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.


  1. Castles - whats not to like about them eh? I love spending time wondering around these buildings. Unfortunately in the period I write in they were rarely built in stone so I don't have the excuse of spending time researching a castle in the preconquest England era. Really enjoyed your post Maria

  2. A very nice and interesting post on castles. Just one point of note as the post referred to castles as the usual property of a noble lord and not really for public defence. The crown and its government owned and managed its own castles such as the Tower of London, Windsor, Bristol, Devizes and the famous Edwardian castles in Wales. In Ireland the English government held a number of castles such as at Dublin, Athlone, Roscommon, Limerick and Newcastle in Co. Wicklow. These castles acted as premises for royal administration - often used by the county sheriff and as assembly centres for gathering the royal army for some campaign. Still, beside my rambling, a very good post.

    1. The famous castles in Wales were built by King Edward I ... usually the "Edwardian" period in the United Kingdom refers to the reign of King Edward VII, 1901 to 1910. I believe Edward I was a Plantagenet.

  3. I love the aerial photos that show the foundations of old fortifications. I've done research on motte and bailey, but I think the hill forts of the north are still my favorite historically. I'd love to explore ruins. One day, I hope. :)

  4. A great help, thanks. I have always wondered what the Anglo Saxons (pre Conquest) called the area between the manor and hall and the fence, pallisade or wall they might have surrounding it. Surely they didn't call it a bailey. Do you know what it might have been called? A courtyard perhaps?

    1. Regan that's an excellent question. Courtyard is a late word - 15th century. The Anglo-Saxons probably just called it a yard. Garth is a Norse term for the same kind of space. And now I, having addressed this question, I have to go take 'courtyard' out of my wip. Thank you!!!

    2. Oh, thanks, Pat. Yes, indeed. I'm off to replace "courtyard" with "yard." I do hope the readers will know what I mean! And would the "wall" (in my case about 4 feet high wall built of rock and surrounding the manor and hall, be called a wall or should it be a wooden "pallisade" with timbers pointed at the top, fort style? (Pallisade in the OED dates from the 16th century but they must have called it something.) I have found nothing definitive in my research as to what to call the surrounding structure.

    3. That is an even tougher question. You describe a low, defensive wall, although I'm not sure how much defense such a low wall would provide, if that's what you're after. According to Arch. Wulfstan, in order to be entitled to the rights of a thegn you had to have 5 hides of land, a bell and a castle gate. One presumes the gate was attached to a wall of some kind. I'm looking at a drawing of an estate in late Anglo-Saxon England, (I'm sorry, I did not make a note of the reference work it came from) and it has what I would call a palisade - made of wood. (Bernard Cornwell uses the word palisade in his Saxon Tales and I've followed his lead in my own books). I would expect that city (Roman) walls might be topped with wooden palisades for added defense. The only OE word I know of is wall. Hope that helps.

    4. Pat, thank you so much. It does have a gate but I'm thinking I should change the "wall" to a pallisade (spelling from the OED). What, pray tell, is a "bell and castle gate"? I get the bell, but a castle gate with a pallisade? Does that mean with an iron grill that could be raised and lowered?

    5. No, you're thinking of a portcullis. I simply took it to mean a gate. The gates to the city of London (there were 7) - at least, the part that could be closed - would have been of thick oak. I suspect Wulfstan was referring to any kind of gate that could be locked. The bell would have been in a tower. Many of the nobles had churches on their estates in the 11th c, so the bell could have even been in the church tower. Not steeples, but square towers. Or there could be a watchtower beside the gate.

    6. Very helpful, Pat. It's a thegn's dwelling so I'll be having a wooden gate. Many thanks.

  5. Forgot to ask to receive notices when answered...

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