Castles in the Middle Ages

Main Points

1. The age of the castles, lasted for nearly 500 years.
2. Castle life, and the people who lived in the castles.
A Castle In The Middle Ages
3. Building the castles.
4. The defense mechanisms of the castles.
5. Events held in the castles.

The Age Of The Castles

The age of the castles began almost 1,000 years ago and lasted for nearly 500 years. The first major chain of castles were erected in 1066, and stretched across England and even parts of Wales. A majority of the existing castles were finally destroyed during the civil war between 1860 and 1880. During that period over 15,000 castles had existed and stretched across Europe. Castles were mainly located in Germany, France, Scotland, Wales, Spain, Sicily, and Syria, but were used for different reasons in different places. The castle of Krak was a military base that could hold over 2,000 men! That castle was originally an Arab fortress, but was taken over and rebuilt by Christian knights during the wars of the crusades. Those wars took place in the 1100s and 1200s, and many castles were erected during that age of wars. They were used to control and defend large areas of the surrounding countryside. Many lords and soldiers also used those castles to launch attacks on their enemies. Although the outsides of the castles were surrounded with large guns and defenses, inside the walls you could find magnificent halls, comfortable chambers, and a beautiful chapel. A castle was a home to its lord, his family, and a few of his followers.

Castle Life/People Who Lived In Them

In the Middle Ages, land was the key to power and wealth. Most of the land was controlled from the castles. The most powerful people in the kingdom were the kings and the wealthy lords. The kings, wealthy lords and monarchs could have more than just 1 castle, and King John had over 100! They would travel from one to another with their soldiers, servants, and wagons. When the lord was in residence, he inspected his lands, met his castle officials, passed judgment on prisoners, and entertained his guests. While the lord was away, the constable was put in charge of the castle and most of the lord’s tasks. The lord’s household would include a priest, soldiers, a host servant, jugglers, jesters, minstrels and mummers. Some castles even had special entrances called a Watergate if the lord or his visitors were traveling by boat. When the lord brought visitors, the number of residents in the castle could swell from 20 to 200 people! The lady, the wife of the lord, played an important role in running the castle. She organized the servants and helped entertain the visiting noblemen. When the lord was away she would tend to whatever tasks were not taken over by the constable. That would usually include inspecting local farms or manage supplies and repairs to the castle. Even so, it was still believed that women were inferior to men. In the early castles, life was far from comfortable. Most people slept on benches or rough mattresses in the great hall. But by the 1200s, castles had well-furnished bed chambers and living rooms heated by large open fires. The better rooms also had large glass windows and floors covered with sweet-smelling herbs.

Constructing The Castles

Since there were no power tools in those times, most of the work was done by muscle power. But before the building could begin a master mason was hired to design the entire castle. Every mason had his own special mark that they would often carve into the stone that they were working on, a bit like a painter signing his art work. The mark would also be used to work out how much each would be paid. After the design was written up, each worker was given a specific job based on their profession and skills. Back then it took an entire army of workers to build a castle. In 1295, 30 blacksmiths, 400 masons, and 2,000 laborers were hired to build Beaumaris Castle in North Wales. The carpenters saw wood and assemble the scaffolding and the blacksmiths make and fix tools. Masons shape stone and laborers haul heavy loads, mix up mortars for the walls, and dig trenches. About 1,000 years ago, castles were built from wood. They were soon made by stone, which was stronger and could not be burned down by an enemy. A castle would take around 10 to 20 years to complete and in todays money would cost several million dollars.

The Defense Mechanisms of The Castles

Many castles were built on high country sides, with views of the surrounding land, making a surprise attack not likely. When enemies attacked, even if they broke through the first set of gates, there were many more gates, walls, and towers to overcome before the castle could be captured. The tops of the walls in the castle called merlons, which helped to shelter the defenders during an enemy attack . The defenders could fire through gaps called crenels, which had wooden shutters for extra protection. Most castles also had a wooden drawbridge the could swing up so that no enemies could cross the ditch. There was also an area in the castle called a barbican which was a walled area in front of the inner gatehouse. If an enemy happened to reach it, he would be fired at from all sides of the castle by the defenders. And lastly in case the enemy used flaming arrows to set fire to the timber defenses, wooden hourds were made fireproof by stretching damp hides across the roofs.

Events Held In The Castles

Many events were held in the castles, but the main two were the market day and the joust. Most castle towns would hold a market once or twice a week and the town square would be filled with bustling crowds and traders shouting
Knights Jousting
about their goods. Visitors could buy anything from candles and shoes, to a refreshing draft ale. Their were both locally produced goods and luxury items mainly made in Italy. The locally produced goods, such as pottery, purses, and belts were sold directly by the artisans who made them. The luxury items, such as finely woven cloth or decorated bowls and jugs from Italy, were brought to the market by merchants. If the fine goods for sale were out of your price-range, it cost only a halfpenny to watch stilt-walkers, jugglers or even a dancing bear! The other main event held in the castles, the joust , was very popular in the Middle Ages. These mock battles could involve up to hundreds of men, and were held in huge open fields. They were later used to settle disputes and the loser had to give the winner either money or horses. Those battles were fought with real weapons and were not taken lightly. But in the 1200s those battles became spectacular festivals, and a chance for the knights to show off. The most exciting contest was the joust, a head-on clash between two nights riding horses. The target was to knock your opponent off his horse using only a wooded lance. Although the jousting armor was stronger than battle armor, and the horses were protected with straw padding, injuries and even deaths were very common.

Table Of Number Of Castles Throughout The Middle Ages

Number Of Castles in 11th Century
Number Of Castles in 12th Century
Number Of Castles in 13th Century
Number Of Castles in 14th Century
Number Of Castles in 15th Century
Number Of Castles in 16th Century
England: 49
North Wales: 15
England: 59
North Wales: 18
England: 62
North Wales: 20
England: 51
North Wales: 14
England: 6
North Wales: 1
England: 1
North Wales: 1

Historical Fiction On This Topic


Bibliography & Image Sources
Sims, Leslie. The Usborne Book Of Castles. London: Usborne Publishing Ltd., 2002.
Steele, Philip. Castles. New York: Larousse Kingfisher Chambers Inc., 1995.

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