When we go to a castle, most of us will climb a tower and look out across the landscape to see what we can see and maybe take a windswept photo, before carefully climbing back down the cold stony spiral staircase no doubt stopping at some point to let an upcoming family pass you as you jostle for space in the staircase. These views just like walking around the ground level of the castle give us a closer sense to what the people who lived here hundreds of years ago may have experienced, from the sun and the rain to the sea and mountains in the distance, a fair chunk of what we see today is the same as what would have been seen in the medieval period. In other senses a lot has changed, for one the castle probably wasn’t ruined, and car park would have been very quiet back then, but I’m sure the coffee shop was as busy as ever….. With these views we do have however a view into the past.
A great example and one of my favourite castles is Raglan Castle, the castle we see today is primarily from the 15th and 16th centuries (1) and is perhaps one of the best places to experience a late medieval castle in Wales or the U.K. for that matter. There are two towers which you can climb to view the magnificent landscape of Monmouthshire and in the distance the Brecon Beacons. From the top of the Great Tower you get a chance to experience the landscape, you can see the village of Raglan in the distance with the church of St Cadoc emerging from the tree line. This perspective reveals the relationship between the lord of Raglan and the settlement/manor which was subject to the lord. We witness the demand for privacy from the liege lord with separation of the castle and manor, a small hill separating the two, obstructing the view of much of the castle other than the highest points such as the Great Tower. This is arguably a display of power, as Johnson (2) discusses is controlling what an individual approaching the castle from this side can see, only revealing the true size of the castle at the last moment. The construction of the Great Tower is an attempt to dominate of the landscape by its builder William ap Thomas (2). From this perspective we see both an attempt to create privacy by the spatial difference of the castle and manor but also the continued need for the lords of Raglan to illustrate their power. The Great Tower enables this; the view of the majority of the castle from the manor remains restricted other than the lordly symbolic tower, where the lord can also view the manor which was under the lordship of the lords of Raglan alongside those people of privilege who have been allowed into the highest, most secure and private part of the castle. For people viewing the castle as they approach, the castle rises from the ground as they reach the summit of the hill. The Great Tower further reveals itself creating a perception of inaccessibility and dominance as a result of the moat and size of the tower itself (2).
Of course this is not the only landscape which can be viewed from the towers of Raglan. The immediate landscape of Raglan has been shown to be a controlled landscape with the creation of extensive gardens which included; a Bowling Green, terraces, and complex water gardens (1). These gardens would have been viewed from the long gallery, the apartments which line the fountain court and the Great Tower. These were in the castles most restricted areas, with the gardens creating privileged views for the more honoured guests and members of the household. Beyond the gardens we would have seen fish ponds, orchards and beyond that, parklands. So when we climb to the top of the towers the immediate landscape we can see is the fossilised landscape of the castle’s gardens which were created by the 3rd, 4th and 5th earls of Worcester during a period of 100 years (1550-1646) (1). We can start to envision the image once seen by Raglan’s previous occupants and guests. A defined human landscape created to be both viewed from the most private parts of the castle and to be experienced from the gardens themselves, which you can by walking around the base of the castle’s western side which was once the uppermost terrace and is still preserved in the formation of the landscape. The landscape has been sufficiently preserved for an interpretative drawing to be created and placed on display in the castles guidebook.
The views we can experience from Raglan of course go beyond the immediate gardens and parks which were established for the castle’s domestic benefit. Raglan is set in a much greater landscape which has changed little since the last Ice Age. To the west we see the dominating landscape of the eastern edge of the Brecon Beacons, this landscapes dominates the approach for travellers going deeper into Wales to Abergavenny, the valleys and Brecon. This wild and mountainous landscape is in juxtaposition to that the controlled and stylised gardens and parks immediately beneath the castle. It has been argued by Robert Liddiard that the two contrasting views; the controlled gardens and parks and the uncontrolled Brecon Beacons beyond defining the wider landscape was a statement by the lord of his refinement and cultured nature (3) . At top of Raglan we can really get an idea of this concept around us are well-managed pieces of grass and the fragments of the former gardens, whilst beyond the Brecon Beacons dominate the horizon.
The landscape for me has proven to be fascinating, there is so much going beyond the stone and mortar which make up the tower. We can experience the relationship between lord and his subjects through the creation of privacy by the division of the village of Raglan and the centre of the lordship, but the use of the tower to display power across the wider landscape. Whilst to the West and South we see the fossilised remains of the castle’s gardens which were intended to be viewed from the castle’s luxurious domestic apartments and long gallery, contrasting with the wider wilder landscape framed by the Brecon Beacons on the horizon, imprinting on the mind of the viewer the organised and cultured space of the castle and its gardens and parks and positive reflection this has upon the lord of Raglan. The landscape has the potential to reveal much about the people who once lived in the castle just as the castle itself can and when we make the effort to climb up the spiral staircase, the reward becomes greater and we can get closer to the castle’s complex past through the visual past.
p.s. You can even experience these views from home! Through a Cadw authorised drone flight around the castle. You can find the video at: http://cadw.gov.wales/daysout/raglancastle/?lang=en#
- Kenyon J, 2003, Raglan Castle, Cardiff, Cadw
- Johnson M, 2002, Behind the Castle Gate: From Medieval to Renaissance, Abingdon, Routledge
- Liddiard R, 2005, Castles in Context: Power, Symbolism and Landscape, 1066 to 1500. Macclesfield, Windgather Press
- Photos by Author