The definition of the word castle includes many elements. In these times we tend to
romanticize the old stone structures by envisioning kings and queens sitting on great thrones with a court jester amusing them and making them laugh. Knights in full armor on white horses galloping through our dreams on their way to rescue fair maidens; and unfortunate enemies falling into the moat are other scenes that we envision.
The castles of Medieval Times were damp and cold with armies always on the verge of attacking them. Those noble knights were mercenaries who spent fourteen years of their lives preparing to fill the position. The fair maidens were usually part of an arranged marriage deal that included financial gain. And - all the horses were not white.
In addition to serving as the residence of a king or other man of noble blood, the castle served as a safe haven from marauding armies seeking to take over property from them. The king or lord who owned the castle used it as government headquarters for the area it was located in. A powerful king might own more than one castle and travel to various areas staying in each one for a certain length of time. The right to build a castle was often bestowed on a knight who served the king admirably. Although he would then own the castle it came with an obligation to collect rent from the peasant farmers in the area. Understandably these farmers were bitter over paying rent for land they once owned outright. If a knight couldn't maintain order the king could take back the castle. If the king decided he wanted to live in that particular castle, he could reclaim it without providing a reason or explanation. During the Middle Ages the king was omnipotent.
The physical structure could be somewhat large or it could be huge with walls between eight and twenty feet thick. A battering ram could not break down stone walls as strong as that. The innermost area included a tower known as a keep. At the beginning of the Middle Ages the towers were built in a square shape. It was soon determined that they were easily brought down and destroyed by the enemy. Gradually the building techniques evolved and new castles were constructed of thick rock in a circular shape. The round tower allowed rocks and other missiles propelled by catapults to bounce off the tower, thus doing little harm. The architects continued to search for new ways to fortify the towers. The splayed plinth placed legs deeply into the ground around the base which was quite successful at keeping the tower upright.
As you may already know, a castle was not simply one structure. There were other structures within the outer perimeter. There were concentric walls and the space between them would contain a number of necessary buildings and other uses of that space. For example, between the two sets of walls would lie the bailey. This is a
courtyard where, during a war, the peasants might find protection. It also was the
area where animals were kept. There were the beautiful, strong horses which the knights rode into battle. Most of the others were a source of food, every type from chickens to cows. Since there was no refrigeration they were simply kept alive until needed in the kitchen.
It doesn't take much imagination to picture the messy condition of the ground under the feet of the animals. High above the squalor was the wall walk with its parapet from behind which the soldiers could defend the castle. There were murder holes through which they could fire arrows at the attacking soldiers. Every castle has a moat, although sometimes they were not filled with water. Some moats had wooden stakes driven into the ground. The stakes were sharpened to a point which pointed upwards. An enemy trying to get from one side of the moat to the other would impale himself in the process. About that myth that some moats had alligators living in them, there's no truth to it.
Each castle had a drawbridge which could be lifted or turned, leaving no way to bridge the moat from outside the castle walls. In addition there was often a portcullis made of wood with iron supports that could be raised and lowered as we can raise and lower a window shade. Its purpose was to cover the drawbridge in its closed position thereby providing protection in front of protection.
Each castle has a gate house consisting of towers and other barriers in many different combinations and sizes. There was always a gate house built next to each doorway or opening that led to the outside. A turret built on the top of a tower was used as a lookout point. The turret itself was a smaller version of a tower built on top of a larger tower. All these safety precautions were necessary due to the danger posed by enemy armies.
They came with weaponry such as battering rams, a mangonel which is a stone throwing machine, a springald (catapult) and bows and arrows. If unable to penetrate even the outer wall of the castle the siege would be employed. They would surround the castle to prevent anyone from leaving. Then both sides played the waiting game. If those inside the castle ran out of provisions first, they would be forced to surrender and if the attackers ran out of food food first they would leave the area. The attacking army did have the option of sending some of their soldiers to find food and restock their provisions. But often if the people inside the castle had stockpiled enough, those outside the castle would grow tired of waiting and ride off to lay siege to another more vulnerable castle.
Other building methods utilized to provide safety from outsiders were locating a castle on top of a hill which served a double purpose. The castle guards could keep watch on the surrounds more easily especially when perched in the towers. They could spot a lone rider or an army with ease. Another tactic was to build next to a river, a wide river and present a steep wall with no openings on the side next to the water. Finally, there were some kings who ordered a second drawbridge be built. Doing all one could to prevent easy access to one's castle seems to have been the order of the times during the Middle Ages. Imminent danger came along to attempt killing and mayhem, and it came frequently. The castle was not simply a luxury in those long ago days, it
was a necessity...