The Writer’s Guide to Castles

From the Red Keep to Cair Paravel to Skyhold, castles have loomed large in fantasy and are a familiar part of the landscape of movies, TV shows, video games, and books. They are a favorite among writers and often grab the imagination of readers and viewers. However, unless you live in Europe, most writers don’t have the opportunity to visit a real castle. These fortresses were built with an intentional purpose, clever engineering, and impressive technology. The fact that so many of them are still standing today is a testament to the quality of their construction.

Today I will be diving into the basics of castles.

As always, magic is the exception to the rules. Because magic.

Definition

The term “castle” gets tossed around quite a bit but what is a castle? What makes it different from a palace or fortress? Historians usually define a castle as a private fortified residence. [1] They were commonly held individually by members of the nobility or the royal family since land ownership and a lot of money for construction and upkeep were required. [2] The main way to acquire land in medieval Europe was to be gifted it by the monarch, usually as a reward for loyal service. There was also the expectation of continued military service from the lord and his vassals. [3] Ownership was hereditary, usually passing to the oldest son. This type of inheritance is known as patrilineal.

An example of an early fortified residence. Photo source.

Purpose

The castle served multiple purposes. First, it was a residence, housing the owner, their family, and household. Second, it was an administrative center from which to oversee the owner’s lands. Third, it was a military base from which soldiers could attack and retreat to. [4]

Evolution

Walled fortifications are incredibly old and were built in the Indus Valley, Egypt, and China. There is some debate regarding when the first castles were built. The ancestors of castles were likely the fortified homes of lords. The most common defenses were walls and earthworks. The first castles were often made of wood.

Château de Dinan from the Bayeux Tapestry, one of the earliest depictions of a castle.
Notice it is made of wood and the attackers are trying to set it on fire. Photo source.

The first type of castle is a motte-and-bailey castle. A motte is an earthen mound, usually flattened at the top. It could be natural or manmade. [5] They ranged in height from 10 to 100 feet (3-30 m) and in diameter from 100 to 300 feet (30-90 m) [6] On top of the motte, was built a keep, which housed the lord, his family, and household. The early keeps were constructed of wood, which made them susceptible to fire. Over time, stone became the more common building material. The motte and keep were surrounded by a wall or palisade that enclosed the bailey. It was an open space that keep attackers at a distance and housed various buildings such as the stables, forge, workshops, storehouses, barracks, and kitchen. [7] Motte-and-bailey castles were first built in northern Europe in the 10th century, spreading to southern Europe throughout the following century. The Normans introduced them to England when they invaded, and they were adopted through Britain and Ireland during the 12th and 13th centuries. The design was surpassed by others by the end of the 13th century.

A motte-and-bailey castle. Photo source.

Castles continued to evolve from the motte-and-bailey. The biggest advance was replacing wood with stone. This happened slowly and unevenly across Europe since stone was harder to move and lift. There was often a mixing of the two. For example, a keep could be stone, but the wall would be made of wood.

Over time, castle design became more sophisticated. Walls were added, creating more baileys. Gatehouses and barbicans protected the passages through these walls. The entrance to the keep was moved to the second floor for security. Crenellations were added to the walls to protect the defenders. I will be covering the defensive features and parts of castles in my next article.

The Alcázar of Segovia, a 12th century Spanish castle. Photo source.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Coulson, Charles (2003). Castles in Medieval Society: Fortresses in England, France, and Ireland in the Central Middle Ages. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-927363-4.
[2] Liddiard, Robert (2005). Castles in Context: Power, symbolism and landscape, 1066 to 1500. Macclesfield, UK: Windgather Press Ltd. ISBN 0-9545575-2-2.
[3] Herlihy, David (1970). The History of Feudalism. London, UK: Humanities Press. ISBN 0-391-00901-X.
[4] Friar, Stephen (2003). The Sutton Companion to Castles. Stroud, UK: Sutton Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7509-3994-2.
[5] Toy, p.52; Brown (1962), p.24.
[6] Toy, p.52.
[7] Meulemeester, p.105; Cooper, p.18; Butler, p.13.

1 Comments on “The Writer’s Guide to Castles”

  1. Pingback: The Writer’s Guide to Castle Construction | Rebecca Shedd - Author

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