given time were either men with experience or men who would gain further experience. Further, multiple servers as constables tended to serve for longer periods than "single servers," thus increasing the level of experience among the castle constable community at any one time. Rickard points out that the comital community were not significant as castle constables, stating that just forty-five out of 113 served, and that only thirty-two of these forty-five served after gaining their title. Whilst they were clearly not a significant proportion of the entire community of castle constables (calculated on a basis of 1930 appointments), that forty percent or so of the earls served as castle constables is surely a statistic of some significance, although up to one third of these appointments can be explained as the appointments of favourites during the reign of Richard II. Of the parliamentary peerage (excluding those of comital rank), one quarter received an appointment as a castle constable. This represented one- tenth of all appointments to constableships since most parliamentary peers received more than an average number of appointments. Sixty percent of these appointments coincided with times of crisis during the reign of Edward II, reflecting the limited circle of the king's supporters at such times.

The figures on which much of this analysis is based are contained in thirty-three pages of tables, which follow the introduction. The meat of the book follows these tables and fills 421 pages with comprehensive lists of castle owners, constables and sub-constables, which include information about periods when the castles were in wardship. The lists are arranged on a county by county basis, beginning with Anglesey and ending with Yorkshire, and are fully indexed with separate castle, person and subject indices, making this section of the book easy to navigate. An eleven page bibliography is supplemented by Rickard's discussion of sources contained in the introduction.

No book, of course, is without errors, be they only of the niggling typographical type, and The Castle Community is no exception to this. A printing error in the list of tables on page viii may cause momentary confusion to the reader (tables listed as 2.xxiii-2.xxxi should be listed as 2.i-2.ix). And there appear to be a few discrepancies between the numbers of castles built by the comital community and the church given in table 1.x and the numbers discussed in the text (if this reader understands the tables correctly). This adds to the impression gained elsewhere in the text that the introduction was rather thrown together. On a more subjective and pernickety note, the use of the singular "community" in the title of this book seems questionable to this reviewer. Rickard's introduction serves to explain how there were in fact many distinct groupings, with little or no overlap, within his overarching "community."

That aside, this reviewer looks forward to Rickard producing more written analysis of his research, particularly of a prosopographical nature. In this first book, John Rickard has produced a useful resource for all historians of the reigns of Edward I through to Henry V, be they primarily concerned with administrative and architectural history, or its political and military forms, and whether that be on a national, regional, or more localised scale. All will have occasion to use this work. Rickard's lists will also be an aid to those historians who favour a prosopographical approach to the subject.


[[1]] Rickard takes castles to mean a residential building with a complete circuit of fortifications, a definition that includes most of the free standing towers of the northern borders of England (3).

[[2]] These figures are based on the number of castles served at as opposed to the number of periods of service, which distorts the figures slightly.

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Author Biography

Beth Hartland

University of Durham