Thursday, March 12, 2015

Castles – Cold or Cosy?

by Barbara Gaskell Denvil

We’ve often visited them, those cold stone ruins, the freezing spiral stairs leading nowhere, and we stand in awe while gazing up into empty rubble as the bitter winds whip along the battlements. We imagine life in such a place, and how daunting it must have been. Of course Norman castles were built principally as fortresses, but for several hundred years they were also the homes of nobility, attended by a host of their servants, guards and others of varying station and importance who resided within those soaring stone walls. So what must it have been like?

What we can no longer see, but what was the truth long ago – is that those stone walls were fully plastered inside, sometimes even painted with sweeping murals of mythic battle scenes and heroic tales. Exposed stone was not the fashion then that it is now. Those great vaulted ceiling beams were often carved and painted, and the draughts were further excluded with exquisite and colourful arras, rugs and tapestries hanging on the walls. Inglenook fireplaces blazed with huge fires, aromatic burning logs or sometimes charcoal, while pages kept those fires burning high. The floors, beautiful old flagstones at ground level and wide wooden boards on the higher levels, were warm with rich patterned rugs from Turkey and additional rush matting. Window seats were often padded and settles were cushioned or covered in rugs. Furniture could be sparse by our modern standards, but most seems comfortable enough. Those glorious four poster beds, for instance. At first they were roped bases attached to a wooden frame and heaped with huge feather mattresses. Above was a canopy (tester), often rich in velvet and tassels, which not only looked beautiful but also helped collect the tumble of any small scurrying creatures which might make their homes amongst those high roof cavities.

After all, the lord and his lady didn’t want a family of spiders, mice droppings or beetles landing on them in the middle of the night. The canopy caught falling dust and dirt, insects and cascading cobwebs. And the bed would certainly be warmed within, by placing a hot brick from the fire between the sheets, then piling on blankets, soft eiderdowns and elaborate covers.

A little later the bedposts and accompanying curtains also became fashionable. These beautiful curtains could be pulled at night, not only shutting out draughts and increasing the warmth, but ensuring privacy. Many literary fictions enjoy telling us how the assassin crept into the lord’s bedchamber at night, killing or abducting him while he lay vulnerable and alone. The trouble with these stories is quite simply – if he was important, he wouldn’t have been alone. There would have been a whole bustling throb of servants, pages and attendants sleeping on truckle beds or pallets within the room, and guards outside the door. For instance, the title ‘Gentleman of the Bedchamber’ meant exactly that and such a gentleman (usually of considerable importance himself in order to be offered such a position) slept on a small narrow bed within the chamber of the king – ready to answer any summons, dress him and undress him, and generally guard him. There would be quite a collection of servants sharing the room and completing varying tasks. So, should the lord who owned the great four-poster want to take his wife or mistress to bed, privacy was out of the question. At least he could close the curtains. Cocooned within the velvet shadows, he could do what he wanted unseen and try to forget that those beyond the hangings could still hear every word and every gasp.

There is some argument about the possible use of rushes on the floor. This doesn’t just apply to castles. Ordinary homes – where the owners could certainly not afford the highly expensive rugs from the east – used – it is said – piles of loose rushes, herbs and reeds on the floors. I have my doubts about this. Why would a whole host of dirty reeds seem either attractive or necessary? They would simply make it far more difficult to sweep the floor, and although they might discourage some insects, they would probably encourage others. The rushes would collect whatever was dropped, including dog excrement, and that would make it horrendously unpleasant for anyone to walk over. Besides, women wore long skirts and sometimes even trains to their gowns. This would make it a complete farce to trundle through a spread of reeds – collecting them beneath your skirts as you walked. So I tend to believe that these rushes were not lying loose but instead were perhaps woven into mats and rugs, if used at all. Some health-associated herbs were probably scattered at times of illness and when the lady was about to give birth. Herbs might also perfume any otherwise less than savoury smells.

There is one problem with dismissing the old story of the rushes on the floors. And that is the word ‘threshold’. This actually means that the threshing – i.e. rushes, straw and reeds – was kept within by the door and doorstep – in other words – held the threshing from falling loose. Hence the modern meaning of the word. So no assumptions concerning history are ever quite as simple as we’d like them to be.

There is another quandary concerning chairs. Well – a chair isn’t a particularly ingenious invention, and they’ve been around for a very long time. Vikings had chairs, Saxons had chairs and many other ancient civilisations definitely had chairs! Well, of course medieval folk also had chairs, but we are told that only the rich and noble could manage to own them. Everyone else only owned stools. Really? Well, it seems to be true since we have virtually no average citizens making Last Testaments and mentioning leaving their chairs to their relatives. They mention beds, chests, tables, stools, and all sorts of smaller equipment such as candle holders, pots, and of course clothes. But not chairs. Were they really that expensive? Was it so
impossible for a carpenter to make a stool with a back attached for extra comfort and support?

Carpentry of the time was often intricate and beautiful. So what was wrong with chairs?? But our grand castle would certainly have been well equipped with chairs – stools too – and some wonderful pewter and silverware. Huge kitchens would have an enormous collection of pots and pans, cauldrons and trivets, revolving roasting spits, ladles, knives, platters, flagons and every other necessary piece of equipment. An ordinary household, on the other hand, would have no kitchen at all. A cooking pot would hand on chains, or sit on an iron trivet, over the hearth in the only downstairs room. There would also be knives and spoons – no forks of course – napkins too, large clean linen squares folded over the left shoulder. And forget those Charles Laughton feasts, for both the occupants of the ordinary homes and those in the castles were very conscious of good table manners.

Our castle would have its own deep well for easy access to water for both washing and the kitchen. Wooden bath tubs would be available to be carried up to the relevant chamber in front of the fire and then filled by bucket with boiling water from the kitchens. There would be privies, probably several tucked away where they would remain shadowed and could open directly down into the moat or the cess pit below. The bedchambers of the most important members of the family might also have a garderobe attached. This would contain a commode – or – for the lucky – a small privy. There would also be pegs for hanging clothes (the smell of the latrine was supposed to keep the moths away from the silks and velvets) – perhaps a chamber pot – a money chest maybe – combs, a mirror, and a chest for linens. A jug of water and a bowl would be set there for the morning washing and grooming. The homes of the ordinary folk, of course, could hold none of this. A chamber pot would suffice, and a regular visit to the wash houses down by the river.

So living in a castle was not the freezing and draughty misery of endless stairs and mildewed stone walls that some people assume. It could be comfy, cosy, spacious and aesthetically beautiful. But I am not sure I’d have enjoyed living in a castle. However, there are some aspects which sound quite comfortably luxurious, and certainly a whole lot better than the conditions of the average household down the road.


Barbara Gaskell Denvil was born in Gloucestershire, England but after living in half a dozen different European countries and cruising the Mediterranean for some years, has now moved to rural Australia.

She has previously worked in many literary capacities with the British Museum Library, T.V. and magazines, and has published numerous short stories and articles, but has now moved on to writing full length historical novels.

Her passion is medieval history, and this forms the basis of her books, Satin Cinnabar (available on Amazon digital), and Sumerford's Autumn and The King's Shadow both published by Simon & Schuster and available in Australia, both ebook and hard copy. There will soon be more to follow!

Amazon UK
Amazon US


  1. That was a really interesting post, Barbara, and it has affected the way I will look at castles in the future. Thank you.

  2. Ditto, Barbara and will also affect how I describe castles in my writing! Thanks very much for sharing all this information.

  3. Enjoyed that, Barbara. Assumption often trips us up. I commented to a guide on one occasion how damp the Black Houses must have been. She'd grown up on Lewis, regularly visited one still occupied and could say with authority, it was not damp. Lesson taken. anne stenhouse

  4. Good stuff, they do seem cold places but with the fire roaring in the hearth, a mug of ale and some minstrels in the gallery I bet they could be great fun!

  5. I am always spellbound by the richness of the history and accounts behind castles and towers. I do think that castles are magnificent! This rings a bell re the blog of the 93-year old Simone Klugman "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down", which is about castles and fortresesses. I would never get tired of visiting them,- oh, if my bank account and time permit me! :) Great post!


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