Medieval castles can be seen today standing imposingly across the lands of Europe and further to the East and South. The castle was designed to provide positions of strength for the local Lord, and strike fear and intimidation into the local population and any invading army.
Early medieval castles began as wooden palisades surrounding a small wooden hall, normally perched upon a hilltop. This was a quick solution to building a permanent stronghold in a good defensive position. From the early 10th century, these wooden castles sprang up across the lands, especially in England, and quite commonly upon sites of old Iron Age forts.
When the Normans invaded in 1066, after successfully defeating Harold, the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings, William the Conqueror set about building many of these simple fortresses all over Britain. William’s purpose was to quickly impose his authority and control over the country and the people. Furthermore, these medieval castles would provide protection for local Norman Lords in the towns and cities as well as safe-guarding the strategic roads that passed through.
Once the Normans had established control, they decided to upgrade each castle with stone. These medieval castles tended to be situated high on hill tops, built with huge defensive walls, many feet thick with stone. Dotted around the castle were small vertical arrow slots for windows used to rain down arrows on intruders. The entrances were guarded with large iron gates and portcullis’, sometimes a moat would surround the castle for further protection.
Inside the medieval castle, would be a keep. A central stronghold, in itself capable of holding off intruders for some length of time. Escape tunnels, secret doors and passageways were common place and add to the defensive designs of these great structures.
Motte and Bailey Medieval Castles
There were 3 types of medieval castle, the earliest being the Motte and Bailey castle.
The motte, from the Norman-French word ‘mote’, meaning a flat-topped mound of earth, was the mound or hill in which the wooden or stone keep was built on. It was normally man-made, but on some sites the natural surrounding made for a perfect motte location, and so that was taken advantage of. The keep that would sit on top of the motte would be protected by a ring of wood or stone with normally one access route to the bailey.
The bailey, from the Norman-French word ‘baille’ meaning enclosed court, being the surrounding walled area and yard where castle buildings such as the stables, blacksmiths, chapels, workshops etc were located. A bridge or defensive path normally links the motte to the Bailey. Designs would alter slightly overtime, where some would have two mottes and others two baileys, depending on the size of the castle and its importance. A good example of a motte and (two) bailey castle is Arundel Castle in Sussex.
Stone Keep Medieval Castles
During the 12th century, the original wooden motte and bailey castles needed upgrading and reinforcing. The solution to this was to rebuild the walls in stone, and rebuild the grand hall into a large stone keep. The Stone Keep castle was born.
The stone keep castle had far better defences because of it’s thick stone walls, but still roughly maintained the motte and bailey design. Usually the castle was rectangular or circular in shape, and surrounded by a moat, allowing access to the castle over a drawbridge.
The site of these stone keep castles rising up across the land, would have firmly cemented the realisation that the Normans were here to stay.
Stone Concentric Medieval Castles
As the 12th century passed by, the demand for even more impenetrable fortresses was as high as ever. Threats of invasion and wars with France, England needed to build castles that could not be taken by force. So, the stone concentric castle was designed.
Concentric means a circle within a circle, or in this case, a castle within a castle. Existing stone keep castles were once again reinforced, but this time with a thick outer stone wall surrounding the entire castle. This design produced a ‘dead man’s land’ in between the inner and outer castle walls. If the enemies could breach the outer wall, they would find themselves facing an inner wall, just as thick, but with less room for siege engines. Furthermore, they would be directly under siege from arrows, boiling oil and rocks propelled by the desperate castle defenders. No wonder they called these areas the killing pits!
One of the best examples of a stone concentric castle is Beaumaris castle on the Isle of Anglesey in Wales. You can clearly see the outer stone wall, followed by the inner stone wall ring. The Tower of London was also upgraded to a concentric castle design too.
Discover more Medieval Castles
Discover more about Medieval Castles in our Medieval Castle category. There are some of the best examples of medieval castles our lands have to offer, with more being added all the time.