Geoffrey Williams. Stronghold Britain: Four Thousand Years of British Fortification. Bath: Sutton Publishing, 1999. 264 + 8 pp. Â£25.00/$45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7509-1554-0.
Reviewed by Tom McNeill (School of Archaeology & Palaeoecology, Queens's University, Belfast)
Published on H-Albion (September, 2000)
At first sight this is an attractive book. The page size is good and so is the paper quality. The structure of the book is chronological, from the Iron Age to the 1960s in eight chapters, but there are inset features at regular intervals on individual sites, which break up the narrative. It is well illustrated with many colour photographs, especially of the earlier sites. The geographical coverage is good, with Scotland being well represented, unlike the many guides which hardly venture into the north of England. It is written in a free and easy style, which degenerates into slang at times in its effort to be informal.
Unfortunately, presentation is without substance. There no references, which might be reasonable for a popular book. However, there is not even any guide to further reading. If people are inspired to visit the monuments, as his guide clearly intends with its lists and instructions on access, where are they to find out more about them? The suspicion must be that Mr. Williams does not know; certainly he shows little sign of extensive reading in the recent literature on the subject. The result is a book with major flaws. Each chapter of the book starts with a summary of the political history of the period concerned of an embarrassingly populist kind, the sort of history that 1066 and All That parodied, and (we hoped) had killed; alas, it is alive and well in Mr. Williams's mind. Combined with the slangy language, this can range from the crude to the tasteless. It is both anachronistic and inaccurate to compare the Norman behaviour after the Battle of Hastings with that of Nazi forces in Poland; it is also unnecessary and likely to offend the victims of the latter, given the amount that has been written explaining the development of eleventh century England before and after 1066. It is possible to simplify history without either dumbing down to this extent or making basic errors: all the old chestnuts are here, from the brutal creation of the New Forest to the (Wrong but Wromantic) Royalist neglect of artillery in favour of cavalry in the seventeenth century English Civil War.
I, for one, would quarrel with his treatment of all these sites purely from the point of view as structures built for war and defence: until the sixteenth century at least there was no such thing as a purely military fort. Williams does acknowledge at times the alternative roles of living and administration for castles and Iron Age forts, and I would be glad to admit that there is a case for looking at the sites purely from the point of view of their defences; it is just that I would not want to do it. To make a book on the defences work, however, needs two things. Firstly the author should compare the sites through time, showing how the ideas of attack and defence changed. Secondly, he should explain how the various systems worked; surprisingly this book never actually discusses the effectiveness of a Roman catapult, a mediaeval stone-throwing trebuchet, or an early cannon in the attack of a wall. There is no explanation of the principles of flanking fire, or of how the forts of such nineteenth century lines as those around Chatham or Portsmouth were meant to work together. This is all taken for granted for a readership which Williams assumes to know very little about the history of any period.
If the space given over to the history had been devoted to an analysis of the development of the sites, and of the technology that supported them, the book would be valid. For example, the Roman army was an organisation with great resources of men and material, but relatively primitive technology; how did this affect its design of fortifications, compared to a castle, with limited manpower, or a seventeenth century artillery fort, with a similar number of men but faced by very different weaponry? What were the resources needed in each castle or fort? How were they gathered and deployed? What were the threats they were expected to counter? All good questions to write a book about and ones which fortifications can answer, but there is none of it in this book.
The problems continue with minor details. It would be tedious to correct all the mistakes of fact and interpretation about individual places or issues, but it is fair to point out some examples, chosen at random from many, of self-contradictions in the book. Tantallon castle: "All that exists today dates from the mid fourteenth century... The promontory is protected by an outer ditch, flanked by a sixteenth century gun-looped outwork" (p. 153). The reconstruction of a motte castle (p. 109) repeats the old mistake of showing the earth piled at the impossible angle of about seventy degrees; the photographs on the pages around it show the correct angle of about half that. The box on the Chatham forts (p. 203) has four sites: two belong to a system of the later nineteenth century, one to c. 1810 and one to the later eighteenth century; only their proximity to Chatham links them (as does Rochester castle) not any purposeful design. As with the overall lack of focus in the concept of the book, it is the sloppiness of thinking and language that is the real problem here. This is a well-presented book with an interesting list of places to visit, but totally lacking any direction or the intellectual backing to make it worth buying.
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Tom McNeill. Review of Williams, Geoffrey, Stronghold Britain: Four Thousand Years of British Fortification.
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