You glimpse them as you drive along the coastal road from Swanage perched on the middle peak of three hills. Isolated but commanding the land around it, this once impregnable stronghold was begun soon after 1066 when William the Conqueror invaded England and added to by his descendants during the following centuries. In 1572 Queen Elizabeth I sold the estate to Sir Christopher Hatton, admired by his contemporaries for his dancing skills and fine legs. Later it passed into the Bankes family who gave it to the National Trust in 1981. You now approach it over a causeway to a once impregnable royal stronghold. Inside, from stables and stench to the tapestried banqueting hall and scented, flower-strewn chambers on the first and second floors raised above the noisy domestic activity below, lay a social mirror of the world outside.
We explored it on a sunny afternoon freshened by a steady breeze. The National Trust has thoughtfully placed storyboards at sheltered spots where one can look out, often through slits in the massive masonry where archers once crouched. Or one could pause to wonder at the core of the edifice where the lord – or lady, in his absence fighting on a crusade or elsewhere in a more local dispute – organised life inside the heavy stone walls as well as outside them in times of peace.
Were the stores hauled p the steep slopes by horses, oxen or donkeys? Not by slaves, one hopes – there is no mention of them. Nor of the skilled workforce required to erect the dry stone walls. I did not see any evidence of cement, nor a description of building methods. The storyboards were all about the drama of battle and of the noble defence of the castle by a woman.
Standing below the banqueting room, I could imagine the minstrels singing ballads in the courtly love tradition as if they were desperately enamoured of the chatelaine. The lord and his knights were often absent fighting, leaving their wives to manage the castle and land in their absence. How did the castle inhabitants spend the dark winter evenings with wind whistling round the eight towers and unsettling the dust in the linking rooms? The hunting parties would have returned to gather round the vast fireplaces fuelled with logs stacked high in summer inside the castle walls with their eight towers.
Majestic they once were. The central building, the keep, was constructed in the early twelfth century for Henry I, son of William the Conqueror, to replace a timber one. Built in Purbeck limestone, it is twenty-one metres tall rising above a fifty-five-meter high hill to loom over the landscape for miles around. It provided a striking vision of royal conquest.
The castle’s ruined aspect today was the result of a betrayal. In the middle of the seventeenth century, civil war raged around the castle, defended during two sieges by Lady Bankes for Charles I. English history is inevitably written by the victors, the Royalists. Apparently the valiant Lady Bankes was defeated by the betrayal of one of her own soldiers. Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers are inevitably seen as dour, like their leader. Was it because they lacked the colourful red sashes and valour – or impetuosity – of their royalist opponents? But drab as the moralist Oliver Cromwell may have been, his commonwealth was an early attempt to form an elected parliament leading to what, for better or worse, the conflict in the British parliament that we are experiencing today, a conflict of words without missiles.