Significance of Lawrence’s researches

In his original thesis (1910), Lawrence concluded from his examination of numerous castles that French designs had set precedents for the designs of the Crusader castles in the Near East. This proposition, which was based upon three cycle tours in France and a Syrian tour on foot, contradicted the generally-held view of contemporary European historians which emphasized the primary influence of Eastern builders upon Crusader practice. In Lawrence’s words, ‘the Crusading architects were for many years copyists of the Western builders’. In time, when appropriate, the Crusaders adapted and developed Byzantine, Armenian and Arab features of castle design. His proposal carried weight at the time because he had actually visited and photographed Crusader fortresses in the Levant, many of which were virtually unknown. As one might expect from Lawrence, his theory was inherently provocative and caused a flutter in academic circles. With regard to the essential truth of his assertion, it nowadays appears that the answer lies somewhere between the two extremes of learned opinion.46

In statistical terms, Lawrence’s selection of castles in France can be regarded as a small sample of a large population. Nevertheless it was quite remarkable for an undergraduate to make such an impressive contribution to contemporary understanding of castle architecture. Given time, I am sure that he would have wanted to visit the castle at Talmont (-St.Hilaire) in the Vendée region (Fig. 30). Standing on a rock outcrop, this once-important fortress is well inland from the Bay of Biscay. However, in its heyday tidal waters filled the ditch around the castle and Spanish trading vessels came into its riverside port. The region was famous for its ducal hunting grounds and for the breeding of the finest falcons. Talmont castle had a long and eventful history.47 It is accepted that Richard the Lionheart, then Prince of Talmont, and his architect-builders strengthened its defensive works substantially in the late twelfth century. They added a sharp-edged triangular spur, more than seven metres thick, to the northern face of the existing keep. This great prow, with its fine ashlar masonry, overlaps the original outer walls which have a composite structure of large beach pebbles and mortar.

Fig. 30 – Donjon of Talmont-Sainte-Hilaire, Vendée

Lawrence would later spend time enlarging upon his Bachelor of Arts thesis, which was relatively short, in the hope of one day having it published. After Lawrence’s death from injuries sustained in a tragic motorcycle accident in May 1935, his brother Arnold W. Lawrence completed this project and a two-volume limited edition (1,000 copies) of ‘Crusader Castles’ appeared in 1936.48 In more recent times, two versions have become available to the general public.4950 Both include Lawrence’s later thoughts and revisions in the form of marginal notes.

  1. Robin Fedden and John Thomson, Crusader Castles (London: John Murray Publishing Ltd., 1957) 40-57. []
  2. Pascale Gadé, Richard the Lionheart’s Fortress at Talmont (ISBN 2-84238-011-8: D’Orbestier Editions). []
  3. A copy of this handsome edition, published by Golden Cockerel Press, is held in the archives of the University of Birmingham Library, UK. []
  4. T. E. Lawrence, Crusader Castles, with Introduction and Notes by Denys Pringle (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988). []
  5. T. E. Lawrence, Crusader Castles, with Preface by Michael Haag (London: Immel Publishing Ltd., 1992). []