Lords and Ladies: Building Castles

views updated

Lords and Ladies: Building Castles


Castles as Fortresses and Homes. The noble class and the people who worked immediately for them (their retainers) were only a small percentage of the medieval European population, at most 3–5 percent. Yet, this small community had a disproportionate influence on many aspects of European society and culture. One of the most striking artifacts of their power is the medieval castle, and many modern assumptions about castle structure and noble life are based on anachronistic, romantic perceptions. Castles were frequently the homes of only a small garrison, which might include one or two knights, mercenary soldiers, and civilian-soldiers who owed military service. Even in massive structures built by kings and princes the actual number of people living within the castle walls


In their discussion of castle life Frances and Joseph Gies drew on the twelfth-century History of the Counts of Guinea, by Lambert of Ardres. The castle Lambert described is generally assumed to be the castle of Bou-quehault in northeastern France. It was controlled by the Montgardin family, related to the counts of Guines. No ruins survive.

The castle Lambert of Ardre describes … was not one of the newer masonry structures but the old motte-and-bailey timber fort of the tenth century. It had its hall and attendant service rooms (larders, pantry, and buttery) on the second floor, above the ground-level storerooms with their boxes and barrels and utensils. Adjoining the hall were “the great chamber in which the lord and lady slept” and “the dormitory of the ladies-in-waiting and children,” in other words, the nursery. The attic, designed mainly for the adolescents, was divided into two sections, evidently outfitted with pallets. On one side the sons of the lord stayed “when they so desired,” and sometimes the watchmen and servants; on the other the daughters “because they were obliged”—where they could he watched over until they were suitably married. There was only one “great chamber”; the castle was not designed for more than one married couple. The heir could not marry until his father died, unless he found an heiress and won a house and bedchamber of his own.

Source: Frances Gits and Joseph Gies, Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages (New York Harper & row> 1987), p. 143.

was not large: around forty to fifty when the lord was in residence, perhaps twenty when he was not. Many medieval lords were essentially itinerant. A lord might have a primary residence or even two, but it was rare that he would spend more than several months of the year there. Only in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, near the end of the Middle Ages, did court protocol and lifestyles begin to approach the modern conception of them. Even then only a few courts established in castles were so stylized, and some of the most elaborate were led by an ecclesiastical lord, such as the papal court in Avignon.

What Was a Castle? A castle was essentially a structure built to fortify and maintain control over an area. Medieval castles were built according to many designs using many different materials, and some were more defensible than others. Few had the elaborate architecture and furnishings that modern people associate with them. Particularly in the tenth and eleventh centuries, castles were built solely as fortifications and not designed as luxury accommodations. Life in castles could be isolated and harsh, though comfortable by comparison to the lives of the peasants surrounding them. Many of the comforts associated with noble and castle life did not begin to emerge until the thirteenth century, and they were often a development of the fourteenth century and the Renaissance.

Mottes and Baileys. The earliest medieval castles were mottes and baileys. In essence a motte (French for mound or hill) was a pile of dirt. It could be an actual hill or an artificial mound about 15–20 feet high and large enough to support a square tower at least three stories tall and 50 feet long per side. In some cases people built wooden walls around the edges of the motte and in the process formed a ring-work fort; this sort of protective structure was in use as late as the twelfth century in places such as England, and they formed the basis for many town walls well into the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. A motte-and-bailey structure included an enclosed courtyard, called the bailey, generally on a lower level than the motte. The motte was the most defensible area, while the bailey was the area in which most of the basic activities of castle life took place. The bailey often contained at least one primary structure, generally known as the keep, and a larger fortification often enclosed several additional buildings for storage and housing of soldiers and livestock. Cisterns were also included so that residents did not need to obtain water from outside the castle during a siege. Every region had its variations, depending on geography, custom, or personal preference. Sometimes mottes had several baileys or none at all. At other times mottes had ditches around them that could be filled with water (moats), but in some instances they had no moats, and water could be difficult to obtain.

Stone Castles. Archaeological evidence suggests that stone castles began to appear a little before 1000 A.D., while historical records of stone castles emerged a bit later. The period from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries was the great age of medieval castle construction, as stone castles replaced mottes and baileys as the preferred fortifications. At the same time, castles were relocated from lowlands near villages to hills and mountaintops. By the twelfth century, castles were frequently separate from the communities they were ostensibly protecting. The walls were built in straight lines, but the enclosure they surrounded could be shaped in many ways, with the most common being a sort of oblong; round walls were a later invention. While towers were not constructed at every bend in the walls, there were often several on a side or at least one on each corner. Inside the walls, there was one tower, several stories tall, called the keep. Though medieval castles housed few people, living space within the castle enclosure (the yard) was at a premium. Much of the structure was composed of walls with various outbuildings built into them or attached to their sides. These structures could include offices, stables, barns, personnel quarters, and a kitchen, and smaller castles often just had one or two structures that combined all these functions. Many medieval castles were built or modernized because of pressing military needs, and some of the largest were constructed quite quickly, within a year or at most five. The only medieval structures of comparable size, cathedrals, frequently took decades to build. For this reason castle construction required an incredible concentration of resources. Workmen from miles around were pulled from other tasks and

crammed together in the castle yard to work at levering stone, mortaring walls, and framing the keep. The costs were equally impressive. For example, Château-Gaillard in Normandy, the key fortification of Richard the Lion-hearted, was built in just over a year at a cost of £21,203, the equivalent of one year’s pay for approximately eleven-thousand foot soldiers.

Castle Walls. The walls of medieval castles were massive, designed to present formidable obstacles to invasion and to repulse any objects catapulted at them. To fulfill these functions, they often were at least seven feet thick and more than thirty feet high. In great castles the walls could measure up to twenty feet thick. Sometimes walls that were especially vulnerable or strategic could have an even higher secondary wall behind them. Because tunneling and setting explosives under a wall was a real danger, ditches were sometimes dug around the walls. These walls, however, were more than just obstacles. They were platforms from which a garrison could fight during a siege. Towers were generally built on the walls at intervals every two hundred to three hundred feet, and they furnished high points for maximum visibility and protection from rain. Built with walls as thick as those of the castle walls themselves, towers were often keys to castle defense. Gates were necessary, but they were frequently the weak points in castle defenses, and extra precautions were taken to strengthen them. Towers flanked the two sides of the gate, and in the most technologically advanced castles those

entering the gate would first have to go through a barbican, a small fortification right before the gatehouse. Inside the barbican there was a ninety-degree turn in the path, which allowed anyone already inside the castle to ambush an unwelcome visitor.

The Keep. Near the center of most medieval castles was the keep, which served as the main storehouse and residence and the tower of last resort. Generally the tallest structure by several stories, the formidable keep had walls that were frequently twelve to fifteen feet thick. Its multistory structure also accommodated its varied functions. The cellar, located half underground, was the storage area for all the basic supplies, including a portion of the water for the castle. Like the cellar, the next floor was entered through an external staircase. This floor consisted of two great rooms with smaller side rooms, service areas, and even a bedchamber or two. In Dover Castle, one of the largest and strongest castles in thirteenth-century England, the entrance to this story led into a rectangular hall approximately twenty to twenty-five feet wide and forty feet long. In the middle of one wall was a doorway that led to another such hall, which was only slightly narrower than the first. Off the first hall were privies, a guard room, a chapel, a service area, and possibly a kitchen, while off the second hall were two bedchambers and another privy. The largest hall served as a banquet and meeting room, and the smaller one housed more-private assemblies and served as a sleeping chamber for soldiers and servants. Only the highest-ranking visitors to the castle were given separate bedchambers, and even then their closest servants probably slept in the same room. The keep of a major castle, such as Dover, had another floor above the second one, and a third floor that was in many cases a duplicate of the one below it. Finally, the top of the keep itself was a lookout post and could serve as sleeping quarters on hot summer nights. By the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, great lords often decided that the facilities of earlier keeps were too stark and primitive, and alongside the castle walls they built additional halls that followed the design of manor houses. Even in these cases personal space was at a premium.

Caernarvon Castle. One of the most impressive series of castles was built or begun during the last quarter of the thirteenth century by King Edward I of England to control the territory of Wales, which he had recently conquered. Among Edward’s many Welsh castles Caernarvon (or Caer-narfon in Welsh) had a special purpose: to serve as a governmental seat and a symbol of English domination over the Welsh. It took the builders of Caernarvon Castle more than forty years of construction to achieve these goals, with a first period of building in 1283–1292 and a second in 1294–1330. The total cost was more than £25,000, and the result was a castle designed to hold the household of the king’s eldest son, Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward II), and his council. The king’s choice of site was not original. Caernarvon Castle was built next to the town named Caernarvon on the Welsh coast and on the site of a Roman fort and a Norman motte-and-bailey castle. Timber was brought from various sites in western England, and building stone came from the moat that was dug for the new castle. In constructing the walls, towers, and gates, the builders used the latest in medieval military technology. The walls contained arrow slits, crenelations for protection of the defenders, and murder holes (small openings in the walls from which defenders poured pitch or other materials to disable attackers). Towers flanked each of the main gates, and the gates had a drawbridge and other fortifications. The walls were up to twenty feet thick, designed to withstand attacks from the strongest siege engines devised at that time. The seven towers at Caernarvon were at least five stories tall, and the four largest contained some living accommodations and private chapels on each story. The great hall was inside the castle walls near to the middle of the enclosure. As in other castles, this hall served as an eating area, reception room, and council chamber. To further strengthen the defense of the castle, a wall more than a half mile long and up to twenty feet thick surrounded the city itself. Caernarvon Castle withstood battles and sieges throughout the Middle Ages and was not surrendered to opposing forces until 1646, when it fell to Parliamentary forces during the first English Civil War.


Hugh Kennedy, Crusader Castles (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

John R. Kenyon, Medieval Fortifications, The Archaeology of Medieval Britain (London: Leicester University Press, 1990).

Robin S. Oggins, Castles and Fortresses (New York: Metrobooks, 1975). A. J. Taylor, Caernarvon Castle and Town Walls (London: HMSO, 1975).