Between the cruise ports of Southampton and Dover, and convenient to international airports at Gatwick and Heathrow, lie medieval towns of rural, southeastern England. Picturesque and slower paced than London the towns of southeast England offer alternatives to a repeat stay in the big city. Surrounded by green hills and extensive gardens are many historic gems to explore.
Romans, Normans, the French, and eventually prosperous escapees from London all came to southeastern England to conquer their piece of the lush countryside. They built fortified homes, which evolved into fairy-tale castles, and then became elegant, sprawling family estates. Although vestiges of Roman life can be seen in the area, the Norman Conquest in 1066 began the proliferation of towns and royal estates seen today in southeast England.
Knights, Damsels, and Royals: A Little History of England
The Romans arrived in England in 55 BCE, confident in their ability as conquerors and engineers. Resistance from the Celts, who were people that arrived from central Europe 600 years earlier, initially humbled them. The Celts were preceded by more than a millennium by people who left the mysterious Stonehenge as evidence of their lives. The Celts left little on the landscape to survive, while the Romans built luxury baths and villas. Just outside the coastal southeast town of Chichester a Roman noble built Bignor Roman Villa, and nearby is Fishbourne Roman Palace, built in 75 CE, by a noble made wealthy on exports to Rome.
The Romans profited until 400 CE, when the Anglo-Saxons arrived from Germany and Denmark. The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Kent, Sussex, Essex, and West Sussex established the estates of modern southeastern and south central England. The Romans decamped for Italy. The Celts moved west into Wales.
The next 200 years were times of knights of fact and legend. King Arthur began as a real knight in 6th century battles against the Anglo-Saxons, who was embellished in 12th century history books and 14th century fiction to feats beyond a mortal man. Legend places the birth of Arthur in Cornwall, in the far southwest of England. An 800 year-old relic of unknown origination, reputed to be the table top of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table hangs prominently in Castle Hall at Winchester. Real or not, visions of knights are integral to English culture.
The king who saved England from the Vikings and rebuilt London after it was burned in a raid was Alfred the Great (849-899), Saxon king of Wessex from 871 to his death in 899. Much is known about King Alfred as he wrote a history of England to his time. He also ordered that books of secular knowledge be written in English, maintaining Latin as the language of the church. Alfred required his judges to be literate in English.
The next great king of England was the Danish king Canute, or Cnut. He used his sea power to control commerce between England, Denmark, Norway, Europe and Rome. Cnut turned the era into a time of peaceful commerce.
The date 1066 is one of the most important in world history. In that year, the young contender for the throne of England, William I came across the English Channel from Normandy and took the English throne. He established the beginning of modern England and a parliament, the original walls of which may still be seen near the canteen in the Houses of Parliament in London. William brought with him the Norman architectural style.
The medieval period in English history is from the death of William I to 1485, the reign of Henry VII, the first Tudor king. This is the time of the Plantagenet dynasty, of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, former wife of French king Louis VII.¹ Henry established a “Star Chamber” as the law court of the king, which sought equitable law, when common law of the feudal society was deemed unjust.
Of the heirs of Henry II, Richard was popular and absent fighting in the crusade to Jerusalem, and John was so abhorred as a ruler that he was forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, granting property rights to individuals. This was the era of the Black Death, from 1340 to 1400, which decimated the population and began 100 years of economic hardship. It was also the time Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales, of knights, millers, friars, and merchants on their way to Canterbury.
Shakespeare depicts Richard II, who was king from 1377 to 1399, as fumbling, neurotic, and holding a belief in the divinity of kings. More likely Shakespeare was informed by the low regard of Richard held by the nobles whose property he conscripted, including that of Henry IV, son of the Black Prince. Henry enticed Richard from Conway Castle, in Wales, on a promise of good conduct, and then imprisoned him until he abdicated the throne.
King Henry V ruled from 1413 to 1422, when he died of dysentery. He succeeded in defeating a much larger French army at Agincourt, south of Calais, which gave England control of a large piece of France. He married Catherine, the daughter of French king Charles VI. Their son Henry VI managed to unwittingly return the territory to France. Catherine’s next marriage to Owen Tudor, the Clerk of the Royal Wardrobe, resulted in grandson Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty.
Henry VIII was a charming man, with a great physique, and a love of grand living. His chief advisor, Thomas Wolsey was an ambitious son of an Ipswich butcher, who became the Archbishop of York in 1514, the Papal Legate for Life in 1524, and the owner of Hampton Court.
Henry Tudor married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. Their daughter, Mary, would eventually become queen. Henry sought a divorce from Catherine so that he could marry the lovely Anne Boleyn. To obtain the divorce Henry sent Cardinal Wolsey to visit the pope at a most unfortunate time. The Vatican had just come under the control of Charles I, the Frenchman who was king of Spain, and who had ample historic reasons to delight in defying Henry. Henry thought about mounting a military action to free the pope, but reasoned that Charles had a strong military. An easier route to resolution of his dilemma was for Henry to sever ties with the Vatican. This he did. Coincidently, as Henry became head of the Church of England, Wolsey lost all of his power and access to church income. Wolsey gifted Hampton Court to King Henry to save himself in the last years of his life. Wolsey spent those years in a guest suite at his former palace.
Queen Mary caused uproar when she tried to reinstate England as a Catholic nation. She reigned for only five years. Elizabeth I was queen from 1558 to 1603. It was a time of Shakespeare, world exploration and defeat of the Spanish navy.
Elizabeth I never married and left no direct heirs to the throne. From 1603 to 1714 the Stuart kings of Scotland ruled England. Since Scotland and England had a tumultuous history, the Stuarts were off to a violent start. The reign of James I was notable for the Gunpowder plot to assassinate him, the rise of Puritans in England, and their sailing to America. Charles I abolished parliament and tried to run a frugal government. He was also married to a Catholic, which was his undoing. Civil war ensued, Charles was executed, and commoner Oliver Cromwell ruled for a decade from 1649 to 1660, despite the coronation of Charles II in exile. When Charles II became king, he was greeted by the plague, the great fire of London in 1666, which burned 80% of the city, and by war with the Dutch.
The news in England was not all bad. The Restoration period that began in 1660 was a time of repairing homes and churches and building ever more grand edifices in a nation seeking relief from the Puritan hold. William III and Mary II took the throne in 1689. They made vast improvements to royal residences.
The last Stuart royal was Queen Anne, sister of Mary II. In her time the Act of Union joined Scotland and England, creating Great Britain. In 1704, Anne rewarded her foreign minister, John Churchill Duke of Marlborough, with the gift of Blenheim Palace. Anne had 15 children, none of whom survived.
The German House of Hanover gave England four Georges, the first two of whom could not speak English. George III presided over the American War of Independence. George IV was a party boy, who secretly married a Catholic widow. Their playground was an old farmhouse in Brighton, on the south coast, which in 1815 they built into the fanciful Brighton Pavilion. George IV also built Buckingham Palace. William IV succeeded his brother as king from 1830 to 1837. He was known for abolishing child labor. Next came their niece, Victoria.
The reign of Queen Victoria was from 1837 to 1901, making her the longest serving monarch until Queen Elizabeth II began her reign in 1952. Many of the great estates enjoyed by visitors today were restored during the Victorian period. She spent her last years at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, where she died in 1901.
Victoria’s son, Edward VII, came to the throne at age 60. He ruled for only a decade. During that time he put his own mark on architectural style.
Architectural Development of English Castles
The Medieval period from 1071 to 1485 was the time of great castle construction. Built as fortified outposts, the architects were military masters of construction. Norman square towers were replaced with round towers, which were less vulnerable to being undermined. Inner walls, built higher above outer walls gave more protection to the interior keep. The small keep was a soldier garrison for about 10 men. Settlers lived separately in walled towns below the castle.
King Henry VII ushered in the Tudor style in 1485, a time of Gothic architecture in churches. Hampton Court Palace, begun in 1514 is considered a Tudor-Gothic Palace with its brick walls and Gothic windows.
At the end of the medieval period the threat of invasion from the sea from France, pirates, or Vikings had abated. The keep became a home without the need for a surrounding wall. By the time of Hampton Court, the wall afforded privacy and exclusivity rather than a fortified lodging. In the Georgian period from 1714 to 1830, large homes were built in the midst of gardens. Georgian palaces were long buildings with rows of identical windows of three or four stories. On each higher floor, the window size is reduced. In the United States this period is Colonial style.
The Victorian architectural style is an eclectic mix of historic styles, with flourishes influenced by Middle Eastern and Asian touches. The neo-gothic Westminster Palace is considered Victorian, as are small row houses with gingerbread cutouts painted in colors. It was a time of the industrial revolution, where new products were available in mass quantity.
A Tour of Castles of Southeast England
Highclere Castle: Highclere castle became famous as the setting for the BBC television series Downton Abbey. The series is based upon the true story of Lady Almina the wife of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. The castle was begun in 1793 by the 1st Earl and completed in 1878 in the Victorian style, although a home on the 1,000-acre site has been in the Carnarvon family since 1679. Today the 8th Earl and Lady Carnarvon welcome visitors.
Hampton Court Palace: The coat of arms of Cardinal Wolsey has been reinstated over the entrance of this Tudor palace begun in 1514. Henry VIII honeymooned here with five of his six wives. Cardinal Wolsey entertained 250 guests in residence with a staff of 400. In 1760, George II utilized the palace as a summer residence with 40 staff. He restored the Great Hall in 1796. In 1839, Queen Victoria opened Hampton Court to the public.
Hever Castle: The family home of Anne Boleyn sits in an idyllic setting, with the original moat and drawbridge from 1270. In 1903 Lord William Waldorf Astor restored the castle. Astor built a Tudor village near the home for his guests.
Knole Castle: Knole Castle has been the home of the Sackville family since 1566. The owner was the 6th Earl of Dorset, Lord Chamberlain of the Household to King William III. The Lord Chamberlain of the Household to the king had access to all the royal furnishings he deemed excess to the needs of the king. The home has 365 rooms, four galleries, and seven courtyards, all royally furnished.
Rochester Castle: William I built the castle, as a gift to his half-brother Odo. It has the highest Norman keep in England. Odo was temporarily besieged in the castle when he backed the wrong man in a battle for succession to the throne. Odo lost the castle, which was given by King Henry I to the Bishops of Canterbury. The castle has been open to visitors since 1830 and has been undergoing restoration.
Leeds Castle: Leeds castle is within proximity to London. It is considered the most beautiful castle in England. The home sits within a moat, surrounded by green hills. Begun in the 13th century, it was restored in 1821 in the Tudor style.
Dover Castle: Romans began Dover Castle as part of a string of fortifications of the south coast. In 1198 King Henry II built the keep within the Roman and Norman walls. During the Napoleonic wars French prisoners were held in the castle. The prisoners built a series of tunnels, which were expanded when Dover Castle played a part in World War II as the command post during the Dunkirk evacuation.
Bodiam Castle: Bodiam castle was begun in 1383 and was restored in 1919. It is one of the last great medieval castles, with its towers, walls, and moat intact. The castle was built to house a garrison should Frenchmen come across the channel.
Brighton Royal Pavilion: King George IV built the holiday home at the beach to enjoy with his lady friend Mrs. Fitzherbert. In 1815 architect John Nash transformed the site into a fantasy world, with dragons in the chandeliers.
Arundel Castle: Arundel Castle is an example of the evolution of architectural styles of the last thousand years. In the center of the castle walls is an ancient round keep. The outer castle wall is a mix of Norman, medieval, and Perpendicular style Gothic. The castle sits in a garden as if in a fairytale.
Petworth House: Petworth House as it is seen today was built from 1688 to 1690. The plain exterior does not give away the opulent interior, augmented by the substantial art collection. The home has remained in the Percy family since the 13th century. In 1682 Elizabeth Percy, already a wealthy heiress, married Charles Seymour, the 6th Duke of Somerset. At the time, they were one of the wealthiest couples in England. The home befits their status.
So Much History, So Little Time to Linger
It is evident that in just this corner of England there is a bounty of history and glorious castles to tell the stories of over a thousand years of conquest and new settlement. It would take many pre or post cruise visits to see all that waits between Southampton and Dover before heading to the airport.
Read this story in its entirety and all the stories of the British Isles in the upcoming volume of Cruise through History, Itinerary X.
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¹Think of Katherine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, with sons Anthony Hopkins and John Castle, in the 1968 movie classic, Lion in Winter.