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Castles In Use

Some castle terminology explained

Castles, although highly visible, are only one form of defensive structure, and were in use for a period. Before them were large earthworks, also a form of castle or camp, made up of a series of ditches and rings, each of which could have a stockade or fence. If you don't think they look very much of a defence then try running up one of the larger ones, and you would have to if you were not going to be hit by spears and arrows that those higher up could shoot a greater distance than you could. These are often large, built by and defended by a community that is safe within it. The defence  was mostly against other tribes. Examples we have featured are Cadbury Castle, and  Maiden Castle, while one that was later developed as a stone castle is Old Sarum, Wiltshire , you can find more listed in the topic section under heritage - Earthworks and Hill Forts.

Along came the Norman Lords, with William the Conqueror, and the need they had was for a fort like structure to defend themselves from and to control the people. So they built the Motte and Bailey, a small structure able to be defended by a small number of people, the motte being a mound on which a wooden defendable tower was constructed and the bailey a fenced in area around it. These were built in large numbers, some being little more than a safe house for an often unpopular agent of the local Lord.

Motte is the mound on which the stone tower is built upon, later incorporated into a larger castle as at Caldicot Castle, More images are in the Caldicot Gallery

Take a look around many castles and you will find the original Motte reused in some form.


A number of the smaller images on this page if clicked will show a larger version.

Over time many were upgraded from wooden structures to stone, partly to be more weather proof and partly to avoid being burnt in a conflict.

Later the numbers reduced, but the castle became larger and more structurally solid being made to be able to defended against an army as opposed to just keeping the Lord safe and maintaining control over the local population.

With experience in the crusades, and seeing what was being used elsewhere, new designs came into the country including the concentric castles with circles of walls lower on the outside and higher inside allowing those defending to shoot over the lower walls.

Caerphilly Castle Showing extensive water defences, and
 on the main island. A concentric castle design.

As technology advanced so did the castle designs, with siege engines that could throw large rocks and direct at or into castles, the need was to keep these further way, so building the castle on a high cliff, or surrounding it with a water system, were some solutions. Castle walls or bases at least become thicker to avoid the risk from tunnelling, and tower systems developed that allowed the walls to be defended, starting with square towers, then round ones with better coverage and then D shaped ones, round on the outside and with straight lines inside that made them easier to use as rooms. Walls in many places had defences that hung out over them allowing items to be dropped on people under and making scaling them even more difficult.

The weakest point in any castle was the entrances, and the means of defending these and controlling who could come in developed, with elaborate gatehouses and entry systems.

At Caerphilly Castle entry to the castle is over islands that are themselves defended. In the image left, we see a moat, and curtain wall as well as a gatehouse that is the defence for the eastern island, if you get through this you still have a sizable set of water with a double drawbridge and second gatehouse to get through to get into the main part of the castle.

So castles developed to keep abreast of the threats to them, often being expanded in phases on the same site, but some were abandoned at each stage allowing us to visit examples at just about every period or stage of the development. Also some new ones were built allowing us to see what the ideal design of the period was, although often highly affected by the location and need.

Once the threat of war reduced some became fine mansions, where windows were more important than extensive defences, and these were then as likely to be owned by a church official as a Lord, so we get Bishops Palaces that are very castle like.

With Oliver Cromwell and Parliaments becoming dominant, many castles were damaged so that they could not be used against Parliaments and sub-kingdoms controlled by major castles were out of favour, with many fine houses damaged or destroyed. Local populations were often encouraged to help themselves to the castle materials, and where there were high populations many were dismantled, while in more remote areas remains became derelict, or were used for other purposes.

With gunpowder and canons, the design changed from the castles that stood high with defending walls back to forts that were low with thick banks to hide behind and large gun emplacements. Most of these being on the coast or on estuaries to defend against attacks from ships, and to control areas of coast or river access. The age of the castle was then over.

Later, particularly in the Victorian period, Lordly manors and castles became fashionable again, and some castles at this period were fixed up or completely rebuilt, castles like those at Windsor, Arundel, Cardiff, and the great Scottish castles being very elaborate, and in many cases just about completely rebuilt. Castle Coch for example, being a product of this period built where there had been a castle but very little remained. In this period it was a display of wealth rather than military power.

Images show Castell Coch, both outside and inside, it is a Victorian recreation.

So we have castles abandoned, and restored, some just abandoned and others as examples of castles at each stage. Many of Britain's castles became fine houses, or are Victorian or similar recreations, but the finest examples from history are Edward I's Welsh castles, such as Harlech castle , Conwy Castle Beaumaris Castle, and regional Palace castle, Caernarfon Castle being the most noteworthy, as that had little later use and many of these are in effect stuck in their time. Caerphilly Castle although greatly restored, is probably the finest example anywhere of a concentric castle with water defences, while Raglan Castle , White Castle and Goodrich Castle over the border in England, are good examples of slightly earlier castles of the Marcher Lordships. Chepstow Castle  and Pembroke Castle are examples of other extensive castles. Victorian recreations include Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch .


By: Keith Park Section: Castles Key:
Page Ref:  Castles_in_use Topic: Castles Last Updated: 03/2009

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