What Are Castles: Facts about Castles

What makes something a castle? Why were they built? And why aren’t castles built anymore?

A castle is a specific type of building, made for a specific purpose. It is different than a fortress, which is a strengthened military stronghold, and it is different than a palace, which is the large, splendid home of a rich, important person. A castle is generally considered to be a large, fortified building that is also the home of a king, lord, or another important person. The first structures known as castles date back to the 9th or 10th centuries. At this time, following the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe was a dangerous place. The territory that had previously been controlled by Emperors was divided between kings, lords, and princes. These smaller rulers needed a way to control the territory around them, and so they began to build castles.

The earliest castles did not look much like the castles most people recognize. They were called motte-and-bailey castles, and they consisted of a keep, or fortified tower, located on a raised earthen hill called a motte, overlooking an enclosed courtyard called a bailey. The motte would have been surrounded by a ditch, often created by excavating the soil used to build up the motte. The bailey would have been surrounded by a wooden fence called a palisade, and then another ditch. Sometimes water from rivers or streams would be diverted to fill the ditches around the motte and bailey, creating a moat. Motte-and-bailey castles had a serious weakness, though – they were vulnerable to fire. Soon, they fell out of favour and were replaced by fortresses built of stone. Stone castles were more durable, stronger against attacks, and less vulnerable to fire, but they were more time-consuming and expensive to construct. These new stone castles developed special features to improve their defences. Castles were built on land with natural obstacles when possible, such as on the edge of a cliff, or on a peninsula. Those without such defences might be surrounded by ditches or moats.

Castle builders were careful to be sure that a secure source of freshwater was available, such as a well, or spring, or even cisterns to collect rainwater. Crenellations on the walls allowed archers to shelter behind the raised portions when they were under attack, but fire from the lower portions. Towers were built on every side of the castle wall, with arrow slits or loopholes that allowed archers to fire on approaching enemies without making themselves targets. The castle’s walls might be as much as 20 feet or 6 meters thick at their bases. Early stone castles often had square walls, but the walls could be collapsed by digging under the corners. Then castle-builders switched to round walls and towers. The gatehouse was one of the weakest points of a castle’s defences, providing a straight path into the courtyard.

Castle builders were careful to include extra defensive measures to protect it. First was the portcullis, a heavy lattice usually made of wood that could be raised or lowered to block the gateway. The holes in a portcullis allowed the defenders to fire through it at advancing enemies. After the portcullis was usually a thick, wooden gate. Between the portcullis and the gate, the walls were lined with arrow slits, allowing defenders to shoot at anyone trying to breakthrough. In addition, the top of the gateway would often be lined with murder holes. Murder holes allowed castle defenders to throw rocks, fire arrows, or pour hot tar or oil down on attackers attempting to breach the gate. Even if attackers somehow made it through the gate into the courtyard, the entire courtyard was ringed with arrow slits, allowing archers to fire on the enemies from every direction. A well-defended castle would almost never lose. With enough time and effort, castles could still fall, however. By the 14th century, an invention had appeared that would mark the beginning of the end for castles – gunpowder. By the 15th century, cannons grew large enough to knock down castles’ stone walls, and castles became indefensible. At the same time, central governments were growing stronger. Kings did not like local nobles having their own fortifications, and people began to build palaces instead of castles. Over time, most castles fell into disrepair. Some castles were taken down by kings who didn’t want them to become a threat. Others were dismantled by people looking for building supplies. For hundreds of years, there were no castles built.

Then, in the 19th century, people began to construct buildings that looked like castles. While they looked like castles, these new buildings did not have the military features of real castles. People just liked the way they looked. Real castles were both the home of an important person and a military fortification. They were built to control territory, allowing their occupants to attack and defend, because they provided protection from enemies, and a base to launch attacks from. Although castles had many military uses, they were also centres of government, courthouses, and treasuries.