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Castles of Britain
An insight into past times

So what is a castle?

A Castle is a fortified building or dwelling that is designed to keep out attackers.
To this end Castles are purely defensive.

Originally a Castle was built to occupy and hold areas of ground and would include villages within its protection. Obviously a Castle was an impressive building and the Lords of the time used that to strike fear into the locals. Castles as we know them now were introduced to Britain in the 11th Century by the Normans. However fortified homes or structures had been around for many centuries before. Earlier to them being known as Castles they were known as Motte and Baily. These were made of Earth and Wood. The “Motte was an earth mound raised above the neighbouring area and on top of this sat a Square Tower, this was originally constructed of Wood. This is where the Lord of the area made his home.

The “Bailey” was the area of land around the Motte sometimes enclosed by a smaller mound. This is where the various workshops belonging to the Lord were housed. And would include a Blacksmith, Stables and Kitches serving the Motte. There would also be a strong gate to be closed when being attacked. The Bailey was isolated from the surrounding countryside by a ditch with a bridge over it. This could be withdrawn for defence.

At this time, the King was William the Conqueror and he found the Wooden Towers to be inferior so he ordered that they be changed to stone This was the onset of the construction of a wealth of Castles throughout Britain.The walls of these new Castles were extremely thick, anything from 6 to 20 feet. But the square design led to many problems so round towers were developed and many of these examples can be seen in Wales. Round towers were easier to defend and deflected the old cannon balls of the day much more effectively than a square design.
Motte and Bailey Castles continued to be popular in Britain for a long period of time and indeed some of the large famous castles still standing are of that original design.

After Motte and Bailey Castles come the types we now know and see all over Britain.
These were named the Keep and Bailey Castles. The motte was replaced with strong stone walls and towers and had a large usually square Tower or Keep at the heart of it’s design.

The Keep was the main stronghold of the castle and was designed to repel invaders for long periods of time. This was called the Siege. The keep very often doubled as the living quarters for the lord of the manor and his family.
The most famous Keep in Britain is the White Tower in the tower of London.

The Keep was split up into four stories usually and housed the bedrooms,
halls, latrines and Guard Rooms.

Usually there was but one entrance to the Keep for obvious reasons. One
entrance was better defended than multiples. This entrance was invariably at
second story level to better defend it. Windows were kept small especially in
the lower two stories where they were loopholes or slits from where Bowmen
could hurl arrows at the enemy with little chance of being hit themselves.

The bailey also had to be converted to repel the enemy. This was achieved by
changing the Wooden Palisades to Stone Crenellated walls. The crenellations
assisted the Bowmen in firing at the enemy and still being able to hide behind the
wall for protection.In any castle the entrance way is the most vulnerable so this had
to be upgraded also.  This was done in a couple of ways.

Firstly the gate was enclosed in smaller tower with battlements, the second method
was to build tow stone towers on either side of the gate where defenders could bring
down fire upon the enemy trying to force the gate. These towers were incorporated
into the stone walls of the Bailey.

Strengths of a Castle.

Obviously the strength of a Castle lay in its walls.

Originally the walls were built in Wood. This was not a very strong method as wood suffers from many poor traits such as easy to pull down, easy to set fire to, subject to rotting in the rainy British weather. This meant that Wooden walls had to be continually repaired or rebuilt. Not Good!

So stone walls were introduced, and were to become the mainstay of Castle Construction.
The stone leant to increased strength, reduced repair, reduced maintenance. However the first Towers were built in a square construction. They were not very stable and in fact often just toppled over. To make things worse the armies besieging a castle found that if they were to dig a tunnel under a Tower corner, fill the tunnel with dry wood and set fire to it they were able to bring about a collapse of the Tower corner thus enabling the army to gain access and bring down the defenders. To overcome this, a round tower was designed and this led to a much stronger and more enemy proof structure.

Walls were much thicker than wood so better able to withstand the onslaught of battering rams and cannonballs. The round Towers also had the advantage that the primitive cannonballs simply skidded off the wall.

Round Towers also developed into a design known as “Splayed Plinth”.
This meant that the lower half of the tower curved outwards providing a much
more stable base. It also meant that the defenders in the battlements had a better
view of the ground near the base and were then able to bring down arrow fire on
the attacking forces.

A good example of the Splayed Plinth can be seen to the right in Pembroke castle

Castle built in Wales predominately used the “Round Tower” design.

In order to further protect the Tower castles had a gatehouse built into the outside walls.
This became the first focus of an attack and therefore the defense of the Castle.Gatehouses
had a strong Gate or Door structure built in and one of the best designs was the addition of
an iron gate which lowered into position when the Castle was under attack this was know as
the “Portcullis” from Old French name “Porte Coleice”, meaning sliding gate.
This was lowered into position by means of a windlass which usually took two men to operate.
The Portcullis was also counterweighted to allow it to be raised and lowered quickly.

The Portcullis was often two layered so that one stood at the outside wall and one stood at the inner wall.
The Inner one would be lowered first and then the outer one. This would trap some the enemy between
the two and allow the defenders to kill them easily.

Shown to the right is a typical Portcullis.

Further strengthening of the Castle was by having a deep Moat encircling the Castle.
This prevented easy access to the Castle walls. Of course the inhabitants had to be
able to get in and out and a bridge was too easy to attack so a new method was devised.
This was the Drawbridge. The Drawbridge was a bridge that could be pulled into the
castle back or was hinged on the inner side to be pivoted up and prevent access.

Here we see a typical Drawbridge

An even simpler design was to have the main castle entry on a lower level than the castle interior and then use a ladder to gain access. This ladder was the withdrawn to secure the entry. This design was not used very much due to the restrictive nature for bringing heavy goods into the castle.

Of course the best defense was to build the castle on top of a steep hill which forced the invaders to climb it and then be in easy firing range all the way.

An excellent example of this is Edinburgh Castle which nestles atop a massive volcanic rock and was almost impregnable.
There are a few strange stories surrounding castles that I feel are worth  a mention.

Under Norman Rule Castles had to be licensed!

Building a Castle or fortifying Manor House without a license could invoke the Monarchs wrath and run the risk of having the building seized.

Castles had no bathroom facilities!

A myth of the times was that no one bathed. Not always true! When living in a Castle the owners would sometimes have a wooden bathtub installed in their private quarters. There was a position in the Castle Staff named “The Bathman” It was his duty to heat water and prepare the bathtub for his master or family. He was also responsible for ensuring the bath accompanied his master when traveling for long periods.

Some Castles did adopt a type of bathroom with a stone sink often knows as a Lavabo.

Of course other facilities needed to be built and one of these was the “Privy” sometimes also known as a “Necessarium” We know this as the toilet but it was just as important back then as it is now. There was also the “Garderobe” which was  a Privy but usually in the Castle Keep. The seats of these protruded out from the wall.

Most castles had this facility but it was very primitive, sometimes just being a stone or wooden  seat erected over a shaft that fell into the Moat. The person responsible for maintaining the Privy was called the Latrinarum.

It was a natural weakness in a Castle’s strength as invaders would use the shaft to climb into the castle so an iron grid was mounted in the chute.

Castle owners had sumptuous steaming food brought to their table!

By design many early Castles had their Kitchens situated outside of the main building and the servants used to walk through the elements to bring food to the table. Consequently it was usually cold.
Later Castle design brought the kitchens in from the cold and were a stone building encased it the main Tower.
Kitchens then had large ovens to cook in, some as big as fourteen foot in diameter.
It was not unusual for the soldiers to take over the oven in times of siege and heat sand  and missiles to throw at the enemy. Oh by the way, the depiction of using hot oil to repel boarders is not fully true. Oil in those days was an expensive and hard to come by commodity so using it in this way was not taken lightly.

Castles had Solariums!

Well almost true but not as we know them now.
A Solar was usually a room above ground level, but later became part of the design to make life more comfortable for the Lord and his Lady
Solars became rooms where there were large south facing windows and it was usually the Lords Private Room. Later castles had them built into a Tower and the lady of the Manor would use them for her quarters. These became knows as “The Bower”

Castles have Ghosts!

Well who knows for sure, but many castles enjoy the reputation of being haunted. The most famous of them is situated in Scotland and is Glamis castle in Angus.
Two of the most famous ghosts are The Earl Beardie and The Monster of Glamis.

In England there is Chillingham Castle in the North east and it boasts a ghost in the form of a radiant boy. He appears from nowhere and is full of a golden light, his appearance produces a huge ray of light. He is said to have a gentle smile and appears peaceful. The legend says that those who see him are destined to have great power, but a very violent death produced by a damaging force.

So is it true? Well go and see and find out for yourself.

This concludes my Castle feature and I hope that you have enjoyed this introduction to Castles of Britain. To learn more follow any of the links I have provided.

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