Castles have a romantic connotation of princesses and princes, but real medieval castles more closely resemble fortresses than fairy tale illustrations. That being said, castles from the middle ages exhibit strength and majesty still evident on the landscape today.
Castles were the homes of wealthy nobles and their families while a majority of the population lived in more modest accommodations. The Middle Ages had a complex system of monarchies and feudal lords consistently warring over territory and resources. Because of this, the purpose of a castle was primarily for protection. Emphasis was given to impenetrability and indestructibility over luxury and comfort.
The materials used in building castles in the Middle Ages are primarily wood and stone – resources readily found in much of Europe. Wood was less expensive and easier to transport; however, it had the obvious disadvantage of being extremely flammable. With the Norman invasion of 1066 and the destruction of numerable castles by fire, stone became a more common building material.
Stone, of course, is stronger than wood and not at all flammable, but it does lack the flexibility offered by wood. Rows of stones spaced with mortar have created incredibly durable castles, though initially these structures were tremendously inelegant.
The introduction of the Gothic style in England around 1200 resulted in drastic changes to stone architecture in both churches and castles. Previously stones were cut rather coarsely, but the Gothic style required carefully cut and shaped stones to realize the shapes and heights desired. Another significant advantage of using stone is the ability to re-use the material. Should a castle by attacked and damaged, a large portion of the raw materials are still available to use in the rebuilding.
It is certainly impressive to think that the structures of the Middle Ages were erected with significantly less technological advancement than exists today. Throughout the medieval time, new developments in technology allowed for the evolution of construction and design techniques.
Instead of simple ‘post and lintel’ constructions that rely on right angles for the distribution of weight, the introduction of the arch allowed for more complex and visually appealing designs. Arches have been in use since the Roman Empire, if not before, but the Gothic development of the pointed arch (as opposed to the round, semi-circular arch) increased the strength of the structure.
The forces are not simply channeled downward, but to a certain extent outwards as well. Very deep and strong foundations as well as the inclusion of flying buttresses on the exterior therefore support the weight of the building by counteracting the downward and outward thrust of force cause by the arches.
It can be seen through the examples below that an important aspect of the castles is not related to the building but rather to the site itself. Castles are strategically placed to have the best possible defensive position in case of an attack. The best locations were viewed as those at tops of hills, on islands, on peninsulas, and on top of rocky terrain.
In the early part of the Middle Ages, castles were bulky and formidable structures that, though presumably safe, did not seem ideal for family homes. The walls were very thick and construction technology and safety only allowed for thin slits for windows resulting in very dark interior spaces.
As the centuries progressed, slow changes were made to medieval architecture transforming it into something much more elegant and majestic. The arch technology discussed above allowed architects and builders to expand the width and height of vaults creating an airier and less claustrophobic space.
Common features of castles of the Middle Ages include:
Towers served as an important defensive tactic by allow sentinels a higher vantage point from which to view an approaching enemy thereby giving the residents more time to prepare for the impending attack. Despite their importance use in the defense of medieval castles, the number and style of towers are useful in identifying structures.
Moats, as seen in many illustrations of fairy tale castles, did exist in actuality and with strong defensive purposes. The gates could be closed and the bridge lifted hindering the approach of enemy soldiers. This slowed the progress of the attack and gave the defenders the opportunity to attack solders from above.Great Halls are important features in medieval castle. Despite the primary purpose of defense, castles were places of residence. The noble families often hosted events such as feasts and balls within the Great Halls.
Dungeons, interestingly, were most commonly located within the tallest towers of the castle and not in underground cave-like facilities. Escape from these cells was incredibly difficult, adding another defensive aspect to the design of castles. Chapels are essential in many castles because of limited transportation means. The Middle Ages were an extremely devout time, and the ability to worship from home was convenient and demonstrated to the church their devotion to religion.
The strength and durability of medieval castles are evidenced in that they have withstood the test of time. Many of the partial and complete castles still remain throughout Europe. Heritage and other societies take pride in preserving the remnants of a time centuries past for educating future generations. Tours and visits can be arranged in many of the surviving castles granting insight into the lives of people who seem so distant in time and lifestyle.
- Tower of London, England
- Pendennis Castle, England
- Herstmonceux Castle, England
- Dover Castle, England
- Conway Castle, Wales
- Edinburgh Castle, Scotland
- Castle Stalker, Scotland
- Chateau du Fleckstein
- Chateau de Beynac
- Chateau de Vitre
- Burg Eltz, Germany
- Castle of Nuremberg, Germany
- Berghausen Castle, Germany
- Bohus Castle, Sweden
- Egeskov, Denmark
- The Alhambra, Spain
- Coca Castle, Spain
- Sacra di San Michele (a fortified church)
- Castle Pedzin, Poland
- Bran Castle, Romania
- Valiki Tabor Castle, Croatia
Visiting castles from the Middle Ages offers great insight into the lives of the people who once lived within. History comes alive when paired with the actual walls defended and artifacts of the former residents. Despite the strength of the buildings in times of medieval warfare, time has not been quite as kind and many surviving examples require significant care to maintain the structure.
It is evident through castle architecture, as one example, that despite the reputation of medieval times being simple a “middle age” between two great, productive eras, that highly intelligent and inventive men were able to construct monumental buildings with limited technology.