What comes to mind when I say the word castle. A massive building built of stone with battlements, a crenellated wall, tall towers, a gatehouse with murder holes, a drawbridge, and a moat? Or perhaps the romantic in you conjures a vision of a fantasy castle set high on a mountain top, smooth in surface, with fancy stained glass windows, balconies at every tower, colorful flags rippling in the winds, a-la Sleeping Beauty style? How about the pomp & ceremony of Windsor Castle?
Castles have enchanted boys and girls for centuries, and who can blame them? Stories of armored knights defending castles from invaders or armies storming a castle to defeat an evil overlord have fueled imaginations for generations. Castles play a part in the novels The Three Musketeers, Ivanhoe, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Men of Iron.
The first castles were built of wood and set on strategic points, usually up on hills or close to a water source. Hill forts progressed to motte and bailey castles. Motte and bailey castles consisted of a wooden fortress on a built up hill (motte). That fortress had an open area (the bailey) which in turn was surrounded by a reinforced wall. This was an efficient residence. Look-outs could see any person, or invaders, approaching for miles away – depending upon clarity of weather and the local flora. These castles were also placed at key trading points or vital defensive areas.
Stone replaced wood as the material of choice after William conquered Britain in 1066. The Bayeux Tapestry, probably commissioned by the Bishop of Bayeux in 1070 shows castles of stone. King William, and subsequent monarchs, quickly grasped the importance of stone over wood. William ordered stone castles at the border of England and Wales (the Marches). The Conqueror didn’t abandon wooden keeps, over 700 motte & bailey castles were raised in King William’s reign.
What is the purpose of a castle? Simply put, “the castle was a properly fortified military residence” per Plantagenet Somerset Fry. Castles were more than homes for the nobility. As with a large corporation or government agency, a castle required a large staff to run efficiently. The nobleman (feudal lords) holding the title, whether it was the lowest rank in the land or a level below the Monarch, always had to be accountable to someone else. Higher ranking lords might partial out their lands to younger sons or other family members as vassals to the higher ranked lord.
In the castle itself, positions (what we would call jobs today) were allotted to family members or people who had proved trustworthy. The Seneschal, or Steward, was an important position, usually given to a male. Seneschals oversaw the daily affairs of the keep, the accounts, and reported directly to the lord of the castle. The Marshall, also a job assigned to men, was responsible for the security of the castle, the horses, and training of the men & squires. For larger keeps, this position could become an overseer, with men appointed to handle training of squires, men-at-arms, and horses. Being a Lord’s wife was no picnic. A proper Lady was expected to manage the household, keeping track of the servants, supplies, and personnel in general. Should she choose to appoint another to perform these duties; the person was called a Castellan. The Castellan stood out, a ring of keys hanging from her belt.
Hollywood has done a disservice to our modern view of castles. Not every castle was gloomy, dank man-cave filled with drunk, over-sexed knights in plate armor. Many castles had stained or clear glass windows to let in light. Inside, walls could be covered with wainscoting or tapestries. Decorations included family heirlooms, armor, weapons, paintings, animal trophies, or religious icons. Rushes were used to cover the main floor with herbs mixed in to relieve the odors; it was not unusual for private rooms and upper floors to have rugs and wooden floors.
Lighting was handled by windows, slits cut into walls, candles, and fires (either fireplaces or cooking pits). The common everyday candles were made from tallow. The biggest problem with tallow was the smoke, which would drift up and hover on the ceiling. Beeswax burned cleaner than tallow, but it was more expensive to make, as such, beeswax was reserved for special occasions.
Medieval life left little to be desired when it came to privacy. Dependent on the castle size, only a selected few had private rooms (also known as chambers or solars), the rest of the residents slept in common areas close to heat sources. Those with private rooms had permanent features: a bed with decent mattress over a rope or wood frame, chest of drawers, tables, comfortable chairs, and in the larger keeps, even private garderobes (privy chambers). Lower ranking family members, personal servants, pages, and squires might sleep in the chambers with higher ranking family, albeit on pallets instead of the bed. Children would pile together until they were sent to foster with another family or, in the case of boys, left to begin training as knights. In large families, a nobleman wishing privacy might need to hang a bed curtain to lessen the view of curious eyes.
Despite living in a stone house, life was uncertain. Fire was an ongoing threat; as with today’s dangers, it was the items inside the building that caused the problems. For example, an owner trying to pinch pennies might engage masons to build a stone castle, with nothing inside but a little staircase to a single floor. All else would be done with wood – the intention was to expand in stone as money became available. Alas, fire often destroyed the interior before additions could be done.
As military structures, castle walls were designed to withstand attacks. Archers were posted on top of walls where they could continually shoot at invaders. Hot oil would be poured down on those foolish enough to get close to the walls. Once men or heavy duty weapons, were soaked with oil, it only took a fire arrow to set the hapless men, or siege weapons ablaze. Those attacking castles often found the easiest way to take a keep, was to wait the resident out via a blockade. Blockades could go on for months. How long the residents stayed holed up depended on the amount of supplies and water stored within the stone walls. Eventually the food ran out.
The upkeep on castles are very expensive, thus those still held by private families are opened to the Public for a fee in England. One can even rent some castles for special events or stay in some for vacations. Many of the more famous castles are still used by the Royal family. Windsor Castle is a part-time residence of Queen Elizabeth II, as is Balmoral Castle in Scotland. You can visit Windsor, and tour it unless the British flag is flying – that means the Queen is in residence. Another famous castle is the Tower of London. Both Windsor and the White Tower (part of the Tower of London) were built by William the Conqueror, the White Tower in 1078 and Windsor in the 1070’s. Winchester Castle was built for King Henry II, and used frequently by the King.
Castles weren’t just military strongholds and family residences, the royal castles under the Assize of Clarendon were also jails. Baronial lords under King Henry II, and future monarchs, held justice courts to hear legal cases. Those found guilty, and some pending ‘trials’ were held in the dungeons, in often deplorable conditions.
To learn more about castles, click on the links I have listed. You can see pictures, learn about castles in many countries, and discover which castles are reported to be haunted.
Finally, I disengaged the adult content warning - it was annoying, so reader beware.
Stay safe out there.
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