Summary: Castles were a popular form of defense, used mainly during the instability of the Medieval period
Date: 9th and 10th Centuries to perhaps the 16th Century
Location: Across Europe, Asia Minor and the Middle East (with variants in other parts of the world)
- Introduction -
The huge fortress stood menacingly on the hill. Its thick stone walls surrounded the inner walls, towers and buildings. Often, when you picture the Middle Ages, Castles spring to mind. They were strong and helpful in those days, but are they useful today?
Let’s suppose you are a rich nobleman living in the Middle Ages, you might be encouraged by the king to build a castle. Why? Well, when newly conquered land needed securing, a castle would be the most effective mode for defence.
Typically, a castle was constructed in an elevated area so that the occupants could have a good view of the surroundings. Farmers and tradesmen were also encouraged to work the land and build homes near the castle, which would protect them from raids. The town was well planned. Around the houses, a strong wall was erected, and crops grew on the land that stretched out beyond the wall. Such escapades, as you might imagine, were not cheap and the king was often low in money but with clever advertising, he could sometimes persuade richer nobles to fund the business of castle building in his stead.
- Liberating England -
Perhaps you were convinced that building a castle was an intriguing idea. How would you proceed? To start, you would build a palisade, which is a temporary wooden fence made of sticks poking up vertically out of the ground. You put it there to secure the spot before you can construct a permanent wall. Outside the wall, you would dig a moat. It could have water in it or simply be left dry.
Unless your castle was near a river, the ditch would be difficult and costly to fill. However, if you could fill the moat, it would be practically impossible for an enemy to dig under the wall. The drawbridge was also important. It acts a lot like a see-saw, with a pivot point and counter weights.
During an attack, the heavy wooden ramp was tilted up to block the entrance, stopping the enemy from crossing the moat. The gatehouse protected the vulnerable entrance, and was made of towers, gates and arrow loops. Obviously, the wall had to be very thick, as it had a very large area to protect. The wall was supported by round towers, which were stronger than square ones because they weren’t as easy to topple. Castles were complicated yet simple and wonderfully designed for defence.
- Name -
What if, as time wore on, you could not continue to maintain your castle due to the development of stronger cannons and mortars and the growing costs of continually rebuilding the walls. As time wore on these problems appeared more frequently to nobles. Castles slowly diminished. Over the years many of them either fell into ruin or became more like fortified cities, very few lasted. The neglected castles that fell into disrepair were often torn apart to make new buildings.
Gradually, it became clear that wooden fortresses with walls of dirt and rock were easier and faster to set up. Because of technological advancements in heavy cannons and the cost of constructing castles, many of them no longer exist today.
The castles that remain have been restored and are used as homes, historical sites, hotels and more. Therefore, castles are useful today, but in a very different way than they were many years ago.
1. Castles, U., Ireland, N., Castles, E., Castle, L., Designs, C., Book!, B., Me, C. and Policy, P. (2018). Medieval Castle Defence: Defending a Castle. [online] Exploring Castles. Available at: https://www.exploring-castles.com/castle_designs/medieval_castle_defence/ [Accessed 28 Aug. 2018].
2. Garden, H. and Figures, H. (2018). How Castles Work. [online] HowStuffWorks. Available at: https://history.howstuffworks.com/historical-figures/castle7.htm [Accessed 28 Aug. 2018].
1. Macaulay, D. (1977). Castle. New York: Sandpiper Houghton Mifflin.
Researched and Written By
Castles are one of the things foremost in our minds when we think of the Medieval age. But what is the true history of these gigantic defensive structures?