The School of Valladolid

photo la motaA quite distinctive style of castle architecture emerged at the end of the medieval period in a fairly restricted area of Spain around the River Duero in the northern half of the country. The main town of the area was Valladolid and has given its name to the style.

From the mid 15th century there was considerable political unrest within Castile and a redistribution of lands in this area, once, many centuries before, a long lasting frontier – border zone between Muslim and Christian, but at this time a fertile and settled region.

Some large estates in the Duero region were at this period split and divided into smaller territories and came into the possession of a lesser nobility by grant from an overlord, by inheritance or by purchase.

This relatively new lesser nobility each needed to show their newfound status and wealth. They did this in several ways but the most striking one was the construction of a castellated palace with all the trappings of a fortress. As many of these landowners had, on the Castilian scale, modest estates, the buildings were on a modest scale also, although within these constraints they were nevertheless luxuriously built and of very high quality.

There was apparently an attempt to emulate the more significant castles of the greater nobility of the region and produce more modest mini-versions of their great castle-palaces. photo la mota detailAn example is the magnificent castle of La Mota in the town of Medina del Campo – some 70Km away from the provincial capital of Valladolid but having a huge influence on the architecture of the region.

This castle built on the foundations of Roman, Visigothic and Islamic predecessors was remodelled in the 15th century (tower completed in 1468). The castle retains much of the earlier fortification especially in the Islamic outer curtain but the main structure we see today, and the overall architectural impression it gives, is one of late medieval ‘Mudejar (i.e. Islamic craftsmen) high status but following or even establishing the principals of the Valladolid School style.

As the majority of these new estates were small the density of the castles was high, as each landowner seemed to need a castle just as impressive as their neighbour.

Most interestingly of all is that the design and form of each one was essentially the same, that is a square inner curtain enclosing a courtyard with three corner towers and one much larger tower or keep acting as a focus for the whole and providing the most important accommodation.

photo oropesaMost of these castles were built within a short period of time from one another mainly throughout the second half of the 15th century. The similarity of style and form has lead to the whole group being considered as an assemblage or ‘school’.

There are some basic structural principals that each building follows, namely that it had a square plan with the main tower or keep at least twice the height of the curtain and more often three or four times. The tops of the keep and curtain wall were often embellished with elaborate and decorative machicolations and bartizan turrets.

Some of the castles in the school (e.g. Tiedra) were built upon much older foundations and were essentially a modernising of the existing site. Other castles were newly constructed on fresh sites. photo villalonso outerThe range of locations is naturally varied some being placed on rocky promontories, others in the wider landscape. Today, with much restoration and conservation, many castles are remarkably complete and give a very good impression of their original appearance.

The relatively poor defences of the castles, often with, for example, simple gateways through the curtain leading directly into the inner courtyard, were supplemented in some cases by an outer curtain wall or deep ditch (e.g. Torrelbaton), and sometimes with both (e.g. Villalonso), suggesting a more serious defensibility.

Today, many of these outer defences are unrestored or missing entirely – presumably swept away in earlier, less sympathetic times, but can still be traced in the surrounding terrain.

Perhaps we should see this fairly localised (in place and time) style as a cultural parallel to what was happening to fortified architecture in other pars of Europe such as the castles and tower houses being built in parts of Scotland and Ireland.

photo penafielIt is interesting the reflect that at this time (late 15th century) the nobility of this large area of Castile were using tower-keeps and enclosed curtain walls as the main focus of their palaces and to declare their high status. Northern England at this time for example was very familiar with the keepless courtyard enclosure castle (e.g. Bolton in Wensleydale).

It would only be a short matter of time when the last of the Muslims were to be expelled from the peninsula and the fall of the Kingdom of Granada (1492), the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile and the unification of these two great kingdoms forming the basis of the modern country of Spain.



Photos on this page: From Top: La Mota; La Mota detail; Oropesa; Villalonso - remains of outer curtain; Penafiel.