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Monday, March 22, 2021

Castles wanted - preferably ruined, plus dungeons

This may be sentimental of me, but I'm a romantic and I rather like castles with a bit of wear on them. The well-kept ones like this one at Ludlow in Shropshire,  have a rugged grandeur and give a lot more scope for a writer's research, but there's something about a ruin.

The one lurking behind me on my usual mugshot is a good case in point: Dunstanburgh has one of the best locations in the country - acres of green, little villages, wild Northumberland coast - but it wouldn't have the same charm for me if it was complete and shiny-new.

'Athelstan's Tower' at Exeter, where the Rougemont Castle site is a delectable public garden and the sandstone tower sits in the wall near the war memorial, is part of my husband's home-town memories.

The battered gatehouse of the old castle at Sherborne in Dorset- the town has two, the second later and swankier - breathes long-vanished adventure to me, even (maybe especially) in a dull and rainy autumn afternoon.

Nonsense for a medievalist, I know, but indulge me.

Of course, a working medieval castle would not be complete without a place to hold prisoners.

Medieval castles and dungeons tend to go together in people's imaginations.What we imagine as a typical dungeon, however - dark, underground, no windows, lots of chains - was less common in the Middle Ages than is assumed. 

Take the word 'dungeon'. Its earliest form, donjon, meant a keep or tower, a strong defensive position. Over time that tower has been taken to mean a prison, often underground in a castle. This form of prison was in fact an oubliette (meaning 'forgotten place') and was far darker and more grim than a dungeon. 

Famous dungeons include the Tower of London and those at Pontefract Castle and Alnwick Castle, though true dungeons in castles were not usual until later in the Middle Ages. Often noble prisoners, captured and held for ransom in the dungeon, would be kept in a secure, comfortable place within the host's castle: certainly the room would be well-guarded, but we should not picture a Richard the Lionheart or Charles of Orleans languishing in the rat-infested, damp stone cell of imagination. Life expectancy in an oubliette would be short, and bad for the ransom business. 'Common' prisoners might be kept in gate houses, while those considered undesirable and disposable but not to be actually murdered could end up down with the rats in the oubliette.

Lindsay Townsend.  


  1. I have found through the years, the ruined castles that "speak to me the most" were castles that belonged to my ancestors. It's like the stone walls whisper to you.

  2. Agreed, Deborah! There are some glorious ones in Scotland, too.

  3. I do love a castle. As a child I was lucky enough to have one we could play in. Any visitors could go two doors down from the post office (the only shop in the village) and ask for the key, to visit. In reality, only the children ever did, and we played in it all day. It would never happen nowadays. The National tryst now runs it, and the tower we used to climb is cordoned off as dangerous!

  4. Glad you enjoyed it, J. Arlene.
    Christine - what a wonderful place to play! Agree about the health and safety - it was amazing how often in the past such issues were rather overlooked.

  5. So interesting. Not having grown up around castles, as a child I associated them with fairy tales. I had never thought about how the class system even determined how prisoners were treated. Thank you.

  6. My love of castles go back to when I first began reading fairytales and my fascination with them exists to this day. My husband knew how much I loved them, so while we lived in Germany, he took me on an outing that was visting/exploring a small German castle. Somewhere I have pictures of that exciting visit. There were many more castles to explore during our stay there. In one palace we visited, we had to remove our shoes, slip into "slippers" as we walked throughout so our feet wouldn't mar the parquet floors. Such grandeur. I loved reading your far too short blog about English castles that I never got to visit. Great post, Lindsay.

  7. thanks, Ann. Sadly the class system went everywhere in the middle ages...
    Thanks, Elizabeth. Sorry my blog is short!
    Glad you were able to see some of the amazing German castles.

  8. Castles are fascinating to us Americans. We don't really have much in the way of ancient castles. We don't actually have much in the way of ancient anything. We also didn't have a class system or royalty of any kind.

    Castles have a kind of dignity in my way of thinking. They also seem a bit intimidating and scary. Battles were fought and lives were lived in those places. Visiting a castle must bring the imagination into focus. If only those stones could talk.

    A lovely post, Lindsay. I enjoyed it very much. All the best to you.

  9. Agreed, Sarah! Although in the USA you have the magnificent Redwoods that are so old - I would love to see them and touch one.
    All best to you, Sarah, and happy writing!