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Majestic Bodiam Castle

by Cheryl Lee

Majestic. Romantic. Impressive. Bodiam Castle, in East Sussex, is all that and more.

This medieval stone castle, a little over twenty minutes by car from Rye or Hastings, evokes all kinds of childhood memories, from knights of old to sandcastles (complete with moat) shaped by buckets and spades. Bodiam's imposing symmetry comes from its four lofty, corner drum-towers, each linked by a curtain wall to rectangular towers in the center. The exterior of the castle remains mostly intact, and though the same cannot be said for the interior, it's not hard to imagine what it was like.

Bodiam Castle

In 1385, with England under the threat of a French invasion, Richard II granted Sir Edward Dalyngrigge a 'licence to crenellate.' Instead of fortifying his manor house, Sir Edward chose a new location on higher ground and built Bodiam Castle to guard the Rother Valley against the French.

A member of an old Sussex family, Sir Edward had married an heiress whose family held the manor of Bodiam. He gained his wealth fighting in France as a mercenary in one of the Free Companies, serving under Sir Robert Knollys. The Free Companies operated during the Hundred Years War as private mercenary armies that raided and pillaged the French countryside, earning fearsome reputations and great fortunes. After retiring from the wars, Sir Edward's connections and wealth helped him become a leading figure in Sussex society. His patron was the Earl of Arundel, and Sir Edward's status reached the highest point in 1392 when the king appointed him Keeper of the Tower of London and Governor of the City. He died not long after and was succeeded by his son, Sir John Dalyngrigge.

Over the centuries, ownership of Bodiam Castle transferred to different hands. The castle was dismantled after the English Civil War and it eventually fell into disrepair. Restoration work first began in the nineteenth century, and in 1916, Lord Curzon purchased the castle and continued the huge task. On his death in 1925, he left Bodiam Castle to the National Trust.

A quarter mile walk from the car park brings visitors to a long, timber bridge that crosses the water-filled moat and leads to the castle entrance. Passing the Octagon (an island outwork that had enough space for turning wagons) and the remains of the Barbican, which was originally a two-storey gatehouse, one finally arrives at the twin rectangular towers of the Gatehouse. Embellished with Sir Edward Dalyngrigge's coat of arms, the Gatehouse was a formidable structure with three sets of portcullises and sturdy gates as defense against an enemy. The broad moat would have impeded any attack, but should an intruder have breached the Gatehouse, he risked having missiles or boiling tar dropped on him through 'murder holes' in the vaulted ceiling. The rooms on the second floor of the three-storey Gatehouse have been recreated to give an idea of how they looked when occupied by the garrison.

Bodiam Castle

Bodiam was designed as a comfortable home as well as a stronghold. Rooms were arranged around a central quadrangle, which today is carpeted with grass. Though the interior lies in ruins, the surviving footings, doors, windows and fireplaces hint at the size and layout of the buildings.

Let's begin our tour at The Northeast Tower, which was possibly used by important visitors and their households. Various fireplaces, garderobes and windows in the several chambers and two long halls over both floors suggest they were comfortably furnished rooms. On display in the ground floor room is a replica of a 16th century mortar; the original was discovered at Bodiam in the 18th century.

Bodiam Castle

The East Range contained the Chapel, where a large lancet window remains as well as a piscina, a shallow basin attached to a wall and used by the priest to rinse communion vessels. Fragments of the sanctuary's original green and yellow glazed floor tiles are in the castle's museum. Also in the East Range, on two floors near the Chapel, were Sir Edward Dalyngrigge's main rooms. These chambers would have had the finest details and been the most comfortable. His private hall contained a stone window seat and an imposing fireplace. The Great Chamber led to the East Tower and the lord's personal pew above the Sacristy where he could devote himself to his religious duties in private.

In the South Range, the Great Hall was the most important room in the castle, and was entered from the courtyard through an arched doorway that led into a passageway, the screens passage. Today, only the west side of the screens passage survives, with doorways leading to the Kitchen, Buttery (from which wine was dispensed) and Pantry (where kitchen stores were housed). The raised dais where Sir Edward would have dined with important guests stood under a transomed window that had views across the moat. A newel staircase linked the lord's chambers to the Great Hall, but now only the base remains.

The Postern Tower provided an alternative entrance or escape exit. Its defenses were similar to those of the Gatehouse, with portcullis, gate and murder holes. Sir Edward honored his commander, Sir Robert Knolly's, by having his coat of arms carved on the south face of the tower.

The Great Kitchen, also in the South Range, has two massive fireplaces, one of which is 13 feet wide. This room was built two storeys high to disperse the heat from cooking; its full height is revealed by the still-standing inner courtyard wall. Stairs in the basement of the Southwest Tower lead to the large castle well, a medieval necessity, still filled with water. There are two rooms above the well with fireplaces and garderobes, and above these rooms is the dovecote. Doves provided a ready source of fresh meat, and of the original 300 stone nesting boxes, about 197 remain in ledges around the walls.

Completing the circuit, the West and Northwest Ranges contained the servants' quarters. The Retainer's Hall had no fireplaces and few windows, making it a dark room, but there are holes in the walls next to the fireplaces of the Great Kitchen and Retainers' Kitchen, which would have allowed heat into the hall. Chambers in this area were austere with very few fireplaces or garderobes. The basement in the Northwest Tower held the dungeon, entered through a trapdoor.

Our tour ends at Bodiam's museum, which stands facing the Gatehouse and is a short walk from the bridge. It contains a model of the castle, the remains of the tomb effigy of Sir John Dalyngrigge, and a number of medieval objects discovered by Lord Curzon during excavation. Bodiam Castle is a picturesque reminder of times past, a treasure well worth exploring.

Bodiam Castle

Bodiam Castle Photo Gallery

Click any image for a larger photo.

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More Information:

Bodiam Castle (National Trust)

Plan of the castle

BBC Virtual Tour

Cheryl Lee lives in Sydney, Australia, close to where the First Fleet landed, which might explain her fascination for English history. She writes historical romance fiction set in the Georgian era.
Article © 2006 Cheryl Lee
Photos © 2007 by Patrick and Moira Allen


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