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"The truth is this--genealogy is our living, and we are busy every minute, [and we] could use more hours." --Jane Wethy Foley, 1942

Friday, May 4, 2012

English Licenses to Crenellate: 1199-1567

By Philip Davies

{This article was previously published in The Castle Studies Group Journal, No. 20: 2006-7, pp. 226-245.  The English spelling has been retained.}

The serious study of castles is riddled with past assumptions, prejudices and 'theories' that have gained popular credence and move into the work of established 'fact'. Castles were erected, from the start, to be powerful symbolic buildings and through the past and in to the modern world various contemporary symbolic values has been attached to the 'fortifications' of castles and their like. The study of licences to crenellate is a particularly good example of this.

Victorian concerns with empire and strong centralised government led to Victorian scholars describing licences to crenellate as a requirement imposed by central authority to control over-mighty lords, a view still widely stated. It should be made clear that there is no evidence whatsoever for this view. Much of what has been written about licences to crenellate was based on a few examples, often atypical, and on a misreading and misattribution of other historical documents. Very few scholars have done in depth study of the subject, the most notable is Charles Coulson. [1]

In particular it is important to understand that the so called 'adulterine' castles of the Anarchy of Stephen were not 'unlicenced', as sometimes stated. They were 'tainted' because they had been built and used in a rebellion. A licence to crenellate was supposedly a grant that gave permission for a building to be fortified.

This concept may have originated in the Carolingian Empire as a way to control castle building to prevent local lords from becoming over-mighty or too strong, but in English feudal society the licence was used both by king and baron as a symbol of their status, and with "few exceptions at times of turbulence, the king's right as overlord to license was a right to grant, not to refuse, permission to crenellate" (Coulson, 1982, p 71). "In reality, no feudal or sub-feudal ruler could either in law or in practice deny to his vassal the protection by self-help fortifying which he, as lord, had failed to provide." (Coulson, 1982, p.  97 n. 10).

It was not in reality necessary to obtain a licence to crenellate to erect a fortified building. There was "very slight chance of interference by royal officials even in so intensively governed a realm as England, but a licence was prestigious and could be had for the asking." (Coulson 1982 p 70) [2]  Fortifications were not restricted by law, but the cost of building and, particularly, of providing a garrison, restricted true military castles to a very limited number anyway.

In England licences to crenellate were granted by the Monarch; the Bishop of Durham, in his position as ruler of the Palatinate of Durham; the Earl of Chester, in his position as ruler of the Palatinate of Cheshire and after the formation of the Palatinate of Lancashire in 1351, the Duke of Lancaster.

Few documented records survive from before the thirteenth century. One of the earliest supposed licence to crenellate for which some form of reliable documentation exists is one in 1141 to Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex, made by King Stephen. This grant was repeated by Empress Matilda and named as his new castle on the Lea (novum castellum super Lviam), usually considered to be South Mymms. This is a retrospective 'grant' in complex charters obtained by Geoffrey at a time during the Anarchy, when he was able to dictate terms, and when he was imposing his noble status.

Of the later surviving grants it is clear that these were not an attempt to control the major lords but were mainly granted to relatively minor knights for quite small manor houses, many of which could only have had token fortifications. Licences to crenellate were mainly symbolic representations of lordly status "castellation was the architectural expression of noble rank" (Coulson 1982, p. 72) and also "to publicly prominent ecclesiastics and lay magnates in England a licence had the extra cachet of royal recognition, acknowledgement and compliment. Unlike other royal patronage, it conferred no fiscal advantage whatever, but it was as eagerly sought by the socially ambitious as any lucrative privilege." (Coulson 1982, p 83).

The distribution map shows the tendency for municipal licences granted to build town walls mainly to be a feature of coastal towns.  Distribution is fairly random and there is certainly no evidence of a concentration of licenced "fortifications" in the Scottish march or the coast.

The building that often, but not always, resulted from these licences, which had some show of fortification, like battlements, moats and gatehouses, were also mainly symbolic, although they probably represented some defence against thieves. Coulson goes to some length to express the idea that much fortification' in ecclesiastical and lay buildings was symbolic, both for the occupants and the 'mob' they were a defence against. The gatehouse was the most powerful symbol and the strongest part of the defence, yet mobs often attacked the gatehouse, rather than simply push over a surrounding, relatively weak, precinct wall; however, the gatehouse was rarely manned enough to resist an attack anyway.

In effect many 'defences' were like modern burglar alarms and CCTV; some are sham and even when they are not they represent more an expression of legal ownership and intent to prosecute rather than a real preventative measure. (Strong doors, good locks and fear of being caught stops thieves, alarms may help somewhat with this last psychological barrier but, of themselves, alarms do not stop thieves).

No fee was normally charged for a licence; the handful of fees recorded are small (half a mark or a mark) [3] and are clearly to cover the bureaucratic cost of searching the records or writing the licence and not to raise money. It has been said an annual fee was required; this is due to a misinterpretation of a single reference. Most licences were issued as patent letters granted under the privy seal.


Author's Notes:

[1] Charles Coulson’s wealth of supporting evidence and profound understanding make him the most credible author on the subject.

[2] Coulson writes, "The 'control over fortification' exercised by William Marshall and then by Hubert de Burgh during Henry III's minority, was aimed at preserving the peace (won after the battle of Lincoln in 1217), repressing war-like occupation of sensitive places and provocative fortifying by small men beyond their proper station. Illicit wartime seizures and fortifying (namely castra adulterina) had to be reversed or regulated to reassert the rule of law. There was no prejudice against seigneurial castles as such.  Royal orders on the Rolls prohibiting fortifying or crenellation are very scarce after c. 1232. Interference was more likely to be due to local officiousness or resentment, but still highly rare." (1982, p. 06, n. 9)


Additonal Note:

[3] The mark was equal to 2/3 of a pound or 160 pence. English kings based their coinage system on that of Charlemagne: the pound, the shilling and the penny. A silver pound was divided into 240 pence. For hundreds of years, the silver penny was the only coin the English minted and the earliest coins contained one pennyweight of silver. Pure silver is too soft to make coins that withstand heavy use. From 1158, England adopted silver coins that were 92.5 percent silver, with the remainder consisting of base metal. The sterling standard remained in effect until 1920.


Coulson, Charles, "Structural Symbolism in Medieval Castle Architecture" in Journal of the British Archaeological Association, Vol. 132, 1979,  pp. 73-90.

Coulson, "Hierarchism in Conventual Crenellation" in Medieval Archaeology, Vol. 26,  1982, pp. 69-100.

History of English Coins, accessed 4 May 20102 at http://www.ehow.com/about_5444297_history-english-coins.html#ixzz1twvcL36m.


In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

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