The Fascinating History of Medieval Castles: From Emergence to Obsoletion
Medieval castles are one of the most iconic buildings of the Middle Ages , especially in Western Europe. During this period, the castle served generally as the residence of a king, or the lord of the territory in which it was built. Therefore, the castle was the center of secular power, and some elements of these structures were designed to reflect this power.
Incidentally, the cathedral may be considered to be the castle’s spiritual counterpart. In order to adequately protect the secular rulers living in them, castles were built as defensive structures. Over the course of the medieval period, castles had to make adaptations that allowed them to deal more effectively with changes in siege warfare. True castles became obsolete during the 15 th century, when artillery became powerful enough to breach the stone walls of castles.
Origins of Medieval Castles
The origins of medieval castles have been traced to the 9 th and 10 th centuries AD. One of the factors that led to the emergence of these structures is the collapse of the Carolingian Empire, which ruled over Central and Western Europe during its height of power.
When the empire collapsed, these territories were no longer controlled by a central government, and was divided between local lords and princes. These rulers constructed castles, which served as their private residence, and allowed them to assert their authority on the surrounding area. In addition, castles could be used as offensive structures as well, i.e. as secure bases from which raids could be launched on the territory of rival nobles.
The earliest type of castle in medieval Europe is the motte-and-bailey castle. This type of castle originated in northern France during the 10 th century, but soon spread to other parts of Europe as well. By the following century, the motte-and-bailey was the most common form of castle in Europe, with the exception of Scandinavia. As its name suggests, this type of castle consists of two distinct elements – the motte and the bailey.
The Motte and Bailey Castle
The motte is a mound, either a natural or artificial one. In the latter case, the mound could be created using earth taken from a ditch dug around the motte, or the whole castle. Some castles, like Lewes Castle and Lincoln Castle, have two mottes. The mound was topped by a tower called a keep, which was initially built of wood.
Left: Reconstructed wooden keep at Lütjenburg, Germany, to show what they would have looked like. ( Public domain ). Right: Lincoln Castle, UK, built in the 11th century by William the Conqueror on the site of existing Roman fortifications. ( Colin & Linda McKie / Adobe stock)
Later on, however, medieval castles were built of stone, which is a more durable material. Stone castles, however, required considerably more time and manpower to construct. Some keeps consisted of several stories, the lowest one being used for services, such as storage or kitchen facilities. The primary reception area, or great hall, was located on the next story, whilst the top story housed the lord’s private apartments.
The second element of the castle, the bailey, is an enclosed courtyard built next to the motte. In some castles, the motte may have several baileys. This is seen, for instance, in Warkworth Castle and Windsor Castle , both of which are in England. The bailey was protected by a wooden palisade, which was in turn surrounded by a ditch.
The Long Walk and Windsor Castle. ( Chris Lofty / Adobe stock)
Like the keep, wooden palisades were later replaced by stone walls. The bailey was the area occupied by vassals in the service of the castle’s lord. This area normally included a blacksmith, a miller, and most of the necessary craftsmen of the period. The bailey was connected to the motte via a wooden drawbridge, which could be separated from the bailey as a last resort in the event of a siege.
The Normans and their Castles
An example of a motte-and-bailey castle is Durham Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site in northeast England. This castle was originally constructed during the late 11 th century under the orders of William the Conqueror , the first Norman king of England.
Durham Castle. ( immigrant1992 / Adobe stock)
The Normans had conquered England following their victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Nevertheless, in the early days of Norman rule, there were still pockets of resistance around the country, which caused the Normans to send their troops around the country. They brought the motte-and-bailey castle from their homeland to England, and these, which were built of timber, could be erected in a matter of weeks, thus allowing them to quickly assert control over the land. It is estimated that the Normans constructed over 1000 wooden motte-and-bailey castles throughout England.
Subsequently, the Normans began using stone for the construction of their castles. Stone is a much stronger material than wood, hence increasing the defensive capabilities of medieval castles. In addition, stone castles were imposing monuments that functioned as symbols of Norman power in the land. It was a way for the Normans to stamp their mark on both the landscape and the hearts of their subjects. The motte-and-bailey castle eventually lost its popularity, and was replaced by a new type of castle.
Emergence of the Stone Keep Castle
Although motte-and-bailey castles were still being built during the 11 th century, a new type of castle, i.e. the stone keep castle, was emerging in the same century. As suggested by its name, the primary component of the new form of castle is the keep. This structure is similar to that of its predecessor, in that it is a fortified tower composed of several stories.
The kitchens were located on the ground floor, whilst living quarters were on the upper ones. The keep could be accessed via a flight of stairs, which led to the first story. Some keeps were surrounded by defensive walls, whilst others were built into the walls themselves. Initially, these keeps had a square design, but was later replaced with a circular one. The latter was an improvement, since it made towers more resistant to siege technology. The area within the walls of the castle remained as the bailey.
The Pinnacle of Concentric Castles
Medieval castles’ design reached its pinnacle with the development of the concentric castle during the 12 th and 13 th centuries. Simply speaking, a concentric castle is “a castle with two or more concentric curtain walls, where the outer wall is lower than the inner and can be defended from it.” The walls not only provided the castle with multiple layers of defense, but also allowed the defenders to inflict the maximum amount of damage on the besiegers.
Plan of Belvoir Castle / Fortress showing the typical design of a concentric castle with a number of walls. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The area in between two walls was known also as the ‘death hole’, and attackers trapped within it were almost certain to be killed by the defenders. In addition to the concentric walls, these castles were also often equipped with various kinds of defensive features, such as crenellations, towers, and arrow slits, which further aided the defenders in the event of a siege. The concentric castle is believed to have a different origin from the two other castle types that have been mentioned.
It has been suggested that the concentric castle has its origins in the castra (singular castrum), meaning ‘fortified places’) of ancient Rome. Whilst the keep was the main defensive feature of the first two types of castles, the castrum focused its defense on walls and towers placed at regular intervals.
As an aside, the word ‘castle’ is derived from the Latin castellum, a diminutive of castrum. It is believed that the concentric castle first appeared in the Middle East during the time of the Crusades, as a response to the advances made in siege technology in the region during that time. The design arrived in Europe during the 13 th century, perhaps brought back by returning crusaders.
Famous Concentric Castles
Belvoir Fortress, located in present-day Israel, just 20 km (12.43 mi) south of the Sea of Galilee, is considered to be the earliest example of a concentric castle. Originally, the site was owned by a French nobleman by the name of Velos, who lived in Tiberias. In 1168, Velos sold his property to the Knights Hospitaller, who immediately began building a castle, i.e. Belvoir Fortress, to defend the area.
The remains of Belvoir Castle. Note the two circuits of defensive wall, one inside the other. (AVRAMGR / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
In 1180, the castle successfully withstood a siege by Muslim forces. After the crushing defeat of the crusaders by Saladin at the Battle of Hattin, Belvoir Fortress was besieged once more. The defenders of the castle held out for a year and a half, but finally surrendered in early 1189. Although the castle has since fallen into ruins, its rectangular layout, which has been described as “one castrum nested inside another”, is still clearly visible.
One of the best-examples of a concentric castle in the Middle East, however, is Krak des Chevaliers, in modern Syria. The current castle, like Belvoir Fortress, was constructed by the Hospitallers during the 12 th century.
Krak des Chevaliers is a massive fortress. The stone inner wall, for instance, is over 3 m (9.8 ft) thick, and is studded with seven towers, each having a diameter of 10 m (32.8 ft). The castle could accommodate a garrison of up to 2000 men, and had a stable for up to 1000 horses. In the event of a siege, the supplies in its 120 m (393.7 ft) long storeroom could keep the defenders going for up to five years. Krak de Chevaliers’ defenses were further enhanced by its location, i.e. on a 650 m (2132.6 ft) hill that overlooked the surrounding area.
Krak des Chevaliers overlooking the surrounding area. (Nev1 / CC BY 2.0 )
According to one legend, when Saladin besieged Krak de Chevaliers in 1188, he captured the castle’s commander, and ordered him to command the defenders to open the gates. The commander did so, and shouted the order in Arabic. Immediately after that, however, he told his men, in French, to defend the castle to the last man. Krak des Chevaliers eventually fell in 1271 to the Mamluks. A forged letter, allegedly from the Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller in Tripoli was sent to the castle, commanded the defenders to surrender the castle to the Mamluks, which they did.
Although the concentric castle was the most advanced fortification of its time, it was also extremely expensive, and time-consuming to build. The construction of Krak des Chevaliers, for instance, took almost three decades to complete. Therefore, only wealthy and powerful orders, like the Knights Hospitaller , or monarchs, like the English king, Edward I, were able to afford to build (and maintain) them. The fortifications built by the latter during his Welsh campaign are some of the finest examples of concentric castles in Europe.
One of these is Beaumaris Castle, whose construction began in the late 13 th century, but came to a halt during the 1320s. The castle was never completed due to the lack of funds, and troubles brewing in Scotland. Still, it is a sight to behold, both for its scale and ambition. One of the most remarkable aspects of the unfinished castle is its regular, almost square layout. Unlike Krak des Chevaliers, Beaumaris Castle was constructed on a plain, and therefore required walls and towers facing in all directions, hence its layout.
Beaumaris Castle in Anglesey in Wales. ( WebStudio / Adobe stock)
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Gunpowder Changed the Game
The introduction of gunpowder in Europe during the 14 th century would transform the way wars were fought on the continent. For the time being, however, the castle was not affected by this new weapon, as early artillery was not powerful enough to breach their stone walls. The situation, however, changed in the following century, castles were no longer strong enough to withstand artillery.
In 1494, for instance, when the First Italian War broke out, the invading French army included a powerful artillery train, which allowed Charles VIII to easily destroy the castles of his enemies. No doubt, changes were made to the castles, so as to allow them to withstand artillery assault. These changes, however, resulted in the conversion of castles to purely military structures, without its residential function. Therefore, the castle may be regarded to have become obsolete by this point of time.
Although medieval castles became obsolete by the 15 th century, they never disappeared from either the landscape or the popular imagination. Whilst some castles were abandoned in the centuries that followed, others continued to serve one function or another. Durham Castle, for instance, remained the palace of the Bishop of Durham until 1832, when his residence was moved to Auckland Castle. Subsequently, the castle was donated to Durham University, and its keep redeveloped for student accommodation.
Castles, including their ruins, have also become tourist attractions, thanks to public fascination with castles, and the Middle Ages in general. Furthermore, the cultural and historical significance of many medieval castles have been recognized, resulting in their inscription on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Top image: Medieval castles emerged in the 9 th century AD and became almost obsolete by the 15 th century, but why did this happen? Source: Sergio / Adobe stock
By Wu Mingren
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