Friday, 31st July, 2009
A taste of medieval life in all its gaudy glory
When the Great Tower of Dover Castle throws open its doors again today, visitors will be struck by its power and its gaudiness: the 10metre-thick walls are 12th century, but everything inside the vast stone rooms, from the king’s fur strewn bed to the stained glass window lighting his chapel, is new and seething with colour. The effect is certainly striking, but does slightly look as if in 1179 King Henry II ran amok in a furniture warehouse on an extended free credit deal.
The £2.45m recreation by English Heritage of the castle’s lost medieval interiors is not history in tasteful shades of parchment and chalk. New oak doors an inch thick, painted green, bright blue or a dark red called Dragon’s Blood, open onto interiors both sumptuous and garish enough to make the unwary blink.
If a historian’s new theory is correct, the original was built by Henry at top speed and staggering expense to create the grandest B&B in Europe.
John Gillingham, professor of medieval history at the London School of Economics, believes that after the humiliation in 1179 of having to put the French king in makeshift lodgings, Henry urgently needed a palace to dispense regal hospitality to equally grand pilgrims bound for an acutely politically sensitive shrine: the tomb at Canterbury [cathedral] of Thomas Becket.
The saint was once his friend and chancellor, but all Europe believed that in 1170 Henry had him murdered. The king paid spectacular public penance, flogged by monks and then praying all night at Becket’s tomb. Henry’s vigil came as he faced rebellion by his wife [Eleanor of Aquitaine] and sons, and invasion from Scotland and Flanders.
The following morning the Scottish king was captured and the invasion fleet scattered. He was convinced Becket was back on side – the saint’s miracles, recorded by the Canterbury monks, included healing his sick hawk.
“It was probably the greatest crisis faced by any English monarch, and despite recent incidents of political statements of regret, the most spectacularly successful apology in recorded history,” Gillingham said.
Over the centuries the rooms, which lodged kings and queens, knights and nobles, became offices, store rooms and cells for Napoleonic prisoners of war. The present floor boards probably came from 18th century warship decking, and the roofs were strengthened to take 19th century artillery on the battlements.
The lost interiors have now been recreated in by an army of craft workers: embroidered hangings in crimson and gold, tables and chairs in green, red and blue with carved gilded lions snarling from the supports, a scarlet and blue rug thrown over the king’s bed lined with grey and white fur which looks alarmingly like a pussy cat, but is probably that modish Norman import, rabbit.
“I think people are going to find it quite startling, but that’s the point – in the 12th century this wasn’t a quaint old stone castle, it was new and built to impress,” said archaeologist Edward Impey, project manager for English Heritage.
“Bright colour was expensive, and most people had none in their homes or what they wore. If you had money, and you wanted to impress, colour was what you wanted, plenty of it and the brighter the better.”
His attention to detail has been obsessive. Real log fires will be lit each day, and when he realised there wasn’t enough fuel, he took up his axe and went down into the woods at the foot of the castle to chop the logs himself.
“They had to be hand cut – obviously – and there didn’t seem to be anyone else on site who could wield an axe,” he explained.
The rooms are now fit to receive royalty again. France currently lacks a king, but even Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni might be impressed at the result.