Castles can seem like fairytale places, where princes and princesses danced, where lords and ladies feasted, and where honorable knights jousted for prizes. But the truth is most castles were built for battle. They saw as much of war and treachery as they did of court jesters and pageantry.
Castles date from the Middle Ages, specifically from about A.D. 900 to 1500. The Middle Ages were dangerous times. The map of Europe was constantly redrawn, as empires changed boundaries, and as territories were captured and re-captured.
During those centuries, most European countries were ruled by kings, who waged wars of expansion and whose power and authority was constantly challenged. The kings were supported by members of the nobility who provided knights and soldiers to defend each kingdom’s territories. But enemies were everywhere. It was not a time of peace.
The lack of security led to thousands of castles being built across Europe. The castles were symbols of strength for the nobility and power centers for controlling large areas of surrounding land. They were homes—sometimes even palaces—for kings, barons, duchesses, lords, and princesses. But most of all, castles were fortresses, designed to hold off invading armies.
Because wars and battles were common, knights, soldiers, and guards often lived on castle grounds. Many castles were placed on high ground so that soldiers could command a view of the countryside or on mountain passes to prevent invading troops from crossing. Originally castles were built from wood, but they were too susceptible to fire. A single flaming arrow could turn the entire place to ashes. So castle owners began to build and rebuild castles with stone walls.
Stone castles were designed with numerous built-in protections. First of all, you couldn’t walk right up. Castles were surrounded by thick stone fences called “curtain walls.” Moats (deep trenches filled with water) ran along the curtain walls so that armies could not put ladders against the walls and climb over. The moats also stopped invaders from easily tunneling under the walls.
To prevent strangers from entering the castle, the main entrance had a heavily fortified gatehouse. To let people into the castle, the gatehouse guards would lower a drawbridge over the moat. Then they would raise a heavy iron gate that protected the castle entrance.
Guns and cannons had not yet been invented. So archers were particularly important to castle defenses and castles were designed accordingly. Instead of windows that could easily be smashed by marauders, the stone walls had narrow slits through which archers could shoot arrows.
The roofs of castle buildings and towers were topped with “battlements,” gap-toothed walls behind which guards could hide and shoot arrows through the gaps. A heavily fortified main tower called the “keep” was often the last line of defense. The keep and its battlements have become a universal symbol of castles.
When a castle was attacked, it was called a “siege.” Invaders used battering rams to smash down the gates, and they used catapults that hurled heavy stones over the walls. If an army surrounded the castle, no one could go out to get food—and sometimes hunger would force the castle inhabitants to surrender. But if the people in the castle knew a siege was coming, they could stock up on supplies in advance and hold out for weeks.
Inside the castle, there were more defenses in case an army broke through or got over the walls. Narrow, winding stone staircases spiraled upward in a clockwise direction. If you were right-handed that gave you an advantage when coming down the steps because you could more easily swing your sword. Invading soldiers coming upstairs would have their sword arms jammed against the wall. The stairs often were built to be uneven with some steps being extra high (“trip steps”), so that invaders who were not familiar with them would fall while coming up and could be attacked by defenders.
Castles also had secret passageways. These included underground escape routes that led outside castle walls. Sometimes passageways led through the walls to secret rooms, which could be used as hiding places.
In spite of all their defenses, castles sometimes were taken over by invading armies and their leaders. For example, in the year 1321, Baroness Badlesmere refused to let Queen Isabella (who was both queen of France and married to the king of England) into Leeds Castle. Her husband, the baron, was away and he had been plotting against the king, so the baroness suspected the queen’s “visit” was some kind of trick. When the queen tried to force her way into the castle, the baroness had her archers fire and they killed six of the queen’s men. In response, King Edward II sent 500 soldiers from London along with knights in the service of the sheriffs of Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Essex, and Hampton to lay siege to Leeds Castle with catapults. The baroness surrendered the castle after just a few days. As punishment, she was imprisoned in the king’s castle in London, known as the Tower of London.
Although parts of the Tower of London doubled as a prison for out-of-favor nobility like the baroness, this castle was also an opulent residence. To warm up the chilly stone environment, the king’s chambers were decorated with colorful shields, tapestries, and silks on the walls, as well as patterned carpets on the floors. Large fireplaces roared and stained glass windows let in light. A Great Hall would have hosted banquets at which musicians, acrobats, joke-tellers, and storytellers performed. The castle even had a royal zoo on the grounds, complete with leopards, elephants, and a polar bear. In spite of its magnificence, the Tower of London (which actually had 21 towers) was only one of about sixty castles owned by the English monarch.
And the English kings weren’t the only ones who were castle crazy. As battles and invasions continued, castles dotted the landscape all across Europe and the Middle East. There were castles in Spain, France, England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Romania, Slovakia, Syria, and beyond.
Castles were a major part of the European landscape until cannons became a widespread weapon in the 1400s. At that time, castle owners began reinforcing their castles, building thicker walls and deeper defenses, but the stone walls of castles were ultimately no match for cannonball blasts. Many castles were torn apart, fell into ruins, or were converted into schools, monasteries, or prisons. The Middles Ages and the age of castles had come to an end.
But castles continued to capture people’s imaginations.
In the 1800s, there was a revival in castle building, particularly in Germany where the old ruined castles of the Middle Ages were seen as romantic. New castles with pretty fairytale towers were built as palaces but with no real need for defense. One of the most famous of these is Neuschwanstein Castle, which was built by King Ludwig II on the site of old castle ruins that Ludwig had loved to visit and dream about as a child.
Today, “romantic castles” like Neuschwanstein are open to the public to enjoy, as are many restored castles from the Middle Ages.Written by Margaret Mittelbach.