Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Castles 101

by Maria Grace

Bodiam castle, Sussex, England.
European castles originated in the 9th and 10th century. Though there is a lot of debate, castles are generally considered to be the private fortified residence of a lord or noble and as such did not serve as a public defense. In contrast, palaces are not fortified.

Castles served not only as military structures, but as centers of administration and symbols of the nobility’s power. Since their first function was defense, castles often exploited natural defenses like hilltops and cliff faces.  As building techniques improved, stone replaced earth and timber as the material of choice. Although there are many styles of castles, they share a number of common design features.

Common features 

Bamburgh 2006 closeup
Bamburgh Castle, built on a motte
takes advantage of natural surrounding water.
A motte is an earthen mound with a flat top, which could be natural or man made. The motte could be constructed out of dirt dug up in the formation of the moat. It might also be created by covering up an older castle or hall whose rooms became underground chambers in the new keep.

Castles also took advantage of natural defenses, built on cliffs, mountains and hills or suing rivers, ditches and lakes for defensive purposes.


Interior and keep of Warkworth Castle
Keep of Warkworth Castle.
Notice the underground room entrance and the courtyard above.
The keep was typically used as the residence of the noble castle owner. Not surprisingly, it would the most strongly defended point of the castle. Keeps often took the form of a great tower on top of the motte. The fairytale towers that kept sleeping beauty and Rapunzel come to mind when I think about a tower keep.

Ward or Courtyard

Area inside the walls of the castle surrounding the keep which might contain baileys.


A fortified enclosure outside of the main keep. The knights guarding the lord’s household, the garrison, stables and workshops were often located in one or more bailey structures.

Castle Defenses

A castle with concentric rings of defense. The curtain wall on the outside, baileys and enceinte within.  Talluses can be seen at the base of the curtain wall. Several bastions may be found on the right hand side. Battlements and arrow slits can be found on the curtain wall.

Curtain Wall

This thick defensive wall surrounded a keep and bailey(s). The walls were typically over 10 feet thick, wide enough for defenders to walk on along a patrol path (chemin de ronde) and fire arrows on attackers below.


Sloping faces were added at the base of fortified walls to increase the strength of the wall and decrease the effectiveness of siege engines.


Towers in the corners, middle or end of the curtain wall to prevent blind spots in the castle defense.


Architectural elements of the curtain wall designed to assist defenders of the castle. These included gaps and solid blocks on top of the wall for defenders to shoot through/hide behind (crenellation); wooden (hoarding) or stone (machicolations) projections to allow defenders to drop objects on attackers near the base of the wall while remaining protected. Small versions of machiocolations called brettice were also used above doorways.

Krak des Chevaliers 06
Arrow slit in curtain wall, from the inside.
Murder holes (Meutrieres)

Holes in the ceilings, machicolation, barbicans and passages that could be used to drop weapons on enemy soldiers including stones, boiling water, tar, and molten lead.

Arrow slits (Loop Holes)

After the 13th century, small openings in the curtain wall were added to allow defenders to fire arrows or crossbow bolts though the curtain walls.

Bartizans (Echaugettes, breteches)

Overhanging turrets that did not reach the ground were mounted in the curtain wall,. Defenders would use these as protected bases from which to fire upon attackers.


Some castles, known as concentric castles sported several rings of fortifications surrounding the keep. The enceinte was the innermost continuous line of fortifications.

Beeston Castle Gate House and Bridge - geograph.org.uk - 442721


The picture, Beeston Castle Gate house. Notice the towers with arrow slits and the bridge that acts as a barbican to limit approach to the gate.

The castle entrance was one of the greatest points of vulnerability, so a number of fortification could be added. These might include gatehouses with portcullises, (wooden and metal grills to block the entrance), towers with arrow slits, and a rampart and ditch to limit the approach to the gate. Flanking towers might be built on either side of the gate house to house defenses and fortify the entrance further.


Having only one entrance and exit to the castle was a huge liability. So, a small gate at the back of a castle effectively served as a back door.


To limit the approach of an enemy to the gate house an exterior walled passage, the barbican, would be used. It could effectively trap enemy soldiers among murder holes in the ceiling and arrow slits in the walls.


A steep-sided ditch surrounding a castle. In low lying areas, moats were filled with water and might be crossed with the aid of a drawbridge. Their purpose was to prevent the undermining of the castle walls.


A drawbridge could be raised or lowered by ropes or chains to limit access to a castle.


Maria Grace is the author of Darcy's Decision,  The Future Mrs. Darcy, All the Appearance of Goodness, and Twelfth Night at LongbournClick here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, follow on Twitter or email her.