If you thought that medieval castles were just massive stone forts that depended on nothing more than the impregnability of their stone defenses, think again. In fact, builders in the Middle Ages incorporated many clever innovations that made them much more than simply a passive defensive structure. Read on to find out about cunning castle features such as murder holes, crenellations, bartizans and ravelins.
If there was an angry mob or an invading army attacking your castle in medieval times, hiding behind your high walls probably wouldn’t achieve much. Quite naturally, you’d want to fight back. And that would be even more necessary if your enemy had weapons such as a trebuchet. This was a large catapult capable of firing projectiles such as boulders as far as 900 feet.
Thankfully for them, defenders could rely on arrowslits to ward off an invasion. These were long, narrow apertures in the height of the castle walls. This allowed the castle defenders to fire arrows from their bows or crossbow bolts. In later developments, a horizontal opening was added to the vertical aperture to give a wider field of fire. In time, these slits were adapted to accommodate the primitive firearms of the Middle Ages such as the arquebus.
19. Spiral staircases
In modern times, spiral stairs are nothing more than attractive architectural features with the advantage that they take up less space than a conventional staircase. But in medieval times, castle builders had a very specific purpose in mind when they included a spiral staircase. And if you visit a castle with spiral stairs, you’ll note that they turn clockwise as you ascend.
The majority of people are right-handed, and that’s why the stairs were built clockwise. Imagine you’re a medieval knight charging up a spiral stairway brandishing your sword in your right hand. You’ll find that your ability to slash and cut in a wide arc were severely inhibited by the stone wall to your right. That would give a retreating defender an edge that might just mean the difference between life and death.
18. Murder holes
Murder holes – also called machicolations – were a fiendish design feature in castles of the Middle Ages. Introduced after the Crusades, a murder hole offered a method of injuring or even killing enemies who were attacking your castle. And the concept is simple enough. Built into the topmost ramparts of a castle would be a series of projecting buttresses with holes in the floor.
Defenders would wait until the enemy was directly under a hole and then they’d drop something through the aperture from a great height. This might be a boulder, boiling oil or anything else that came to hand. Obviously, the attacker would then be – at the very least – wounded.
A conventional wall is usually straight up and down on the vertical plane. But if you’re building a castle, there are advantages to be had from building your outer wall in a different way. The bottom section of it can be flared outwards. This is called a talus, and it has the effect of forcing attackers to keep their distance from defenders inside the castle walls. Furthermore, it makes it difficult to deploy siege engines or ladders.
If the bottom section of a castle wall is built thicker than the upper part, that makes the task of undermining or battering it down all the more difficult. Indeed, taluses were sometimes called batters. And this design allowed defenders to drop rocks from their ramparts. These would rebound from the talus and severely inconvenience the enemy.
16. Chemins de rondes
The French term chemin de ronde can be simply translated as walkway, but the phrase has a specific meaning in the context of castles. It refers to the pathways built into the top of a castle’s walls which are protected by battlements. These are crucial in castle design since they allowed defenders to move around their stronghold while being shielded from the enemy’s arrows, bullets or other projectiles.
Early medieval castles were tricky to defend from atop their high walls. But the introduction of the chemin de ronde allowed soldiers a relatively safe and advantageous position from which to defend a castle. Once ensconced on the protected pathway on the structure’s wall, they could fire on the enemy from a height or drop things on them.
Crenellations – also called battlements – are protective stoneworks built at the top of a castle’s walls. Their distinctive profile is perhaps the single characteristic we think of first when the word castle is mentioned. They’re rather like a line of gapped “teeth” sitting along the summit of the building’s wall. Raised parts of the wall are punctuated by empty spaces – allowing defenders to take cover from enemies or to emerge and take aim at them.
Crenellations were also built around the top of castle towers and sometimes protected city walls. The solid part of a crenellation is called the merlon, while the gap between those is the crenel. Merlons could also be provided with arrowslits and would provide protection to those on the chemin de ronde.
Terminology describing castle architecture has a certain undeniable mystique – crenellations, taluses, machicolations – and now we have bastions. This latter form of defense was a specially strengthened section of the castle wall – often built in the form of a tower. The bastion protruded from the wall and was usually sited at either the corners of the castle’s structure or in the middle of a section of wall.
Bastions could be constructed with a rounded shape, although they were sometimes also built with sharp angles. They formed a defensive bulwark designed to make a well-fortified castle all the more impregnable. Bastions were developed as cannons began to improve in the 15th century. By this point, artillery made castles vulnerable and bastions were designed to overcome that threat.
Moats – also known as douves – are another one of those features absolutely central to our idea of a traditional castle. The moat was basically a ditch dug around the castle walls which was filled with water. This provided a formidable barrier against attackers who needed to find a way across this obstacle before they could mount an effective attack on the battlements.
Defenders could make a moat all the more daunting by sinking pointed stakes into its bed. A moat also made it practically impossible to undermine a castle’s walls or to attempt to tunnel under them as attackers often did. And there was a bonus feature that came with a moat: the castle’s residents could use it a fish farm.
If you construct a massive walled building designed to keep hostile folks out, you have to think about where the weakest points of your defenses are. In the case of a medieval castle, that was almost certain to be the main entrance. And this is why a lot of effort went into making sure that the principal gateway was very heavily defended.
Often, the castle entrance would have a huge gatehouse constructed around it – sometimes guarded by twin towers. The gateway itself would be set back inside the gatehouse to restrict access. We heard about murder holes earlier and how placing those just above the castle’s main entrance was a favored tactic. As your enemies tried to break their way into the castle, you could unleash rocks and boiling liquid onto their heads.
The donjon – also known as a keep – was the heart of life inside a castle. It was built in the form of a multi-floored tower sometimes as high as 130 feet and contained a variety of rooms with different functions. It would be very strongly built and acted as the last refuge against attackers. Donjons often featured turrets which defenders could use as firing points.
In more peaceful times, the great hall in the donjon would be where the lord of the manor and his retinue could concentrate on their carousing and feasting. These structures were also equipped with primitive latrines, storerooms and kitchens which were often sited on the top story. And if the term donjon sounds familiar, it’s because the word dungeon derives from it. Meanwhile, as castles fell into disuse, they were often used as prisons.
Medieval castles did not benefit from indoor plumbing and the facilities were basic at best. The latrine was called the garderobe, and it consisted of a small room which sat either just inside the castle wall or protruding out from it. The structure had a hole built into the floor with a chute leading down occasionally straight into the moat. Lords, ladies and commoners alike had to use this as best they could.
The name garderobe is from French and means a place to keep clothes. Apparently, fine clothes would be stored in the smallest room because the unpleasant odors there were enough to discourage moths. Presumably, this meant that the castle residents smelled none too sweet. But at least their cloths were not perforated by the pesky insects.
9. Bossed stones
Bossed stones are masonry blocks with an unfinished rugged plane facing outwards, and they featured on many castle walls. They’re set among stones that have been smoothed off by craftsmen, and their purpose was for many years a real puzzle for experts. One theory had it that leaving some stones undressed was a money-saver. Another supposed that they were simply cosmetic and made a wall look more impregnable.
But a third explanation for bossed stones turned out to be the correct one. Taking evidence from learned texts, researchers discovered that the purpose of these stones was to dissipate the effect of rocks fired from siege catapults. The protruding boss stone took the blow of a projectile and diffused its power – giving a wall improved resistance to attack. Interestingly, the know-how behind this technique actually stretches back to before the Roman era.
Hourdes were a temporary addition to defensive walls used when a medieval castle came under attack. They were a kind of protective wooden structure which would be attached to the top of castle walls to provide extra protection and a vantage point to attack from. Defenders would also cover the timber structures with soaking wet animal skins to make it more difficult for attackers to set them on fire.
To accommodate these hourdes, castle builders would include holes in the top of defensive ramparts. These recesses could then be used to quickly fit the hourde’s supporting poles in times of danger. Over time, the wooden variants were superseded by permanent stone-built defenses. These had the advantages of being fireproof and always in place in the event of attack.
If your castle had a moat around it, then obviously you’d be in need of a bridge of some sort. After all, how would you and your retinue enter and leave the castle? Clearly, a crossing of some sort was essential, but it couldn’t just be any old bridge. It had to be a drawbridge, otherwise your enemies would have ready access to your stronghold.
A drawbridge was one which could be pulled up if attackers appeared on the scene. Usually, it would lead over the moat to the gatehouse. The end of the drawbridge at the gate would have hinges so that it could be pulled up with ropes or chains when necessary. Once raised, it would then form another obstructing doorway to help prevent access to the castle.
A bartizan – also known as an échaugette – was a kind of castle tower. These particular structures were actually built into the structure of the castle walls. Sitting at the top of the defenses and often protruding outwards from them, these turrets allowed defenders a protected space from which to attack enemies as they assaulted a castle’s walls.
Bartizans were frequently fitted with arrowslits, and their positions were chosen to give a wide field of fire. Sometimes they were also equipped with murder holes. The turrets came in various shapes and tended to be placed on long straight stretches of wall or at the point where a battlement changed direction. As well as having a defensive role, bartizans were effective look-out posts, too.
An oubliette was a special kind of dungeon. It was characterized by having an entrance which was a trapdoor set high in the ceiling of the cell. These structures were also notoriously dark, damp and cramped. Actually, some chambers identified today as oubliettes may actually have been store rooms or even latrines. There’s a suspicion that modern tourist authorities may claim that certain rooms are oubliettes in order to add mystique to a castle.
The French word oubliette means a place that is forgotten, and so, by implication, the prisoner would be left to rot. Sir Walter Scott – the author of various Gothic romances – popularized the oubliette in his 1819 work Ivanhoe. In any case, there’s little doubt that prisoners were held in castle dungeons – often in appalling conditions.
The criss-cross pattern of the portcullis gate is perhaps one of the best-known symbols that says “castle.” In most cases, the portcullis was fitted in the entrance to the gatehouse. It was made of stout timber, iron or a mixture of both materials and was fitted into grooves built into the castle’s masonry. The bottom of the portcullis was frequently fitted with sharp points – threatening the lives of anyone brave enough to assault the castle.
These grooves meant that the portcullis could be lifted or dropped vertically using a system of winches and pulleys which would be mounted in the gatehouse. Sometimes there would be two portcullises: one mounted to the front of the gatehouse and the other to the rear. By closing both, enemies could be trapped between them. Then defenders in the gatehouse could drop rocks and boiling liquids on the unfortunate attackers.
The principal building within the castle walls was the keep or donjon – a stronghold occupied by the master and his retinue. The area around the keep – between it and the outer walls – was a kind of square called a bailey. This area housed various buildings and outhouses necessary to support life in a castle.
Buildings in the bailey might include a blacksmith’s forge and space for other crafts such as potters and weavers. Other facilities might include grain silos and a buttery which was where beer, wine and food were stored. There would also be space for hunting dogs, hawks and horses as well as livestock such as cattle and chickens. There might even be vegetable gardens. So, the bailey was essential for times of danger or siege – making the castle largely self-sufficient.
2. Secret passages and rooms
Secret rooms and passages in buildings have a long history. They date back to at least ancient Egypt, when pyramids often had concealed tunnels and chambers. And in medieval castles, secret passages had various purposes. They might lead to hidden rooms or offer a means of escape. If attackers were besieging a castle, the secret passage to a hidden exit might be the only way to escape the enemy.
The doorway to a secret passage would often be disguised and sometimes looked like nothing more than a blank wall. Warwick Castle in England – an important stronghold in medieval times – features secret rooms including a bear pit. A concealed chamber in the castle’s Watergate Tower is said to be haunted by the ghost of Sir Fulke Greville, who was slain by his servant in 1628.
A ravelin was a stronghold – often triangular in shape – built a short distance from a castle’s main walls. This separate fortification provided a first line of defense against attackers as they approached the castle’s main battlements. And the ravelin’s three-sided construction meant that defenders could fire on the enemy from a variety of angles.
The ravelin also provided a barrier against artillery attack on the castle’s main walls. They were an important component of star forts – built to counter the power of cannons in the 17th and 18th centuries. Ravelins were constructed with low walls facing the castle that they were defending. This meant that if an enemy succeeded in overwhelming the stronghold, it would have no cover from defenders high on the castle’s ramparts.