From The Vault

Warwick Castle

by Ashlei Burchfield

Warwick Castle, 1752

Depiction of the castle in 1752 by Giovanni Antonio Canal, "Canaletto"


Warwick Castle is a documentary on the life and society of the castle in its prime. The famous Warwick Castle is located in the town of Warwick within Warwickshire county. It is known as one of the most beautiful castles still standing today. The movie provides us with minor background knowledge of the castle itself, but ventures through the events and nobles that came and went with the castle. Overview of the Castle and grounds The film is approximately thirty minutes long, with eight narrators who interpret what life at the castle might have been like years ago. None of the eight narrators discusses who built the castle nor why the castle was constructed; this background is actually a very important part of the castle’s history; therefore we will discuss it.

Although the original date is disputed, the year 914 is the approximate date for the establishing of the fortress. Alfred the Great’s daughter, Ethelfleda, is given credit for the construction of the fortress. Much remains unknown of Ethelfleda’s erected structure but we can refer to it as a fortress for its structure was probably much poorer than that of the remodeled wood structure or of the later stone boulders used to build the castle. The fortress was constructed beside the River Avon to protect the building from invaders on that side. Ethelfleda built the structure to protect the town of Warwick against attacking invaders, such as the Vikings who would loot and pillage the city (Greville).

As the Norman Conquest came and went, William of Normandy gained control of more northern territory. William ordered the remodel of Ethelfleda's structure in 1068, two years after the Conquest. William's structure is not the architecture we see on the castle today; it was merely a wooden fort built high upon a mound, with a wooden fence circling round entirely. The fort was then surrounded by a large ditch that went the entire length of the fence.

Eventually Henry de Beaumont was named the 1st Earl of Warwick (c. 1089). The line finally died out after five generations and John de Plessis became earl (from 1245). It was during this time, in the year 1260 that the remodeling of the castle was done. The old wood was replaced and secured with stone. Huge stone boulders were brought in to build a much stronger fortification. The documentary features Robert Melville, an architect, who discusses the building of the castle as it would have been in the 13th century. Backside of Warwick Castle Laborers suffered from low pay: master masons barely made three to four shillings a week. Constructing a castle as grand as Warwick Castle, was very labor intensive. Gigantic boulders were hauled from miles away, but somehow with the great number of laborers, they managed to keep a load coming in about every fifteen minutes. Somewhere around one hundred men would be present at the castle each day to work on the marvelous project. The building of the castle took several years to complete, and the cost of the remodel must have been a huge blow to the Warwickshire budget.

After the remodel one of the castle’s memorable events happened during the Barons’ War. The line of earldom once again changed and the title was given to William Mauduit. Mauduit had chosen to side with the king during the war. The earl of the next door county, Leicester, was Simon de Montfort, who supported the barons. Montfort attacked and seized the castle in 1264 while holding William for ransom, as well as his wife. The history and ownership of Warwick Castle descended all throughout the centuries to come until Tussaud’s Group purchased the castle in 1978. Then it really became a museum, housing some of the best and authentic pieces and structures of the medieval times.

The film does not discuss many elements of the story, such as the descent of the title and the earldom, which are a very large part of the castle’s history and the events that took place. However, Paul Barker, a castle guide, does narrate a story of what a typical small battle would have been like at the castle. The ditch around the castle held invaders back away from the gates, even though most of the time the enemy would laboriously dig a ditch underground to try to get to the inside of the castle itself. Barker explains that huge war machines were used to catapult rocks, and even heavy boulders inside the castle walls. Tower showing the arrow slits The castle was constructed with arrow slits on almost every wall, so that those inside the walls were given the advantage of shooting their opponents upon a forceful entry into the castle. Even if attackers managed to slip past the gates, they could immediately be attacked with rocks being thrown from above the entry or by the arrow slits on either side of the walls. The details of warriors and times of war were very brief in the movie, but the social aspects were discussed many times by most of the narrators.

A castle curator, Edward Fuller explains the purpose of certain rooms throughout the castle. Maybe not the grandest room of them all, but certainly the most used room was the great hall. The great hall was a large rectangular shaped room that acted as a dining hall. It contained long tables to seat the guests when they came in for luncheons or grand parties. The Great Hall Nobles who came to visit would eat in the great room, most likely at the head of the table with an established order descending from highest to lowest. A common meal would probably be a piece of fish on a slice of bread along with many glasses of wine or ale. Hospitality was greatly shown by the mansion staff. Fuller describes how there would be one butler to every three guests at the table. The great room also acted as a stage for the entertainment for the night. People would perform skits, dance, or sing. The great room was definitely the most important room of Warwick Castle.

As the viewer can tell from the events put on in the great room, the castle ceased to be primarily a structure of protection for the people. Simon Murry is the historic building advisor in Warwickshire county and he claims just that. Warwick Castle was beginning to become known as a grand palace and not a fortress. Each earl who inhabited the castle brought his own design elements into the rooms, mostly Italian or classical objects. Murry plans out the night of a noble by describing the different rooms he must retire to, for the great room was no longer enough. When one needed privacy one left the great room for what was known as a withdrawing room, that appeared perhaps more royal than the great room. When members of the nobility were done in the withdrawing room they would proceed on to the next drawing room, where they might sing or practice piano in private until later they would vanish into their bedrooms.

The head curator at Warwick Castle, Janet Punn, seemed most intrigued by the famous kings and queens of the royal family who came to visit Warwick. There were thirteen in all; Queen Elizabeth actually visited three times. When people as noble as the kings visited they were given the best of everything such as the position at the head of the long table, the best bedroom, possibly a fork to eat with, and the best withdrawing room for the night. Warwick Towers Stuart Robinson, a castle interpreter, tells of how visitors nowadays describe the castle as a bit scary and unlivable. Stuart has a different viewpoint: the castle he reminds us would have been lit with many candles and full of excitement almost always, and it was proven the castle did hold running water.

The battles at Warwick Castle required a large force of men. Robinson believes the archers were the most important because they could either shoot through the arrow slits on the castle's sides or shoot down upon the invaders from the tops of the towers. Bridge over the Warwick Moat Archers at the castle were kept around after battles as well, in order to kill game for the nobles. Many other servants, such as seamstresses or the men who made the armor, resided in the castle.

The movie can be faulted for not discussing the background and for providing information that is even too brief to be interesting. But the only person actually discussed in detail was Daisy Maynard, the Countess of Warwick, and even Daisy is merely a social aspect to the castle. She was a typical lady of nobility of that era: she held magnificent parties, wrote many letters, and held lavish functions. When Daisy is discussed towards the end of the film, it is definitely clear that Warwick Castle is no longer an old fortress, but has become a sort of playground for the elite and famous.

Countess of Warwick

The Countess of Warwick & Son
By John Singer Sargent

Overall, the film was short and not detailed enough. The narrators were specific to their own subjects and didn't venture far out of their field of interest in the castle. Although not much detailed knowledge of the actual history of Warwick Castle can be attained through this documentary, the social aspects of life around the 12th century period can be well imagined.

Recommended Reading:

Anand, Sushila. Daisy: The Life and Loves of the Countess of Warwick. (2009) Piatkus Books.

Greville, John. The Medieval Castle in England and Wales. (1990) Cambridge University Press.

Lang, Theo. The Darling Daisy Affair. (1966) Atheneum; 1st edition.