History of Castles in the Middle Ages

History of Castles in the Middle Ages
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  • 0:02 Early Medieval Castles
  • 1:15 The Motte-and-Bailey Castle
  • 2:38 Transition from Wood to Stone
  • 3:33 Concentric Castles
  • 4:44 Later Middle Ages
  • 5:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Cassie Beyer

Cassie holds a master's degree in history and has spent five years teaching history and the humanities from ancient times to the Renaissance.

Medieval castles were fortified residences used to secure the local area. Over time, castles grew increasingly complex, providing protection to the lord and those who fought with him. Learn more about them this lesson.

Early Medieval Castles

When you think of castles, you might picture Disney's Sleeping Beauty castle or some other fairy tale castle, but castles in the middle ages started out pretty modest. Castles were originally just fortresses to defend land, and it wasn't until the end of the Middle Ages that lords starting building the majestic palaces you might imagine. In the early part of the Middle Ages, Europe was seeing regular invasions from Vikings, Muslims, and Magyars. Castles were built so that conquering invaders could establish and defend their territory. Castles are fortified structures with the dual purpose of being a defensive fortress and the home of a lord from which he could administer and control his lands.

At the center of a castle was the keep, which was the main structure. This is where the lord and his family lived and worked. It was also the center of local administration. The keep might be surrounded by numerous walls, embankments and ditches, all of which made it more difficult for invaders to approach. More minor buildings might also be found within those defenses, such as storehouses or a blacksmith workshop, so the lord was always well supplied - even if temporarily trapped within the castle walls.

The Motte-and-Bailey Castle

The motte-and-bailey castle is one of the earliest examples of a castle, and its style was spread by the Normans, who were settled Vikings from northern France. Dating from the 9th and 10th centuries, these were relatively meager constructions in comparison to what we today think of as castles. Most notably, all parts of these early castles were built of wood. The limitations of the building material meant these structures were relatively small.

The wooden keep was built upon an artificial hill known as a motte. The motte gave defenders the advantage of height over invaders. They could rain down rocks and arrows while attackers struggled to climb the incline.

The area around the base of the motte was known as the bailey. This contained the various resources the lord would find most necessary, such as barracks for his soldiers, storage areas, a well, workshops, and stables. The bailey was, in turn, surrounded by a palisade, or a wall formed from vertically erected tree trunks.

Motte-and-bailey castles were usually modified over time into stone structures. One of the most famous castles in the world is Windsor Castle in the UK. Built a thousand years ago, Windsor Castle began as a simple motte-and-bailey castle built by William the Conqueror, the Norman ruler who conquered England. However, since then, it has been embellished and changed and is still a favored residence of the British royal family.

Transition from Wood to Stone

By the 11th century, castles started to be built of stone. This reflected the improving economy of medieval Europe, when lords could begin to afford such expensive undertakings, and stone masons had the resources to gain the training necessary to engineer bigger and more complex stone buildings.

However, the motte couldn't hold the weight of a stone keep. As such, these new castles were built on natural formations that could provide the necessary foundation. These stone buildings were also much larger than the previous wooden ones. The keep at the Tower of London is 90 feet tall, for example, and the surrounding walls are twenty feet thick.

The curtain walls that surrounded stone castles commonly bore crenellations, which are barriers with vertical slits in them. This provided defenders nearly 100% cover while allowing them to fire bows and arrows or crossbows through the thin openings at advancing invaders.

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