The main lecture of the evening, on the Castles of England -- also including those of Scotland and Wales -- was given by Louis Wildenboer, and was splendidly illustrated.
Despite the fact that the last successful armed invasion of Britain took place more than 900 years ago, the land of Britain has been much fought over through many centuries, and is littered with the remains of fortifications dating back before the Romans.
After his victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror parcelled out his conquered lands to his followers and allowed them to build castles, or fortified strongholds, to overawe the vanquished Saxons. He brought with him from France the latest ideas in castle building. These were to erect a tower, or "keep", on a piece of raised ground called a "motte" and to build a walled forecourt known as a "bailey" to accommodate retainers and livestock.
The castle was a dwelling, an armoury, a weapon manufactory, a centre for administering justice, a prison, and a refuge for the local people in times of danger.
The first Norman castles were probably built of wood, but such structures were later replaced by stone towers and ring walls strong enough to sustain protracted sieges and resist the various siege weapons and devises developed over the centuries. These varied from catapults, to the huge sling known as a Trabuchet, to mining, scaling ladders and battering rams. Each in its turn was countered by developments in defensive techniques.
There was no fixed pattern for castle building, however. As time went on advantage would be taken of local conditions, such as outcrops of rock, the presence of a lake and the availability of water, or easy access from the sea. The main criterion, to ensure the maximum possible security, was achieved right up to the time gunpower made castles obsolete, although much building was also done for decorative effect.
A common feature of virtually all castles was a strong gatehouse flanked by towers and blocked by a heavy wooden door and one or more of those iron or wooden gratings known as a "portcullis". Some might have a drawbridge across a moat or ditch, and a "sallyport", or small gate in the ring walls, through which the defenders could launch their own attacks on the besiegers. Protected in this way even a small garrison could hold out for a considerable time against a much larger besieging force.
The building and extension of castles could only be done under licence from the king, who himself would be no mean castle builder. William the Conqueror built the famous Tower of London to command his capital, London, and to function as a royal residence and prison. Edward 1 built numerous fortress castles in Wales, such as Conway, Caernavon and Harlech, to subdue and overawe the Welsh.
All the medieval kings either built castles or added to existing ones, an excellent example being Windsor Castle where modern extensions are still used as a royal residence.
Castle keeps were cold, cramped, uncomfortable, and frequently more convenient living quarters would be erected against the ring walls. Many of these were magnificently appointed. With the advent of gunpowder many castles were turned into residencies and the inconveniences associated with their original defensive purpose were considerably modified. These now provide picturesque attractions for tourists, equipped as they often are with their original dungeons and instruments of torture. Others were wrecked, or "slighted", by the Parliamentary forces as punishment for being held for the king during the English civil wars of the 17th century. These are now no more than picturesque ruins, although still impressive as examples of medieval military architecture.