Caister Castle: A Powerhouse of Wealth

Caister Castle was brainchild of Sir John Fastolf. Fastolf has been immortalised as John Falstaff in Shakespeare (confusingly similar names, I know). Shakespeare’s version portrays a rather comic figure far from the real man. Falstaff is seen as a fat, penniless womaniser, which could be further from the real Sir John Fastolf who built Casiter Castle in the mid-fifteenth century. In fact, the real Fastolf was a wealthy man and he knew how best to show it off by building Caister. He actually gained his wealth during the Hundred Years War.[1] Most notably, he was amongst the army that fought against Joan of Arc.[2]

The fifteenth century powerhouses of the rich were at a crossroads between the medieval castle and what would much later develop into the country house of retreat. Houses were being designed that still retained some form of defensiveness, or at least the appearance of such, whilst also promoting ideas of comfort for residents. Caister was built within this context. During this time the best way to display wealth and power was seen by having a fortified building that had an unusual design.[3] This was something that Caister did very easily.

As is seen in the following images, Caister still had a defence like design by using a moat, the appearance of battlements and a single tower. However, it is its unusual design that I believe sets it apart from other houses of the time. Fastolf had been fighting out on the continent during the Hundred Years War and the spoils he had gathered during that time were what helped pay for the building of Caister in the first place[4]. It was the style of the Lower Rhineland he had been fighting in that inspired his design, especially for the tower.[5] This was no ordinary tower though, it was a solar tower. A solar was a late medieval invention and was a private room, or set of rooms as seen at Caister, for the Lord or his family.[6] Caister’s solar tower is five storeys high and the higher up the room was, the more private it was. The upper three storeys were solely Fastolf’s private rooms and the top one was his treasure room.[7] The fact that there was even a separate treasure room shows how much emphasis Fastolf himself placed on the wealth he had acquired. By creating such magnificent surroundings for himself, he was able to compete with other wealthy men for a visual demonstration of power.[8] This expectation was the reason why everything that happened within the household, both the physical and social, aimed to be a collective effort to maintain the power and status of the Lord.[9]

Caister Castle, Norfolk
G. H. Beaumont, Caister Castle, Norfolk (1785), Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire, UK/Bridgeman Images

Houses with towers, such as Caister, were usually reserved for those who had royal favour and were given permission to build in this way as they involved castellation that had to be granted a permit from the King.[10] They were also harder to build because of the height and so, it is amazing to see that Caister’s large tower still survives intact, even more so this is the main part if it that still remains standing.[11] However, this may be due to it being one of the earliest, if not the earliest example, of a castle being made from brick in England. Brick was only just being used on a large scale in England and it is most noticeable in later fifteenth century examples, such as William Hasting’s Kirby Muxloe in Leicestershire.[12] It was largely used by royal favourites due to the cost and lack of availability of the material.[13] When teamed up with the tower design of Caister, it shows just how much wealth and royal favour Fastolf must have acquired during his time fighting on the continent.

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Pollard, R., Caister Castle (1800), British Library Collection
Caister had the typical fifteenth century double courtyard design. Both of these revolved around two great halls, one used in the summer and the other used in the winter.[14] There is no suggestion as to why this was, so it is possible that one would have been easier to heat in winter than the other. The main hall, possibly the summer one, was the main place for display as it was the main communal area. Within it were examples of stained glass depicting Fastolf’s coat of arms, his wife’s family coat of arms, his own motto and reflections of his military achievements.[15] Perhaps it may have mentioned his fighting Joan of Arc, but unfortunately the specific achievements identified in the windows is unknown. The only known military achievement Fastolf was known to have memorialised was the Siege of Falaise which was a tapestry used as the ‘cloth of state’ behind the dais end of the great hall he would be sat at.[16]

Overall, I believe Caister to be the testament of a man who had many a military achievement, most notably fighting against Joan of Arc. Unfortunately, most of its grandness can only be imagined due to most of it being in ruins, but it would have been spectacular. Even today I find it a place of unusual serenity considering its proximity to the popular seaside resort of Great Yarmouth. If you haven’t been there, I would thoroughly recommend it and it also has a fabulous car museum to visit too!

[1] Emery, A., ‘Late-Medieval Houses as an Expression of Social Status’, Historical Research, 78 (2005), p. 158.

[2] Harrison, K., Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured (New York: Doubleday, 2013), p. 81.

[3] Thompson, M., The Medieval Hall: the Basis of Secular Domestic Life, 600-1600 AD (Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1995), p. 153.

[4] Emery, A., ‘Late-Medieval Houses as an Expression of Social Status’, p. 158.

[5] Wood, M., The English Medieval House (London: Ferndale Editions, 1981), p. 172.

[6] Wood, M., The English Medieval House, p. 67.

[7] Wood, M., The English Medieval House, p. 172.

[8] Wood, M., The English Medieval House, pp. 1728-179.

[9] Girouard, M., Life in the English Country House (London: Yale University Press, 1978), p. 15.

[10] Girouard, M., Life in the English Country House, p. 76.

[11] Girouard, M., Life in the English Country House, p. 73.

[12] Pevsner, N., The Buildings of England: Leicestershire and Rutland (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960), p. 132.

[13] Pevsner, N., The Buildings of England: Leicestershire and Rutland, p. 132.

[14] Girouard, M., Life in the English Country House, p. 60.

[15] Emery, A., Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales, 1300-1500: Volume 2 East Anglia, Central England and Wales (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 57.

[16] Parker (1983) cited in Wood, M., The English Medieval House, p. 404.

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