The Castle Keep dates back more than 1800
years since being the first fortification on the site. It was part of the
Hadrian’s Wall, built to guard the bridge over the River Tyne by Pons Aelius
for his Roman fort. In the 800’s, the site was then used as a church for the
Anglo Saxon’s before the Normans invaded and conquered England in 1066. This
invasion then resulted in the castle being built by timber by William the
Conqueror’s son, Robert Curthouse, back in 1080. However, between 1172 and
1177, it was replaced by a stone castle.
The entrance to the chapel was located “beneath
the external stair, could only be entered only from the outside1”.
The chapel itself is located towards the North East of the ground or basement
floor of the castle. As you walk in, you first enter the nave, a place to
accommodate the majority of the congregation before reaching the chancel. It is
also likely the small recess on the left-hand side of the chancel was used by
the priests as a vestry.
When the Normans took over, Norman
Architecture (also known as Romanesque Architecture due to the inspiration from
the Roman Style Architecture) was the main influence of the design of the
castle. Castle Hedingham in Essex is another example of Norman Architecture
built in the same period as the Castle Keep and also similar in form.
chapel in the keep is often referred it’s interior as “the most beautiful place
in the whole building2” and a place of “richness of decoration3”.
Examples of the influence can be seen in the arches, formed in a semi-circular
shape featured throughout the nave and the chancel. The ceiling is rib vaulted,
meaning “the surface is divided into webs by a framework of diagonal arched
ribs4”. This type of vaulting
is a lot more difficult to build than traditional barrel vaults. Barrel vaults
used transverse arches and not diagonal which “allows the vault to be built in
sections5”, giving an advantage in construction. However, the use of
ribbed vaults had much greater strength and produced less force onto the walls
nearby. Even though its arches are more geometric, the webbing of the arches
still gave an impression of being a domed vault. “The geometry of the Gothic
system (Ribbed Vaults) was a rough use of mathematical truths in which beauty
was sought for.6” Looking closer into the entrances and windows of
the chapel, I saw the Norman Architecture be used again through the decorations
with plentiful of zig-zag patterns and details such as chevrons.
However, the actual techniques of creating
the chapel can be critiqued, even though the chapel was seen as elegant and
intricate with details. The construction wasn’t very thoughtful and additionally
poorly executed being very irregular in design7. The window facing
north in the chancel is maybe what indicates the irregularities in the design.
Looking at the plans of the ground floor, it shows the window not in the centre
of the two arches8. Some people might find this irritating or
paranoid about the or window collapsing as the window doesn’t sit in the middle
which doesn’t create that sense of balance, which I can agree with. Furthermore,
the structure of the chapel which has been pointed out as being irregular may
be referring to the vaulting and its diagonal ribs of the groining being
randomly laid out, particularly the one near the arch door as it hardly touches
the supporting corbels9. Maurice Caementarius, was the engineer and
architect who transformed the original timber structure into a stone one during
Henry II’s reign at the time. Comparing his works of the Dover Castle, it would
seem like two different people had designed it10. His work on the
chapel of the Castle Keep was inelegant and didn’t have much consideration in
terms of construction.
Chapels were an important part of castles
during the medieval times as religion was a significant factor of their lives. It
was regarded as a safe haven for the soldiers and also the locals and
furthermore described as a sense of significance and a level of prestige within
the local area11. Having chapels in the castle also enhanced
strategic advantages as people found it a barbaric action to harm an innocent
priest which would the opposing/attacking side would then avoid12.
Parts of the castle were also built as bait for the enemy, for example, some
stronger structures were hidden behind some weaker structures such as the
entrance tower by the chapel which has been pointed out as being considerably
weaker than the Keep. “The external walls are very thin, only two feet nine
inches13” unlike the rest of the castle’s walls which are
significantly thicker to provide protection.
The castle wasn’t used as a defensive
structure anymore after the civil war in the 1600’s, rather it was leased out
to locals which lead people to build houses and small shops14. The
area then became known as the “Castle Garth”. The plentiful of houses, shops,
pubs were the foundation of an active community, moreover, “the chapel in the
castle was reused as a beer cellar15” by the property-owner of the
Three Bull’s Heads public house. Even though the community was flourishing, it lead
to the decline of the castle’s physical state. John Dobson, the famed architect
from the North of England was given the commission to renovate the castle in
1848. The chapel and the rest of the castle were maintained and protected to
its physical state today under his regulations.
To conclude, the chapel in the Castle Keep is
very ornate and possesses some gothic architectural methods such as the rib
vaulting, even from looking at my sources and also sketches that there are some
errors in the construction. I believe with the craftsmanship could’ve been
improved on even with regard to the cultural context. The Normans who replaced
the timber castle to a stone castle built it to a moderate standard in
comparison to other castles at the time.