Medieval Castles

by Aleksi Stenberg (saruwine@hotmail.com)

 

Introduction

The purpose of this article is to provide information on, surprise surprise, medieval castles. I will focus on the classical European castles, from ca. 1100 AD to 1400 AD as that is the area and time period most fantasy litterature and art takes its influence from. In other corners of the world and other times different kinds of fortifications were built but they are outside the scope of this article.

Although this article is chiefly about castles much of the facts here apply to fortified towns and cities and monasteries as well. After all they were designed and built for the same purpose and by the same architects and masons as castles!

Note: Knowledge of perspective drawing will be of great help when drawing castles.

Basics

Every castle was built for a purpose and that purpose defined its location and appearance. Most of them had to fill three different needs with varying order of priority. A castle had to be

  • A defensive fortification
  • An administration center for the surrounding fief or province
  • A home for its inhabitants

The priority of these tasks defined what kind of castle was built. A castle designed solely for defensive purposes was not a nice place to live in and an administration center was not wise to be located in a totally unaccessible place.

In the early Middle Ages defence was put foremost but slowly the balance shifted to the favor of the other two.

 

Evolution

The early basic castle design consisted of a tower (keep) and a few buildings surrounded by a wall and a ditch or a moat. Later on the separate buildings and the keep were substituted by a single building.

The earliest castles were built entirely of wood but by the year 1000 the use of stone was increasing rapidly. First only the keep was of stone and still surrounded by a wooden palisade but later the curtain walls were built of stone as well. Wooden palisades were yet for a long time favored by poorer lords since they were much, much cheaper. In areas where suitable clay was available bricks could be used as well.

It should be noted that the building of a castle was an ongoing process. Most castles were in use for centuries and they were expanded and modified to suit changing needs. Many castles were also badly damaged in battle which made room for heavy renovations.

 

Location and surroundings

Castles were usually built in places which were easy to defend. Favored places were islands and high and sheer-sided hills. Another thing to consider was the ground. Those stone walls and towers were pretty heavy so building a castle in the middle of a swamp (which would be a good defensive position) was out of the question.

When the castle was not on an island it was if possible surrounded by a ditch which was usually filled with water, making it a moat. A moat was usually from five to ten meters wide but in some cases such as in Bodiam, England it was nearly 50 meters.

Outside the walls every tree and bush within arrow range was cut down as they would provide shelter for the attackers. The grass was also kept low by grazing sheep and cattle in the meadows.

 

Walls and towers

The most prominent feature of a castle were the walls and towers. A castle could have multiple circles of curtain walls in which case the outer walls were lower than the inner ones, allowing the defenders clear lines of fire from everywhere. The height of the walls could be anything from a humble 2 meters to 30 meters and above.

The walls had as few openings on the ground level as possible, preferably no windows and even no doors! At least the keep, designed to be the last line of defence should the enemy breach the outer walls had its door in the second floor, accessible only by a ladder. Even in the upper floors the windows were as small as convenient and if there were large windows they opened to the relatively safe inner courtyards.

In the corners of the walls and perhaps along them as well towers were built. They rose above the walls (by 1.5 times and up) and protruded from the face of the wall so that the defenders in the tower could shoot along the wall. The strongest and largest tower in the castle was the keep which could be 70 meters tall (but was usually much smaller). The towers could be open but also roofed.

Different crenellations

Cross section of a typical wall

Remember, those walls are thick! This doorway in the Castle of St. Olof in Savonlinna, Finland is longer than its height!

 

In the early Middle Ages most towers were rectangular. With the developement of heavy siege machines and especially gunpowder weapons it was noticed that the corners of a rectangular tower were very vulnerable so in the late Middle Ages towers were built round or polygonal. (As always there were exceptions to both directions.)

The top of the walls and towers was usually crenellated which means the familiar zigzag design of rises and gaps in the wall. While they were usually of a square design that is not the only option at least in fantasy castles. (See the picture on the right.) Behind the crenellated parapet there was a walkway called a rampart.

The base of the wall could slope outwards to strengthen the wall.

 

Rooms

There were very few personal rooms in a castle. Even the important persons such as the chaplain and the bailiff shared a chamber with one or two other people. Only the lord of the castle and his family had a room of their own and sometimes another room was reserved for the king or other liege lord to use when he visited the castle. Common folk slept on the floor of halls and other rooms.

The usual rooms in a castle included the great hall which was the center of activity in the castle, a chapel, the lord's chamber and various smaller rooms that served as living quarters, storage rooms and whatnot. And of course there was the dungeon...

The ceilings of the rooms were usually vaulted, especially in the lower floors that had to bear the weight of the whole building. There were two kinds of vaults, the barrel vault and the star vault (see the photos and the drawing below). In the upper floors and in towers flat wooden ceilings were possible.

Since the walls of a castle were very thick (from one or two meters in the upper parts of a wall to a whopping 10 meters and more at the base of a large keep) the few windows there were were located in recesses or alcoves that often had benches on the sides. Speaking of windows, glass was a luxury that could be afforded only by rich nobles and even then the windows were constituted of very small pieces of glass bound by lead frames. When glass was not available the windows were covered by animal bladders or thin hides.

Furniture was scarce. Dinner tables were assembled of planks and supports for every meal and carried away afterwards, with the possible exception of the Lord's table. Sitting in a chair was a sign of high rank, for the commoners there were benches along the walls and in the window alcoves as described above. Only the most importantant people in the castle had real beds. Other furnishing included trunks and chests and some cupboards. The floor was covered with straws, and tapestries and animal hides were hanged on the walls.

A hall with barrel-vaulted ceiling in the castle of Hämeenlinna, Finland

Beautiful star vaults in the Queen's Chamber in the castle of Hämeenlinna, Finland

 

Miscellaneous details

Arrow slits and murder holes.

Making large windows in the walls was a risk for security but as the defenders had to be able to shoot outside small openings called arrow slits were placed in the walls. They were about one meter tall and only a few centimeters wide so the archer was almost completely safe. Like windows, arrow slits were located in alcoves. The picture on the right shows some arrow slit designs. The cross-shaped slits were designed for crossbows and the straight ones for hand bows but both could be used with any weapon.

For the same purpose holes were sometimes also made to floors allowing the defenders to attack the enemy in the room below with arrows, spears, boiling water and other nasty things. These holes were called murder holes.

The gatehouse

 

As the gate was the most logical place for the attackers to concentrate their efforts on much attention was given to prevent them from getting through.

The moat was crossed by a drawbridge. The gate itself consisted of a pair of heavy oaken doors at both ends of the passageway through the wall. The passageway could also be blocked by one or more iron or wooden portcullises that were dropped from a room above the gate. Note that most of the time (at least in the night) the gates were shut, the portcullis or portcullises down and the drawbridge up. The picture on the right shows a typical gatehouse design.

Sometimes there was also a "mini-castle" called a barbican outside the moat opposite to the gate to further hinder the enemy's approach to the gate.

If the castle had multiple curtain walls each one of them had a gatehouse, not all of them as complicated as the main gate of the castle, though. Note also that the gates were never at a straight line from the outermost wall to the main castle but located so that the enemy had to walk alongside the walls from one gate to another which made them sitting ducks for the defenders.

 

Fantasy castles

Above I have described some elements of a typical medieval European castle. The appearance of a castle is always defined by the conditions of the world around it so in fantasy worlds castles could (and should!) be vastly different.

The most important thing is magic. If there are lots of wizards with ground-shattering powers castles could lose their defensive importance altogether. The walls could be brought down in an instant by earthquake spells and meteor showers or the attacking army could simply be teleported inside. Then again, the castles could also be protected by magic and magic would make possible structures that architects in our world could not dream of.

In the medieval times there were no air forces but in fantasy world with all those dragon and griffin riders and flying spells... What use is there for the highest wall if the enemy can simply fly over it? The towers would probably all be roofed and have arrow slits in the ceiling! Those are just a few examples of the problems of castle design in another worlds.

As in a fantasy world there usually are many sentient races the architecture could vary greatly. Elves, Dwarves and such won't probably build the same kind of castles as humans do (although they are at least as smart as we are and will build effective castles regardless of the style).

 

Further resources

Of course the best way to gain information about medieval castles is to visit one. No words or pictures can tell how it feels to stand on the top of a tower and feel the kiss of wind on your cheek or to climb the spiraling staircases or walk in the high vaulted halls. There are more details in a real castle than any book or article can describe.

But if you live 20000 kilometres from the nearest castle there is still something you can do. Many roleplaying sourcebooks and magazines contain articles about castles both from the historical and fantasy point of view. And the next time you visit your local library walk boldly to the children's department. The history books written for children are always rich with pictures that will help you visualize.

Conclusion

I hope you find this article useful. If you have noticed an error in the text or wish to have information on some subject I may have overlooked please email me or use the comment board below.

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