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Welcome to Castles 101 ! During part of September I’m going to publish a short series covering architectural nomenclature and features of the construction of European castles. Beginning with England, today, I’m including brief explanations of the reasons for their particular structure. Eventually, my plan is to cover siege engines, warfare tactics and a bit more history where it is immediately relevant to certain castles and their particular features, weaknesses, etc. I’m going to start with the basics today so if you have already done your homework you can think of this as your brush-up course or fill in your knowledge where it may be spotty. Maybe you don’t know a thing about castles but find them intrinsically romantic. This is your chance to get educated. Let’s start with the concentric prototype model:
1. The barbican
2. The outer ditch, moat or fosse 6. Wall of inner bailey
3. Wall of the outer bailey 7. Inner bailey
4. Outer bailey (or Ballium) 8. Keep ( possibly w/Dungeon)
The reason I refer to this model as a prototype is because it is the ideal configuration of stone built castles, which were often converted from the original motte and (wooden) baileys. These castles had a crucial purpose in the medieval and early modern period because of social, political and economic conditions. Caerphilly, an Edwardian Welsh castle was the earliest to possess all the elements of a concentric castle but Pickering Castle in North Yorkshire comes closest to the prototype in appearance. (You can view its configuration in the North Yorkshire album.) Wooden Norman motte and bailey forts were erected hurriedly all over England by William the Conqueror and the invading Norman army after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. They were the forerunner of the standard but you will find very few castles constructed in this exact manner anywhere in England or elsewhere for that matter because terrain and the architect in question was always a modifying factor. The motte was literally earth piled up or they would use a natural mound to build a tower on as a keep. This was used as a residence and outlook or watchtower. When they made a motte they naturally would make a ditch or fosse around it which they did not fill with water. The bailey was a courtyard surrounding the motte and tower which would be encased with a wooden fence called a palisade. Often they started the bailey by digging an outer ditch surrounding the bailey and motte or just the bailey. Once the outer ditch was filled with water it became a moat. The bailey stretched between the motte and tower to the wall of the second ditch. ( My stone prototype has a concentric inner bailey and an outer bailey. Also, instead of a trenched ditch, the keep is surrounded by an inner wall, level with the ground. ) All stables, storerooms and craftsmen worked in or were located in the bailey. The bailey could be accessed by a bridge built over the moat and guards protected this entrance.
Concentric moated castle with one bailey.
By late 11th and into the 12th century motte and baileys were converted to stone castles or were abandoned altogether and the stone structures were built in the vicinity. The keep was often the first rebuilt part and generally had three or four rooms, stacked vertically, along with niches built into the thickness of the walls. Unless a postern ( a backdoor, so to speak ) was built in, everything had to be carried in and out through the same entrance of the keep which was a hall in the form of a lobby or a forebuilding and the upper floor would serve as a chapel. The configuration of the stone castles were most often similar to my prototype with circular baileys, a tower built in the center level or on top of a motte. ( Keep in mind there are many exceptions. For some examples of deviations on this prototype check through my castle photo albums for diagrams and aerial photos of the various castles of North England. ) Natural hills or mountains caused modifications resulting in very different structures much like Bamburgh, and Lindisfarne in Northumberland. In the case of Harbottle and Prudhoe, the undulating hills they built on drastically changed their "standard" configuration and required the use of curtain walls ( walls hung between towers ) to be unusually low or high.
Battlements are parapets with crenellations ( indentations ) and merlons ( square solid structures between ) which run along the top of walls and towers. Roofs were considered a weak point since they were made of clay, stone slates or lead and were easily broken by heavy missiles. Because of this, walls were built up above the roofs and the resulting parapet became a platform for archers and mangonels with which to fire back. Most likely crenellations were formed to deal with the complexities of protecting the base of the walls. These made an opening for wooden galleries holding archers and missiles which could be hung out from the walls on brackets! Parados were the inside retaining walls which ran along the inside of the wall-walk along the walls and towers. Machicolations, also referred to as murder holes, were basically gaps in the structure under towers or a projecting gallery on brackets on the outside of towers or walls where missiles such as stones or boiling oil or water could be dropped on attackers. ( See item D in Siege Equipment photo in the new Castles 101 photo album.)
Towers varied by shape, height and thickness of walls. In England you will see square ( pele ) towers, octagonal or round with walls generally eight feet thick or more, depending on the area of England and the year it was built. Even in medieval times current styles were taken into consideration. For my prototype every mural tower ( wall tower ) displays varied styles which is not unusual to see. Differing architectural styles and the stone or bricks that were used has helped historians identify when rebuilding or additions occurred and even identify the work of various architects. Outside of England the lack of uniformity would be rare and renovations elsewhere for European renaissance castles generally stay true to the original style with some interesting rare exceptions.
The barbican on my prototype is a turreted gatehouse which protects the entrance and precedes the drawbridge. Gatehouse barbicans existed at Kirby Muxloe in Leicestershire and Tattershall in Lincolnshire with Tattershall a more intact example but because Kirby Muxloe has not been significantly restored it will serve as a more authentic medieval example. Sometimes a barbican was an almost militaristic outer defense with no embellishments such as at Tickhill in South Yorkshire. The purpose for Tickhill’s defense was crucial, obviously.
If there was a drawbridge, it most likely was raised or lowered for use but the earliest examples moved horizontally like a gangway. Either way, a drawbridge is always a movable bridge. ( See example.) A herse or portcullis would be placed at the entrance of the drawbridge which was an iron or wooden grating capable of being dropped vertically to block passage into the castle. (Wooden portcullises sometimes were made of a combination of metal and wood. See item Q in Seige Equipment photo of the new Castles 101 photo album.)
Portcullises, machiolations in the entrance passages, meutrieres, arrow loops and even windows were considered refinements which were added well into the 12th century. This is an interesting exposition of the relentless technological battle which existed between siege engines and siege castles. Square towers were found to be structurally weak because the corners could be pried out by men with crowbars working under cover. They were also considered useless when cannon was fired at a much later period.
Windows in castles, especially medieval castles, garner surprise from casual visitors but as a matter of fact even decorative openings in the walls of towers, gatehouses and barbicans were necessary. These are referred to as peepholes, squints and arrow-slits to accommodate crossbows. They can be found in inside walls as well as in barbican walls. In the example below ( and the first diagram in the Castles 101 photo album ) we are shown all the different types used for lookout as well as serving as openings for firing darts, arrows and any small missiles at attackers. These are quite common for most medieval castles. Those which were placed in inside walls were for the purpose of allowing a person to see what was going on from, say, the chamber to the hall or perhaps to the chapel so that mass could be heard and seen without leaving one’s own chamber ! Clever, huh ?
However, full outside windows served no military purpose and were considered a weakness as in many cases they were the first targets for siege engineers. Glass wasn’t used in any castle windows until Henry III’s time and medieval glass was extremely fragile and would often break simply from high winds ! Glass for windows was regarded as a luxury and at Alnwick the Earl of Northumberland had the glass removed during his absences and stored until he returned. Most windows were certainly barred. One story relates that in September of 1238 an assassin climbed into Henry III’s chamber at Woodstock after which he had iron bars put on all his chamber windows and across the vent of his privy at Westminster. Some notable windows exist at Tattershall ( in the form of traceries on windows ) and the well-placed interiors at Warkworth. Highly decorative windows appear at Conisbrough and Chepstow in Gwent, Wales, Newark Castle with corbelled and arched windows and Kenilworth’s mullioned windows will perhaps entertain your romantic side. This was the work of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, catering to the whims of Queen Elizabeth.
One interesting exceptional example is the oriel window which I told you about in my first official Northumberland entry, published on this blog March 19th of this year. At the end of the entry when I described Prudhoe I mentioned the earliest oriel window placed in England by the Percies. I neglected to supply you with a photo but if you look in either Northumberland’s album or the new Castles 101 album you’ll find a nice large B & W photo of it. Such a type of window, in this case, a fortification and not a weakness.
Dungeons used as prisons often were occupied by royals as much as political or state prisoners and they still exist in many of England’s castles but actually were rare. You’ll note that I’ve mentioned in several of my entries, already, the castles that were eventually used as prisons or doubled as such. Almost without exceptions, those which had prison cells were royal castles such as Lancaster and Fotheringhay. Most recently I have published an entry on Chillon Castle in Switzerland which is a royal castle. The dungeon with its vaulted arched ceiling is a magnificent example for a dungeon. Pembroke Castle in Wales has an interesting dungeon tower built right next to the keep.
In my next entry I will cover other configurations of concentric castles which don’t fit my standard prototype pictured above. I also will cover a few more features of castles along with the nomenclature to get you up to speed for the southern portion of England I will cover this autumn through the end of the year. If you have any questions so far please put them in the comments. Answering your questions is my mission statement.
By looking through my photo albums of the castles and paying special attention to the overhead aerial shots or diagrams you’ll get a good look at how unique the actual configurations of castles can be in comparison to my prototype. Many of the best known castles in England are quite unique in their plans. Upcoming entries on this series will cover these variations on configurations with more nomenclature and explanations on the features. If you have any questions thus far or in general don’t hesitate to leave it in the comments. I’d love to help out !