When the words “Medieval castle” are spoken, certain images instantly jump to the forefront of one’s mind. Most involve giant stonewalls with archers behind a stone wall and trebuchets on large towers, while a giant army that seems to stretch on forever attacks seemingly impervious walls. Contrary to this popular daydream image, however, castles were not continuously in a state of siege. In times of peace, the castle would contain the owner's family and servants. The castle would be guarded only during wartime. Once the crisis passed, the garrison would revert to being farmers and peasant laborers once again. While the Romans did build some impressive forts, the earliest concentration to build castles in Europe came after William the Conqueror and his army conquered England in 1066. Immediately after the Battle of Hastings, William ordered castles built at Warwick, Nottingham, York , Lincoln, Cambridge and Huntingdon. These castles had very little to do with tall walls of stone, however. The first Norman castles were hurriedly constructed from earth and timber, and most conformed to a basic plan: the motte and bailey.
The motte was a large conical mound with a flat top. Wherever possible, use was made of natural hillocks or rock outcroppings, but most mottes were raised by digging a deep ditch around the site and heaping up the soil. Often more material was needed to produce the required size and height of a mound and this was obtained elsewhere. Both mound and enclosure were defended by the ditch and a dirt bank behind the ditch, topped with a timber stockade. Sometimes the ditches were filled with water, and in some instances had a raised bank in front, as well as behind. When possible, hedges of thorns and briars would be planted to add yet another natural wall of defense.
Within the stockade of the mound, there would be a timber tower. Tower and motte formed the strongpoint of the castle: the very last defense if attackers managed to overrun the bailey. The tower was also the residence of the castle's owner and had to be large enough to contain his family and their servants. The entrance to the bailey was through a strongly defended gate, usually at the end of a bridge that ran over a ditch.
The main advantage of motte and bailey castles were that they were quick and cheap to erect. Despite how primitive it seems, such a castle was a formidable obstacle to attackers equipped with the weapons of the period. Mottes ranged from 25-30 feet to over 80 feet in height, with the timber tower giving the defenders a further advantage. The bailey could cover anywhere from one to three acres. It was usually designed so that any point on its circumference would be within bowshot of the tower. They may pale to the larger castles that would follow made of stone and brick, but an attacking army would not be laughing at the motte and bailey, nor the terrible battle they faced ahead.