Monday, July 2, 2012

The Devil in the Detail by Joanna Fulford

Accurate period detail is all important in historical fiction. Everything has to be checked, including the things you think you know. Having slipped up there a couple of times in my early writing career, my rule now is not to include anything I can’t substantiate: when in doubt, leave it out. Readers are pretty savvy and someone out there will know if you get your facts wrong. As Bernard Cornwell wryly observed, “There’s always a helpful reader.”

Unfortunately, one of the problems with writing about the distant past is that much of the evidence has disappeared. Nevertheless, there are still gems to be found in the quest for accurate period detail.

I have been undertaking research on Norman England and, in addition to my reading, wanted to visit some Norman castles as well. They aren’t hard to find, but most are in a poor state of preservation. Orford Castle, on the Suffolk coast, is a notable exception. Although the outer walls and towers are long gone, the remains of the deep moat are still visible and the keep is largely intact. Parts have been restored but it still contains some wonderful period detail. It’s a gift for anyone writing about the period.

Built between 1165 and 1173 in the reign of Henry II, Orford Castle gave the king a power base in East Anglia from which to control his rebellious barons. It cost just over £1,400 to build. That seems like a small sum now but by 12thcentury standards it was enormous. The whole royal income for a year was little more than £18,000.

The keep has several unusual design features. Assuming the attackers got that far they would have discovered that the entrance is roughly ten feet above ground level. Access is via a stone stairway that hugs the line of the wall. (The present one is actually 19th century but it follows the line of the original.) It’s just about wide enough for two people (or one man swinging a sword) and precludes all possibility of a massed attack or the use of a battering ram. At the top of the stairs is a narrow oaken door banded with iron. Grooves in the wall reveal where a heavy portcullis could be lowered for additional protection. Beyond, a small lobby allowed visitors to be vetted before gaining admittance to the lower hall. Entrance to this was from the lobby via a passageway in the 3-metre-thick wall, a passageway protected either end by solid oak doors barred with massive beams.

The lower hall was always in use and was where the daily business of the castle took place. At Orford it is a circular room with a stone bench around the perimeter affording seating, convenient for those attending meetings or the assize courts held there. The large hearth would not only heat this room but also the chambers above which abutted on to the chimney. It was a form of central heating.

Latrines with remnant of dividing wall
Wall urinal
The keep is also well supplied with latrines. There were two on this level, originally divided by a stone partition and each closed off by a wooden door. Below the thunderbox, a long chute took waste outside to the castle mound. Some unfortunate individual had the task of collecting and removing the waste from time to time. (That would seem to be a candidate for one of The Worst Jobs in History series.) The passage leading to the latrines was also closed off to prevent unpleasant smells wafting into the nearby kitchen and hall. The chaplain, being a person of some importance, had a latrine adjacent to his room. However, the Constable went one better: he had a urinal built into the wall of the passageway outside his door. That would have saved him the trek down to the lower hall each time he wanted to relieve himself.

Clockwise spiral stair
A spiral stone stairway leads off the lower hall. As with most castles it rises in a clockwise direction which immediately puts an attacker at a disadvantage since he would have far less room in which to swing a sword compared to the defender above him. This assumes that most fighting men were right-handed.

The upper hall was only used on important occasions such as a royal visit or for entertaining other noble guests. The walls, like those of the private chambers elsewhere, would have been plastered and hung with tapestries. A conical wooden ceiling, supported by beams resting on stone corbels, would have helped to keep the heat in and made it a relatively cosy and comfortable space. Stout wooden shutters kept out the weather. The only room to have expensive glazed windows was the chapel. Evidently the best was reserved for God.

At various points in the castle, such as the kitchen and storeroom, stone sinks were built into the walls. These came complete with drainage holes to the outside. The chapel has a piscina, or small sink, for washing the sacred vessels, and two cupboards for storing liturgical objects. On the walls are still traces of the original 12th century plaster with evidence of a chevron pattern. The chapel is small so it could only accommodate a limited number of people; members of the ruling order. However, religion was a key aspect of life in the Middle Ages and lesser persons like servants and soldiers would also have been required to attend daily mass. Therefore, to the left of the altar is a squint, a small hole in the wall that would allow the service to be heard from the passage outside.

Basement with well amd storage space
In any castle defence is a prime concern. In this connection a reliable source of water is crucial. Water came from the castle well in the basement but, because of its proximity to the sea, the water was brackish and suitable only for domestic chores. Drinking water came from a dressed-stone cistern that collected rainwater from the roof.

The basement also doubled as a large storeroom. Alcoves in the walls provided additional space for such items as rope, tallow, iron, salt, preserved meat, root vegetables and sacks of grain. In the event of war the castle was well equipped and provisioned and able to withstand a long siege if necessary.

Orford is surprisingly sophisticated in terms of design and certainly provides numerous insights into the Norman period. It also caused me revise some of my former thoughts. I intend now to put the information to good use and try to avoid the devil in the detail.



  1. Great post. I spent serious time on the Internet to determine whether the garderobe in the castle in my book had a door or not!

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Blythe. I'm delighted that this post was of use. Orford provided me with so many insights, not least the level of sophistication involved in its construction. I was blown away by it, almost literally: my visit coincided with gale-force winds and horizontal rain so that going out on the battlements provided a whole new challenge. It quickly became apparent why guard duty was considered one of the worst jobs in the castle.