the most famous castle keep in the entire world, The Tower
Castles are often thought of as Romantic symbols
of a past age. Their turrets and walls bring to mind kings and
queens of royal blood. Their drawbridges and gates make us think
of knights in shining armor and handsomely dressed visiting nobles.
They were certainly a major feature of medieval
life. Over the centuries some 10,000 castles were built in Germany,
10,000 in France and another 2,000 in Britain and Ireland.
Do we ever stop, however, to consider what function
a castle really had? Those towers and walls just weren't just
for show. The castle was the home of a Lord, the business offices
of his territory, and most importantly the base of his military
power. The castle was a machine of war.
The word castle comes from the Latin castrum,
which means "a fortified military camp." By the Middle
Ages, however, castle came to mean a stronghold which was
also the residence of a lord. In some cases the castle might be
an elaborate palace, in others merely a manor house with a wall.
The earliest castles, build in the 6th and 7th centuries
were simple affairs mostly made out of wood. A ditch was dug in
a circle and the dirt piled up in the center to make a hill. On
the inside of the ditch a wooden fence was erected and a tower
built on top of the man-made mound. Such a castle could not fend
off a sustained attack, but it might encourage raiders, often
Vikings, to skip this particular manor and assault the next. The
ditch eventually became the "moat" and the mound became
known as the "motte."
Castle designers soon learned to use the natural
terrain to make their castles more secure. A river could be diverted
into the ditch to make it a water obstacle. Mottes could be made
higher if they were placed on a natural hill. Being on a high
ground gave the castle defenders a major advantage: they could
see trouble coming at a distance and attackers were forced to
climb uphill slowing their assault and making them easier targets
for the defender's weapons.
Over time castles became more and more elaborate
and took on the job of not just protecting he Lord and his immediate
family, but of the whole manor or town associated with it. They
became more permanent and were built out of long lasting stone
rather than wood.
A typical castle would have these components:
The Keep - The keep was a large central
tower that served as the residence of whatever Lord owned the
castle. It usually contained a great hall for entertaining guests
on one level and quarters for the Lord family on a higher level.
The keep had thick walls and heavy doors so that it could be used
as last holdout for the Lord should the outer walls be breached.
Keeps often also contained secret passages that might allow a
Lord to slip out of the building without his enemies being aware
that he had departed. Sometimes the door of the keep was located
on the second floor and was reached by means of a exterior wooden
stairway. To block invaders in time of war the stair could be
Courtyard - Sometimes the courtyard
was referred to as the "bailey" though that term was
often applied to the outside walls as well. Inside the courtyard
were a number of buildings that were either freestanding or built
into the walls. Almost all courtyards had a well to provide fresh
water for the castle. Without a source of fresh water, for drinking
and fighting fires, castle defenders could only hold out a few
days when under attack.
Chapel - Since the castle was the
home of a Lord, he usually provided for a chapel inside the walls.
A rich Lord might have his own resident priest, while others would
have to be satisfied with waiting for the traveling priest to
make his rounds.
Curtain Wall - The curtain
wall surrounded the castle and could be as thick as six feet at
the base. On the interior near the top of the wall ran a "Allure,"
or walk, from which it was possible to look over the wall at various
openings to see the countryside . From here archers could fire
down upon enemies below. The top of the walls, known as the battlements,
were often "crenelated" with a series of openings in
a tooth-like pattern. The defenders could string their arrows
in safety behind the wall, then step out into the opening to fire.
Where there were no openings in the wall castle walls designers
provided slots, or "loops" through which arrows might
this castle you can plainly see the gaps in the wall and
loops originally designed to allow archers to fire down
on the enemy safely.
A large castle might have several sets of concentric
walls so that if one fell, the inter portions of the castle might
still be secure. In between the walls were additional courtyards
and buildings of lesser importance.
Towers - In addition to the keep the
castle would typically have a series of towers embedded in the
walls, especially were two sections of outer wall joined at an
angle. With additional height, these towers could provide a better
view than could be gotten at the top of the wall. Towers also
usually jutted out from the wall allowing archers on top or inside
the tower a good angle to fire from so they could protect the
base of the wall.
Towers were square originally in shape, but this
made them subject to "mining." Enemy soldiers would
sneak up to the corner and attack the tower, or the underlying
soil, with picks and shovels. Firing arrows at anyone standing
at the bottom corner of the tower proved to be difficult so castle
designers eliminated the problem by making the towers round or
with a "D" shape that they had no exterior corners.
Inside the towers was typically a spiral staircase.
The clockwise direction of the spiral was designed to allow a
defender to use his sword hand effectively while backing up the
staircase. Access to the wall-walk was often limited to only these
tower stairways. This was also a defensive measure. Should invaders
make it over the top of the wall onto the walk, the doors of the
towers could be closed and barred leaving the intruders stranded
on the wall and exposed to arrows coming from the top of the towers
or the courtyard below.
Gatehouse - Perhaps the second-largest
single structure in the castle was the gatehouse. Since it was
the most vulnerable to attack, castle designers gave it multiple
defense mechanisms. The most obvious of these was the drawbridge.
The drawbridge spanned the moat providing access to the castle
and was hinged at the base so that it could be drawn up in time
The walls and
towers of Warwick Castle in England. (Copyright
Lee Krystek, 1993)
Within the gatehouse was a passage that led to the
courtyard. A large grill, or portcullis, could be lowered
from above to block the passage. The best designed gatehouses
had one portcullis at each end of the passage. These could be
dropped into position to trap unwanted visitors. From loops and
"murder holes" in the ceiling castle defenders could
fire arrows and drop boiling water onto anybody in the passageway.
A gatehouse might even have a trap door in the passage
floor. When released those trapped in the passage would tumble
into a pit below the gatehouse. The floor of the pit was often
lined with sharpened spikes.
With all these defenses you might think that a castle
was impregnable, but it wasn't. Sometimes attackers would try
and take a castle quickly by storming it before it could
be closed up, but the usual way of attacking a castle was to lay
siege to it. This involved surrounding the castle so that
no people, food or water could get in and out. The attackers could
then just wait until the castle's food or water supply ran out
and it had to surrender. Unfortunately this could take weeks or
even months if the castle had been well stocked and it had it's
own water supply. To speed up a surrender attackers employed a
number of techniques:
The Trebchet - This weapon was a giant
sling powered by a counterweight. It was capable of throwing hundreds
of pounds into, or even over, the castle walls. The projectile
was often a boulder, but sometimes other objects were used. A
dead, rotting cow might be thrown inside the walls to spread disease.
Decapitated human heads might do the same thing and also demoralize
In the 12th century, during the siege of Newbury
castle, the King threatened to kill the lord of the castle's son
if the lord did not surrender. When the Lord, John Marshal, replied
that he could have other sons, plans were made to deliver the
son to his father by sending him over the wall using a Trebchet.
The king relented, however, and the plan was never carried out.
The Mangonel - This was a smaller
version of the Trebchet that used the torsion principal instead
of a counterweight. It would usually be used to throw small missiles.
The Mantlet - A portable wooden wall
that could be rolled forward to protect troops from attack by
archers on the castle walls.
The Ram - The ram was a tree trunk
stripped of branches and often capped with an iron point. It was
then hung by chains from a rolling shed. The shed (often called
a "mouse") was covered with wet animal skins to protect
it from flaming arrows. The mouse's walls sheltered the soldiers
while they worked the ram. The mouse was dragged up to the front
door of the castle and a crew of men would swing the ram back
and forth hitting it against the entrance. Eventually the door
would give way.
The Ladder - The attacking army could
use ladders to attempt to climb the walls, but this was a dangerous
practice. A soldier climbing a ladder was totally unprotected
from archers in the towers and on the walls and it was unlikely
he would make it to the top unless they were distracted. A forked
stick could also be used by defenders to push the ladder away
from the wall with unpleasant results for anyone hanging on near
little castle in Swizerland was built more for comfort
than defense. (Copyright Lee Krystek, 1985)
The Siege Tower - This rolling tower
(sometimes referred to as a belfry) was taller than the
curtain walls and was pushed up to the castle so a bridge was
lowered across to the top to the wall. Attackers could then rush
up the tower, across the bridge and into the castle. Like the
ram, the tower was covered with wet skins to protect it from flaming
Neither the Ram nor the Siege Tower could be used,
however, until the moat was filled in creating an even surface
right up to the walls. To do this the attackers had to build a
long shed covered with wet skins all the way up to the moat. Using
this they could carry rocks, dirt, brushwood and other material
right up to the castle so they could be thrown into the moat until
it was level with the ground. Then, on top of this, a wooden boardwalk
would be built so the siege machines could be rolled across a
smooth, level surface.
Mining - Another approach was to dig
a tunnel under a wall of the castle and prop up the roof up with
wooden beams. When enough of the wall had been undermined, the
beams were set on fire. They would burn through and the wall would
collapse. To counter this kind of attack defenders would dig their
own tunnel and undermine the attacker's tunnel. Occasionally the
tunnels would meet and an underground battle might ensue.
End of the Castle Period
As better siege weapons were invented, castle designers
countered with changes in castles meant to thwart them. In the
end, however, the invention gun powder and artillery limited the
effectiveness of the castle as a war machine. Cannon balls could
be used to batter down the thickest walls and rockets and bombs
could fly over them. By the 15th century castles were being built
less for their military effectiveness and more for show.
Perhaps this trend reached it's apex with the construction
of Neuschwanstein built in the German Alps near Fussen, Bavaria
in 1886. Neuschwanstein, despite numerous towers and walls, was
built purely a spectacular looking palace with no attempt at defense.
Perched on a peak amid the mountains it was a beautiful work of
architecture. So much so, that Walt Disney used it for his inspiration
for Cinderella's castle in Disneyland.
and Fortresses by Robin S. Oggins, MetroBooks, 1995.
Medieval Fortress by
J.E. Kaufmann & H.W. Kaufmann,
Combined Publishing, 2001.
Lee Krystek 2003. All Rights Reserved.