Saturday, May 14, 2011

Medieval Castle Construction (part I)

Today castles mostly stand in ruin: roof, floor, furniture, and any sign of life are centuries gone. Yet these structures still somehow capture our attention as we can't help but wonder what amazing stories their stone walls might tell, what great historic events transpired in their shadows? How did people manage to construct such massive structures without modern tools and machinery?

Medieval castles certainly hold some marvelous secrets and seem to occupy an almost mystic role in many people's minds. They are mentioned in nearly any book related to the Middle Ages or knights, yet the number of books that consider the process of building such an imposing structure is very small in comparison. The fact that so many castles still stand, centuries after their construction, is a resounding testimony to the great skill and craftsmanship that went in to the complicated task of raising a castle.

Early versions of what we now call castles began to appear in northwest Europe  in the ninth century. This also happens to be the time when the Vikings and Saracens were actively raiding across northwest Europe.  In 863, Charlemagne's grandson, Charles the Bald, ordered that castles be built to defend against these invaders. Because of the decentralized nature of the Carolingian state, these castles were largely inhabited and controlled by the nobles who built them, rather than a garrison of soldiers, like earlier fortresses.

This castle-building trend barely touched England until the year 1066, when the Normans conquered England and brought a flood of castle-building in their wake. Don't think that the Anglo-Saxons did not build castles, though. It is estimated that there were roughly a half-dozen fortresses formidable enough to be considered castles at the time of the Norman invasion. This early type of castle was called a Motte-and-Bailey castle, which consisted of a steeply-sloped mound (the motte) - up to 100 feet high - with a small fortified house or tower (the keep) atop it and connected to an adjacent outer court (the bailey), or walled area, containing the soldier's quarters, stables, etc. all of which was surrounded by a ditch. The buildings were almost always constructed of timber, unless stone was readily available. These were mostly built more for the protection and benefit of the populace, such as a nearby village, rather than a noble, as per later castles.

When William the Conqueror wrestled rule of England from the Anglo-Saxons in the years following 1066, his nobles needed strong centers from which to govern their new territories and castles fit the bill, so a flurry of castle-building ensued (over five hundred wooden castles by the turn of the twelfth century). A revolution in construction engineering (coupled with wealth accrued from taxes, tolls, markets, rents, and licenses) soon allowed for most of these castles to be rebuilt in stone and the castle designs grew more and more complex. For instance, builders found that corners were weak and susceptible to undermining and collapse, so they began building circular towers instead of square.

Bodaim Castle, built in the 14th century
Castle construction continually evolved throughout the Middle Ages, adapting to new technologies in both the building and demolishing (sieging) processes. By about the fifteen hundreds and the advent of cannons, castles became less and less defensive fortresses and more and more luxury palaces - arrow slits were replaced with large glass windows and moats with gardens. But in the High Middle Ages (1000-1300 AD) when the castles were the center of medieval Europe.

The building of a medieval castle, just like any modern construction site, employed countless workers of various skills. A whole village was needed to facilitate the construction of a castle, especially as it often took decades to complete and the laborers and craftsmen often brought their families with them. If there was not already a town or village near the castle construction site, one would likely spring up. Such was the case with Newcastle-on-Tyne, which grew from the building of Newcastle in 1080 AD.

Here are some examples of the types of workers needed for castle construction:

  • Quarrymen: split the stones from a quarry and cut them roughly to shape before transporting them to the site of the construction.
  • Masons: cut and shaped the stones to fit their specific place in the castle walls and then laid them. (The Master Mason was highest in command in the castle construction.)
  • Carpenters: crafted and repaired tools and tool handles, scaffolding, furniture, floors, ceilings, doors, shutters, etc. (The Master Carpenter was second in command to the Master Mason.)
  • Blacksmiths: made tools, door hinges, nails, horseshoes, etc.
  • Potters: (when the roof was to be tile) made the thousands of roofing tiles, plus drinking jugs and such for the workers.
  • Rope makers: made the rope for machinery, as well as everyday uses like bucket handles, animal leads, and belts.
  • Basket weavers: wove the baskets that carried stones, food, etc. around the site.
  • Plasterers and Painters: decorated the insides of finished castles to be bright and cheery.

A cast of animals were imperative to the castle-building plight, too. Donkeys and horses were needed to pull carts and haul logs and stones. Sheep's wool was used in clothing for the workers and goats provided milk for cheese. The construction process also required many ingenious machines such as the "squirrel cage" treadwheel crane. It was powered by one or two men who walked inside it and could lift a stone weighing a few tons! They also used wooden scaffolding and stone-splitting tools such as the chase-masse, (read more about the chase-masse here).

The Master Mason was in charge of hundreds or thousands of workers and held the daunting task of coordinating the whole process of raising a castle. As the thousands of magnificent castles still standing across Europe testify, whether fully in tact or crumbling back into the landscape, to the immensity of his job. These castles also testify to the vast importance of a chaotic, yet glorious, part of the history of the Western world. They may stand in ruin, but they still stand.

(See the continuation of this post here.)


  1. I used to spend hours looking out of my college window admireing Rochester Castle, here in Kent, England. It is one of the few surviving early Norman Castles and was besieged by King John during the early 13th Century. How I wish we could glimpse at what life was like in those times!!

  2. Wow! What a privilege to be able to see such a beautiful castle every day! As I live in the US, I have to settle for books, films, and photos. I can only hope to visit the UK and explore castles like it some day.
    I also echo your wish to know so much more about what life in the Middle Ages was really like.

  3. There are also castles that have secret passages where people before used to hide or escape from enemies. I find it interesting how they were able to create such structures by just using natural materials such as clay and granites.

  4. I wonder what tools they made it with...

  5. I am in grade 4 and I am glad I am living in this time period!

  6. Good site. Great pictures.

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