January 1, 1066 - European Castle Architecture

By: Paul Summers

Early European castles slowly evolved from small wooden forts to large complex structures capable of fending off armies of soldiers and siege weapons. The evolution of weaponry and strategies of war also brought with it evolutions of castle architecture. Castles’ humble beginnings consisted of small villages, a motte, and a keep. European castles would evolve and reach huge proportions with Multiple walls, with many towers, a keep, and huge surrounding villages and towns. This evolution came with the accumulation of wealth of the high powers of European society and the necessity of adding new defenses to castles due to evolving weaponry.

The Normans were the first European castle builders and built castles from 1066-1215. These castles were built in the motte and bailey style. They would later move on to stone castles though, due to their protective advantage. England was invaded in 1066 by the Normans and they killed the king of England. After this they set off to capture the entire country. This produced the necessity of building defenses called castles to protect themselves. Early Norman castles were built in the motte and bailey style. They were easy and quick to build because they were only made of wood and earth. The name motte and bailey comes from two French words, motte, meaning mound, and bailey, meaning enclosure. This type of castle had two main parts the keep, which was on top of the motte. Mottes were built anywhere between 25 and 80 feet tall. The other main part was the bailey, which was a 1 to 3-acre plot of land. The bailey was home to all of the lord’s followers, who did the work to sustain the castle. Inside the wooden fence surrounding the bailey called the palisade were many buildings including bakeries, kitchens, houses, stables, storehouses, and soldiers quarters. The whole castle was surrounded by a deep ditch called a fosse.

The leader of the Normans William the Conqueror after forming his new England Normans began to build scaled-up stone keep castles instead of motte and valley castles. This new style was very similar to motte and bailey because it was just a stone version without the motte and a much larger keep. The first stone castle built by William was Windsor Castle. King William I would build eight more stone castles that would surround the London area. Many motte and bailey castles that covered England were now being converted into stone castles. Windsor Castle itself began as a motte and bailey castle. Motte and bailey castles were now a thing of the past though because of their lack of strength and great flammability. 1100 marked the beginning of the dominance of the much stronger stone castle. This change occurred for many reasons. One of which being changes in attacking tactics; methods of besieging a castle improved over time, which lead to this necessary change. Protection from fire and cold or rainy weather was another reason for the change.

Stone castles improved over motte and bailey castles, but still evolved over time. Rectangular keeps were one of the first evolutions of the stone castle. Early stone castles had high stone walls and rectangular towers. This would change with the creation of the rounded keep that consisted of rounded towers. A huge change in stone castles was the creation of concentric castles in the 12th and 13th centuries. Concentric castles were very different because they had two to three walls around the keep instead of the usual one. The shortest wall was the outside one and they increased in size the closer they got to the keep. This was done so defenders can fire on the other walls if captured. This style was first used by King Henry III at Dover Castle in Kent. He also added a wall around the Tower of London. This made it a concentric castle. There were three main parts of concentric castles. First, were the many walls that surrounded the keep. Second, was the death hole, which was the area between two walls. It got this name because if the attackers reached there it meant death most of the time. Third, was a moat, which could be filled with water, be just a deep trough, or be filled with spikes. Moats could reach sizes of 30 feet deep and 12 or more feet in width and surrounded the whole castle. Not all concentric castles had moats though. Concentric Castles became even more popular during the era of sieges because they were way more capable of combatting a siege than other castle types. Other additions that were added to castles over the years consist of the curtain wall, the gatehouse, ramparts, flanking towers, battlements, Machicolations, many gateway defenses, murder holes, arrow/gun loops, great halls, chapels, toilets, and wells.

Castles started as very simple structures used as camps to aid the Normans in their invasion of Europe. They would slowly but surely evolve into centerpieces of cities and become the best structure to defend yourself. Castles brought with it many new inventions and practical structures and are a huge part of history. Without them architecture probably wouldn’t be at the place it is now.