Castle Architecture: Medieval, Gothic & Windsor

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Castles are structures defined by their practical use more than anything else, but they have their own architectural styles as well. In this lesson, we'll explore changing styles in European castle architecture, including Medieval, Gothic and Windsor.

Castles of Europe

It has often been said that necessity is the mother of invention. For example, if your village is constantly being raided by warring armies, you may need something more sturdy than wooden houses to defend it. What you may be looking for is a castle, a fortress built to repel invasion and often serve as a royal residence.

In the Medieval period, generally defined as the period from the Norman invasion of England in 1066 CE through the end of the Renaissance in the 16th century, Europe was in a near constant state of war. It was in this era that kings and princes accrued enough power and wealth to build sizeable armies that fought across Europe. Castles quickly became a pretty important defense feature of Medieval Europe, with the need for safety inspiring architectural and engineering innovation.

The Motte and Bailey Castle

When the Normans invaded England in 1066, they brought with them new ideas about warfare and defense that quickly became popular across Europe. One of their first big innovations was an architectural fortification called the Motte and Bailey castle.

As the name implies, there were two main features to this castle. The first was the motte, a large, artificially constructed mound built by compacting layers of earth and rock. The motte also included a keep, which is a fortified structure, at the very top.

The second part of this castle was the bailey, a large fence that extended from the motte and surrounded the local village where the people lived. Natural features like rivers were also used to increase the defense of the castle. In fact, ditches filled with water were commonly built around the base of the motte, which over time became known as moats.

Motte and Bailey castle in a medieval tapestry
Motte and Bailey

Romanesque Castles

The Norman architects learned quickly that the wooden Motte and Bailey castles had one inherent weakness: they burned easily. So, they started the monumental task of working on building large castles made of stone. Early Norman castles shared several architectural elements with large-scale buildings of the Roman Empire, such as arches, vaults, and robust, solid construction.

The Norman architectural features were not as advanced as the Romans, but the similarities have led to the style becoming known as Romanesque, or Roman-like. Romanesque stone castles are recognizable by their thick, solid walls and small arch-shaped windows. The walls bore too much weight of the building for the windows or rooms to be very large, making a Romanesque castle a subpar place to live, but a solid one to defend.

Gothic Castles

The Gothic castle of Avignon in France

By the 13th century, architects were getting better at large-scale stone structures. Before this, architecture was very experimental and varied a lot between places, but by the 1200s the first truly consistent architectural style began to emerge. The Gothic style arose when architects learned to disperse the weight of the stone through support structures called flying buttresses. These external curved columns took weight off of the walls, which in turn opened up many possibilities for castle architects.

Structures with thinner walls could be built taller, wider, and larger with sizeable windows and better internal lighting. Internally, they were made stronger with a Gothic arch, which is a pointed arch that is both thinner and stronger than the Romanesque arches. Gothic castles tended to be better constructed with precisely cut stone and featured numerous towers for defense. Add on the definitive decorative elements of Gothic architecture and vaulted ceilings, and you've got an impressive structure that spoke to the increasing power and wealth of European kings.

Windsor Castle

The gates of Windsor Castle

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