10 Facts About Medieval Castles | History Hit

10 Facts About Medieval Castles

Helen Carr

02 Jun 2023
Image Credit: Public Domain

Castles are perhaps the most iconic buildings of medieval Europe. These fortified structures began to be built in the 9th century by royals or wealthy nobles and would continue to be constructed for the next 900 years. Here are 10 facts about them.

1. There were four different types

The first were Roman forts, reused by the Normans following their 1066 invasion of England. Although the Normans were the leading castle-builders of the medieval period, it was initially easier for them to move into pre-existing structures. These reused fortresses were in disrepair but the Norman invaders built their own constructions inside the original Roman walls.

A good example of a reused Roman fort is Pevensey Castle in East Sussex.

Pevensey Castle. Credit: Lieven Smits / Commons

The Normans then built the first fortifications of their own, known as motte and bailey castles. These consisted of two parts: the “motte” was a large rounded heap of earth upon which a wooden keep was built, surrounded by a defensive wooden wall, while the “bailey” was the outer part of the castle, occupied by common people and animals.

If necessary, the bridge that separated the motte from the bailey could be removed – a useful tactic during a siege. The whole construction was often surrounded by a ditch or a moat and access was granted via a drawbridge.

The Normans developed their castle-building skills quickly and, before long, motte and baileys were replaced with imposing stone fortifications. A stone keep formed the centre of these castles, while the bailey was situated outside of it – though within the castle’s large defensive outer wall.

Matt Lewis explores a selection of Britain's greatest castles in this spectacular new series.
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This stone outer wall had turrets that served as lookouts and was often used by people as a solid structure against which to perch trade stands or animal pens. This wall in turn was then surrounded by a defensive moat and drawbridge.

The iconic stone castle was a lasting fortification of the medieval period, but its design evolved in the 12th and 13th centuries to offer more protection against invasion. A lower wall was added in between the moat and the turreted defensive wall, enabling archers to shoot arrows from both levels and enhancing the overall defence of the castle.

2. The first and most famous castle in England was the Tower of London’s White Tower

Built by William the Conqueror between 1078 and 1097, the White Tower was designed to deter any potential invaders through shock and awe. The 90-foot fortress must have been a dominating feature of medieval London, and likely terrified the local population.

This early fortress served as an example of what castle-building would become under Norman rule; today the White Tower remains an iconic example of the Normans’ building power post 1066.

3. The circular defensive wall of stone castles was up to two metres deep

This wall was filled with rubble on the inside, making it very difficult to break down. As a result, stone castles could withstand sieges for months on end, even when under bombardment from trebuchets. One such example is the siege of Harlech Castle, which held off assailants for almost one year – the castle only eventually falling as a result of food shortages.

Despite what popular movie portrayals of sieges suggest, it took a significant amount to penetrate the defensive wall of medieval stone castles.

4. The cost of building and maintaining castles amounted to around 40 per cent of a king’s annual income

Castle-building was a luxury that very few members of the nobility could afford. Dover Castle in Kent was one of the most expensive castles ever built, with Henry II spending £6,400 of his £20,000 annual income on its refurbishment alone. Smaller castles could cost around £1,000 to build.

The progression from the motte and bailey design to stone was an expensive one. While the wooden structures of the former were cheap, swift and easy-to-build, the latter involved having to pay for stonemasons, expensive stone, transportation, mining and a larger construction force.

Once a stone castle was built, its owner would then have to spend a vast sum on furnishing and decorating it. The interior walls were usually plastered and painted, often with elaborate frescos and bright, expensive colours. Ultimately, the castle was a symbol of its owner’s wealth and power.

5. The toilet was in the wardrobe

The privy, or latrine, shared the same space as residents’ personal belongings in rooms called “garderobes”. Inside the garderobe was a toilet hole through which people released waste into a shoot. This shoot then fell into the moat surrounding the castle.

Clothes were kept close to the toilet in a bid to prevent insects from damaging them – the idea being that the odour would act as a deterrant.

The garderobe at Peveril Castle in Derbyshire, as seen from the outside.

It is true that one unpleasant way of breaking into a castle was by crawling through the waste shoot and into the garderobe. The most famous example of this allegedly took place during the siege of Chateau Gaillard in 1204.

According to legend, two soldiers climbed up the latrine chute and into the castle where they set light to the chapel. This then enabled the castle’s French attackers to infiltrate the building and take control of it.

6. Stairs always turned clockwise

A constant feature in the design of medieval castles was that staircases were built in a spiralling form and always turned clockwise. The reason for this was entirely practical, with stairs forming part of a castle’s internal defence system.

If incoming attackers were able to infiltrate a castle then the majority would struggle to use their sword arms as they ascended any staircase. Of course, this would have no impact on any soldier who wielded a sword in his left hand.

Arundel Castle is one West Sussex’s greatest attractions with a history spanning nearly a thousand years. It has its roots in Norman times, originally built at the end of the 11th century by the then Earl of Arundel, Roger de Montgomery. The keep Montgomery created was initially made out of wood, but was later replaced by stone.
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7. The well was the most vulnerable part of a medieval castle

The leading water supply for a castle in times of both war and peace, wells were an incredibly vulnerable part of fortifications in the Middle Ages.

During a siege, a castle’s well also provided water for citizens taking refuge inside the castle walls. If the well had been built externally to the castle, one of the most successful methods of siege warfare would be to poison it, often with a decomposing corpse. Without clean water, the castle would be forced to surrender.

8. The oldest functioning royal castle in the world was originally built in the Middle Ages

Windsor Castle, which is still used by the British royal family today, was originally built by William the Conqueror as a motte and bailey castle, and has subsequently been occupied by 39 reigning monarchs.

This list includes the medieval King Edward III, who established the Order of the Garter at Windsor, as well as his own Round Table. Under Edward, Windsor Castle hosted jousts, tilts and festivities to promote the popular cult of chivalry.

St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, the location of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. Credit: Aurelien Guichard / Commons

Many famous royals are buried at Windsor, including Henry VIII, his third wife, Jane Seymour, and Charles I, who was charged for high treason and executed in 1649. The castle has also served as a location for royal weddings, including those of Queen Victoria’s children and, most recently, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

9. Castles really did have secret entrances and exits

The main secret entrance was known as the postern. Small and easy to defend, it was often secured with metal grates and protected by battlements above, while traditionally lying at the base of a castle’s walls.

But the secretive nature of a postern could also be exploited by invaders, as seen during the 1645 siege of Corfe Castle when Royalist officer Colonel Pitman colluded with one of the castle’s Parliamentarian attackers, a man named Colonel Bingham.

Pitman helped some of Bingham’s troops to enter the fortification in disguise, via its postern. The Parliamentarians then attacked the castle from both the inside and the outside simultaneously and the fortification soon fell.

10. The location of a castle was its main defence

Despite the elaborate design of castles and their impenetrable two-metre thick outer walls, the chosen location of a fortification was its most important form of defence and strategy.

The Châteaux de Lastours complex in France was built into mountains, making it difficult for any would-be invaders to access it.

Some castles were built close to the sea, a location that served two purposes: not only did it enable the sighting of any incoming naval invasions, but it was hoped that imposing clifftop stone fortresses would help to repel unwanted invaders by demonstrating military strength.

Castles were also often built on hilltops. This ancient choice of location served the simple purpose of enabling its residents to see for miles around from a great height. Any attackers could be easily spotted and preparations for defence put into place.

Equally, if built at a great height, many castles would be logistically impossible to attack, for siege weapons such as trebuchets could not force their way close enough to the castle walls. The Châteaux de Lastours complex in France was built within the mountains and remains difficult to access to this day.

During the Albigensian Crusades of the 13th century, the complex served as a place of refuge for the persecuted Cathars, who came from nearby Carcassone. In 1209, meanwhile, it consistently resisted the forceful attacks of Simon de Montfort, 5th Earl of Leicester.

Helen Carr