For nearly two years one of England’s most famous landmarks has been undergoing a radical transformation. Blacksmiths, woodworkers, painters, embroiderers, and craftsmen have been working with historians to recreate a 12th century interior for the Great Tower at Dover Castle. It’s now open to the public and gives an idea of what it was like to live the good life in the Middle Ages.
Dover Castle was built by King Henry II, who ruled from 1154 to 1189. He was one of England’s most powerful kings, asserting control over an often unruly church and nobility and strengthening the rule of law. Dover Castle was his most important fortification and he often stayed there because it was on the coast, where he could keep an eye on his extensive lands in France.
This project is something new for English Heritage, which manages the castle. In the past it has avoided doing reconstructions when researchers weren’t sure what the original looked like. Records of day-to-day rooms and objects from the Middle Ages are scarce, and most of the things that have survived from that era are trophy pieces like armor or jewels, not mundane things like cushions. To the folks at English Heritage, the historical accuracy of cushions is a big deal. So they made a compromise. The artisans used techniques and materials common to the period, scoured medieval art books, and made things in the same general style.
The result is impressive both in its detail and its vibrant color. People in the Middle Ages loved bright colors and painted every surface they could with brilliant tones. They even added natural dyes to their food to give it a nice neon look, even though neon hadn’t been invented yet. If it had been, they would have put it everywhere. The main hall has an ornate wooden king’s chair painted deep blue and bright gold with vines spiraling up the legs, and a rich red standard hangs behind it. The smaller details are interesting too, like the simple yet durable ironwork, and the expressive carvings of animal and human heads that decorate many of the wooden objects.
These aren’t simply vacant rooms. Costumed actors and soundtracks bring the period alive and as visitors wander through the rooms they’ll realize that a lot is going on, from the deadly diplomacy of the rich and powerful to the gossiping of the servants. There’s even a court jester named Roland the Farter. The man actually existed and was granted a manor and thirty acres of land in Suffolk in return for acting as the royal flatulist.
All in all it’s a stunning wok of historical reconstruction but perhaps English Heritage could have been a bit less accurate with the royal flatulist.