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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

Arundel Castle, Sussex: An Occasional Series on The English Civil War (and a bit more)

Arundel Castle in Sussex is one of the country's best known castles. It draws thousands of visitors a year to this beautiful place nestling below The Sussex Downs.

Still in private hands, that of the Howard family, Dukes of Norfolk. It thus has a different feel to it than other medieval castles, many of which are under the care of The National Trust or English Heritage. Different also in that, again unlike many medieval castles, it is no ruin; despite the fact that it suffered considerable physical damage during The Civil War of the 1640s.

So how does Arundel Castle today present such a pristine image? A tour shows little evidence of damage, indeed other than some civil war armour and weapons on show, little evidence at all; despite the fact that by order of Parliament it was 'slighted' in October 1653. 'Slighted' simply meant that it was rendered impossible to reuse as a a military location. The authorities used the castle's own gunpowder stocks, left over from the war, to blow up much of the western side of the castle as well as The Great Hall.

The truth is that the castle was largely abandoned by the Howard family after the Restoration until the next century when the then Duke began restoration work, which continued into the 20th century. Restoration also meant modernisation and so today the 'castle 'is really in two parts - the 11th century Keep and the 18th century and plus 'country house'. Arundel was one of the first grand 'houses' in the country to introduce electric lighting, central heating, and service lifts amongst its many modernisations.

A word about the Castle Keep, the oldest part of the castle remaining today. Begun by Roger de Montmorency after the Battle of Hastings, relishing his new title of Earl of Arundel, the keep was built on an artificial mound, or 'motte', which stands at over 100 feet high. A word about 'Keeps'. These towers, with living and storage rooms, together with a prison facility were the strongest part of any castle and its last line of defence. The word 'keep' is from the Anglo-Saxon verb, cepan. The Normans called these structures 'donjon', from the Latin root dominus, a lord, as the towers lorded it over their surroundings. The interesting fact, however, is that the English never used donjon in this sense but used the word 'keep'. It is why today even though the preferred academic use is 'donjon', I prefer to use 'keep'. The English of post 1066 England never used the word ;'donjon' to describe the keep, and mispronouncing it as 'dungeon', used it for the only part of a Norman castle they were ever likely to see, the prison or 'dungeon'.

Maybe it is just me but I never feel more Saxon than when staring down at a Keep's prison or dungeon! That is the reason I shall continue to use the word 'Keep'.

But to return to The Civil War and the sieges which Arundel's castle endured. The first siege by Royalists to oust the Parliamentary garrison, the second by Parliament to oust the Royalist garrison. The Civil War in Sussex was, as Thomas-Stanford tells us, a to and fro affair. Both sieges took their toll of the castle's walls as they were never built to withstand cannon fire. By the war's end, the castle was in a sorry state of disrepair made far worse, as we've seen, by its slighting at the hands of the Parliamentary authorities. The keys of the now useless and ruined castle were handed to Henry Howard, grandson of the Earl of Arundel who had fled to the continent with Charles I's Queen in 1641, and subsequently had died in Padua, a long long way from home. The Earl's son, and Henry's father, paid Parliament the staggeringly high sum of £6,000 to recover his title to his property. Henry recovered, after The Restoration, the title of Duke of Norfolk, which has remained in the family until this day, but left the castle a ruin.

Although The Civil War was fought between Crown and Parliament, many ordinary folk didn't wish their communities to get involved. They clubbed together on a local basis to keep both armies at bay (Scroll down for my blog about these 'Clubmen' as they were called). Sussex became one of the southern counties that had a number of such groups form. Parliament took as much against them as the Crown for they potentially represented a true revolution of working people - and that was on no one's agenda!

In this connection, Rosemary Hagedorn reminds us of the old Sussex expression, 'Sussex won't be druv', ie forced to do anything it doesn't want to do. And, that brings me back full circle to 'Keep' and 'Donjon'. Sussex and Englishmen won't be 'druv'. I shall continue to say and write 'Keep'. I won't be druv!


Sussex in The Great Civil War 1642-1660 by C Thomas-Stanford ( a great book from 1910)

Arundel at War 1642-1644 by Rosemary Hagedorn ( a recent book and an excellent example of Local History at its very best)

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1 Comment

Oct 03, 2021

Thank you very much for your overview on Arundel Castle. My wife and I visited it in our driving tour of southern England several years ago and found it one of the most interesting of the many places we enjoyed. I agree totally with your observation that "it has a different feel to it than other medieval castles". It is most impressive as a fortress but still with the feel of a (grand old) home.

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