Decline of the castles and the end of the "castle-story"

author icon By George Ghidrai

Last update: 26.07.2023

Castles had been a pivotal point of medieval society for nearly 6 centuries. They had evolved from the primitive motte-and-bailey castles to the mighty concentric castles. However, with the advent of gunpowder and the development of new weapons and tactics to overrun these fortifications, castles became increasingly difficult to defend and maintain.

From the middle of the 15th century, canons became the preferred siege weapon and their effectiveness was demonstrated by Mehmed II at the Fall of Constantinople.

The Dardanelles Gun, cast by Munir Ali in 1464, is similar to bombards used by the Ottoman besiegers of Constantinople in 1453

The Dardanelles Gun, cast by Munir Ali in 1464, is similar to bombards used by the Ottoman besiegers of Constantinople in 1453

Castle designer's response was to build thicker walls or to pile an earthen bank behind a castle's curtain wall to absorb some of the shocks of impact.

However, cannons became increasingly stronger and more concessions had to be made in the castle's defenses to withstand a siege with such powerful weapons. These changes turned castles into uncomfortable and undesirable places to live and eventually, the baton was passed to newly designed star-forts which began to take over from the defensive role of castles. Pioneered in Italy, these forts were permanent artillery fortifications exclusively designed to withstand cannon fire.

Moreover, the armaments being developed around that time meant that a majority of conflicts were more likely to be resolved by pitched battle, rather than by a siege. The evolution of warfare and the advent of weapons capable of such destruction as the canon led to a decline of 'true castles'.

In England, the construction of a chain of artillery fortifications by Henry VIII sent a clear message to the aristocracy that it was now the state that had responsibility for national defense.

Pendennis Castle

Pendennis Castle, an example of an artillery fort constructed by King Henry VIII in England

Castles continued to be built, but now the grandeur and aesthetics of the design became the most important aspect. Luxurious homes were created inside fortified walls. Although they could still provide protection from low levels of violence, their original defensive purpose was taken over by civil buildings such as star-forts, towers or bastions. The age of the castle, and thus the castle story, was over.

Castles were eventually succeeded by country houses and palaces as high-status residences. From the 18th century onwards, there was a renewed interest in castles as a part of a romantic revival of Gothic architecture. New impressive country houses were built in a "castle style", with towers and crenellations, but they were solely for display and had no practical military purpose.

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