Imagine that a modern-day warrior like General Petraeus would fight his battles in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and Iraq, and come home as a billionaire, to build a castle from scratch in New Hampshire with the money he looted. We would be a bit surprised. Mind you, you’re allowed to loot, you’re even supposed to loot when you’re representing your country in a war situation, but the government wants all of it.
Things were different in the times of Sir Edward Dalyngrigge, a former knight of Edward III. Edward Dalyngrigge was a younger son, so deprived of his father’s estates, but he manaaged to make his own fortunes. He was a highly successful soldier and when he returned from the wars in France, laden with plunder, he found the need to advertise his local status with a castle. Dalyngrigge was one of many Englishmen who travelled to France to seek their fortune as members of Free Companies – groups of mercenaries who fought for the highest bidder.
In 1377, after a short break, the fighting between England and France resumed. During the war, England and France struggled for control of the English Channel, with raids on both coasts. In the face of renewed hostilities, Parliament voted that money should be spent on defending and fortifying England’s south coast, and defences were erected in East Sussex and Kent in anticipation of a French invasion. In 1385, a fleet of 1,200 ships – variously cogs, barges, and galleys – gathered at Sluys, the Netherlands; the population of southern England was in a state of panic. In autumn that year, in the scheme of the fortifications, Edward Dalygrigge was granted a licence to fortify his manor house. Richard II recognized the threat (and probably Sir Edward’s desire for personal aggrandisement) and granted Dalyngrigge a license to crenellate the walls and make Bodiam look like a “proper” castle even though, in real terms, it was little more than a fortified manor house.
Dalyngrigge’s licence from Richard II permitted him to refortify his existing manor house, but instead he chose a fresh site to build a castle on. Dalyngrigge acquired the estate and manor of Bodiam through his marriage to the heiress Elizabeth Wardeux. This manor house was not where the present Castle stands, but to the North of Bodiam Church in the adjacent valley of the Kent Ditch.
Construction was completed in one phase, and most of the castle is in the same architectural style. So Bodiam Castle was built quickly, inside four years, probably because of the threat from the French. Stone castles were usually time-consuming and expensive to build, often costing thousands of pounds. Dalyngrigge was Captain of the port of Brest in France from 1386 to 1387, and as a result was probably absent for the first years of the castle’s construction. It replaced the old manor house as Dalyngrigge’s main residence and the administrative centre of the manor.
It is not recorded when Bodiam Castle was completed, but Thackray suggests that it was before 1392; Dalyngrigge did not have long to spend in the completed castle, as he was dead by 1395.
In fact, Bodiam Castle was never attacked by the French. In November 1483 it was besieged by Yorkist troops during the War of the Roses, but the owner, the Lancastrian Sir Thomas Lewknor, surrendered without any significant resistance.
The castle kitchens were adjoining the Great Hall and two massive fireplaces, complete with brick ovens, spits, griddles and a horde of servants would have supplied the mountains of food required by the castle’s inhabitants. A spring-fed well in the base of an adjoining tower provided cool, clean, fresh water and the castle dovecote would have provided an excellent source of cheap fresh meat.
As many as one hundred people would have lived and worked inside Bodiam. There are the remains of twenty eight fireplaces in the walls and thirty three garderobes (medieval toilets) drained unpleasantly into the moat.
The buttery had a cellar and was used to store ale and wine, while the pantry held the supplies for the kitchen. To prevent heat from the cooking fires becoming unbearable, the kitchen was as tall as the curtain walls to provide a large space to absorb the heat. In the south-west tower was a well, from which water would have been drawn for the household.
Leading off from the Great Hall would have been the lord’s private chamber and sleeping quarters. The Chapel would have been in the same area, as well as his lady’s suite of rooms. The castle walls were effectively a three storey building that surrounded the central courtyard providing Dalyngrigge and his entourage with unprecedented space and comfort.
East of the main gatehouse was a two-storey building with a basement. The basement was probably used for storage while the above two floors provided accommodation. The purpose of the buildings along the west end of the north range is uncertain. The sparse arrangement, with little provision for lighting, has led to suggestions that it was used as stables, however there are no drains which are usually associated with stables. The tower in the north-west corner of the castle had a garderobe and fireplace on each of the three above-ground floors, and there was a basement underneath.
From the west side of the moat, a wooden bridge (defended by a drawbridge) spanned the moat to a central octagonal shaped stone island. This bridge then turned ninety degrees to the north face of the castle, through a defended Barbican, (sadly little of this remains) then up to the front door and its own defended Gatehouse. Attackers then faced machicolations, three pairs of heavy doors, three portcullises and further ‘murder holes’ in the vaulted passageway.
Lord George Nathaniel Curzon purchased the Castle in 1916 and undertook the research and restoration of Bodiam Castle that visitors enjoy today. Lord Curzon had decided that “so rare a treasure should neither be lost to our country nor desecrated by irreverent hands”. Curzon began a programme of investigation at Bodiam in 1919, and with architect William Weir restored parts of the castle. The moat, on average about 5 ft (1.5 m) deep but 7 ft (2.1 m) deep in the south-east corner, was drained and 3 ft (0.9 m) of mud and silt removed; during excavations the original footings of the bridges to the castle were discovered. Nearby hedges and fences were removed to provide an unobscured view of the castle. There were excavations in the interior, and a well was discovered in the basement of the south-west tower. Vegetation was cleared, stonework repaired, and the original floor level re-established throughout the castle. A cottage was built to provide a museum to display the finds from the excavations and a home for a caretaker. The Castle was bequeathed to the National Trust by Lord Curzon who died in 1925.
The National Trust continued the restoration work, and added new roofs to the towers and gatehouse. Excavations were resumed in 1970, and the moat was once again drained. Bodiam Castle was used in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in an establishing shot identifying it as “Swamp Castle” in the “Tale of Sir Lancelot” sequence.