What makes a castle a castle?

Think of a castle; tall walls, a moat, drawbridge, battlements... then knock it down.

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An artist's impression of Oakham Castle

- Rutland County Council

What you probably imagined was the stereotypical castle structure we're so used to seeing and visiting today.

Warwick Castle, Belvoir Castle and Dalhousie Castle are all fine examples of what society expects a castle to look like.

But that's because they've never visited a Norman castle such as Oakham Castle in Rutland before. 

The Great Hall within Oakham Castle is one of the finest examples of domestic Norman architecture in Northern Europe.

The building and surrounding walls are all that's left of the Motte and Bailey castle that once thrived on the site. What makes a castle a castle is permission from the Crown to build crenellated walls...battlements to you and I.

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Rutland's infamous horseshoes

- Elli Dean Photography

Built in 1180, the Castle and Great Hall would have been teeming with life. The walls still surround the Bailey, but the Motte and moat are gone, making way for Oakham as it expanded into the county market town it still is today. The various lumps and bumps in the topography are key to interpreting the site, providing evidence of other buildings that once stood within the walls.

The walls are a Scheduled Ancient Monument and thanks to funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, supported by National Lottery players and under the careful watch of Historic England, they are slowly and carefully being conserved.

The grade I listed Great Hall has also benefitted from the money. Its unique collection of horseshoes, which date back to Edward IV (1470) have been cleaned and conserved, the walls have had a coat of paint and the Number One court has been transformed into an activity and interpretation room.

Still used as a court once every couple of years, the Hall's link to the judiciary is why we think it has survived more than 800 years.

It was built before the stereotypical 'castle' that you imagined was the norm (that came much later), and would have housed the Lord of the Manor, hosted lavish banquets and been the centre of life within the castle walls.

Oakham Castle door

Norman architecture

- The Rural Travel Guide

Oakham Castle would have probably been knocked down and replaced with a more stereotypical castle over time, had the Lord not built Burley-on-the-Hill, which suited his needs just as well.

The biggest challenge staff and volunteers at the Castle face is making people understand that although you're not visiting what you imagine a castle to be, you're actually benefitting from something even more wonderful and incredibly rare. A still functioning Norman castle is not something you can visit every day (unless you're lucky enough to live in Rutland). 

So next time you visit, as you walk up Castle Lane where the drawbridge would have once opened, try and picture the Castle as it was. A walled community which provided protection and security for those who lived there. From up on the walls where the Motte once stood, you can see why the site was chosen-the view is wonderful.

Although Oakham may not be the castle you were expecting, it's historical significance will make it one of the most interesting attractions you've ever visited.  The stories trapped within its walls will bring it back to life.

Megan is the owner of Rural Roots PR & Journalism, specialising in rural tourism, where her passion for travel, heritage and a great visitor experience inspired her to start 'The Rural Travel Guide'.

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