When one thinks of the medieval castle thoughts that come to mind are the stuff of myth and legend – King Arthur, damsels in distress, nobler, more romantic times. The castle could be a church, a bank, a stronghold, or, more commonly, a home and residence for the owner and his family.
Castle like fortifications first appeared during Roman times, but following the decline of the Roman Empire, the emergence of the Saxons and the rise of feudalism, castle building flourished. In the feudalistic society, the King was supreme and below him were the numerous landholders. These landholders would be charged with providing knights and men-at-arms to the king. Bases were needed for these men and these bases needed to be fortified and defensible. Thus was born the castle.
William the Conqueror, following the Norman invasion of England, largely led the widespread development of the castle in England. However, these castles were initially not the large stone fortresses that come to mind today. These first castles were made of earth and timber and consisted of two areas, the motte, or enclosure, and bailey, or central area. These structures were either built on a hill or, more commonly, a ditch was dug for defense and the excavated dirt was built up behind the ditch and covered with timber. The ditch was sometimes filled with water or hedges were planted behind the ditch as an added defense.
As castle building progressed, towers were added to the structure for additional defense and to serve as a final retreat in times of attack. The earth and timber structures gave way to the traditional stone structures that are thought of today when one thinks of castles. In fact, many of these initial earthen structures were remodeled and built into stone fortresses. The large stone castles that survive today first appeared in the 12th century.
These stone fortresses, made up of the keep, or central area, tower and gatehouse, were built to withstand long sieges and allowed for the occupants to remain inside the castle for long periods of time where the would be protected. Many of the medieval stone castles had extremely thick walls, sometimes 10 or more feet thick, with additional reinforcement at the wall’s base to withstand siege engines and other forms of attack. However, advances in siege warfare, improved siege engines, mining, or simply scaling the castle walls made castles less secure from attack. To remedy these offensive methods, improvements were made to the castle design. Walls were rounded or further reinforced, towers were flanked to allow for layers of defense when invaders attempted to climb them and wall bases were extended and gates reinforced to frustrate battering rams.
However, with the advent of gunpowder and its explosive power, the effectiveness of the castle was diminished, though their construction continued. As is evidenced by the number of medieval castles that still remain, their construction is a testament to the quality of the workmanship and craftsmanship of the time.