The Medieval Castle

Medieval castles were designed to be both defensive structures and residences of noblemen. From the very first earthwork enclosures built by the Normans to the more sophisticated Late Middle Ages Castles, they rapidly evolved and soon became a symbol of the nobility social status.

Medieval castle reconstruction, Pietro Chiovaro

Image source:

Medieval castles were built from the 11th century CE for rulers to demonstrate their wealth and power to the local populace, to provide a place of defence and safe retreat in the case of attack, defend strategically important sites like river crossings, passages through hills, mountains and frontiers, and as a place of residence. Whether a permanent home for a local lord or a temporary one for a ruler embarking on a tour of their kingdom, castles were converted from wood into stone and became ever more impressive structures with more and more defensive features such as round towers and fortified gates.

Where were castles built?

A good location for a castle was on a natural rise, near a cliff, on the bend of a river, or where older fortifications such as Roman walls could be usefully reused. Castles needed their own water and food supplies and usually a permanent defensive force, additional factors to be considered when choosing a location.

Arundel castle, England

Image source:

Castles were an expensive undertaking which could take years to finish. A master mason, who was, in effect also the architect, led a team of hundreds of skilled workers ranging from carpenters to blacksmiths and dyke specialists to common labourers. The transportation of materials was the highest cost of all so the proximity of a local quarry was a big plus.

Main castles features

The typical features of a medieval castle were:

  • Moat – a perimeter ditch with or without water
  • Barbican – a fortification to protect a gate
  • Curtain Walls & Towers – the perimeter defensive wall
  • Fortified Gatehouse – the main castle entrance
  • Keep (aka Donjon or Great Tower) – the largest tower and best stronghold of the castle
  • Bailey or Inner Ward (courtyard) – the area within a curtain wall.

Within an Existing Roman Fortress

Pevensey Castle, East Sussex, England

Image source:

The earliest medieval castles built by the Normans were either constructed within an existing Roman Fort or were Motte and Bailey castles. These were soon replaced by Stone Keep castles as they offered better protection from attack. Concentric castles developed during the 12th and 13th Centuries and were virtually impossible to conquer. Pevensey castle in East Sussex is an example of a Norman Castle built inside an existing Roman Fort.

Motte and Bailey Castles

Arundel Castle, England

Image source:

Motte and Bailiey castles were the earliest form of medieval castles built completely from scratch by the Normans. As their name suggests they had two parts the Motte and the Bailey. The Motte was a large hill made of earth on which was built a wooden keep or lookout. The outer edge was then surrounded with a large wooden fence called a palisade. The Bailey was separated from the Motte by a wooden bridge that could be removed if the Bailey was occupied by enemies. The Bailey was the part of the castle where people lived and animals were kept. A large castle might have more than one Bailey. To give added protection to the castle, both the Motte and Bailey would be surrounded by a ditch, sometimes filled with water. A drawbridge was used for access to the castle.

Stone Keep Castle

Dover castle, England

Image source:

This type of medieval castle soon replaced the Motte and Bailey castles as it offered a better form of defence. A stone keep was the central feature, with thick walls and few windows. Entrance to the keep was by stone steps leading to the first floor. The kitchens were situated on the ground floor while living quarters were on the upper floors. The first keeps were rectangular in shape but later ones were often circular. The Stone Keep would be surrounded by a thick stone wall containing turrets for lookouts. The Bailey was now the area outside the keep but within the outer walls and shelter for animals or craft workshops might be built against the walls. The entire castle might be surrounded by a ditch or moat and entrance to the castle was by drawbridge.

Concentric Castles

Beaumaris Castle, island of Anglesey, Wales

Image source:

The Concentric castle was developed in the 12th and 13th Centuries and offered the best protection against attack. The main feature of the concentric medieval castle is its walls. An inner wall built of thick stone with turrets positioned at intervals is then surrounded by an equally thick but lower stone wall. The walls are built at different levels so that archers on the inner walls can fire over the archers on the outer walls. The space between the two walls was known as the ‘death hole’ for being trapped within the walls would almost certainly result in death for the attacker. The entire castle was then often surrounded with a moat and entry would be across a drawbridge.

Info sources:                                                                                                                                               

Leave a Reply