a peasant’s look at castles

At the risk of sounding a bit naive, I admit–other than reading about princesses living in them when I was young–I’d never given a lot of thought to castles. Not until 1971 when Hubby and I took our then nearly-one-year-old daughter to the Magic Kingdom at Disney world in Florida had I ever seen one. There in all its magnificence stood the newly opened Cinderella’s Castle. Who wouldn’t want to live in such magnificence?

I suppose that’s why I was so surprised as we approached my first castle, the Edinburgh Castle in Edinburgh, Scotland. Even at a distance it looked nothing like Cinderella’s Castle above–it was more like a little city, or fortress, perched atop a hill. Where were all the tall spires and the dungeons where all the crazy people were banished? Actually this castle is at the peak of a volcanic rock estimated to have risen some 350 million years ago during the lower Carboniferous period, and according to Wikipedia, humans have inhabited it since the 9th century BC.

The further back you delve into the history of the world and compare it to what goes on in the world today, life’s struggles have always been basically about real estate and power. Either you have one or the other but you want more.  So if you were a king or queen–or their modern equivalent–you’re obligated to  spend your life either defending whatever you have the most of and continue conquering the rest of the world for more. The only way to do so is through serfdom. That is, make the rest of the world become your subjects.

Politics aside and back to the subject of castles, the planning and construction of a castle had to be a very serious matter in order to fortify yourself against all your enemies.That’s why the castle of Edinburgh, located at the top of what is now the Royal Mile in the west end of Edinburgh’s Old Town, is such an ideal location.

Here’s our tour group waiting to enter the the outer gate on the outer wall of the castle. On each side of the bridge we’re standing on is the requisite moat, the deep wide ditch usually filled with water, that typically surrounds the castle walls.

There was no water in this moat, but nearly every story I’ve heard or movie I’ve seen not only had water, but were inhabited by alligators and crocodiles as well. Well! That’s so Hollywood. The real reason water-filled moats were a prominent castle feature was not to drown combatants nor have them eaten by hungry amphibians! It was  to prevent the enemy from digging a tunnel beneath the walls to gain entry. That makes so much more sense, I admit, but it’s way less colorful. Once you’re inside the main gate, you can see not only the inner walls but the other buildings including the mansions that housed the royals, the chapels and stately halls, and the prison dungeons and more. It’s too bad I lost a few of the pictures I took here, especially the one of the room where Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to her first-born, James the first, when she was about 19 years old. Royal birth or not, that was NO place to have a baby.

Mary was born prematurely to the French-born Mary of Guise and King James V of Scotland on December 8, 1542. Just six days later, as her father lay on his death bed, he was said to have uttered It came with a lass, it will pass with a lass! referring of course to the crown that generally went to a male heir. She was crowned nine months later and sent to France to live in the royal court of King Henry II where she was soon betrothed to his son and heir. She was educated  according to her biographers, in the traditional manner of French princesses; she spoke French and learned Latin, Italian, Spanish and a little Greek. She learned to dance, sing, play the lute as well as converse on religious matters. Her religious tutor was the prior of Inchmahome, a Scottish priest. She was married at 16 to the King’s son Dauphin who was 14. Though the King, who came to think of Mary as the cat’s meow, insisted Mary and Dauphin hit it off from day one of their first meeting (when she was four), they must have made a odd-looking couple. She, tall at 5’11’ was considered very handsome in the day, and the sickly Dauphin, said to be unusually short, suffered chronic respiratory problems all his life. Shortly after their marriage King Henry died in a jousting accident, and Dauphin was crowned King Francis II, then died himself when he was almost 17 after an abscess formed in his brain as a result of inflammation from a chronic ear infection.

There were no children during their short marriage, whether because of his undescended testicles or–as rumor had it–the marriage never having been consummated. Mary then married her 1st cousin Henry Stuart, the Duke known as Lord Darnley. Apparently he wanted to sit on the French throne alongside Mary, and when she refused him the honor, the marriage turned sour. Long story short, rumors began about Mary’s various affairs–one supposed suitor was murdered right in front of her–and not long before the due date of their first child, there were rumors that Lord Darnley was scheming to murder Mary. You see the rules of the crown matrimonial would have given Darnley full powers if Mary died. Then he’d legally become King of Scotland. Afraid for both herself and the unborn child, she hid herself away in a tiny room (for a castle) where the child was born. He would be eventually become both King James James VI of Scotland as well as King James I of England and Scotland. Mary went on to try marriage one more time, this time to the Earl of Bothwell, who was a prime suspect in Lord Darnley’s conveniently timed death in 1567. That marriage would be short-lived also, and ultimately Mary would lose her head in 1603. For the rest of the intriguing story you should check the history books.

My point in this Mary Queen of Scots lopsided biography is that life in castles may have been relatively comfortable compared to proletarians in that there were servants to do everything for you (or the other 99% as we might say today), it wasn’t all glamor and glory. Although you probably ate better than most and didn’t have to cook it yourself, you had to be on your toes and watching your back all the time!

After your castle is securely built, you must have it stocked it with weapons and people who know how to use them, and don’t forget that moat. You make sure the windows are located high up, and the walls have a shielded opening from which your best archers may stand to shoot arrows outwards without being a target themselves. Make sure they’re backed up lots of cannons around the outer walls. (This cannon actually is at the Stirling Castle, because the picture of the Edinburgh cannons were not retrievable when I accidentally deleted them from the card.) The one o’clock gun at the Edinburgh cannon is fired at one o’clock daily, except Sunday, allowing citizens and visitors to check their clocks and watches. The 150-year tradition began in the days when ships sailing in the Firth of Forth (Gaelic for the River Forth that flows on the west side of the castle) were able to check and reset their chronometers in the days before accurate timepieces were available. You may wonder why the timing is at one o’clock rather than noon, as company whistles do in cities in the U.S. Consider this: 12 blasts of gunpowder would cost considerably more than one-shot daily. This is Scotland we’re talking about, remember. (I’m pretty sure my Grandfather’s ancestors were Scottish.)

One more castle and I’ll stop. Of all the castle stories I heard during our trip, and there were many–most told during coach transit by the tour guide–my favorite are the ghost stories. Every castle was the scene of many a bloody battle, murder or other intrigue, upon which these stories spring.  I love a good ghost story.

One morning we left our comfortable hotel very early in the morning for a several hour drive–comfortably in the touring coach–just to have lunch in a medieval castle in the village of Ruthin, in the county of Denbighshire in North Wales. What better name for it then? Castle Ruthin.

The meal was wonderful. The dessert I chose, a “sticky” pudding with a sauce made of toffee, was really special. My mouth waters just thinking of it.

The best ghost story I know is set here in this castle. It seems that a Lady Grey, whose husband–presumably a Lord–an Earl of someplace or other, had an affair with one of the local women. When she learned about it she killed the poor woman.Why do they always blame the other woman!? Anyway, Lady Grey was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Now she is said to be seen wandering the about the castle, the Banquet Hall, etc., although I didn’t see her anywhere.

The special thing about that is that nowadays Ruthin castle is a hotel. You can book a vacation there, or attend ghost tours in the wee hours, maybe even join a seance. If that doesn’t interest you, then you might enjoy the peacocks living in the courtyard, or it might be a lot of fun just checking out the castle itself. You never know what you might find–nor the trouble you can get into–in a castle, even in broad daylight!

Join me next time for a tour of statuary and outdoor art around the UK and more.


8 thoughts on “a peasant’s look at castles

  1. Nice descriptions. I must have no romance in me since I always saw those castles as draughty & cold old places with thick solid stone walls and high ceilings. Can you imagine having the water carried half way to heaven so you could have a bath? The water would be cold before you got into it and then I wonder how they emptied it afterwards? Was hubby trying the suit of armour for size? 😉

    • Draughty and damp indeed! I hadn’t thought much about hauling water up to take a bath in. It seemed formidable enough to me that Mary QofScots had to all the way to her bath house, I presume to take a real bath. Seemed a long ways from the castle! Re “romance” the trouble with both of us, I guess, is that we were brought up by practical people too busy to bother with frills. But it makes our vision all the clearer, don’t you think?

  2. Castles must be the same all over the world (except Disneyland). The ones I visited in Japan were built on the highest possible terrain, frequently had moats, with water, and seemed really uncomfortable. But then, I don’t think many houses in old Japan were very comfortable.

    • Japanese houses look as if they’re made of paper–at least in the movies. I doubt the ones in the movies I’ve seen are real. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one with absolutely no desire to ever live in one!

    • And I feel lucky to have you loyal readers! I’ve visited several mansions–notably in Germany–haven’t visited any other castles in other parts of Europe. Maybe we’ll check France out some day.

  3. Hi, Alice,

    Ain’t it good to come from peasant stock and not have to live in a drafty castle and marry your first cousin or some sickly guy with undescended testicles. FYI, I am desended (illegitamately) from Rheinish nobility. When I visited my cousin in her village, she took me to see Castle Schmidtberg, which is a total ruin. Seems that, c 1730, our peasant ancestor and the local nobelman, Herr Sartorius, had an affair that produced at least six illegitimate children. Do you think I would look lovely in a tiara?

    • Ah so! You never told me this! That might explain your weird taste in china when you were about 19. Remember that dark china that I said would make me feel it would poison the food served on it? In Gimbel’s or Horne’s–maybe both–in the days of Herr Peter. I may have pretended I liked it, but I really didn’t. Us peasants are used to saying yes to nobility. 😉

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