From Ringwork to Stone Fortification: Power and the Evolution of Anglo-Norman Castles in North-Eastern Ireland
By Amber Johnson
Master’s Thesis, Trent University, 2011
Abstract: Castle building played a fundamental role in the consolidation of Anglo-Norman domination of Northern Ireland in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. A castle can be viewed as a protective measure, as an indicator of power and status, and as a display monument. It constituted a meaningful modification of the geographical environment and a fundamental instrument in the creation of power. The present thesis explores the evolution of the Anglo-Norman castles in North-eastern Ireland in the areas dominated by the de Lacy and de Courcy families, examining their combined function as a power tool and power symbol. It focuses on two key and archaeologically well-explored castles: Trim and Carrickfergus, and their supporting fortification networks. The research draws on a rich combination of narrative sources, visual and archaeological materials, extensive secondary literature, and the theoretical framework established by Ledyaev (1997) and Wagner (1996). It argues that, in addition to their practical military function, the two castles played a key role as physical and visual signifiers of dominative power, status and prestige.
Introduction: Castle-building played a fundamental role in the Anglo-Norman conquest of Northern Ireland in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Castles provided military protection and demonstrated the extent of a noble’s power and they dominated the countryside because of their placement in the landscape and their imposing physical structure. The primary military function of Anglo-Norman castles was defence. Their aggressive role was limited to serving as bases of operations and evidence of military might. Defensibility and logistics were therefore the key consideration in the location and longevity of castle sites. Norman castles were most often built on pre-existing Irish fortifications but differed from them in construction and military configuration. They also offered the opportunity for a visual representation of power and helped express the holders’ identity and allegiance. As Justin McGrail argued, for medieval Scotland the castle served:
… as a symbol of authority, the visual appearance of the castle was synonymous with the castle holder’s claim of lordship. Thus, the communication of “strength” through architectural forms supported the credibility of the castle holder’s authority.