The Castle Builders - The Inside Story

8th April 2015


 

As a new international TV series celebrates the castle and how it was built, producer John Geraint of Green Bay Media reflects on the amazing architectural legacy of those who actually did the hard work

 

How do you build on a massive scale? And how was it done centuries ago, without the aid of hi-tech machines and computing power? Even today, any major construction project is something little short of a miracle – a breath-taking combination of ingenuity, craft, organisation and hard labour. It takes determination, skill, planning… and lots and lots of money. The same was true a thousand years ago.

The technology may have moved on, but the basic challenges were the same.

 

Green Bay’s epic series ‘The Castle Builders’, which premieres this week on the Yesterday Channel (9pm Tuesday 14 April), demonstrates how all over Europe, from Carcassonne to Caerphilly, those challenges were triumphantly overcome. It’s the story of the blood, sweat and toil behind the magnificent architecture.

 

Using computer modelling and large-scale dramatic reconstructions, ‘The Castle Builders’ lets us see these great structures rise stone by stone into their full splendour.  The series brings to life the astonishing scope and scale of medieval castle building in England and Wales, France and Germany – and reveals the astronomical costs involved.

 

“In case you should wonder where so much money could go in a week,” wrote Edward I’s master-mason, Master James of St George, to the king in 1296, as he worked across north Wales to complete the biggest programme of castle-building anywhere in mediaeval Europe, “we would have you know that we have needed 400 masons…2000 less skilled workmen, 100 carts, 60 wagons and 30 boats…200 quarry men, 30 smiths… and carpenters…”

 

One man who’s in a unique position to appreciate the scale of Edward’s Welsh castle building project is our series advisor, Rick Turner. For decades, Rick was an inspector of ancient monuments in Wales. So he understands what was involved in building a great castle like Harlech.

 

“You have to think of what it must be like to try and establish somewhere like Camp Bastion in Afghanistan” he says. “There were 950 men at the height of the building season at Harlech, at that one castle alone. It gives you some idea of the sort of logistics necessary – to bring those people there, to feed them, to house them, to provide them with tools, materials and equipment – to enable them to build these buildings at speed and under the eyes of a recently-conquered people”

 

Wales has a unique place in history of castle building. There are said to be more castles per square mile here than in any other country. The series features Edward’s castles Harlech and Caernarfon, and also castles like Dolbadarn and Castell y Bere, built by native Welsh princes, as well as what is often called the greatest castle ever built by a Welshman – Raglan.

 

Will Davies of Cadw works regularly at all these sites, undertaking necessary repairs and restoration in ways sympathetic to the original builders’ designs. As we discovered when we interviewed him, the more that he’s got to know a castle like Caerphilly, the more he appreciates what it took to build it.

 

“In pre-mechanised age, every single stone there had to be hacked out by hand from a quarry, and then transported in some cases over huge distances. You’re relying on river transport and tracks to get this stuff in place, in absolutely enormous quantities. And then you start building…”

 

Caerphilly was built in three short years in the late 1260s under the orders of a young Norman Lord, Gilbert de Clare. He was willing to break new ground to meet the threat posed by Llywelyn ap Gruffydd and the native Welsh. Caerphilly was the first castle in Britain designed to be defended by walls within walls. It took defensive strategy to a whole new level in which there were multiple layers of fortification.

 

Every time an attacker overcame an obstacle, he would be faced by a new one. Penetrating one gatehouse led only to another. Crossing a drawbridge meant facing a portcullis and a further set of doors. And at every turn the attackers were exposed to crossfire from the adjacent towers and curtain walls. Finally, around all of this, there were water defences preventing undermining and keeping siege engines at a distance.

 

The technical challenges involved were immense, says Will Davies. “You have these huge spur buttresses which merge with the walls either side of them, all built out of single pieces of stone graduating in size. There’s sheer ingenuity involved to carry a wall into a parapet that juts over it by a few inches.

 

“You’ve got to have the masons with the capability of doing that work and somebody also actually capable of designing this thing and giving them what you’d call ‘a spec’ today.

 

“They have got to have the knowledge to make these things stay up, the physics behind these buildings. Now I dare say they’re not writing equations down – but they must have had plans, and they must have known exactly what works”

 

The strength of these medieval castles shielded the power of barons and overlords. Their beauty and their opulence burnished the status and mystique of royalty.  They set in stone a feudal system which seems at odds with our more democratic age.

 

But, looked at in a different light, these citadels have left a remarkable record of the work of the craftsmen and labourers who had nothing more to take pride in than the work itself.  Their castles are more than magnificent monuments to a past that’s dead and gone.  They hold the key to understanding a crucial period in the growth of our civilisation. If you want to understand how the modern world was constructed, watch the Castle Builders.

 

Green Bay’s The Castle Builders will be shown on the Yesterday channel across the UK beginning on Tuesday 14 April at 9pm. The series is being sold internationally by Dutch distributors Off The Fence. The series was commissioned by S4C and a Welsh-language version presented by writer and broadcaster Jon Gower will be shown later in the year

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