Dr Audrey Thorstad introduces her new book, the first multi-disciplinary study of the cultural and social milieu of the post-medieval castle.
In March 2019, Historic Environment Scotland reported that over 2 million people visited Edinburgh Castle in 2018 with an overall 5% increase in footfall across all their sites from the previous year. Clearly, castles still captivate our imaginations and bring us back in history. To our modern minds, these historic buildings often provoke images of knights, royalty, and military power but they were far more complex than simply used for military purposes. These buildings were residential spaces that hosted an assortment of people, events, and life. My book on early Tudor castles uses a range of source material to understand how these buildings facilitated patronage and political circles, the creation of complex landscapes, allowed for conspicuous consumption, and provided spaces of privacy.
I was first drawn to castles as a child who was an avid fantasy novel reader. I consumed stories about magic, fortresses, feasting, and a fictional premodern Western world. Castles were strong features in these books. As I began to move towards a more academic pursuit of understanding, my attention was drawn to the idea that castles in England and Wales were in decline by the end of the fourteenth century. After visiting sites such as Hampton Court Palace and Edinburgh Castle, I wondered about the castle narrative of the sixteenth century. My book is an exploration into the early Tudor castle story. It sets out to show how castles functioned as part of the elite lifestyle by examining important aspects of the nobility: politics, justice, hospitality, privacy, patronage, and piety. The castle played a role in all these things throughout the sixteenth century.
My book takes on four primary case studies – Hedingham Castle, Carew Castle, Thornbury Castle, and Cowdray House – for my main form of examples and evidence. I look at specific themes and spaces associated with the nobility to demonstrate how people in these castles interacted with one another and the castle space around them. For instance, in one chapter, I focus on the households that worked, lived, or visited these buildings. The household was a major part of castle life and my book explores the wide-range of people that the household actually entailed, from midwives to temporary labourers, from cooks to chamber servants. The household kept daily routines moving and was clearly an integral part of castle life, but the castle space tended to reinforced the social and gender hierarchy of Tudor society. So, although the importance of the household is hard to deny, everyone had their place in the social order. This is of course not to say that the layout and space of castles did not allow for interactions across the social spectrum. For example, in an undated letter from John de Vere, thirteenth earl of Oxford (1442-1513) to John Paston, the earl states that a Thomas Charles of Norwich presented to him a bill of complaint against another man. As the local lord in Norfolk, the earl of Oxford dealt with such issues of justice. In this case, it appears that Charles travelled to Hedingham Castle in Essex to present a complaint to Oxford directly. Interactions between the nobility and the local community give us a glimpse into how the castle space both restricted movement – Thomas Charles was only allowed in certain areas of the castle – as well as facilitated interactions – he was able to present his complaint to Oxford in person.
My book shows that castles were still playing a role in noble life and that the people living, working, and visiting these buildings help us to decode the castle space. Importantly, the people – the owner, the household, the guests, the local community – take centre stage in my analysis. Ultimately, I think the stories of the people inside the castle bring a new narrative to the castles themselves and reveal to us how these buildings and their landscape functioned in Tudor society.
This guest post is written by Audrey M. Thorstad, a lecturer in Early Modern History in the School of History, Philosophy, and Social Sciences at Bangor University.