Buildings

The Ins and Outs of Medieval Castles

Medieval castles have achieved something of an iconic status in European culture and history thanks to their often impressive appearances as well as the countless tales of war and chivalry that took place within their walls. 

However, castles were, more often than not, highly complex structures that had to serve a range of different purposes. This article goes into depth on some of the classic design and defensive features of medieval castles. 

The Purpose and Layout of Medieval Castles

Before delving into the typical features of medieval castles, it’s worth discussing the various roles they fulfilled during the Middle Ages. For the most part, castles were seen as defensive fortifications.

In fact, this was exclusively their role in the early medieval period, with most castles being built in strategic locations that would allow them to reinforce a ruler’s position or designs for the area. For instance, near borders shared with another country or along trade routes. 

Lisbon
The São Jorge Castle in Lisbon, Portugal shows its many walls and defences.

However, as time went on, castles went on to attain a wider cultural and social significance, broadly speaking.

Castles were viewed as a means of broadcasting a ruler’s power and status to an extent in the medieval period, and, eventually, they were built to include royal apartments and accommodation, going on to be adopted by the monarchs of Europe as their primary places of residence. 

Walls and Battlements 

It probably goes without saying that most medieval castles were protected by a set of mighty walls that marked their perimeters. A castle’s battlements would be located along these walls; they were essentially parapets that one could use to fire at invading forces from. 

The Bailey/Inner Ward

The bailey or inner ward was essentially the heart of any castle. Usually, it would contain the keep, as well as a number of other buildings that were vital to the running of the fortress more generally. 

Read More: Grim Warning as Cases of Medieval Disease Rise

For instance, stables and a blacksmith were both staples of the inner wards of medieval castles. You could also expect to find butteries, granaries, and so on.

The keep would usually be found at the heart of the inner ward, designed to be the last place of refuge that residents of the castle could flee to when it was under siege and the complex had been breached (or looked like it was going to be). 

The Curtain Wall 

Another key defensive feature of the medieval castle is the curtain wall. In simple terms, a curtain wall is simply a wall between two bastions.

Curtain walls are one of the most fundamental features of medieval castles; they would typically encircle the castle’s perimeter and sit behind a moat or ditch to make them harder to breach when under siege. 

Read More: Enduring Medieval Inventions: From Clocks to Spectacles

Eventually, gunpowder was used widely enough in warfare that the effectiveness of curtain walls as a defensive measure was greatly reduced.

This led to major adjustments in the way fortifications were constructed, with architects designing newer buildings in a style known as trace italienne to keep up with changes in the way war in the post-medieval era was fought. 

The Keep 

Keeps, in the medieval era, were usually multi-storeyed towers that served a surprisingly diverse array of purposes. In the basement, you would generally expect to find food stores and often storage for arms, too. 

Tower of London
Arguably the most famous castle keep in the world. The White Tower in the Tower of London.

It was also common for keep basements to contain wells and cisterns that could provide drinking water to the residents of the castle.

The ground floors of keeps were often used to house the castle kitchens, though it wasn’t uncommon for stables to be located on this level instead. 

Read More: William Marshal: The Greatest Knight of All 

The first floor of the keep was, in many respects, often its most important; this is generally where the grand hall or banquet hall would be found, and often the private chambers and chapel of the castle.

Naturally, the banquet hall in particular would be seen by a great many guests, so these rooms were designed to be grand, stately, and visually impressive. 

The siege of Lisbon
Castles were designed to stop attackers besieging the fortifications.

Given that keeps were usually seen as a key place of refuge during sieges on castles, it was common for them to be targeted by invading forces once they’d managed to make their way into the bailey of the castle complex. Because of this, the keeps of early medieval castles would often feature removable staircases at their entrances. 

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This particular feature was phased out by the use of spiral staircases between floors in castle keeps. These staircases were often strategically placed at opposing ends of different floors to make it as difficult as possible for invaders to infiltrate the building.

Typical Defensive Features Used in Medieval Castles

While many medieval castles were certainly feats of incredible engineering, as well as being beautiful structures in their own right, it’s important to remember that their purpose was largely functional; castles were, for the most part, defensive fortifications.

The following design features all played crucial roles in protecting castles from invaders, or allowing defending forces to maximise what manpower and firepower they had while under siege. 

The Moat 

The word moat refers to a large ditch or depression that would generally be dug around the perimeter of medieval castles. In many cases, moats were filled with water to make it harder for attackers to reach the castle walls, though this was sometimes a temporary measure. Drawbridges were often used to allow residents of the castle to easily enter and leave while still enjoying the security that the moat provided. 

Beaumaris
Beaumaris Castle showing its impressive moat.

Moats are typically quite substantial in size, so, when castles were constructed in the medieval era, their eventual placement could depend heavily on where the ground would lend itself best to being dug out into a moat.

For instance, areas with plenty of natural depressions in the earth would be far better suited to turning into a moat than somewhere especially flat or rocky. 

Amazingly enough, moats were such a ubiquitous part of the design of medieval castles that the mounds, or mottes, that the castle keep would be constructed on top of were generally made using the soil excavated when the moat itself was being dug. 

Read More: The Battle of Hastings: Turning the Tide 

Moats tended to vary quite considerably in their depth. In fact, some were only dug half a metre deep, with their aim being primarily to impede the movements of attacking forces, rather than to make it altogether impossible for them to approach the castle walls. 

Murder Holes and Machicolations

Attacking a medieval castle was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a fairly dangerous game. Rampaging forces had to contend with a castle’s defensive force, which could use various features of the structure against its attackers while still keeping themselves out of harm’s way. 

Bodiam
Any attacker looking up will have been met with these terrible defences. Murder holes at Bodiam Castle.

One example of such a feature is the so-called ‘murder holes’ that can be found in the interiors of medieval castles right across Europe.

Murder holes were, essentially, holes in the ceiling of parts of the castle that defending forces could (and often would) use to safely attack their enemy from above, either by shooting at them with bows and arrows or pouring or throwing something nasty, like boiling water or rocks, at them.

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Machicolations served a similar purpose; the primary difference between them and murder holes is that machicolations could be found on the exterior of the castle’s battlements, as opposed to murder holes, which were located in the interior. There are even reports of substances like animal manure being thrown through machicolations over unsuspecting invaders. 

The Barbican 

While not exclusive to castles in the medieval era, barbicans were one of their most important defensive features. Essentially a reinforced type of outposts, barbicans came in many shapes and sizes and were most often used as a means of protecting a castle’s weak points, such as its main gate. 

Nürnberg
A reconstructed castle barbican in Germany.

In some instances, barbicans were even reinforced with their own ditches and drawbridges, in which case they were referred to as courtyard barbicans. Towards the latter half of the medieval age, barbicans were constructed at greater distances from the castle’s outer wall and often at an angle as a means of making access to the castle even more difficult for invaders to attain. 

Geographical Considerations of Castles 

One of the most effective ways to protect a medieval castle from attackers was not in the form of weaponry or defensive features, but rather in using the surrounding landscape strategically to make mounting an assault on the structure as difficult as possible. 

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King Edward I, for example, was notorious for having his castles built facing the sea, or, if this wasn’t a possibility, backing onto a river or other large body of water. Not only was this helpful from a logistical standpoint, making it much easier for supplies sent by water to be brought into the castle, but it also made it exceedingly difficult to siege his castles successfully. 

Caerlaverock Castle
Caerlaverock Castle in Scotland. Not all castles followed the rules!

It was also common for castles to be built near cliff edges or natural rises in the land for the same reason. Another practice involved constructing castles over the remains of ancient fortifications, with Roman walls being an especially popular choice; naturally this eliminated the need to build the entire structure from scratch. 

Read More: Medieval Church Used for Modern Witchcraft 

Something else that had to be considered was the fact that castles would need to permanently employ a defensive force to protect them once they’d been constructed. So, the castle had to be built in such a way that these men could be reasonably accommodated on site. And, of course, it was imperative that supplies of food and water could be transported to the building with relative ease. 

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