Castle Anatomy

The old-fashioned castles were mostly made of stone, mortar and wood. Early castles relied on the surrounding landscape to provide much of the protection and were built on hills of “mottes”, surrounded by a high, wooden palisade, motte and bailey castles were used widely until the Norman invasion of 1066. These fortifications proved too easy to burn, and stone was then used more frequently.

Common features found in such castles were:


A motte was an earthen mound with a flat top. It was often artificial, although sometimes it incorporated a pre-existing feature of the landscape. The excavation of earth to make the mound left a ditch around the motte, called a moat (which could be either wet or dry). Although the motte is commonly associated with the bailey to form a motte-and-bailey castle, this was not always the case and there are instances where a motte existed on its own. Motte refers to the mound alone, but it was often surmounted by a fortified structure, such as a keep, and the flat top would be surrounded by a palisade. It was common for the motte to be reached over a flying bridge (a bridge over the ditch from the counterscarp of the ditch to the edge of the top of the mound). Sometimes a motte covered an older castle or hall, whose rooms became underground storage areas and prisons beneath a new keep.

Bailey and enceinte

A bailey, also called a ward, was a fortified enclosure. It was a common feature of castles, and most had at least one. The keep on top of the motte was the domicile of the lord in charge of the castle and a bastion of last defence, while the bailey was the home of the rest of the lord’s household and gave them protection. The barracks for the garrison, stables, workshops, and storage facilities were often found in the bailey. Water was supplied by a well or cistern. Over time the focus of high status accommodation shifted from the keep to the bailey; this resulted in the creation of another bailey that separated the high-status buildings – such as the lord’s chambers and the chapel – from the everyday structures such as the workshops and barracks.

From the late 12th century there was a trend for knights to move out of the small houses they had previously occupied within the bailey to live in fortified houses in the countryside. Although often associated with the motte-and-bailey type of castle, baileys could also be found as independent defensive structures. These simple fortifications were called ringworks. The enceinte was the castle’s main defensive enclosure, and the terms “bailey” and “enceinte” are linked. A castle could have several baileys but only one enceinte. Castles with no keep, which relied on their outer defences for protection, are sometimes called enceinte castles; these were the earliest form of castles, before the keep was introduced in the 10th century.


A keep was a great tower and usually the most strongly defended point of a castle before the introduction of concentric defence. In motte-and-bailey castles, the keep was on top of the motte. Although often the strongest part of a castle and a last place of refuge if the outer defences fell, the keep was not left empty in case of attack but was used as a residence by the lord who owned the castle, or his guests or representatives. The massive internal spaces seen in many surviving donjons can be misleading; they would have been divided into several rooms by light partitions, as in a modern office building. Even in some large castles the great hall was separated only by a partition from the lord’s “chamber”, his bedroom and to some extent his office.

Curtain wall

Curtain walls were defensive walls enclosing a bailey. They had to be high enough to make scaling the walls with ladders difficult and thick enough to withstand bombardment from siege engines which, from the 15th century onwards, included gunpowder artillery. To protect them from undermining, curtain walls were sometimes given a stone skirt around their bases. Walkways along the tops of the curtain walls allowed defenders to rain missiles on enemies below, and battlements gave them further protection. Curtain walls were studded with towers to allow enfilading fire along the wall. Arrowslits in the walls did not become common in Europe until the 13th century, for fear that they might compromise the wall’s strength.


The entrance was often the weakest part in a circuit of defences. To overcome this, the gatehouse was developed, allowing those inside the castle to control the flow of traffic. In earth and timber castles, the gateway was usually the first feature to be rebuilt in stone. The front of the gateway was a blind spot and to overcome this, projecting towers were added on each side of the gate in a style similar to that developed by the Romans. The gatehouse contained a series of defences to make a direct assault more difficult than battering down a simple gate. Typically, there were one or more portcullises – a wooden grille reinforced with metal to block a passage – and arrowslits to allow defenders to harry the enemy. The passage through the gatehouse was lengthened to increase the amount of time an assailant had to spend under fire in a confined space and unable to retaliate. During the 13th and 14th centuries the barbican was developed. This consisted of a rampart, ditch, and possibly a tower, in front of the gatehouse which could be used to further protect the entrance. The purpose of a barbican was not just to provide another line of defence but also to dictate the only approach to the gate.


A moat was a defensive ditch with steep sides, and could be either dry or filled with water. Its purpose was twofold; to stop devices such as siege towers from reaching the curtain wall and to prevent the walls from being undermined. Water moats were found in low-lying areas and were usually crossed by a drawbridge, although these were often replaced by stone bridges. Fortified islands could be added to the moat, adding another layer of defence. Water defences, such as moats or natural lakes, had the benefit of dictating the enemy’s approach to the castle.

Other parts were could include:

  • Inner ward –  large inner courtyard, usually surrounding the keep
  • Inner curtain – A high wall surrounding the inner ward
  • Tower – a square or round structure built as part of the wall
  • Inner gate – gate leading to the inner ward
  • Outer gate – gate in the inner curtain, part of a gatehouse
  • Drum Tower – a short round tower built to support the wall
  • Outer curtain – the outermost wall defending the outer ward
  • Arrow slits – also called arrow loops, can be shaped as slits, keyholes, or crosses.  From the inside the slits widen so an archer can turn side to side and stay protected.
  • Gatehouse – Structure consisting of two large towers that support the gate.  They were often large enough to house a standing guard and are considered the strongest defensive positions in the castle.
  • Battlements – fighting position on the top of towers and along the wall, with crenelated walls to protect the defenders.
  • Drawbridge – a heavy timber platform between the gatehouse and surrounding land that could be raised to protect the door.  There is also a turning bridge that pivoted in the middle to prevent entrance.
  • Portcullis – a heavy timber or metal grill that could be dropped to protect the main entrance.  It was occasionally used to trap attackers inside the barbican.
  • Other features:
  • Secret passages – a castle wouldn’t be complete if there weren’t secret doors and passages to help protect the occupants.  Some of these led to other locations in the keep and some led to escape routes.

The building and quarters of the castle include

The Kitchens

The kitchens would have been a frantic hubbub of activity. Entertaining important guests was a fundamental purpose of many castles – this helped secure the power of the castle’s Lord and Lady.

The size of a castle’s kitchen was often proportionate to the intended grandeur and importance of the castle. The most elaborate kitchens would have been all-set to cook and prepare game and fish, which had been caught when hunting in the castle grounds.

The Bakehouse and Brewery

Bread was a dietary staple, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that many castles had their own bake-houses, which would have baked fresh bread for everyone living within. Many castles had their own breweries. This wasn’t due to Medieval alcohol dependence – brewing beer sterilised (hugely-polluted) water, making it a much safer drink than sipping water alone.

The Stables

Horses were incredibly valuable commodities in Medieval society – essential for transport, communication, and for use in battle. Indeed, for a Lord to be considered powerful, they would have needed war-horses. Stables would have often included hay-lofts and space for the grooms to live.

The Barbican

The Barbican was a further development in the defensive design of a castle. Whereas the Gatehouse simply protected the entrance to the castle, the Barbican was designed to be a deathly obstacle course, preventing attackers from even reaching the gatehouse. The barbican was a thin, enclosed passageway that would have jutted out from the gatehouse. Attackers would have to stream through this thin funnel just to reach the gatehouse.

The Inner Courtyard

This would have been another area of hustle-and-bustle, and the focus of day-to-day residential life in the castle. Whereas horses and pigs would have been grazed in the outer courtyard, it’s likely the inner courtyard would have been used for more formal events.

The Great Hall

The Great Hall would have been a social focus of any Medieval castle layout. It would have been a bustling and exciting hubbub of activity – filled with staff and servants preparing for feasts and banquets, held at the discretion of the Lord and Lady. When a banquet was on, the Great Hall would have been decked out to impress and entertain the most important visitors. Indeed, the guests of honour would have been seated on a dais (stage) at the front of the hall. The further you were seated from them, the less important you were- right through to the least important visitors, on wooden benches at the back of the hall.

The Chapel and the Priests House

Religion dominated Medieval society. Christian belief permeated every aspect of life.

The presence of a chapel gave a castle a sense of prestige and significance within the local area.

But there were strategic advantages too. Harming a priest would be the ultimate act of barbarity – only the most fearless of castle attackers would even dream of doing such a thing.

The presence of a chapel would be of practical use if the castle was ransacked.

The Dungeons

Most castles didn’t have dungeons, in actual fact, dungeons are a bit of a modern-day obsession. In Early Medieval times, castles didn’t really have dungeons, simply because the idea of keeping someone prisoner was, back then, a very strange punishment. However, as the Middle Ages developed, more castles became to be equipped with space for prisoners.


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