Dan Snow | "The Christians weren’t that keen on preserving the Islamic archive"

Dan Snow | "The Christians weren’t that keen on preserving the Islamic archive"

For historian Dan Snow, just researching castles and castle warfare proved to be dangerous enough. Visiting Krak des Chevaliers in Syria for his new book Battle Castles: 500 Years of Knights and Siege Warfare, he found himself in the midst of the Arab Spring.

“We were driving around as the revolution broke out, with the secret police hassling us as we tried desperately to take pictures, which they wouldn’t allow at all. One of the photographs in the book was actually taken as my friend held his hand out of the window, just as the police were shooing us away, and it turned out to be one of the most glorious—a covert picture just for the book.”

World’s best

Tied to a six-part television series that will air on the Discovery Channel this autumn, it was a childhood love of castles that originally drew Snow to pursue the Battle Castles project. “I’ve always loved castles, how can you not? Especially living in the UK, we have some of the world’s best. Every weekend as 
a kid, we’d be packed into the car and driven around to battlefields and historical buildings, and castles loomed very large in that. They’re fantastic, they’re the best. So when the opportunity 
to work on a series came up, 
I definitely pushed for it.

“I wanted to get the book out as well because, of course, you can add so much more to a book, all the extra detail and context you just can’t fit into a programme. It was a phenomenal project to work on. 
I really couldn’t believe my luck.”

Recounting “the bloodshed and battles of the greatest fortresses of the Middle Ages” —from Dover Castle (Snow’s favourite: “It is the most amazing place in Britain”) to Château Gaillard (Richard I’s fortress in Normandy) and Castillo de Gibalfaro (the last vanguard of Moorish rule in Spain)—Battle Castles is more than just a military history book, however. Although it explores the building techniques behind the castles and the type of weapons and warfare each one employed, 
it also provides a heavy dose of social history, with sub-sections on various aspects of daily castle life, the personalities of major historical figures and the different types of employment found within the castles’ walls.

“We didn’t want it to just be about the military side of things, as it was absolutely vital to also give a sense of who was living 
at each of the castles, what life was like for them, what the sense of community was… that was definitely a major starting point for us.”

Research for the project took nearly two years. In most cases, the team had “a great wealth of material to work with,” Snow explains, and adds that the ensuing project was “a dream come true”. However, not every section was easy to put together. Snow describes researching Castillo de Gibalfaro and the siege of Malaga as “a little bit tricky”, as he explains: “The Christians weren’t that keen on preserving the Islamic archive, so I was surprised how difficult that one was to research. But on the whole everything was very well documented, which was great.”

Harper is planning a big publicity, marketing and social networking campaign for Battle Castles, with Snow also taking part in author events throughout the autumn, including the Cheltenham Literary Festival, the opening night of the Chester Literature Festival and the National Army Museum’s Book Festival. The television programme will feature lots of CGI elements and the book itself is highly illustrated, featuring multiple photographs taken “with some of the widest lens cameras available”. Is this all part of a ploy to draw in a younger than usual audience? “I think so, we’ve definitely had some fun with the show. We’ve made it quite bloody and hopefully the re-enactments are quite exciting, so it might have a slightly younger demographic. But, you know, I like old people. I’ve got no problem with them watching 
my programmes.”

Engage with history

An accompanying app for Battle Castles is currently being built, featuring “chunks of the show, bits of CGI, arial shots, floor plans and all that wonderful text as well” and Snow is hopeful the success of his Timeline World War 2 app, which was released last April, can be repeated.

“We are really keen to follow that up, as that really has been great for getting a different audience to engage with history,” he says.

Next up for the historian is a “big book about the First World War” and a programme on the Roman Empire, which uses satellites to find hidden archaeological sites. “It’s a bit more extreme than ‘Time Team’, and we actually found stuff as well—unlike those jokers.”

Battle Castles: 500 Years of Knights and Siege Warfare (Harper Press, 27th September, £20, hb, 9780007455584)