The Medieval Castle

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The Medieval Castle


Walled fortifications began with the founding of the first cities in the ancient world. Their design remained unaltered for almost four thousand years. Not until the late tenth century, when the first castles were built in western Europe, did a substantive change occur in the construction of fortifications. The evolution of the castle coincided with the emergence of a new political system called feudalism. For several centuries, castles played a crucial role in European history. However, by the end of the thirteenth century they had lost their military, political, and social significance and were being abandoned.


In the ancient world cities were often fortified, especially if they were vulnerable to attack by outside forces. The purpose of these defensive walls was to protect the public; they were group strongholds. Over time, attackers developed techniques to penetrate these fortifications, ranging from scaling the walls with ladders, to tunneling under them, or using rams to batter them down. Machines were invented to assist in assaults: towers that could be rolled against the walls and artillery such as catapults to hurl missiles over them. Defenders, however, found ways to counter each of these methods of attack.

With the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, urban society collapsed in western Europe; people deserted cities for rural communities. Trade with the eastern Mediterranean world withered, leaving governments in the West with no money to spend maintaining expensive fortifications around the decaying urban centers. As monarchies such as the Frankish kingdoms grew weaker, outside invaders began to penetrate into the heart of western Europe.

Islamic forces known as the Saracens took Spain and pushed far into France before being turned back at the Battle of Poitiers (732 or 733), but remained a threat to Italy and southern France. The Magyars attacked from eastern Europe, carrying out their incursions from the late ninth century to the 950s. The third group of invaders, the Vikings or Norsemen, were the most dangerous because their shallow-draft ships allowed them to sail far up the major rivers of Europe, leaving few areas safe from their murderous raids, which culminated in the tenth century. Since governments were powerless to deal with these invasions, a new political and military system called feudalism evolved to meet these threats.

Under feudalism, monarchs gave much of their land to their strongest nobles as fiefs (estates) in return for the nobles' commitments to provide warriors on horseback (knights) to combat the invaders. To obtain the services of these knights, the nobles (now vassals of the king) would give up some of the land they had received to lower-ranking nobles, who promised to supply some of the knights needed. This second tier of nobles would repeat the process with weaker nobles. When raids occurred, the king would call on his vassals for knights, who would in turn call on their vassals. Groups of several dozen heavily armored men who fought on horseback were quickly assembled and the raiders, who fought on foot, were turned back.

This system worked, but the monarchs had paid a heavy price. They had lost control of much of their land to their vassals. In most of Europe, the political history of the later Middle Ages focused on the monarchs' successful attempts to regain control of their kingdoms from their nobles. Since the key military weapon from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries was the armored knight on horseback, this struggle hinged on the ability of the nobles to protect both their vassals and horses. The castle was developed to perform that function.


Feudalism and castles first developed in the Normandy region of northwest France. To protect themselves from sudden raids by the Vikings, the nobles needed strongholds to which they could retreat until they gathered their vassals for battle. These strongholds were the first castles. In 1066, the castle and feudal system were forcibly introduced into England in the Norman Conquest. Soon, feudalism and castles were established all over Europe. As the outside threats faded, nobles fought power struggles with each other and with monarchs anxious to restore central authority.

A castle was the fortified home of a member of the feudal nobility. Unlike earlier large-scale fortifications, its purpose was not to protect a large urban population but rather a noble, his family, and his retainers. It was designed to be defended by a small group of soldiers. Once danger had passed, the noble would venture forth and reestablish control over his fief. The medieval castle provided both a base for its garrison to dominate the local countryside and protection for that garrison from a superior invading force. It was the economic, administrative, and legal center of local control. Strong nobles who held huge fiefs or fiefs in widely separated areas thus needed more than one castle.

The earliest castles were of motte and bailey construction. The motte was a steep cone of earth surrounded by a deep ditch, formed when dirt was taken to build the mound. It was flat at the top, where a wooden tower, surrounded by a timber palisade, served as the noble's home and stronghold. The bailey was a large area around the motte which was also protected by a ditch and wooden palisade. Within the bailey were stables, barns, workshops, and other buildings. If an enemy penetrated the bailey, its defenders fled to the motte. Built of timber and earth, these early castles were relatively easy to construct using unskilled labor.

Since there was only room on the motte for very small towers (with deplorable sanitary conditions), castle construction quickly evolved. By the early twelfth century, stone began replacing timber in the towers and walls. Because skilled masons were needed for this work, only the wealthier, higher-ranking nobles could now afford to build castles. As nobles built larger dwellings, the motte was too small for their foundations. It disappeared and the defensive emphasis shifted to strengthening the tower (called the keep or donjon) and the outer walls of the bailey. Ditches surrounded these outer walls and wherever possible were filled with water for further protection. Access to the castle was controlled by a drawbridge which spanned the ditch or moat. By the late twelfth century, the "concentric" castle evolved, with a strong outer wall to keep sappers (tunnelers who removed the foundations of a wall causing it to collapse) and catapults away from the main fortification. This was a higher, stronger inner wall that surrounded the bailey and a massive keep. The Crusaders' Crac des Chevaliers and Richard I's Château Gaillard at Les Andelys in France were the most famous concentric castles.

Where possible, castles were built to take advantage of the surrounding terrain. Those on rugged hills or ridges were harder to assault than those on flat land. A river or swamp providing water for a moat often helped decide where a castle was built. But a source of drinking water was always the determining factor of a castle's site. A garrison could store enough food to withstand a siege (one Crusader castle held a five-year supply of grain), but it had to be located where springs or wells provided a constant supply of fresh water.

The medieval castle was overcrowded, unsanitary, and an unpleasant place to live. It was cold, drafty, and dark; fireplaces were located in the walls of the keep and provided little heat. Their ventilation was so poor that the rooms were filled with discoloring and unhealthy smoke. For defensive reasons there were few windows, merely narrow slits in the wall so that arrows could be fired at attackers. Bathrooms consisted of privies set in an outer wall or in a room built out over the ditch or moat. Their smell was barely tolerable.

The castle's purpose, however, was not comfort but defense. Forcing a castle garrison to surrender was difficult. The easiest method would seem to be surrounding it and starving the defenders into submission. In practice this rarely happened because the besiegers ran the risk of relieving forces arriving to rescue the defenders. Besides, the besiegers had to feed themselves and often ran out of food before the garrison did. Consequently, direct assaults on castles were common. A siege technique that was occasionally successful was to undermine the foundations of the walls by sapping. The defenders would try to intercept these tunnels by sinking counter-shafts, which was quite difficult to do. The main reason sapping was not more frequently used was that skilled miners were needed to carry out the tunneling, which was very dangerous. It was also very time-consuming.

Direct assault on the walls and gate was a more common method of attack. Covered battering rams and large movable towers were rolled against the walls or gate. To counter these threats, great rounded towers pierced with narrow slits were built along the walls allowing the defenders to fire arrows at those attacking the walls. Crenellations (open spaces on parapets) were built along the top of the walls to provide protection for the defenders. By the thirteenth century, the base of the walls was thickened to form a sloping incline that was difficult to scale or batter through. Machicolations (holes) were made in the roofs of gateways through which arrows, stones, and boiling pitch or water could be thrown down on attackers. Wooden shields were extended out from the tops of the walls for the same purpose. Portcullises (iron grates) fitted in stone grooves could be lowered to increase the protection of the gates.

Because of these difficulties, attackers relied heavily on siege "engines," artillery using tension, torsion, or counterpoise to hurl missiles (usually stones) into the castle or against its walls. The trebuchet and other siege engines were cumbersome but could hurl 300-pound rocks well over one hundred yards. The defenders countered by placing their own machines on the castle's walls and towers where the greater height gave them greater distance.

Although the defenders seemed to have the advantage, by the fourteenth century the castle became obsolete. It is commonly assumed that the development of gunpowder and cannon caused this decline, but early cannons were too weak and difficult to transport to play a role in siege warfare. It was the growing power of the monarchs that made castles obsolete. As urban society revived, monarchs made alliances with the towns, agreeing to protect them from the nobles in return for taxes. With this money, monarchs hired thousands of foot soldiers and armed them with pikes and long bows. Groups of a few dozen mounted knights were no match for these armies and monarchs were able to restore central authority; feudalism collapsed.

There was now no military or political role for the castle. Nor could many nobles afford the growing expense of building and maintaining them. We will never know how many castles were built since the majority were of the timber motte and bailey type, which have vanished leaving no trace. In England alone, at least half the 1,500 castles built since 1066 were deserted by 1300. In those that were still inhabited, the nobles spent their money seeking comfort, not protection. The castle was evolving into the manor house; in France, "château" no longer meant feudal castle, but rather a large country house.


Further Reading

Anderson, William. Castles of Europe: From Charlemagne to the Renaissance. London: Elek Books, 1970.

Bradbury, Jim. The Medieval Siege. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 1992.

Burke, John. Life in the Castle in Medieval England. London: Batsford, 1978.

Fedden, Robin and John Thomson. Crusader Castles. London: John Murray, 1957.

Kennedy, Hugh. Crusader Castles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

O'Neil, Bryan. Castles and Cannon: A Study of Early Artillery Fortifications in England . Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1975.

Platt, Colin. The Castle in Medieval England and Wales. New York: Scribner's, 1982.

Pounds, Norman J. G. The Medieval Castle in England and Wales: A Social and Political History . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Toy, Sidney. Castles: A Short History of Fortifications from 1600 B.C. to A.D. 1600. London: William Heinemann, 1939.

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The Medieval Castle

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