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Medieval Castle Keeps

A keep was used by the residence of a King or lord and was the strongest part of the castle and surrounded with curtain walls built of stone. Most contain several floor levels providing accommodation of various kinds. Keeps are also known as donjon in documents or great tower due to the size of some of the buildings. If an enclosure exists there will be a gatehouse, walls, and probably an external ditch, and there may be some buildings inside the enclosure. Sites that may be confused with this class are shell keeps and quadrangular castles. A shell keep is a masonry enclosure on a motte or ringwork, possibly with "lean-to" buildings inside of one storey, whilst quadrangular castles, as the name implies, are rectangular or square and built around a quadrangle with the buildings seldom of more than two storeys.

They were constructed in the medieval period soon after the conquest of England dating to the tweleth century, to the fifthteenth centurym and many of the major castles in the BritISH Isles had them constructed during this time. The main souce of the information for castle keeps comes from documentary eveidnce and sometimes on rare occucations from archaeological exavcations on castle but these are very few and reasearch is lacking in this area a lot more than we can imagaine. Some of the dates also come from C14 and dendrochronology, when wood is preserved dates can be obtained.

The earliest known keep to date is the White Tower in London, built c1070, and a late example in 1433, of brick, at Tattershall, Lincolnshire. Many of the keep were either renforced as new technology came to hand making them much more safer in times of trouble, which was so common throughout the medieval world. Experimentation took place in shapes, to avoid the vulnerable corners of the early keeps; there seems to be no overall chronological pattern in this except that a number of cylindrical keeps were built at the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries in Wales and the Marches. Other chronological development was in the improvement of the domestic accommodation. Much of the archaeological work so far has been based on Dudley castle dating the keep towards the fourteenth century that may have been built over on of the twelth century. At Stafford excavations inside the keep showed that the basement floor was largely filled with material from the motte on which the keep was built, and that it overlies an octagonal stone structure.

In the tweleth and thirteenth century in Wales several cylindrical keeps were built and a later also some were constructed in England at Launceston in Cornwell was built inside an existing shell keep castle, and at Conisbrough, Yorkshire, a cylindrical keep with six wedge-shaped solid buttresses was built c1200. Polygonal keeps are widely distributed also, and several were built at the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries, for instance Chilham, Kent, and Orford, Sussex, both basically octagonal; about the same time irregular pentagons were built at Mitford, Northumberland, and elsewhere; and a little later, in the 13th century a quatrefoil keep was built on a motte at York, and a trefoil keep at Pontefract, Yorkshire.

Different shapes Keeps

Square keep of Clun Shropshire

Rectangular keep of Okehampton, Devon

Cylindrical keep of Conisbrough, Yorkshire

Polygonal keep or irregular at Chilham, Kent

The Keep was legally held by the King or by landowners on his behalf even so the llegiance might change during rebellion or civil war. Most of the keeps are widely dispersed throughout much of the British Isles, with the main concentraion around the Welsh boarders. They commanded such major points as river crossings, roads, and gates and many more vunerable points. There is often a wide space round large towns where there are no castles - this is most marked round London - presumably to avoid the town being dominated from a castle that had fallen into the wrong hands. Cases where castles are close together are usually due to adjoining lordships. The number of keep in the Britsh Isles is one hundred and four, of which tower keeps number fifty five and ninetten hall keeps. So far archaeological excavtions number to about fifty but on a small scale. At Farnham, Surrey, a major excavation (Thompson 1960) found a small square keep, built at original ground level, within the motte, and archaeological evidence shows that the keep predated the motte. A well, extending down into the original ground, was also found, as was the ancient land surface. Evidence was also found for 5 building phases, one of which showed that the tower was demolished before the later shell wall was constructed. Little evidence for dating was found but the keep was though,on historic grounds,to be c1138.

The Tower of London has been the subject of many excavations; that by Davison (1964) on the site of the new Jewel House found a defensive ditch of the late 11th century which must have been part of the defences of the White Tower (the keep) built in c1078. The ditch, which may have related also to a temporary campaign castle of 1067, was recut to a depth of 7m in the late 12th century, apparently as part of the first major enlargement of the Tower in 1190. Most of the excavtions have found many diferent periods of use which is not supprising in itself as the castles many of which do date to the Norman Conquest of 1066.

The landscape archaeology appoarch is to look for Pipe Rolls containing work that had been carried out on the castle keeps or the castle. The Pipe Rolls will show annual accounts of income and expenditure.Victoria County Histories. County Archives offices may have material such as leases and conveyances relating to later uses of sites.


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