What Was Life Like in a Medieval Castle? | History Hit

What Was Life Like in a Medieval Castle?

Castle kitchen interior. Marten van Cleve, attributed to his studio, 1565.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Once upon a time, castles were full of life, loud noises, terrible smells, grand lords and ladies, endless servants, fierce knights and juggling jesters. Primarily built in England and Wales after 1066, castles cemented the new system of feudalism, where people worked and fought for nobles in exchange for loyalty, protection and the use of land.

As a fortress as well as a home, a medieval castle was effectively a symbol of the lord’s power and, with its hierarchy and festivities, represented a cross-section of medieval life more widely.

But what was life really like in a medieval castle? Was it really as lavish and luxurious as we’re sometimes led to believe, or was it cold, dark and difficult?

Here’s an introduction to life in a medieval castle.

People didn’t live in castles for long

Though castles were homes, they weren’t permanent residences. The lord and lady and their servants – who could number anywhere from 30 to 150 people – would move from castle to castle with their beds, linen, tapestries, tableware, candlesticks and chests, meaning that most rooms in the castle at any given time would be shut up.

Castles would be more or less busy depending on the time of year. Festivities such as Easter and Christmas meant that guests would flood the castle, who might stay for months at a time. Other times, such as when the lady was close to giving birth and just after, would be less busy.

Sometimes, the lord alone would be called away for other business. His servants such as his groom and chamberlain would travel with him. In his absence, the day-to-day domestic affairs would be run by the lady of the castle.

They had lots of rooms

The great hall of Chillingham Castle, a medieval castle in the village of Chillingham in the northern part of Northumberland, England. It dates from 1344.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Different castles naturally had different amounts of rooms. Early medieval castles and smaller ones throughout the period generally consisted of a single tower with each level containing a single room.

Large castles and manor houses normally had a great hall, bed chambers, solars (sitting rooms), bathrooms and garderobes, gatehouses and guardrooms, kitchens, pantries, larders and butteries, chapels, cabinets (libraries) and boudoirs (dressing rooms), storerooms and cellars, ice houses, dovecots, apartments and sometimes even dungeons.

The great hall was the focus of the castle. Normally the warmest room of the castle and one of the most lavishly decorated, it was the focus of hospitality and celebrations such as dances, plays or poetry recitals.

Generally, castle owners had private apartments or a bathroom with an en-suite loo and chamber where guests were welcomed. They might also have a private chapel. Often the lord and lady’s rooms were the safest part of the castle and were closely guarded in terms of who could enter. Some castles even had their own lord and lady’s rooms in a totally separate building that could be defended even if the rest of the fortress fell.

Although we remember it predominantly for its involvement in several conflicts during the medieval period, Edinburgh Castle’s history stretches some 3,000 years, from prehistoric times right up to the present day.
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They weren’t necessarily dark and cold

Though early castles had tiny windows so were probably dark and cold, later castles had larger windows that allowed more light in. Fireplaces weren’t invented until the mid-medieval period. Until then, all fires were open fires which generated lots of smoke and didn’t effectively spread heat. The great hall of the castle generally had a large open hearth to provide heat and light. Tapestries would have also provided some insulation.

More private rooms of the castle such as the chamber would be equipped with beds with curtains and fireplaces, or moveable fire stands. They also had square indents in the walls called lamp rests where lamps or candles could be placed.

Rooms for servants were normally above the kitchen. Though they were small and lacked privacy, they were probably quite warm, and would certainly have smelled better than some other parts of the castle.

The Duke of Berry, seated lower right, with his back to the fire, is dressed in blue and wearing a fur cap. Several of the duke’s familiars approach him while servants are busy: the cupbearers are serving drinks, two sharp squires in the center are seen from behind; at the end of the table officiates a baker. Illustration by the Limbourg brothers (1402–1416).

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Children played in castles

There would have been lots of upper-class children in castles. Though social norms involving children were different to today, children were loved and educated, and there’s lots of evidence that they had toys such as miniature items of furniture which were probably supposed to educate them about their future lives. They shared feather beds.

There were even children who worked as servants: children of wealthy families were sent away to live in a castle as a way of learning good manners and how the court worked.

Medieval books aimed at children were full of endless rules about how to behave, such as not to blow their nose on the tablecloth, not to spit on the floor when anyone is looking, and to ‘always beware thy hinder parts of gun’s blasting’.

There weren’t necessarily many soldiers

A Franco-Scottish force led by Jean de Vienne attacks Wark Castle in 1385, from an edition of Froissart’s Chronicles. Artist unknown.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In peacetime, a small castle might have a total of a dozen soldiers or fewer. They were responsible for tasks such as operating the gate, portcullis and drawbridge and patrolling the walls. They’d be commanded by a constable who stood in for the owner and had his own rooms. The soldiers lived in a dormitory.

However, in times of attack, you’d try and fit as many soldiers into a castle as possible at one time. For instance, at the great siege of Dover Castle in 1216, there were 140 knights and around a thousand sergeants (a fully-equipped soldier) inside the castle to defend it against the French.

Fighting was done with swords, spears and axes, while longbows shot from the ramparts or through holes in the thick walls were able to reach the enemy from a distance. During peacetime, knights would hone their skills, create war machinery such as trebuchets and make preparations to the castle in case it came under siege.

There were hordes of servants

Castles were full of servants. The poshest were pages and damsels, who would likely work more closely to the lord and lady and attend to their needs. Ordinary servants ranged from the steward, butler and head groom down to the less savoury jobs such as the boy who turned the spit for roasting meat over the fire, and the gong-farmer, who had the unfortunate job of clearing out the cesspit.

Kitchen in the Castle of Valençay, Indre, France. The earliest parts date to the 10th or 11th centuries.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The lowest-ranked servants slept anywhere they could find within the castle. Work started at 5:30 am in the summer, and generally finished at 7 pm. Days off were few and far between and pay was low. However, they were given liveries (uniforms) in their lord’s colours and enjoyed regular meals all year round. It was a sought-after job.

Cooks had an exceptionally busy job, and might be required to feed up to 200 people two meals a day. Food provided included swans, peacocks, larks and herons as well as more usual dishes such as beef, pork, mutton, rabbits and deer.

Lucy Davidson