History of Medieval Castles is an Evolution in Wartime Defense

The history of medieval castles was driven by the need for better defenses.

In an age when battles would literally come to the front door, it was necessary for a lord to create a safe haven for himself, his family, his military and sometimes his subjects.

When looking at England as a reference point for medieval castle history, it’s clear there was an evolution unfolding in their creation, construction and uses. The history of medieval castles shows that these great buildings were not so great when they first arrived on British shores.

Brought first by William the Conqueror after his victory in the battle of 1066, the first English castles were in fact Norman. These forerunners in the history of medieval castles were known as motte and bailey castles. They were simply an earthen mound, the motte, and a tower generally made of wood to serve as the lord’s residence. In medieval castle history, the bailey was an area of land closed off by a shorter mound placed next to the motte. Inside it were the livestock, household activities, workshops and more.

As history shows, the motte and bailey construction was strong, but fire was stronger. As time wore on, many of the old motte and bailey castles were either A.) resurfaced with stone; or B.) torn down and replaced with stone constructed castles.

While popular fiction leads people to believe the grand structures were the homes of kings, the history of medieval castles shows that is not the only case. In fact, most castles were granted by kings to their loyal subjects who showed valor on the field of battle. A baron or knight could easily be in charge of a castle. As the history of medieval castles moved forward and siege warfare became a staple of life, castle construction became somewhat uniform in their basic components.

Newer, more “modern” castles from the 13th century forward almost always consisted of these elements:

  • Thick walls – the history of medieval castles shows walls were between eight and 20 feet thick to withstand siege.
  • Round towers – These were important in the evolution of medieval castles, changing from square shapes to a more rounded design for stability and visibility. Towers served as prisons, great rooms and for defense – a carefully placed archer or battery of archers could do some serious damage to an incoming army.
  • A curtain wall – this served to surround the main portion of the castle, adding more the defenses.
  • Gatehouse – these not only served as a way in and out of the castle, they were also heavily fortified and built for warfare. The gatehouse became equipped with heavy iron grates and arrow slits in the walls that archers could use to shoot at enemies.

Other common features that evolved along with the history of medieval castles were moats and the inclusion of draw bridges. A castle served as a home and a safe haven for a governing lord and his subjects. Inasmuch, to protect what the lord oversaw, the history of medieval castles had to move forward in leaps and bounds as new offenses increasingly taxed the old defenses.

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