02 December 2012

Castle Hunting: Warwick

Much of England and Wales was underwater.  We'd driven through flooded streets and crossed rivers that had broken their banks and lay sprawled across the fields.  The whole of Great Britain, it seemed, was fighting off the rising waters, pumping out their cellars and trying to keep their feet dry.  Warwick, when we arrived there, was on the edge of disaster.  The river Avon was higher than it's been in years. There were sandbags across doorways and swirling eddies in people's yards.  The rain came again in the night; everyone was following the television news, watching the disasters unfolding further afield.  Warwick is a town of tudor half-timber, Georgian soberness and brick Victoriana.  It has a timeless feel to it, as though a millennium of English history's been made to happen all at once.  In a crooked-walled pub not far from the castle walls, the last of the storm beat against the windows and a drunk grandmother told us about her African Grey Parrot.  The dark corners around us were filled with furtive characters straight from Dickens or Chaucer or even the Domesday book.
We woke up to sun and a little blue sky.  When we went back to Warwick castle that morning, where we'd walked in the blustery afternoon a day before, we found its walls golden hued and the floodwaters receding.  It was an impressive sight, one of the most famous in the midlands.
Warwick's used to high tides and chaos - from the first motte-and-bailey in 1068, to the huge expansion of the middle ages, the imprisonment of King Henry IV and the English civil wars it has played a central part in England's fortified history.
It's the most expensive castle we've visited (£45 for two day passes!), and the one with the loudest music - speakers play a continuous, medieval-styled torrent of drums and synthesizers interrupted occasionally by piped-in cheering.  Because Warwick is owned by the Madame Tussauds group, there are dozens of wax-figure lords, ladies, knaves, blacksmiths, scullery maids, babies, soldiers and prisoners.  It's an ugly display of olde warts and unhealthy stoops.
To survive for nearly a thousand years, a castle has to incorporate a few tricks and have a bit of luck.  Warwick's most spectacular feature is its main tower, the Guy's Tower that soars above the rest of the structure and commands a wide view of the surrounding countryside.  This highest part was built in 1260, then rebuilt in 1315 as midland England went through it's last period of grand castle building.  The curtain walls, a second main tower and the keep were part of the same expansion.
As Britain consolidated and turned its attention outward, fortresses like this one became strategic afterthoughts.  The last significant action that Warwick saw was in 1642, when the civil war was raging through the area.  Parliamentarian forces holding the castle obtained two cannon, and the "besieging" Royalist forces installed two cannon of their own into a nearby church steeple.  A few ineffectual barrages were fired, the siege was lifted after about a month, and the Royalists beat a small retreat.
The Madame Tussauds figures - which are frighteningly lifelike - focus on an earlier episode in Warwick's history.  The castle's most interesting owner was Richard Neville, the 16th Earl of Warwick, who led a successful insurrection against King Edward IV.  In the convoluted years of the War of the Roses, Warwick was partly responsible for the overthrow of two kings, and earned the name "Kingmaker" as a result.  General troublemaking and warmongering brought assaults on his stronghold,   though none were ever successful.
The middle part of the 14th century was among the most bloody times in England's history, and the Tussauds figure-makers like to dwell on the sharp points and short lifespans.  Aside from their stillness and waxy pallor, they look just like real people.
The current structure is one of the oldest and best examples of true medieval fortress architecture still standing today.  In the fourteenth century, during the early devastation of the Hundred Years War, the castle was thickened and modified to withstand the siege-warfare weapons of the day - catapults, trebuchets and ballistas.  The towers are remarkably thick and built as cylinders to help deflect the blows.
This kind of fighting - done with glorified slingshots and battering rams - is obviously more romantically medieval than the cannons that later knocked everything down. Though catapults really weren't all that effective, and were probably used much less than people think, at Warwick they're played up mightily. Around the grounds are several models of these siege engines, looking something like monstrous, wood-and-rope insects. In the fortress foreground, on what is normally called the island, are a few model trebuchets; we'd seen just the tops of them when the river was high, and the island had washed over with water.
Warwick has been almost hermetically sealed off from the public.  In fact, it's almost impossible to catch a glimpse of the place without paying the admission price.  This despite the fact that it lies roughly  adjacent to a large town center and nearby a river and fields.  The one good, public view is from a nearby bridge, and it's fleeting.
The line of sight towards the castle wasn't cut off by Madame Tussauds, but by the later Earls of Warwick, who had converted the castle into a grand home.  The great hall and living chambers are still decorated in baronial decadence - there are countless oil paintings, queen Victoria's riding saddle, scores of suits of armor, gold-trimmed pistols, plush furniture, Queen Anne's four poster bed, silk brocading - and filled with more stately wax figures. In one bedroom, a diminutive likeness of the present Queen stands somewhat awkwardly beside a mound of pillows and blankets (apparently, her majesty visited Warwick a few years ago).
Warwick escaped the worst of the flooding. Downriver along the Avon, Shakespeare's hometown of Stratford wasn't so lucky - there, the streets were full of water and the river had run right into people's homes.  As the river slowly withdrew from around the castle walls, a tangle of branches and detritus was left behind.   The trebuchets below the castle, that had been nearly swept away, were swathed in debris when they emerged.  Pools of water were left behind in the sodden earth, and a brown wash of mud.  It looked something like a deserted battlefield after a rout.
Still, Warwick looked less sodden than triumphant.  It's walls were as impressive as ever.  A man was performing a falconry show for the tourists, flying hawks and owls over our heads while speaking over a loudspeaker.  He told jokes and fed the birds bits of chicken.  Life went on.  Warwick's been there for a thousand years.  It's seen wet feet and rain before.


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