AskDefine | Define castles

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  1. Plural of castle

Extensive Definition

A castle is a defensive structure seen as one of the main symbols of the Middle Ages. The term has a history of scholarly debate surrounding its exact meaning, but it is usually regarded as being distinct from the general terms fort or fortress in that it describes a building which serves as a residence of a monarch or noble and commands a specific defensive territory.
Roman forts and hill forts were the main antecedents of castles in Europe, which emerged in the 9th century in Carolingian France. The advent of cannon and gunpowder changed the needs of warfare in Europe, limiting the effectiveness of the castle and leading to the rise of the fort.
Similar constructions in Russia (Kremlin) and feudal Japan (Shiro) are also considered castles.


Castle comes from the Latin word castellum. This is a diminutive of the word castrum, which means "fortified place". The word "castle" (castel) was introduced into English shortly before the Norman Conquest to denote this type of fortress, then new to England, brought in by the Norman knights. In Spain, a fortified dwelling on a height for the administering authority retains its Moorish name of alcázar, whilst shiro also figure prominently in Japanese history, where the feudal daimyō inhabited them.
A French castle is a château-fort, for in French a simple château connotes a grand country house at the heart of an estate, with non-military, purely residential function. When European castles were opened up and expanded into pleasure dwellings and power houses from the late 15th century, their "castle" designations, relics of the feudal age, often remained attached to the dwelling, resulting in many non-military castles and châteaux.
In Germany there are two names for what would be called a castle in English, Burg and Schloss. A Burg is a medieval structure of military significance, while a Schloss was built after the Middle Ages as a palace and not for defensive purposes. However, these are not usually palaces in the French style, but instead are styled on medieval mountain castles and fairytale notions, and from all appearances are often castles to an English speaker.
In Celtic countries, Caer or castell (Welsh), dún and caisleán (Irish), dùn and caisteal (Scots Gaelic) are used.
In spite of the generally accepted definition, the word "castle" is sometimes used to mean a citadel (such as the castles of Badajoz and Burgos) or small detached forts d'arrêt in modern times and, traditionally, in Britain it has also been used to refer to prehistoric earthworks (e.g. Maiden Castle). The use of the Spanish equivalent castillo can be equally misleading, as it can refer to true castles and forts (eg. Castillo de San Marcos); terms such as Fortaleza ("fortress") are in similar situations.

Defining features

The chief distinguishing features of castles, as opposed to other defensive structures, can be defined as follows:
  • Castles were places of protection from an invading enemy, a place of retreat. This is the purpose behind such stereotypical castle features as portcullises, battlements and drawbridges.
  • Castles were also offensive weapons, built in otherwise hostile territories from which to control surrounding lands, as forward camps. In particular, during the High Middle Ages, castles were often built for territorial expansion and regional control. A castle was a stronghold from which a lord could control surrounding territory.
  • Castles were either built as, or evolved into, residences for the monarch or lord who built them.
These three purposes distinguish the castle from other fortresses — which are usually purely defensive (like citadels and city walls) or purely offensive (a military camp) — or edifices that are entirely residential in nature, like palaces. Castles such as the Tower of London served as prisons.


A castle was not only a bastion and place for detention of prisoners but also a social place where a knight or lord could entertain his peers. Over time the aesthetics of the design increased in importance, as the appearance and size began to reflect the prestige and power of the occupant.
Castles were built as defensive measures and offensive weapons, but often over time comfortable homes evolved within the fortified walls. An example is the Windsor Castle, first built as a Norman Conquest fortress; today a home to the Queen of the United Kingdom. The Alhambra in Al-Andalus incorporated both defensive and residential features, but after the Reconquista unified Spain, its importance shifted and it became a palace under Charles V.

Architecture and development

Early castles


From as early as Neolithic times (between 8500 BC-2500 BC), people built hill forts to protect themselves. Many earthworks survive today, along with evidence of palisades to accompany the ditches. The Romans commonly encountered hill forts (called oppida) built by their enemies. Though primitive, they were often effective and required extensive siege engines and other siege warfare techniques to overcome, such as at the Battle of Alesia. The Romans own fortifications (castra) varied from simple temporary earthworks thrown up by armies on the move, to elaborate permanent stone constructions, notably the milecastles of Hadrian's Wall. Roman forts were generally rectangular with rounded corners. The Roman engineer Vitruvius was the first to note the three main advantages of round corner towers: more efficient use of stone, improved defence against battering rams and improved field of fire. It was not until the 13th century that these advantages were rediscovered.

The first castles

The earliest recorded structures universally acknowledged by historians as 'castles' were built in the late 9th century, and included wood, earth and stone structures. Other late Antiquity-early Medieval castles survive in Brescia and Trento in Italy Construction of new castles in Europe is attested from the Carolingian era, but their construction seems to have been related mainly to the defence of frontiers and state properties, and the right to fortify was a royal privilege. As early as 864, Charles the Bald issued an edict ordering the destruction of private fortifications erected without his permission. However, changes took place from the late 9th century, probably under the pressure of raids by the Vikings and Magyars, and due to the general decline of the Carolingian Empire, and the consequent loss of centralized authority, which resulted in a proliferation of castles.}}

Defensive features


Most castles, even from the earliest times, followed certain standards of design and construction. Generally, the central feature of the castle was the keep, or donjon, the main commanding tower. The primary function of the keep varied, but usually it was a residential structure functioning as a redoubt in times of trouble, but could also be used as a secure storage area, or, later, as a prison. In motte and bailey castles, the keep typically surmounted the motte. Many early castles and certain later ones were nothing more than simple towers. The tower houses of Britain and Ireland, as well as peel towers, are examples of this type. Most, however, required outer walls of some sort. The keep was contained within the walls or attached to the walls. The area delineated by the walls was known as the bailey or the court, and the enclosure known as the enceinte.


The enceinte of the castle is another recognizable feature. Essentially the enceinte is the entire fortified enclosure of the castle precincts. In some cases this area was demarcated by a simple defensive wall or barrier. More often the wall was surmounted by a walkway to defend the castle. As with Roman and earlier architecture, projecting flanking towers were usually added to the wall to improve defence. Later castles were built on a concentric plan, where enceinte walls (also called curtain walls) and towers formed two rings around the keep, resulting in an inner and an outer court, pushing the enemy further from the core walls and keep.


The gates were a weak point in the defenses of castles, so gatehouses could be strengthened with flanking towers, a turning or removable bridge, doors, and a heavy portcullis. There would often be multiple portcullises, with arrow slits in the sides of the gate passage, allowing the defenders to trap the enemy and kill them within the gate. Additionally, gates were often placed in such a manner as to channel attacking forces against a series of perilous defensive fortifications, enabling the defenders to defend on their terms. Many gatehouses had a second body. Archers in the second body could shoot down at their enemies while they were defenseless.

Additional features

Castles featured an array of defences to delay the attackers' progress towards the keep. Moats and ditches formed the most obvious, as these would have to be filled in before heavy siege engines could be moved towards the walls. Overhanging wooden hoardings could be constructed if a castle was under threat. These covered walkways would allow several lines of fire. Nevertheless, castles could take many years to complete, although the time needed depended greatly from type, location, resources, time period, construction materials, etc.
Finding stone was the first concern of medieval builders, and a major preoccupation was to have quarries close at hand. There are famous examples of some castles where stone was quarried on site, such as Chinon, Château de Coucy and Château Gaillard. Beaumaris Castle in Wales, has surviving records from 1295–96 which describe 200 quarrymen, 400 stonemasons and as many as 2000 minor workmen. Castles, not surprisingly were expensive to build, considering workers and materials. For example, costs for Beaumaris, which was in and of itself part of a bigger castle program, was £14,500 (roughly $8–9 billion in today's money).
In some cases, transporting stone over large distances was altogether impractical, and in the Low countries, a lack of good building stone meant that castles were generally brick. Brick castles were predominant in Scandinavia and the Baltic.

Later developments

Innovation and scientific design

During the Crusades, opportunities were afforded to western engineers to study the massive fortifications of the Byzantine Empire as well as fortifications built by the Islamic inhabitants of the Holy Land. The buildings they encountered in the late 10th century featured innovations which were not common in Europe at that time. This included in part regularly-spaced flanking towers of round or variable construction, and geometric scientific design. This revolutionized the art of castle-building in Europe, which henceforward followed these principles.
Designers soon realized that a second line of defences should be built within the main enceinte, and a third line or keep inside the second line, while a wall must be flanked by projecting towers. Thus from the Byzantine engineers, European castles derived the principle of mutual defence of all the parts of a fortress. The donjon of Western Europe was regarded as the fortress, the outer walls as accessory defences; in the East each envelope was a fortress in itself, and the keep became merely the last refuge of the garrison, used only when all else had been captured. Many scholars have noted that in the 13th century there was a tendency toward the strengthening of the enceinte, and a reduced role of the keep in both military and residential context.
In Richard I of England's fortress of Château-Gaillard Les Andelys, the innermost ward was protected by an elaborate system of strong appended defences, which included a strong tête-de-pont protecting the Seine bridge. The castle stood upon high ground and consisted of three distinct enceintes or wards besides the keep, which was in this case merely a strong tower forming part of the innermost ward. Frederick II's Castel del Monte in Puglia has no keep at all: built on high ground, it is an octagonal structure with eight polygonal corner towers.
Round towers, rather than square towers, were now becoming common, with the finest examples of their employment as keeps being at Conisborough in England and at Falaise and Coucy in France. Siege artillery of the 13th century was primitive, but it was realized that against mining and battering rams, corners in castle stonework were more vulnerable than a uniform curved surface.
The next development was the extension of the principle of successive lines of defence to form what is called the "concentric" castle, in which each ward was placed wholly within another which enveloped it. This was inspired by the Walls of Constantinople, and thus places built on a flat site became for the first time more formidable than strongholds perched upon rocks and hills, where some points could not be as heavily fortified as others for lack of space. In these cases, the fall of the inner ward by surprise, escalade, or even sometimes by ordinary siege, entailed the fall of the whole castle. The adoption of the concentric system precluded any such mischance, and thus, even though siege engines improved during the 13th and 14th centuries, the defences of strong concentric castle, or naturally inaccessible castles, retained its importance during the Late Middle Ages.
Construction of castles in this period was often connected to the necessity to establish a strong central power against local fragmentation, or in newly conquered lands: examples are the large building programs of Edward I of England in Wales, Philip I August of France, the Ezzelino IV da Romano and the Scaligers in northern Italy, Frederick II and Charles I of Anjou in southern Italy (often reusing former Norman or even Byzantine and Lombard structures), King Denis I in Portugal, and notably the Teutonic Knights in their conquest of Pagan lands in Prussia and Poland. In Germany, stone structures appeared in Hesse, Thuringia, Alsace and Saxony, commissioned by the powerful local aristocracy. Structures in northern Germany were usually simpler, often taking advantage of water streams.

Response to the advent of gunpowder

The advent of gunpowder in the Middle Ages signalled a change in the purpose of a castle - from being purely a military building, it became increasingly a residential one. From the Renaissance onward, this loosening of military importance allowed for a more aesthetic approach to construction, for example the Castello Estense of Ferrara in Italy, the castles of Valderrobres and Manzanares el Real in Spain and the series of highly decorated castles built (or rebuilt) in France along the Loire starting from the 15th century
Whilst siegecraft had consisted of throwing machines such as trebuchets, the primary aims in the construction of castle walls were height and thickness. However it became almost impossible to follow this ideal to cope with ever more powerful cannons. Existing castles which retained military importance were updated, as far as practically possible, to cope with new siege technologies. One example is the English fortress of Bodiam, built from 1385, provided with opposite slit to allow firing from arquebuses. But inevitably, those fortifications previously deemed impregnable, eventually proved inadequate in the face of gunpowder. These include Friesack Castle (which was reduced in two days (during February 1414), by Frederick I with "Heavy Peg" (Faule Grete), and other guns; Constantinople (the massively strong walls of which were breached in 1453 to the Ottomans after lengthy cannon bombardment); and Nanstein Castle (Franz von Sickingen's stronghold at Landstuhl, was ruined in one day in 1523 by the artillery of Philip of Hesse). Architects of the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance, many of whom were also renowned as engineers, were called to plan countermeasures; e.g. Guillén Sagrera, Giuliano da Sangallo the Younger, Francesco di Giorgio Martini, Baldassarre Peruzzi and Leonardo da Vinci. Viollet-le-Duc, in his Annals of a Fortress, gives a full account of the repeated renovations of a fortress (at an imaginary site in the valley of the Doubs), the construction by Charles the Bold of artillery towers at the angles of the castle, the protection of the masonry by earthen outworks, boulevards and demi-boulevards, and, in the 17th century, the final service of the medieval walls and towers as a pure enceinte de sfireti. The general adoption of cannons led therefore to the disappearing (or to the loss of importance) of majestic towers and merlons. Walls of new fortresses were thicker and angulated, towers became lower and stouter. Examples of the late type of castle-fortress are that in Sarzana (Italy), that built by Henry VIII of England in Deal, the Fort de Salses constructed by Ferdinand II of Aragon and the Imperial Castle of Nurnberg.
In the end, the introduction of gunpowder led to a disappearing of traditional castles, in the meaning of a building intended for both military and residential roles. This transition began in the 14th century and was fully underway by the 15th. In the 16th century the feudal fastness had become an anachronism. Here and there we find old castles serving in secondary roles, as forts d'arret or block-houses in mountain passes and defiles, and in some few cases, as at Dover, they formed the nucleus of purely military places of arms. Normally castles, when they were not let to fell into ruins, became peaceful mansions, or were merged in the fortifications of the town which has grown up around it. In the Viollet-le-Duc's Annals of a Fortress the site of the feudal castle is occupied by the citadel of the walled town, for once again, with the development of the middle class and of commerce and industry, the art of the engineer came to be displayed chiefly in the fortification of cities. The baronial "castle" assumes pan passu the form of a mansion, retaining indeed for long some capacity for defence, but in the end losing all military characteristics save a few which survived as ornaments.
However, some true castles were built in the Americas by the Spanish and French colonies. The first stage of Spanish fort construction has been termed the "castle period", which lasted from 1492 until the end of the 16th century. Starting with Fortaleza Ozama, "these castles were essentially European medieval castles transposed to America." Among other defensive structures (including forts and citadels), castles were also built in New France towards the end of the 17th century. Where artillery was not as developed as on the battle-fields of Europe, some of Montreal's outlying forts were built like the fortified manor houses of France. Fort Longueuil, built from 1695–1698 by a baronial family, has been described as "the most medieval looking fort built in Canada". The manor house and stables were within a fortified bailey, with a tall round turret in each corner. The "most substantial castle-like fort" near Montréal was Fort Senneville, built in 1692 with square towers connected by thick stone walls, as well as a fortified windmill. Stone forts such as these served as defensive residences, as well as imposing structures to prevent Iroquois incursions.
To guard against artillery and gunfire, increasing use was made of earthen, brick and stone breastworks and this redoubts, such as the geometric fortresses of the 17th century French Marquis de Vauban. These soon replaced castles in Europe, and eventually castles in the Americas were superseded by bastions and forts.

Revival castles and the castle as a country house

From the late 18th century to the early 20th century, as a manifestation of a romantic interest in the Medieval period, and as part of the broader Gothic Revival in architecture, many so-called castles were built. These Castles had no defensive purpose, but incorporated stylistic elements of earlier castles, such as castellation and towers. These features were personified in the Scottish Baronial style. Most of them were country houses. These revival or "mock" castles were particularly common in the British Isles, for example Belvoir Castle and Eastnor Castle. Edwin Lutyens' Castle Drogo was the last flicker of this movement in England. In Ireland, a considerable number of vast, complicated mock-castles were built, including Belfast Castle and Castle Oliver. Famous revival castles in other countries include Neuschwanstein in Germany, Miramare in Italy, and Castillo de Chapultepec in Mexico.



  • English Castles
  • Castellarium Anglicanum: An Index and Bibliography of the Castles in England, Wales and the Islands (2 vols)
  • The Castle in England and Wales: An Interpretative History
  • Medieval Siege Warfare
  • Timber Castles
  • Behind the Castle Gate: From Medieval to Renaissance
  • Medieval Fortifications
  • The Medieval Castle in England and Wales: A Social and Political History
  • The Decline of the Castle
  • The Rise of the Castle

External links

castles in Afrikaans: Kasteel
castles in Arabic: قلعة
castles in Asturian: Castiellu
castles in Belarusian: Замак
castles in Samogitian: Pėlis
castles in Catalan: Castell
castles in Czech: Hrad
castles in Welsh: Castell
castles in Danish: Borg
castles in German: Burg
castles in Esperanto: Burgo
castles in Spanish: Castillo
castles in Estonian: Linnus
castles in Finnish: Linna
castles in French: Château fort
castles in Hebrew: טירה (מבצר)
castles in Hungarian: Vár
castles in Indonesian: Kastil
castles in Icelandic: Kastali
castles in Italian: Castello
castles in Japanese: 城
castles in Korean: 성 (건조물)
castles in Latvian: Pils
castles in Lithuanian: Pilis
castles in Macedonian: Крепост
castles in Dutch: Burcht (kasteel)
castles in Narom: Câté
castles in Occitan (post 1500): Castèl (construccion)
castles in Polish: Zamek
castles in Portuguese: Castelo
castles in Romanian: Cetate (edificiu)
castles in Russian: Замок (строение)
castles in Scots: Castle
castles in Simple English: Castle
castles in Slovak: Hrad
castles in Slovenian: Grad
castles in Albanian: Kalaja
castles in Serbian: Замак
castles in Swedish: Borg
castles in Turkish: Kale (yapı)
castles in Ukrainian: Замок (споруда)
castles in Chinese: 城堡
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