Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Magnificient Medieval Donjon

The word 'donjon' is of course French and comes from the Norman French who built many of the world's greatest medieval castles. A donjon was a formidable piece of medieval architecture - a freestanding structure, rectangular in shape and most readily identifiable to what most people think of as a castle keep

Built for defence, a donjon had very thick walls and an internal spiral stone staircase connecting all floors (up to four storeys high). A donjon was usually constructed inside a castle's walls but was sometimes located within the curtain wall itself. I have seen many a castle keep in medieval castles over the years, particularly in Britain but I had never seen a definitive French donjon until recently when I visited Bazoges-en-Pareds

It was a magnificent sight, towering above the small town and dominating the skyline for miles around. Here is a video clip which I hope will convey some of that magic.

There was also a most beautiful, medieval garden located just in front of the donjon - but that's a story for another day! In the meantime, to whet your appetite, you can take a look at my medieval garden photos here in a gallery published with permission by medieval-recipes.com.

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Connecting With A Medieval Christmas

When you sit down on Christmas Day and eat your turkey dinner followed by Christmas pudding, here are 3 medieval connections you might like to reflect on.

  • William the Conqueror chose Christmas Day 1066 for his coronation as King of England at Westminster Abbey in London. Read more about the medieval kings of England.

  • On Christmas Day no-one in medieval Europe ate turkey - it was the 16th century before the humble turkey was brought from America. In medieval times it was usually goose or venison for the rich on Christmas Day and pottage with perhaps a little meat thrown in for the peasants. Read more about pottage recipes.

  • The tradition of having a Christmas pudding was as popular then as it is now except that the pudding was a little different in medieval times. It was called frumenty and was a spicy, thick porridge made with wheat, currants, dried fruit and spices. Read more about medieval desserts.

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Piece Of English History For Christmas

Medieval history in general and medieval castles in particular hold a great fascination for many people. Do you or does someone amongst your friends or family fall into this 'interest' category? If so, then buying Christmas gifts for them to enjoy is not that difficult.

You can choose from a wide selection of medieval history books online and there's plenty of medieval style jewelry as well if budgets allow. Some castles even sell their own, individually branded castle gifts.

Eastnor Castle in England is a great example. A fairytale, mock medieval castle with stunning architecture, the castle is set in a wonderful setting in the English Malvern Hills (Edward Elgar country). It is in great demand as one of England's most romantic wedding venues and stages some high profile, outdoor public events such as The Big Chill and Mud Runner.

Romance, character and history all rolled into one, Eastnor Castle is a great place to visit - but what if you can't get there? What if you are at the other side of the world? Well, this is where the Castle Online Store comes in. Amongst the super gifts you can buy are a mounted print of the castle (see picture above) and ceramic pot stands (right) decorated with the Pugin deer design from Eastnor Castle's drawing room fireplace tile. There is a range of gifts for all ages and any time of year in fact, not just Christmas ... so that's a few birthday presents sorted as well!

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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Medieval Castle Snowy Escape

Heavy snowfalls and record low temperatures have hit Britain in the last week and many people have felt 'besieged' in their own homes, unable to get out and about. However, the experience of being 'besieged' in winter in the 21st century bears little resemblance to what was endured in medieval times.

One instance in particular comes to mind ... the winter of 1141 and the predicament that Matilda, daughter of King Henry I of England, found herself in.

Matilda was by rights the next ruler of England but Stephen of Blois had taken the throne for himself following the death of King Henry I whilst Matilda was in France (confined with her third pregnancy). Matilda's loyalty to her father and his wish that she and her son(s) would one day rule England left her no choice but to challenge Stephen. So she travelled to England and embarked upon a campaign against him.

By December 1141 Matilda had retreated to the medieval castle at Oxford and Stephen marched his men unexpectedly from Bristol to attack Oxford in an attempt to capture Matilda. Oxford Castle was a well defended stronghold (read more about castle defence) so taking it by force in the middle of winter was not a viable option. Stephen chose instead to lay siege to the castle and wait for Matilda's supplies to run out over the winter months.

Matilda's response, however, was not what Stephen expected. She formed and executed a daring and hazardous plan ... just before Christmas she slipped quietly out of a side door in the castle with just three of her trusted soldiers. They were all dressed in white capes so as to blend into the landscape which was covered in thick snow. The stream nearby had to be crossed in order to escape and the fact that it was frozen over was to her advantage for it bore the weight of her small party and they managed to get away quietly and reach safety some miles away in Abingdon.

So how cold and frightening must Matilda's escape have felt?
Imagine ...
  • no sophisticated clothing or footwear to combat the freezing temperatures
  • no torches to help light their way and ensure they were on the right path
  • the imminent threat of capture hanging over them which, if it had happened, would have signalled the end of her dreams
Those few hours on that December night 869 years ago must have been an experience Matilda never forgot.

So when you are next drinking your mug of cocoa, wrapped in a warm blanket and lazily reading a book by the fireside on a snowy winter's evening ... spare a thought for the brave Matilda!

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