A castle (from Latin: castellum) is a type of fortified structure built in Europe and the Middle East during the Middle Ages by nobility. Scholars debate the scope of the word castle, but usually consider it to be the private fortified residence of a lord or noble. This is distinct from a palace, which is not fortified; from a fortress, which was not always a residence for nobility; and from a fortified settlement, which was a public defence – though there are many similarities among these types of construction. Usage of the term has varied over time and has been applied to structures as diverse as hill forts and country houses. Over the approximately 900 years that castles were built, they took on a great many forms with many different features, although some, such as curtain walls and arrowslits, were commonplace.
A European innovation, castles originated in the 9th and 10th centuries, after the fall of the Carolingian Empire resulted in its territory being divided among individual lords and princes. These nobles built castles to control the area immediately surrounding them, and were both offensive and defensive structures; they provided a base from which raids could be launched as well as protection from enemies. Although their military origins are often emphasised in castle studies, the structures also served as centres of administration and symbols of power. Urban castles were used to control the local populace and important travel routes, and rural castles were often situated near features that were integral to life in the community, such as mills and fertile land.
Many castles were originally built from earth and timber, but had their defences replaced later by stone. Early castles often exploited natural defences, and lacked features such as towers and arrowslits and relied on a central keep. In the late 12th and early 13th centuries, a scientific approach to castle defence emerged. This led to the proliferation of towers, with an emphasis on flanking fire. Many new castles were polygonal or relied on concentric defence – several stages of defence within each other that could all function at the same time to maximise the castle's firepower. These changes in defence have been attributed to a mixture of castle technology from the Crusades, such as concentric fortification, and inspiration from earlier defences such as Roman forts. Not all the elements of castle architecture were military in nature, and devices such as moats evolved from their original purpose of defence into symbols of power. Some grand castles had long winding approaches intended to impress and dominate their landscape.
Although gunpowder was introduced to Europe in the 14th century, it did not significantly affect castle building until the 15th century, when artillery became powerful enough to break through stone walls. While castles continued to be built well into the 16th century, new techniques to deal with improved cannon fire made them uncomfortable and undesirable places to live. As a result, true castles went into decline and were replaced by artillery forts with no role in civil administration, and country houses that were indefensible. From the 18th century onwards, there was a renewed interest in castles with the construction of mock castles, part of a romantic revival of Gothic architecture, but they had no military purpose.
The entrance was often the weakest part in a circuit of defences. To overcome this, the gatehouse was developed, allowing those inside the castle to control the flow of traffic. In earth and timber castles, the gateway was usually the first feature to be rebuilt in stone. The front of the gateway was a blind spot and to overcome this, projecting towers were added on each side of the gate in a style similar to that developed by the Romans. The gatehouse contained a series of defences to make a direct assault more difficult than battering down a simple gate. Typically, there were one or more portcullises – a wooden grille reinforced with metal to block a passage – and arrowslits to allow defenders to harry the enemy. The passage through the gatehouse was lengthened to increase the amount of time an assailant had to spend under fire in a confined space and unable to retaliate.
It is a popular myth that so-called murder-holes – openings in the ceiling of the gateway passage – were used to pour boiling oil or molten lead on attackers; the price of oil and lead and the distance of the gatehouse from fires meant that this was impractical. They were most likely used to drop objects on attackers, or to allow water to be poured on fires to extinguish them. Provision was made in the upper storey of the gatehouse for accommodation so the gate was never left undefended, although this arrangement later evolved to become more comfortable at the expense of defence.
During the 13th and 14th centuries the barbican was developed. This consisted of a rampart, ditch, and possibly a tower, in front of the gatehouse which could be used to further protect the entrance. The purpose of a barbican was not just to provide another line of defence but also to dictate the only approach to the gate.
Battlements were most often found surmounting curtain walls and the tops of gatehouses, and comprised several elements: crenellations,hoardings, machicolations, and loopholes. Crenellation is the collective name for alternating crenels and merlons: gaps and solid blocks on top of a wall. Hoardings were wooden constructs that projected beyond the wall, allowing defenders to shoot at, or drop objects on, attackers at the base of the wall without having to lean perilously over the crenellations, thereby exposing themselves to retaliatory fire. Machicolations were stone projections on top of a wall with openings that allowed objects to be dropped on an enemy at the base of the wall in a similar fashion to hoardings.
Arrowslits, also commonly called loopholes, were narrow vertical openings in defensive walls which allowed arrows or crossbow bolts to be fired on attackers. The narrow slits were intended to protect the defender by providing a very small target, but the size of the opening could also impede the defender if it was too small. A smaller horizontal opening could be added to give an archer a better view for aiming. Sometimes a sally port was included; this could allow the garrison to leave the castle and engage besieging forces. It was usual for the latrines to empty down the external walls of a castle and into the surrounding ditch.
The Fertile Crescent (also known as the Cradle of Civilization) is a crescent-shaped region containing the comparatively moist and fertile land of otherwise arid and semi-arid Western Asia, the Nile Valley and Nile Delta of northeast Africa. It includes parts of Asia Minor, also known as Anatolia. The term was popularized by University of Chicago archaeologist James Henry Breasted. Having originated in the study of ancient history, the concept soon developed and today retains meanings in international geopolitics and diplomatic relations.
In current usage, all definitions of the Fertile Crescent include Mesopotamia, the land in and around the Tigris andEuphrates rivers; and the Levant, the eastern coast of the Mediterranean sea. The modern-day countries with significant territory within the Fertile Crescent are Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Cyprus, andEgypt, beside the southeastern fringe of Turkey and the western fringes of Iran.
The region is often called the cradle of civilization, as it saw the development of some of the earliest human civilizations, which flourished thanks to the water supplies and agricultural resources available in the Fertile Crescent. Technological advances made in the region include the development of writing, glass, the wheel and the use ofirrigation.
The subject of the emergence of castles is a complex matter which has led to considerable debate. Discussions have typically attributed the rise of the castle to a reaction to attacks by Magyars, Muslims, and Vikings and a need for private defence. The breakdown of theCarolingian Empire led to the privatisation of government, and local lords assumed responsibility for the economy and justice. However, while castles proliferated in the 9th and 10th centuries the link between periods of insecurity and building fortifications is not always straightforward. Some high concentrations of castles occur in secure places, while some border regions had relatively few castles.
It is likely that the castle evolved from the practice of fortifying a lordly home. The greatest threat to a lord's home or hall was fire as it was usually a wooden structure. To protect against this, and keep other threats at bay, there were several courses of action available: create encircling earthworks to keep an enemy at a distance; build the hall in stone; or raise it up on an artificial mound, known as a motte, to present an obstacle to attackers. While the concept of ditches, ramparts, and stone walls as defensive measures is ancient, raising a motte is a medieval innovation.
A bank and ditch enclosure was a simple form of defence, and when found without an associated motte is called a ringwork; when the site was in use for a prolonged period, it was sometimes replaced by a more complex structure or enhanced by the addition of a stone curtain wall. Building the hall in stone did not necessarily make it immune to fire as it still had windows and a wooden door. This led to the elevation of windows to the first floor – to make it harder to throw objects in – and to change the entrance from ground floor to first floor. These features are seen in many surviving castle keeps, which were the more sophisticated version of halls. Castles were not just defensive sites but also enhanced a lord's control over his lands. They allowed the garrison to control the surrounding area, and formed a centre of administration, providing the lord with a place to hold court.
Building a castle sometimes required the permission of the king or other high authority. In 864 the King of West Francia, Charles the Bald, prohibited the construction of castella without his permission and ordered them all to be destroyed. This is perhaps the earliest reference to castles, though military historian R. Allen Brown points out that the word castella may have applied to any fortification at the time.
In some countries the monarch had little control over lords, or required the construction of new castles to aid in securing the land so was unconcerned about granting permission – as was the case in England in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest and the Holy Land during the Crusades. Switzerland is an extreme case of there being no state control over who built castles, and as a result there were 4,000 in the country. There are very few castles dated with certainty from the mid-9th century. Converted into a donjon around 950, Château deDoué-la-Fontaine in France is the oldest standing castle in Europe.
From 1000 onwards, references to castles in texts such as charters increased greatly. Historians have interpreted this as evidence of a sudden increase in the number of castles in Europe around this time; this has been supported by archaeological investigation which has dated the construction of castle sites through the examination of ceramics. The increase in Italy began in the 950s, with numbers of castles increasing by a factor of three to five every 50 years, whereas in other parts of Europe such as France and Spain the growth was slower. In 950 Provence was home to 12 castles, by 1000 this figure had risen to 30, and by 1030 it was over 100. Although the increase was slower in Spain, the 1020s saw a particular growth in the number of castles in the region, particularly in contested border areas between Christian and Muslim.
Despite the common period in which castles rose to prominence in Europe, their form and design varied from region to region. In the early 11th century, the motte and keep – an artificial mound surmounted by a palisade and tower – was the most common form of castle in Europe, everywhere except Scandinavia. While Britain, France, and Italy shared a tradition of timber construction that was continued in castle architecture, Spain more commonly used stone or mud-brick as the main building material.
The Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century introduced a style of building developed in North Africa reliant on tapial, pebbles in cement, where timber was in short supply. Although stone construction would later become common elsewhere, from the 11th century onwards it was the primary building material for Christian castles in Spain, while at the same time timber was still the dominant building material in north-west Europe.
Historians have interpreted the widespread presence of castles across Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries as evidence that warfare was common, and usually between local lords. Castles were introduced into England shortly before the Norman Conquest in 1066.Before the 12th century, castles were as uncommon in Denmark as they had been in England before the Norman Conquest. The introduction of castles to Denmark was a reaction to attacks from Wendish pirates, and they were usually intended as coastal defences.The motte and bailey remained the dominant form of castle in England, Wales, and Ireland well into the 12th century. At the same time, castle architecture in mainland Europe became more sophisticated.
The donjon was at the centre of this change in castle architecture in the 12th century. Central towers proliferated, and typically had a square plan, with walls 3 to 4 m (9.8 to 13.1 ft) thick. Their decoration emulated Romanesque architecture, and sometimes incorporated double windows similar to those found in church bell towers. Donjons, which were the residence of the lord of the castle, evolved to become more spacious. The design emphasis of donjons changed to reflect a shift from functional to decorative requirements, imposing a symbol of lordly power upon the landscape. This sometimes led to compromising defence for the sake of display.
In the early 13th century, Crusader castles were mostly built by Military Orders including the Knights Hospitaller, Knights Templar, andTeutonic Knights. The orders were responsible for the foundation of sites such as Krak des Chevaliers, Margat, and Belvoir. Design varied not just between orders, but between individual castles, though it was common for those founded in this period to have concentric defences.
The concept, which originated in castles such as Krak des Chevaliers, was to remove the reliance on a central strongpoint and to emphasise the defence of the curtain walls. There would be multiple rings of defensive walls, one inside the other, with the inner ring rising above the outer so that its field of fire was not completely obscured. If assailants made it past the first line of defence they would be caught in the killing ground between the inner and outer walls and have to assault the second wall.
Concentric castles were widely copied across Europe, for instance when Edward I of England – who had himself been on Crusade – built castles in Wales in the late 13th century, four of the eight he founded had a concentric design. Not all the features of the Crusader castles from the 13th century were emulated in Europe. For instance, it was common in Crusader castles to have the main gate in the side of a tower and for there to be two turns in the passageway, lengthening the time it took for someone to reach the outer enclosure. It is rare for this bent entrance to be found in Europe.
One of the effects of the Livonian Crusade in the Baltic was the introduction of stone and brick fortifications. Although there were hundreds of wooden castles in Prussia and Livonia, the use of bricks and mortar was unknown in the region before the Crusaders. Until the 13th century and start of the 14th centuries, their design was heterogeneous, however this period saw the emergence of a standard plan in the region: a square plan, with four wings around a central courtyard. It was common for castles in the East to have arrowslits in the curtain wall at multiple levels; contemporary builders in Europe were wary of this as they believed it weakened the wall. Arrowslits did not compromise the wall's strength, but it was not until Edward I's programme of castle building that they were widely adopted in Europe.
The Crusades also led to the introduction of machicolations into Western architecture. Until the 13th century, the tops of towers had been surrounded by wooden galleries, allowing defenders to drop objects on assailants below. Although machicolations performed the same purpose as the wooden galleries, they were probably an Eastern invention rather than an evolution of the wooden form. Machicolations were used in the East long before the arrival of the Crusaders, and perhaps as early as the first half of the 8th century in Syria.
The greatest period of castle building in Spain was in the 11th to 13th centuries, and they were most commonly found in the disputed borders between Christian and Muslim lands. Conflict and interaction between the two groups led to an exchange of architectural ideas, and Spanish Christians adopted the use of detached towers. The Spanish Reconquista, driving the Muslims out of the Iberian Peninsula, was complete in 1492.
Although France has been described as "the heartland of medieval architecture", the English were at the forefront of castle architecture in the 12th century. French historian François Gebelin wrote: "The great revival in military architecture was led, as one would naturally expect, by the powerful kings and princes of the time; by the sons of William the Conqueror and their descendants, the Plantagenets, when they became dukes of Normandy. These were the men who built all the most typical twelfth-century fortified castles remaining to-day". Despite this, by the beginning of the 15th century, the rate of castle construction in England and Wales went into decline. The new castles were generally of a lighter build than earlier structures and presented few innovations, although strong sites were still created such as that of Raglan in Wales. At the same time, French castle architecture came to the fore and led the way in the field of medieval fortifications. Across Europe – particularly the Baltic, Germany, and Scotland – castles were built well into the 16th century.