Ancient, Modern Day

The History of Bodiam Castle

A look at the Medieval Masterpiece that is, Bodiam Castle and the life of the man who built it.

Arguably one of the most romantic examples of a medieval castle anywhere stands in a small village in the South of England. Ask any child to draw a castle and the resulting picture will likely look very similar to the dramatic, moated fortress of Bodiam Castle, surrounded by gently rolling hills dotted with sheep in the quiet village of Bodiam in Sussex, England. We are going to explore the history surrounding the castle and consider whether or not it was intended for show or for action.

In 1340 King Edward III of England, having fought a successful campaign in Scotland turned his attention to the French throne and declared himself the rightful heir triggering a war which persisted for much of the 14th century.

King Edward III was, and still is, famed for his military prowess and for his determined restoration of royal authority after the failings of his father, Edward II. Under King Edward III, England became Europe’s most formidable fighting powers. 

English Knights

In fact, during this hundred years war, as we now call it, took place some of the world’s most well-known battles of medieval times, Crecy, Poitiers and of course Agincourt. Unlike the battles of today, these were battles where kings fought kings at the head of huge armies of knights, soldiers and archers.
It was also a time for less heroic deeds, perpetrated by small groups of English knights; mercenaries, who roamed through the French countryside, looting, plundering and stealing.

Edward III
Edward III and his Knights count the dead on the battlefield of Crécy. Dalyngrigge served under the King.

Read More:  Found: 1,600 Year Old Sword That Belonged to a Roman Soldier

This was a very lucrative pastime allowing them to carve fearsome reputations and amass considerable wealth. One of these knights was Sir Edward Dalyngrigge and his adventures in France would one day help him build the great medieval castle at Bodiam.

Dalyngrigge was the youngest son in his family and therefore the last in line to inherit so acquiring wealth, status and land would have been integral to his survival and success back in England.

Roman Settlement

However, the story of Bodiam begins much earlier than this. In fact, over 13 centuries earlier when the Romans invaded Britain in AD 43. Bodiam was special because it was situated on the River Rother, which in those days was wide enough for Roman ships to sail up all the way from the sea only 10 miles away. Back then, the river was on a different course and it is suspected that there may have been a Roman settlement here.

300 years later the Romans left leaving the way clear for a new wave of settlers, the Anglo Saxons. It is from these people that historians think Bodiam first got it’s name; from the Old English words Boda hām literally meaning, Boda’s homestead or village, possibly named after a local Chieftain.

Earl of Arundel

Centuries roll by, the Norman conquest is a distant memory, ten English kings have come and gone and Edward III now sits on the throne. It is here that Sir Edward Dalyngrigge enters the story once again. Fighting for Edward as part of a ‘Free Company’ (private groups of mercenary knights fighting under a commander loyal to the crown) under the Earl of Arundel has meant he has done very well for himself.

Aerial Bodiam
An aerial view of Bodiam Castle. Its giant moat was a huge deterrent to any would be attacker.

He is now not only a wealthy man but rumour has it that he was so feared that French peasants would jump into the nearest river at the mere mention of his name! Somewhere around the year 1350, Dalyngrigge, encounters a lady, Elizabeth Wardeux (or Wardieu).


Lady Elizabeth is from a wealthy family that owns considerable lands in the area and she stands in line to inherit the manor house of Bodiam. This may be one of the reasons why Edward Dalyingrigge, back home for a short break from fighting in France in 1364, marries her.

Soon after his marriage, Edward is back off to France where he spends a large part of the next 10 years but in 1377 he returns home, wealthy, powerful and influential. In the meantime, his wife Elizabeth has come into her inheritance making Sir Edward master of Bodiam and all its lands. There is however still no peace with France.

In 1377 the French cross the channel and attack the coastal towns of Hastings and Rye, only a few miles from Bodiam. The ailing King Edward III had also suffered a stroke and died leaving the throne to his ten year old Grandson, Richard II.

Read More: 800 Year old Complete Chain Mail Vest Discovered 

Besides the threat of a French invasion, trouble at home was also brewing with The Peasants Revolt, sparked in part by social tensions caused in the aftermath of the 1340s plague epidemic and the increase in taxes to fund the costly war with France.


It is no surprise then that Sir Edward decides to build a castle of his own. With the threat of a French invasion exposing Sussex to further inland attack via the river Rother and the rebel uprisings in England, these were very dangerous times.

Dalyngrigge is also a very ambitious man and there is nothing better than a castle to remind your friends, neighbours and enemies just how powerful you are.
Not just anyone can build a castle! First, you have to have the King’s permission.

Plan of Bodium
Plan of Bodiam Castle. A: Household apartments B: Chapel C: Chamber D: Great chamber E: Lord’s hall F: Buttery G: Pantry H: Kitchen I: Retainer’s hall J: Retainer’s kitchen K: Possible anteroom (on some plans K, L1 and L2 are shown as one room, on some two and others three) L1: Possible service rooms L2: Possible stables M: North-east tower N: East tower O: South-east tower P: Postern tower Q: South-west tower R: West tower S: North-west tower (and prison) T: Gatehouse (with guard rooms to left and right) U: Inner causeway V: Outer barbican W: Outer causeway

Fortunately, Sir Edward has friends at court and in 1385 King Richard grants his request. The translation of the Latin licence issued reads, “…that he may strengthen with a wall of stone and lime, and crenellate and may construct and make into a Castle his manor house of Bodyham, near the sea, in the county of Sussex, for the defence of the adjacent country [France], and the resistance of our enemies.” However, this is not what Sir Edward does. Instead, he decides to build an entirely new castle from scratch, away from his manor house and closer to the river.

Deep Moat

The castle Dalyngrigge built is the castle we see today, at least from the outside. It is a perfect example of Late medieval castle building, almost perfectly square with round towers on each corner, square towers in-between and a massive gatehouse all rising out of the centre of a wide, deep moat.

Read More: Medieval Sword Found in Poland

But Dalyngrigge wanted more than just a castle, he wanted all the trappings of an aristocratic landowner, he wanted a grand estate. Gardens as a concept were made popular centuries earlier by the Roman invaders and now as a defining feature of grand properties, Dalyngrigge set about landscaping the whole area. He created new ponds around the castle, diverted the river Rother and created a mill pond in the middle.


Just how serious the castle’s defences really were has been a topic of hot debate over the years. Although, any attacker would certainly have thought twice about attacking it.

If we place ourselves in the shoes of a medieval attacking army, the moat, along with all the other water features would have made it hard for us to get close in any strength of numbers which might have forced us to try a direct assault on the castle’s main entrance which would not have been easy since Bodiam had all the most fashionable defensive features of the time.

First, an enemy would have had to advance along a wooden causeway (no longer visible) across the moat which ran parallel to the castle, placing them under fire every step of the way from archers standing along the crenelated battlements.

Then they would come up against the Barbican, a smaller outer castle which was strongly guarded. Finally, they would face the toughest challenge of all, the great gatehouse which teemed with an array of deadly traps.

Bodiam Castles original 14th Century oak and iron portcullis. A very formidable defence in its own right.

The castle’s portcullis is a familiar and intimidating defensive feature constructed from oak clad with iron. Samples taken from the timber in 2006 indicate that this surviving portcullis is the original one put in place when the castle was first built. It is therefore exceptionally rare and one of the oldest portcullis grilles to survive in Britain today.


However, back in the 1300s there would have originally been 5 of these fearsome grilles to break through, one at the postern gate, one at the barbican and no less than 3 at the main gatehouse!

Above the surviving portcullis is a massive parapet with large rectangular holes through which defenders would have poured boiling tar. Even if an enemy managed to force their way in, they’d have been stopped by another grille and then faced an attack from above by stones and more boiling tar or water cascading down through the aptly named ‘murder holes’ in the gatehouse ceiling.

Luckily for Bodiam and for Sir Edward and Lady Dalyngrigge, none of this ever actually happened. The castle was never besieged in their day. Not long after the new castle been built Dalyngrigge was off to France again but this time was to be his last as he later died aged around 50. Like so many knights and nobles of his day he had spent the best part of 15 years in action in France.

North Gate Bodiam
An Engraving of 1737 of the Castle. It was still called Bodiham back then. As the castle evolved so did its name.

But the story of the castle doesn’t end there! Over the next 250 years it would be on one side or the other of the various power struggles that plagued England.

During the Wars of the Roses, the owners were Lancastrian sympathisers which made them enemies of King Richard III. He issued orders to lay siege to Bodiam but the owners sensibly surrendered. Later, after the king himself was killed in action at the Battle of Bosworth, they moved back in.


The castle next came under threat during the English Civil War in 1642. The family who owned it were Royalists, which put them on the losing side too and by the late 1600s the castle had fallen into ruin.

However, this was still not the end of its story. Bodiam was still one of the most magnificent castles to be seen anywhere and with the advent of the steam railway which originally brought agricultural workers to Bodiam to pick beer hops, it now transported fashionable visitors, eager to see the castle for themselves.

It’s last owner was Lord Curzon, famous for preserving ancient monuments, who bought the castle in 1917. Upon Lord Curzon’s death he left the care of Bodiam to the National Trust, who still care for it today and ensure it is accessible to the public for most of the year.

Read More: Mastering the Art of the Medieval Poleaxe

Time moves on and although Bodiam may have been the perfect defensive castle in medieval times it was useless against the planes, tanks and artillery of 20th Century warfare. Which is why during WW2 another type of defensive structure was built here, an anti-tank pillbox.

Bodiam’s pillbox was part of a chain of strategic defences built to protect vulnerable parts of the country against invasion. This time, by Nazi Germany. However, as in previous centuries, the invasion never came.

Now the castle is besieged daily by day-trippers from all over the country and the wider world. Catch the steam train from the quaint station at Tenterden and enjoy a nostalgic trip into Bodiam today where you can experience this impressive Englishman’s castle and home for yourself!