December 6, 2023

Cockermouth Castle & Colchester Castle

Cockermouth Castle

Cockermouth Castle crowns a promontory between the rivers Derwent and Cocker. The notorious William de Fortibus acquired the manor in 1215 and built a castle here, possibly on an older site, but Henry III ordered its destruction upon his downfall six years later. It seems to have survived this episode but most of the present complex is the work of Gilbert, last of the Umfraville barons, and Henry Percy, who acquired Cockermouth on Gilbert’s death in 1381.

As Earl of Northumberland, the latter played a major part in the Border struggles of the period. And the Black Douglas sacked the unfinished castle. Henry is better known for his revolts against Henry IV, familiar from Shakespeare. The castle remained in Percy hands but drifted into decay. In spite of enduring a Royalist siege during the uprising of 1648, the castle was slighted by Parliament as a potentially dangerous stronghold. Around 1800, Percy Wyndham, Earl of Egremont, built a mansion inside the outer bailey.

The castle has a triangular plan very similar to Carlisle, its apex overlooking the junction of the rivers. There is no keep. Gilbert de Umfraville largely rebuilt the inner bailey though the curtain incorporates portions of William de Fortibus’ work. The well-preserved outer curtain is entirely Henry Percy’s. Its east front is flanked to the left by the square Flag Tower, now gabled, and to the right by a mighty gatehouse. This massive, oblong structure has the sidewalls of a barbican in front.

A row of shields over the gateway bears the arms of Henry Percy and his allies. He vaulted gate passage was defended by a portcullis and three sets of doors. Within the outer bailey is the Wyndham mansion, built against the curtain. The inner bailey is much
Ruined and has been distorted to some extent.

Colchester Castle

Colchester reached the peak of its importance before the Romans came. A city for veterans of the Roman army was established here, dominated by a temple of the deified Emperor Claudius. Queen Boudicca razed it to the ground in AD 61 but a new city soon rose from the ashes.

Colchester Castle, near the center of the walled town, has by far the largest ground area of any keep in England, measuring 150 by 110 feet. William the Conqueror founded a castle here soon after the Norman Conquest and the keep may have been started following a Danish raid on the town in 1071. The masonry is certainly early Norman – note for example the herringbone work in the fireplaces.

The keep has affinities with the Tower of London’s White Tower, so much so that the builder of the latter, Bishop Gundulf of Rochester, is often credited with the design. However, it is possible that a destroyed keep at Rouen provided the model for both. The chief similarity is the apsidal projection at the south end of the east wall. In some respects the Colchester keep is quite different; it is much more rectangular in plan, there are projecting towers rather than mere buttresses at the corners and the keep was originally divided by two cross-walls, so that the eastern half contained two curiously long and narrow apartments.

Only the eastern cross wall still stands. The apse shows where a chapel was intended, but the keep now appears peculiarly squat in relation to its area because only the two lower floors survive. Traces of walled-up battlements reveal that, when only one story high, an embattled parapet capped the keep. This may have been done as an emergency measure in 1083 when a Danish invasion seemed imminent. The next level must have followed soon after.