A Wistfully Medieval Relic: Bodiam Castle – East Sussex, England, U.K


Rising like a ghost ship from its watery home, Bodiam is one of the most wistfully beautiful castles in Britain – a familiar sight from chocolate boxes and calendars or possibly, to some, from the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail about the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The film is a spoof, of course, but Bodiam was, in fact, built in 1385 for a knight, Sir Edward Dalyngrigge, a supporter of Edward III, that most chivalric of kings, though he acquired permission to build a castle – a licence to “crenellate”, as it was known – from Edward’s successor Richard II.

This was no small matter – and the wording of the grant gives a sense of the favour being bestowed: “Know that of our special grace we have granted and given licence on behalf of ourselves and our heirs, so far as in us lies, to our beloved and faithful Edward Dalyngrigge Knight, that he may strengthen with a wall of stone and lime, and crenellate and may construct and make into a Castle his manor house of Bodyham [sic], near the sea, in the County of Sussex, for the defence of the adjacent country, and the resistance to our enemies.”

The wooden walkway across the moat at Bodiam Castle

Rebels and mercenaries

The enemy in question at the time was France – and Bodiam, positioned on the River Rother in East Sussex, not far from the English Channel, was in a reasonably strong defensive position. Dalyngrigge built the castle on a fresh site rather than fortifying the manor.

At the time, the Hundred Years War had been going on for almost 50 years (the name is misleading – it lasted from 1337 to 1453). The conflict began when the death of Charles IV of France in 1328 brought the direct line of the Capetian dynasty to an end. England’s Edward III, who had a claim to the throne through his mother, Isabella of France, declared his intentions in 1337 and secured the territories of Aquitaine and Calais.

King Edward III

The king was supported in his mission by the likes of Dalyngrigge, Englishmen who travelled to France to seek their fortune as the members of free companies, essentially armies of mercenaries. After travelling with Lionel, Duke of Clarence, Edward III’s son, and fighting under the Earl of Arundel, Dalyngrigge joined the company of Sir Robert Knolles, a notorious plunderer who was reputed to have made 100,000 gold crowns from his pillaging, leaving burning buildings, with charred gables (or roof peaks) known as “Knolly’s mitres”, in his wake.

In such a fashion, Dalyngrigge, who as a younger son missed out on the family fortune, raised the money to build Bodiam Castle, where the postern tower (the secondary entrance) features Knolles’s coat of arms in a gesture of loyalty.

Following Dalyngrigge’s return to England in 1377 – an eventful year which also saw the death of Edward III and the accession to the throne of Richard II – his fortuitous marriage to a Sussex heiress brought the moated manor of Bodiam into his possession.

An illustration depicting Richard II marrying seven-year-old Isabella of France from Froissart’s Chronicles

Around the same time, the Treaty of Bruges of 1375, which had ensured peace for two years, expired, meaning resumed conflict between England and France. Internal clashes added to the pressure of external threats, and Dalyngrigge was involved in suppressing the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the greatest triumph of Richard II, who rode out virtually alone to meet the rebels, though he reneged on his promise to them later with the infamous words, “Rustics you were and rustics you are still. You will remain in bondage, not as before but incomparably harsher.”

The East Range at Bodiam Castle, where the Lord and Lady’s apartments were situated

In such an atmosphere of anxiety and unrest, Bodiam was built quickly. Often cited as the perfect incarnation of a moated medieval castle, it is quadrangular in shape, with a central courtyard, buildings against the curtain walls and no keep.

Circular towers mark each of its four corners, with square equivalents on the south, east and west walls and the imposing gatehouse dominating the north side of the castle. Yet in landscaping and design, not least the artificial watery landscape in which it stands, Bodiamwas clearly built with display inmind as much as defence.

A rare treasure

This latter question has been a particular point of debate for historians – essentially was Bodiambuilt

for militaristic or social purposes? In the case of the former, the castle’s imposing gatehouse boasts the original wooden portcullis, which was made of such stern stuff that it endures to this day as one of the oldest in the country. Nor do arrow slits in the towers or “murder holes” in the gatehouse, through which boiling oil and water could be poured on to the heads of approaching enemies, suggest a genteel welcome.

The original portcullis made from oak with steel covering

Nevertheless, some have argued that Bodiamwas, in fact, too far inland from the English Channel to be in the perfect position for defending against the French and that the broadmoat serves tomake the castle appear bigger and grander rather than more secure, while some of its larger windows weaken its defences. Certainly the character of the impetuous Dalyngrigge might indicate honour and display were just as important as defence – in a high-profile legal dispute with the Duke of Lancaster he threw down the gauntlet not once, but twice, in court.

Following Dalyngrigge’s demise, the occupants of Bodiamhad a habit of challenging authority – or being on the wrong side of history. After passing through several generations of Dalyngrigges, the castle came, via marriage, into the possession of the Lewknor family, who during theWars of the Roses supported the House of Lancaster – which became difficult when Richard III of the House of York became king in 1483.

Photo of The Bodiam Castle taken by drone

Worse was to come: by the era of the English Civil War in the 17th century, Bodiam was owned by 2nd Earl of Thanet, a Royalist who was forced to sell the castle to pay fines levied against him by parliament. Bodiam was subsequently slighted, with the destruction of the barbican, the bridges and the buildings inside the castle, and left as a picturesque ruin In the 19th and 20th centuries, restoration work was undertaken by various owners, the most notable being Lord Curzon who bought the castle in 1917 and later bequeathed it to the National Trust, claiming “so rare a treasure should neither be lost to our country nor desecrated by irreverent hands”.

Sadly, by the time he came along it was too late for the ruined interior, though it survives in sufficient detail to give a vivid impression of castle life, with 33 fireplaces, for example, and access to glorious views up the vertiginous spiral staircases. From the outside, however, Bodiam looks much as it did in the age of chivalry, standing in a league of its own.

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