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How Much Did Castles Change in the Middle Ages and Why

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Submitted By smorga02
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Castles first came to England in 1066 when William, Duke of Normandy, won the battle of Hastings. The Normans needed castles because they had taken control of England by force and were hated by many English people. The Normans had to protect themselves from English rebellions and they needed to keep power over and show strength to the English people. William made sure that castles were built all over England in major towns. The first castles were built very quickly and were very simple, but during the reign of William and throughout the rest of the Middle Ages (1066-1500) the design of castles changed. In this essay I will talk about how much castles changed during the Middle Ages and the reasons for this.

Motte & Bailey Castles (1066 – 1078)
The first castles to be built in England by the Normans were called Motte & Bailey castles. They had: • The Keep – a wooden tower used when under attack and for soldiers to keep lookout. • A Motte - a large mound of earth that the Keep was built on. • A Bailey – a large yard that sat next to the Motte, attached to the Motte by a wooden bridge. • A Palisade – a wooden fence all around the Bailey with a ditch around the outside. • Wooden gateway - the entrance to the castle with a wooden bridge over the ditch.

Norman soldiers lived in wooden buildings in the Bailey. Motte & Bailey castles were made of earth and wood, which was easy to find, and they could be built really quickly, in 7-21 days. The height of the wooden tower on top of the Motte meant that the Norman soldiers could see what was going on around the castle and see enemies coming. The castles were built near big towns so that the Norman soldiers could move quickly and stop enemies up to 30 miles away. William built over 60 Motte & Bailey castles during the early years of his reign. There are still remains of a Motte & Bailey castles in England today, for example Pleshey, in Essex.


Motte & Bailey castles had the advantages of: being quick and easy to build, showing strength to the English people, having some good defence points (the motte, palisade, ditch). The speed of building made them perfect for the early years of William’s reign to gain power quickly but they also had weaknesses: the wood rotted quickly and was easily burned down by enemies, the Bailey was difficult to defend as it was on lower ground and only protected by the wooden palisade and ditch, they were not big enough to hold large armies, it was also cramped, cold and uncomfortable to live in.
Once William had got control of England he could now build better, stronger castles that did not have the weaknesses of the Motte & Bailey castles. He also wanted to show his power and strength to the English people and his barons wanted more comfortable places to live. The castles the Normans started to build were made of stone and were called Square Keep Castles.

Square Keep Castles (1078 – 1239)
Many Square Keep Castles were built after 1100 although one of the earliest (and most famous) is the White Tower (Tower of London) started in 1078. They were often built on the site of the Motte & Bailey castles, usually on the ground of the Bailey because the weight of the stone was too heavy for the Motte. The stone castles were large and provided a much better form of defence and living quarters for the Normans. The strength of the stone meant that the castle walls could be very high (the Tower of London is 90 feet high). The Normans could see for miles around and the strength and height of the stone made them more difficult to attack. They had the following: • The Stone Keep was built on the first floor to make it difficult to get to and to protect Normans inside. It had thick walls (up to 6m thick) and few windows. The Keep had a removable staircase to make it difficult for the enemy to get in. • A Curtain Wall which was a thick stone outer wall between 20-40 feet high and up to 20 feet thick with turrets for lookouts. • Crenels & Merlons– the castle had tooth-like battlements called Crenels (openings) and Merlons (the square between the crenels) so that the soldiers could hide behind the crenels between firing. • Better living conditions for the Norman barons with bedrooms, kitchens, a chapel and toilets (Garderobes).


Square Keep castles had lots of strengths: They were a show of power against the English and really difficult to attack because of their thick stone walls and height. They also gave better living conditions. They did still have weaknesses though: They were expensive, took a long time to build, they could not be moved and they could still be attacked by enemies by: • Setting really hot fires under the corners (weak points) until they collapsed. • Using battering rams. • Starving out the Normans by not letting food in. • Tunneling and mining under the castle walls. • Using archers and catapults to fire arrows and rocks over the castle walls. • The corners were blind spots – an attacker could hide behind corners.

These problems led to a change of design towards the end of the 12th Century once Edward I became king. Under his reign the design of round stone castles and keeps began. The round castle keep meant that there was nowhere the enemy could not be seen and took away the weaknesses of having corners.

Concentric Castles (1239 – 1400)
Concentric castles were a castle within a castle idea and were built to be as difficult to attack as possible. Castles were very important as there were still lots of wars in England with many people fighting for power. The design of these castles came from ideas of the Crusaders who had travelled to the Holy Lands seeing buildings there. These castles were far bigger than before. There would be a central enclosure of stone walls and towers and then a number of outer walls. The height of the walls would get bigger towards the middle so that the defenders could shoot over the heads of soldiers defending the outer walls. One of the finest concentric castles built is Caernarvon Castle in Wales. Concentric castles had: • A Keep built in a round shape and surrounded by a high curved walls and an inner and outer Bailey. It was the most important part of the castle housing the Lord of the castle and his family. • Solid curved walls replaced hollow walls for strength and height. • Barbican – an external passageway containing: Arrow Slits and Murder Holes (holes in the ceiling for stones, boiling oil or water to be thrown down onto enemies). • Hoardings a leather covered area on top of the Curtain Wall to give soldiers protection from rocks and arrows. • Wide Moat – surrounding the whole concentric castle area to make mining and tunneling more difficult. • A Drawbridge over the moat that could be raised in an enemy attack. • Port Cullis – a sliding wooden grille that came down quickly behind the Drawbridge to block the Gatehouse entrance to attackers. • Much better living quarters and access to fresh water from within the castle. They had fireplaces, chimneys and wider window openings in upper storeys.


Concentric castles had a lot of strengths: they were easier to defend because of their new features, lack of corners, strength and height. They were also much more comfortable to live in. They also had weaknesses: they took a long time and were very expensive to build (Caernarvon Castle cost £40million in today’s money) and the invention of the cannon and gunpowder in the 11th century meant that attackers could damage the strongest of walls and send cannon balls over the top of the walls.

Labelled Diagrams of the 3 Types of Castle

The Decline of Castles
Castle building declined by the end of the Middle Ages. There are lots of reasons for this. The invention of the cannon ball and gunpowder meant that the strongest concentric castle could be damaged in an attack and it was very expensive to build or rebuild a castle to stand up to cannon fire. Some Kings also had castles destroyed if they thought they would disturb the peace. By the end of the Middle Ages England was a more peaceful place under Henry IV (1399 – 1413) and Lords wanted much more comfortable homes which were more like houses inside. Also wars were being fought by large armies on battlefields away from castles. It is for these reasons that castle building declined by the end of the Middle Ages.

This essay has explained how castles changed during the Middle Ages and the reasons for it. The Motte and Bailey castle was really simple but brilliantly quick, easy and cheap to build. They were perfect for William the Conqueror to gain control over the English but they needed to change, as they were too easy to attack. The Square Keep castles were big, impressive castles that showed William’s power. They were much stronger but they had weaknesses in their corners that meant attackers could still destroy them. The Concentric Castles were really well designed against attack but their expense and the invention of the cannon and gunpowder plus the change in how wars were fought and more peaceful times meant that they had stopped building them by the end of the Middle Ages.
How Much Did Castles Change in the Middle Ages and Why?…...

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