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Definition: castle from Philip's Encyclopedia

Fortified house or fortress, usually the medieval residences of European kings or nobles. Castles evolved from a need for fortresses that could accommodate several households and provide shelter in war. Heavily built of wood or masonry, castles were located on a raised site and sometimes surrounded by a ditch or moat.

Summary Article: castle
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Fortified building or group of buildings, characteristic of medieval Europe. The castle was originally designed as a defensive fortification, but it also functioned as a residence for the royalty and nobility, an administrative centre, and a place of safety for local people in times of invasion. In England castles were always designed as a fortified home. In 13th-century Wales, Edward I built a string of castles as military centres to keep control of the country. The castle underwent many changes, its size, design, and construction being largely determined by changes in siege tactics and the development of artillery. Outstanding examples are the 12th-century Krak des Chevaliers, Syria (built by crusaders); the 13th-century Caernarfon Castle, Wales; and the 15th-century Manzanares el Real, Spain.

Structure Although there was no such thing as a typical castle throughout the era of castle-building, by the 12th century certain features began to appear more frequently. These might include a keep, a large central tower containing store rooms, soldiers' quarters, and a hall for the lord and his family; an inner bailey, or walled courtyard, surrounding the keep; an outer bailey, or second courtyard, separated from the inner bailey by a wall. Crenellated embattlements (raised projections alternating with gaps on the top of castle walls) provided shelter to the defenders, while giving a good view and freedom to fire on the attacking enemy. Towers, providing stairway access and sometimes living space, often projected from the walls. The corners of square towers could be battered or undermined; round towers did not have this problem. The entrance to the castle was sometimes protected by a portcullis, a heavy grating which could be let down to close the main gate; and a drawbridge that crossed a ditch or moat surrounding the castle. Sometimes a tower called a barbican was constructed over a gateway as an additional defensive measure.

11th century The motte-and-bailey castle appeared (the motte was a mound of earth, and the bailey a courtyard enclosed by a wall); the earliest example is on the River Loire in France, dated 1010. There were few castles in England before 1066, but the Normans, a small military army of occupation in the midst of a hostile population, built castles to defend themselves and secure the conquest – the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that they ‘built castles far and wide throughout the land, oppressing the wretched people, and things went from bad to worse’. The 50 castles constructed in England between the Norman Conquest and the Domesday Book survey of 1086 were motte-and-bailey castles, because they could be built quickly by the Anglo-Saxon peasantry. At first they were made of wood, but later, because of their vulnerability to fire, they were converted to stone ‘shell’ keeps, such as that at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire.

The first rectangular stone keeps date from soon after this time, such as the White Tower (c. 1078) in the Tower of London; Castle Hedingham, Essex; and Rochester Castle in Kent. All offer fine examples of Norman architecture.

12th century More substantial defensive systems were developed, based in part on the crusaders' experiences of sieges during the First Crusade of 1096; the first curtain walls with projecting towers were built, as at Framlingham, Suffolk.

13th century The round tower was introduced, both for curtain walls (Pembroke, Wales) and for keeps (Conisbrough, Yorkshire); concentric planning appeared in the castles of Wales, as at Harlech Castle and Beaumaris (1295; one of the finest examples in Europe, and designated a World Heritage site); fortified town walls were common.

14th century Gunpowder was first used, necessitating the inclusion of gunports in curtain walls, as at Bodiam, Sussex. Bamburgh Castle was the first English castle to fall to artillery.

15th century Fortified manor houses were now adequate for private dwelling.

16th century Although the castle had ended as a practical means of defence, fortified coastal defences continued to be built, such as at Falmouth, Cornwall.

Large stone fortifications became popular again in the 18th century, particularly those modelled after the principles of fortification introduced by the French architect Vauban, and were built as late as the first half of the 19th century. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, castlelike buildings were built as residences for the wealthy as part of the Romantic revival in Europe and America, Castle Drogo in Devon, England, being a notable example.


Changing Medieval Castles

Life in medieval castles


Castles on the Web

Life In A Medieval Castle


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castle tower, Piacenza

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changing castles

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