In medieval times, castles served as the home and fortress of a monarch or noble. The earliest castles were built from earth and wood. By the 12th century, most castles were built from stone. The stones came from local mines or quarries if possible, but sometimes they had to be carried long distances by water or on ox wagons. The roofs of castles were covered with slates, clay tiles, or wooden shingles.
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Castles were built on steep hill sides or at the top of rocky cliffs. This was for protection from attackers. It made it harder for them to reach the castle.
Castles also had additional purposes. They sometimes served as barracks, prisons, storehouses, armories, treasure houses, and the center for local government. Castles sometimes had brew houses, a laundry a huge bakers oven, workshops, dovecotes, and stables (MacDonald, p.12)
Castle walls surrounded the entire castle and were usually several meters thick. They usually had 3 layers: a rough stone inner shell, a thick, solid filling of flint and rubble, and an outer layer of stone called ashlars. (MacDonald, p.8) There was usually a walkway along the top of the walls so guards could keep watch. Some castle walls had spaces at the top called embrasures, which allowed archers to shoot with the protection of the wall. These openings also permitted stones or boiling water to be thrown down on the enemy. (Encyclopedia Americana, p.790). Towers were built along castle walls at regular intervals to strengthen them and provide area for castle workers or visitors.
Moats often surrounded castles for protection. Some people built castles on banks of lakes or rivers and channeled water to the moat. A drawbridge laid across the moat and could be raised if an enemy approached.
Castles had few window, because they made the castle drafty and allowed the enemy a way inside. Glass was a luxury until around the 15th century. Although oiled paper shut out some of the drafts, shutters were the usual way of shutting windows. (Encyclopedia Americana, p.791)
The castle hall was usually the single largest room in the castle. In the early middle ages, it was common to sleep in the hall. (Encyclopedia Americana, p.791). In the late Middle Ages, however, the hall wasn’t used as much. People would eat by themselves in a room, usually wit a fireplace.
Castles usually seemed indestructible, but they were not. Enemies had many ways of attacking castles. Arrows could be made to ignite a castle when it was fired. Attackers could make moveable towers that could help get them over castle walls. (Encyclopedia Americana, p.790). Walls could also be tunneled under, or undermined, but moats made this difficult. Enemies could block off a castle from outside food, water, and help, but it could take months to starve castle defenders, so this usually wasn’t successful. Lastly, catapults could eventually batter down castle walls.
Lords of the castle sometimes had social gatherings in the castle. People gathered in the hall for feasts and listened to music by minstrels, or wandering singers. On special occasions, lords held jousting events in a field outside the castle.
1.) Hogg, Ian. The History of Forts and Castles. New York: Crescent Books, 1985.
2.) MacDonald, Fiona. A Medieval Castle. New York, New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1990.
3.) “Castles.” The Encyclopedia Americana. 1994 Edition.