Is this the perfect castle or is it a mock-up?

It is considered to be the perfect English castle. It became an instant tourist attraction in Victorian times, but was Bodiam a real castle or was it all a fake? Unlike many castles in England, Bodiam was built from scratch, in one go, so it was easy create it in perfect symmetry, turning it into a gem of a castle (if it ever was one).

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Bodiam Castle was built at the end of the 14th century. This was during the ‘100 Years’ War which had actually been fought for a 116 years (but then the name would not be so catchy). With wars came invasions, and invasions sometimes create an opportunity… Sir Edward Dalyngrigge was the youngest son in his family, so he had to work hard and marry well to reach a position in which he would end up with his own castle. He succeeded in both of these tasks. Edward spent most of his life fighting in France, but he also found the time to marry well with a rich heiress who brought with her the land where the castle is built today.

In 1377, the French made a few successful raids on the English shores, so when, in 1385, King Charles VI prepared a fleet of 1200 ships in Brittany, people got scared, and this was a good opportunity for Sir Edward to ask King Richard II for the right to fortify his house. This right was called ‘to carnelete’, and to be granted this right was seen as a status symbol.

The King approved the request, but the grateful Sir Edward immediately deceived the King… twice. First, the right to carnelete meant that Edward was supposed to fortify his existing house against potential invasion, but in reality, he started to build an entirely new castle on his new land. Second, even more importantly, instead of making a mighty fortress for the safety and security of the good people of East Sussex, Sir Dalyngrigge actually built a “fake” castle that was intended to be a lavish home which would show off his new wealth and political power.

To the naked and unprofessional eye, Bodiam Castle looks like an impressive fortress. Sitting on an island surrounded by a deep,  wide moat, and reachable only by a long draw-bridge, the castle seems impenetrable, but historians started to question the integrity of its defences.

For example, the castle walls look high and intimidating, but it is actually a visual trick because of the reflection of the castle in the water plus the fact that the windows of the castle were built smaller than a standard window, so the castle looks bigger than it really is (the castles in Disneyland use the same trick, and that tells you a lot about the power of visual perception…). When I visited the castle, Lizzy, one of the guides showed me something even more weird… In the wall near the entrance to the castle were two shooting holes; however, they were not for archers but for musket guns. These guns were scarce and expensive and having two of them was a clear sign that this castle was ready for any intruder, and that its defences were up to date. Right? Wrong!

The musket shooting-holes were actually facing each other, in other words, the only people who could have been killed by these modern weapons were the defenders of Bodiam… so possibly Sir Arthur Dalyngrigge might just have wanted to show everyone that he was rich enough to have muskets guns without being able to use them… It is hard to believe, but Bodiam was a lavish stately home; it was a place for parties and feasts rather than for fighting.

Luckily, Bodiam castle was not tested in battle. The French had not invaded, and the only time there were plans to besiege it were by Richard III, during “The Wars of the Roses”. It surrendered immediately without a fight. You can read more about it in my Bodiam castle stories.

By the time the English Civil War began in the middle of the 17th century, Bodiam was already in a state of decay. Unfortunately, the owner of the castle, the Earl of Thanet ,was a royalist, so when parliament gained control over the area, he had to pay an astonishing £9000 fine which is more than £1.4 million in today’s currency. He was forced to sell Bodiam and the lands around it to pay the fine. At the end of the war, the castle was barely recognisable. Most of the damage was done to the barbican and the buildings inside the castle, not actually affecting the castle exterior.

This was supposed to be the end of Bodiam, but it actually proved to be the opposite case. During the 18th century, there was a sudden appetite for medieval ruins, and Bodiam castle started to become what we nowadays call a “tourist attraction”. The stream of visitors increased with the advent of the railways. In 1825, the castle was sold to Mad Jack Fuller, a wealthy and eccentric politician who bought it to save it from destruction. He started the restoring the castle, which was amongst many other great building projects he had… (read more about the man and his strange grave in my Bodiam Castle stories).

The process continued with the castle’s next owners until Bodiam passed into the hands of the National Trust in 1925 who manage it today (one of the very few ruins they manage). For more information: Bodiam Castle official website

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This is how to run a ruined castle…

Chasing Castles Review

We visited Bodiam Castle during a Christmas break, which meant that the castle was packed with visitors and the parking lot was full. This may not always be the case mid-week or during out of season times. It is, however, a top-rated attraction.

It is difficult to manage a ruin and to help visitors to engage with it, especially when the ruin was once a lavish home, and you are trying to encourage visitors to imagine that. It is also difficult to run guided tours round a ruin, so I was not surprised that there wasn’t one on offer, but they did have a few volunteers in medieval costumes and that created interet which possibly helped people to understand much more about life during that period.

Bodiam today is an empty shell (a beautiful empty shell) which meant that our visit a short one. You can climb up to the towers and see the surroundings, wander round the yard and that’s it. Luckily, the trust also operates a small museum with avery good introductory video that tells the story of Bodiam and shows some of the archaeological discoveries that were found in the area: so if you start with the museum, you could then visit the castle knowing more about it.

To sum up: Bodiam Castle is by far one of the most recognisable castles in England, and it is really worth a visit, even if it is a short one. If you are travelling from afar, perhaps you should aim to explore more than just Bodiam (especially if you are a member of the National Trust). You could easily combine a visit to Bodiam with nearby Scotney Castle.

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