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The Castle through the Ages

Although the castle was always a part of a knight's life, what it looked like and how it was built evolved over the centuries.



The earliest form of the medieval castle was what was known as a
motte-and-bailey. Such a castle was built by digging as wide a circular ditch as was feasible and piling the earth in the center in a huge mound. The flattened top of the mound was then enclosed with a wall of strong logs with intermittent towers providing additional support. Inside the enclosure was the bailey, a kind of courtyard surrounding a house (also known as a "keep") where the lord of the castle and his immediate family lived.

The motte-and-bailey was easy to construct; no special skills were needed to dig and build these fortifications. The motte (mound) was deliberately steep-sided and hard to climb; the ditch deep and difficult to cross. Sometimes the ditch was filled with water (this made it a moat). Whether wet or dry, the ditch would be crossed by a drawbridge that could be pulled up when the castle came under attack.

The keep and bailey were rather small, and it was not possible for the entire population of the castle to live there all the time. Therefore, another ditch might be dug around the first one, with its own wall, fortifications, and living structures. This area was usually much bigger, and it or even a third ring could accomodate the entire population of the castle. When under attack, the residents of the outer baileys could retreat to the innermost fortifications to wait out the seige.

As time passed and castles became more useful, the timber structures were replaced with stone. Some earth mounds were too soft to support stone walls, and new keeps were built in the outer area -- much larger and more impressive than the original keep -- as were new stone walls. Huge towers were constructed, from which lookouts could see approaching enemies well in advance.

The lowest windows of these towers were still fairly high off the ground and extremely narrow; an archer could fire accurately from within, but attackers would rarely hit their marks from without. Higher windows and those in the inner buildings were larger to let in more light, and might even be filled with clear or stained glass.

In Europe, particularly in France, motte-and-bailey castles and their successors were numerous. In England, only a handful of these fortifications had been built by the time
William the Conquerer invaded. Upon taking possession of London and acceding to the throne, one of the first things William did was set in motion plans to build a castle in the capital. He put the people of the city to work constructing a fortification that would be the basis of the Tower of London. This was just the first of many castles that would spring up in Britain during William's reign.

In his quest to take over the entire island, William found the fiercely independent Welsh an obstacle he would never truly overcome. He set in motion a building program along the borders of Wales to construct castles that would serve as launching points for invasion and prevent attacks by the Welsh. The Castles of Wales are therefore some of the most significant castles in British history, and some of the most impressive.

After the First Crusade, Knights who remained in the Holy Land made great leaps forward in castle design. Combining their own knowledge with that of the Greeks and Turks, these knights (mostly the Templars and Hospitallers) designed huge, complex structures of solid masonry. Such advances spread rapidly to Europe and England.

The disadvantages of rectangular buildings were their blind spots and their vulnerability at the corners to battering rams and miners. The Saracens and Byzantines were the first to construct multi-angled and circular towers to reduce these disadvantages. Although William Marshal built a circular tower in his castle of Chepstow after returning from the Holy Land in the late twelfth century, rectangular towers were still used in England for quite some time afterward. Circular towers only gradually became popular in Europe and England.

The primary purpose of a castle was military, and although it served as a home to an entire community it retained that purpose for centuries. Eventually, changes in the style of warfare, advances in weaponry, and comprehensive social evolution reduced the significance of the private fortress. No longer did people have to hide from invading Barbarians; no longer could a wall really stop an encroaching army. Fewer castles were built, and what was constructed was radically different than what had been popular and necessary in the past.

And so were the knights who lived in them. 

Sources and Recommended Reading

The links below will take you to mySimon, where you can compare prices at booksellers across the web. More in-depth info about the book may be found by clicking on to the book's page at one of the online merchants.

Life in a Medieval Castle by Joseph and Frances Gies.

For more on castles, be sure to visit our index of
castle net links, where you'll find links to virtual tours, articles, photo collections, and superior sites focusing on the castle of the middle ages.

Check out Issue #7 of Knight Life: You've Got Mail.
Go to the Knight Life
Table of Contents
Visit your Guide's picks for the
Top 7 Books about Knights and the Top 6 Castle Books.


This is Issue #6 of Knight Life.

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For more free graphics, please see your guide's collection of Medieval Clip Art.


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