Did the Anglo-Saxons build stone castles?

The simple answer to this question is no. The Anglo-Saxons did not build stone castles in the same way that the Normans did from the 11th century onwards.

In fact, there is very little evidence to suggest that the Anglo-Saxons used stone to build any secular buildings at all. Apart from their stone churches, the Anglo-Saxons typically built with timber.

Historian Michael Shapland believes this might have been due to an unwritten cultural rule of Anglo-Saxon society. Stone (solid and likely to remain intact beyond the lives of the builders) was reserved for Christian buildings, whereas timber, a much less permanent material, was used for other buildings and dwellings. Houses made from wood were likely to age alongside those who constructed them and lived within them, unlike the stone religious buildings that would seemingly last forever, just like the Christian faith and a Christian soul.

However, there are a couple of examples where it could be argued that Anglo-Saxons did use stone for buildings that played a part in defending their kingdoms. They definitely weren’t the elaborate Norman castles like the Tower of London, Durham Castle or Chepstow Castle, but they are certainly worth looking at in more detail.

Anglo-Saxon Burhs

Constructed during the 9th century in response to Viking invasions and raids, burhs were fortified settlements. Alfred the Great developed a network of burhs in strategic locations, and although some were built from scratch, others were built on the sites of old Iron Age hillforts or Roman forts or settlements.

The Anglo-Saxons repaired the Roman stone wall defences in Winchester, Exeter, Dover and Porchester, and there is evidence that stone was used to face the bank of the ditch encircling the burh at Tamworth.

Anglo-Saxon Towers of Lordship

From the late 9th century up to the 11th century, many Anglo-Saxon lords built tall timber towers. These were often located close to their halls and were part of their manorial complexes along with gatehouses and chapels. Not only were these towers a symbol of aristocratic status, but they were also probably used as watchtowers.

Evidence of such towers has been unearthed at sites in Bishopgate in Sussex, West Cotton in Northamptionshire, Ketton in Rutland and Thwing in Yorkshire.

Dr Michael Shapland believes that some of these timber towers evolved into the ‘nave-towers’ identified at more than twenty sites across England, including Caistor in Lincolnshire and Potterne in Wiltshire.

Constructed during the first half of the 11th century, these nave-towers were essentially a tower containing the whole body of a church. They had limited capacity, were located at manorial sites, and often had elaborate and ostentatious stonework features. Shapland argues that this might have been a way to get around the Anglo-Saxon cultural tradition of not building secular buildings out of stone. If an Anglo-Saxon wanted to convert his timber tower into stone, he could simply place a chapel inside it, thereby justifying his choice of building material.

Shapland suggests that nave-towers might have been used as watchtowers and in the case of the tower in Wickham in Berkshire there is evidence that it was used as a beacon.

Shapland goes onto argue that these tower-naves can be seen as the forerunners of the simple and modest examples of the early Norman stone keeps.

If he is correct, there might have been more continuity between late Anglo-Saxon residences and early Norman castles than was previously acknowledged. And some Anglo-Saxon tower-naves were incorporated into Norman castles, as is the case in Earls Barton, Hastings, Porchester, Oxford and Caistor.

Many tower-naves were extended in the 12th century by attaching a new nave to the existing tower.

Discover more about the Anglo-Saxons by visiting our resources page.


Anglo-Saxon Towers of Lordship and the Earliest English Castles – Dr Michael Shapland

Fortifications in Wessex c. 800–1066 – Lavelle