Medieval Castles


In 1494 the armies of the French king, Charles VIII,
invaded Italy to capture the kingdom of Naples. They swept
through the country and bombarded and destroyed many
castles. This invasion signaled the end of the castle as a
stronghold of defense. For centuries it had been the
dominant fortification in Western Europe for the defense of
kings, nobility, and townspeople.
Ancient cities were often walled to keep out invaders, and
within the walls there was usually a citadel, a strongly
built fortification occupying the highest or militarily
most advantageous position. A castle is much like such a
walled city and its citadel contracted into a smaller space.
Castles were basically fortified locations. The word itself
comes from the Latin castellum. Up to the 6th century
fortifications were primarily communities in which most of
the population lived. But in the middle of the 6th century,
the armies of the Byzantine Empire began to build strong
forts as defensive positions. For the next few centuries
this castle building was confined to the Byzantine Empire,
but later hordes of Islamic warriors who swept out of
Arabia to conquer the Middle East, North Africa, and much
Byzantine territory also started building such forts.
Western Europe, in the depths of the Dark Ages from the 5th
through the 9th century, had no such works. But late in the
9th century, as local lords and kings began to consolidate
power, castle building began probably in France. Once
begun, castle building spread rapidly to other areas. But
it was not until the 12th and 13th centuries, after the
Crusaders returned from their wars against Islam in
Palestine, that castles as imposing as those of the
Byzantine or Islamic empires were constructed in Europe.
Many of the stone castles of the late Middle Ages still
stand. Some are tourist attractions, in various states of
repair, along the Rhine River from Mainz to Cologne in
Germany, dotted about the French countryside, or perched on
hilltops in Spain.
The original French castles had been built on open plains.
Later ones, however, were situated on rocky crags, at river
forks, or in some position where advancing enemies would
find approach extremely difficult, if not impossible. The
fortifications became more elaborate with time, with
considerable attention paid to making the living quarters
more comfortable.
A typical castle was usually guarded on the outskirts by a
surrounding heavy wooden fence of sharp-pointed stakes
called a barbican_. It was intended to prevent surprise
attacks by delaying the advance of assailants and giving
those within the castle compound time to prepare to resist
and attack.
Inside the barbican stretched the lists, or wards: strips
of land that encircled the castle. The lists served as a
road in time of peace and as a trap in war; once within the
barbican the enemy was in the range of arrows shot from the
castle walls. In peacetime the lists also served as an
exercise ground for horses and occasionally as tournament
Between the lists and the towering outer walls of the
castle itself was the moat, usually filled with water.
Across it stretched a drawbridge, which was raised every
night. At the castle end of the drawbridge was the
portcullis, a large sliding door made of wooden or iron
grillwork hung over the entryway. It moved up and down in
grooves and was raised every day and lowered at night. In
times of danger it blocked the way to the heavy oak gates
that served as doors to the castle compound. These gates
were so large that they were rarely opened except on
ceremonial occasions. A smaller door was built into one of
them to provide easy entrance and exit for those who lived
in the castle_. A person known as the chief porter was
charged with the responsibility of making sure that only
friends passed through.
The outer walls of most castles were massively thick,
sometimes as much as 15 feet. At intervals were high
towers, each a small fort in itself with provisions to
withstand a long siege. When an attack was expected, wooden
balconies were hung over the outer edges of the wall.
During an attack, large stones were thrown or boiling oil
poured from the balconies onto anyone trying to climb the
wall. The wall and the towers had hundreds of narrow
openings through which defenders could shoot arrows and
other missiles.
Inside the walls was the bailey, or courtyard. At intervals
around the bailey were the stables, a carpentry shop, the
shop of the armorer and blacksmith, barracks for the
men-at-arms and for servants, a chapel, and a storehouse.
There was also an oven room where the bread was baked, a
kitchen, a kennel for dogs, and a well and drinking
The largest building along the wall was the castle owner's
home. It contained the apartment for the master and his
family and a great hall. This great hall was the center of
social life such as wedding feasts, banquets, and knighting
Within the walls there was another structure called the
keep, or donjon (dungeon)_. The keep was the focal point of
the castle, the place to which, in times of attack or
siege, the whole population of the castle retired if the
outer defenses were failing. The keep had its own walls and
was often protected by a moat as well. It contained private
apartments, service rooms, weapons supplies, and a well to
provide water.
Most keeps were rectangular structures from two to four
stories high. The entrance doorway was often on the second
floor, with access by a stairway protected by a wall or
In the Middle East the Crusaders from Europe found keeps
that were built with round or multiangular towers to defend
them more easily against an enemy coming from any
direction. The round keep became common in Europe after the
12th century.
Some later castles were built in a square and enclosed by
one or two lines of walls. At each corner of the inner line
of walls was a strong tower. Powerful gateways took the
place of the keep, and great care was taken in building the
outerworks to make access to the castle difficult. The
castles of Conway and Caernarvon in Wales are both of this
The terms castle and palace have often been used
interchangeably, but they are not the same. Castles are
fortifications, while palaces have been built for centuries
as residences for kings and nobles_. But as castles began
to lose their defensive role, they became residences; and
to them were added the customary luxuries. As early as the
15th century, imposing residential tower houses, designed
more for elegance than defense, were built within castles,
such as those at Vincennes near Paris and Tattershall in
Historically the palace antedates the castle by several
centuries. Although the word derives from the Palatine Hill
in Rome, where the emperors built their residences, palaces
were built for the pharaohs of ancient Egypt as early as
the 16th century BC. Much larger than the Egyptian palaces
were those built in Assyria, which today is Iraq. The
palace at Khorsabad of Sargon II, who ruled from 721 to 705
BC, extended over more than 25 acres. In Rome more than 1
million square feet of the Palatine Hill were devoted to
splendid residences of such emperors as Augustus, Tiberius,
and Septimius Severus.
Palace building declined in Europe during the Middle Ages
until prosperity and a measure of safety returned during
the Renaissance. Then, in Italy, every prince and wealthy
family had its palazzo. Many are still standing: the Pitti
and Medici palaces in Florence and the palaces along the
Grand Canal in Venice. London has three notable palaces:
Buckingham, Whitehall, and St. James. Many German cities
notably Wurzburg and Munich have impressive palaces. Among
those most recently built are those of Ludwig II of Bavaria
in the 19th century. The most famous and most frequently
pictured is Neuschwanstein, located near Fussen. But for
many the most appealing is the small Linderhof, a jewel of
rococo design near Oberammergau.
Ludwig's Herrenchiemsee palace on an island in the lake
named Chiemsee was modeled after Louis XIV's magnificent
edifice at Versailles, near Paris. Versailles has other
imitations, including the beautiful Schonbrunn Palace in
Palaces will probably be built for as long as there is
wealth enough to pay for them. In the 1980s the sultan of
Brunei, Sir Muda Hassanal Bolkiah Muizzaddin Waddaulah,
opened his new palace. Named New Istana, it contains 1,788
rooms, making it one of the grandest palaces anywhere.
Although castles are no longer readily built, because of
the lack of money or just the lack of need, they will
always be appreciated for their beauty, architecture, and
most importantly the land that they helped to defend.
_Smith, Beth. Castles. p.18. New York: Franklin Watts, 1988.
_Macaulay, David. Castle. p.54. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Company, 1977.
_Clements, Gillian. The Truth about Castles. p.9.
Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, Inc., 1990.
_Macaulay, David. Castle. p.13. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Company, 1977.
_Smith, Beth. Castles. p. 23. New York: Franklin Watts,


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