The "castle-story", first part: How did castles appear? What makes them so unique?

author icon By George Ghidrai

Last update: 26.07.2023

Ask anyone to visualize the Middle Ages and, almost inevitably, they will come up with the image of a castle. Castles are some of the most popular historic sites on the planet and, together with the great cathedrals, they are one of the most evocative features of the Medieval Age.

Castles exert a powerful hold on our imagination. They embody the romantic ideal of chivalry, of epic battles, of loyalty and personal sacrifice to crown and country.

There are two questions we will try to clarify in this "story":

  • How did castles appear?

  • What makes castles so unique?

So how did castles originate?

Fortified settlements first appeared over 2,000 years ago, when fortified towns started to appear in the Indus Valley in Egypt and also in China, where settlements were often protected by large earthen walls. Such defensive structures were slower to develop in Europe until hill forts appeared and began to spread across the landscape.

It was the Romans that were most famous for their formidable defensive structures, which included coastal forts, flanking round towers, and fortified towns.

roman fortified town, an artist imression

an artist impression of a Roman fortified town

In fact, castle design has been significantly influenced by Roman architecture over the millennia, with many castles built on the ruins of Roman fortifications.

So what makes a castle so unique? We will get to that in a few moments...

First, let’s jump back to a time when castles first started to appear across medieval Europe. At the beginning of the 9th century, Charles the Great (also known as Charlemagne) founded a vast empire across Western and Central Europe. This became known as the Carolingian Empire and it was the first great empire established in Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire sometime during the 5th Century AD.

map of the Carolingian Empire

map of the Carolingian Empire

The Carolingian Empire only lasted for about 90 years, and once it fell the vast land holdings of the empire were divided among members of the aristocracy, including local nobles and princes.

These local lords began to assume responsibility for the economy and for the government in the area they controlled. However, they had the challenge of protecting their holdings from attacks by the Moors from the south, the Vikings from the north and west, and most importantly, their neighboring local lords who wanted to expand their own territories (and power).

Besides that, the local lords also needed to establish administrative centers to control the land and demonstrate their military power.

And that's where the concept of a castle was born. Although there is considerable debate on the original purpose of castles, it is generally agreed that these nobles started building castles for 3 primary reasons:

  1. Military

    Castles provided protection to local inhabitants against enemy raids in the surrounding area. The castle was the primary residence for the local lord's army and was, therefore, a difficult target for raiders. Moreover, castles were also used effectively as a base to launch offensive raids into enemy territory.

    As time passed, castle design evolved from the primitive motte-and-bailey castles to the formidable concentric castles which constituted the high point in medieval military architecture; and with that development came better defensive and offensive capability.

  2. Administrative

    Castles were not just defensive sites but also enhanced the lord's control over his lands. They formed a center of administration, providing the noble with a place to hold court, to centralize administrative activities, and a place to host visiting dignitaries.

    Many castles were also used to control important nearby resources such as travel routes, mills, fertile land, and water sources.

  3. Symbols of power

    Although primarily designed to offer protection and control nearby land, not all the elements of castle architecture were military in nature. For these local lords, demonstrating their economic, political, and military power was a key element in the design of their castle.

    Consequently, the castle's appearance and size tended to reflect the prestige and power of its owner. As castle design evolved, the aesthetics of the design become more important and the castle's original military purpose would often shift towards comfort and practicality.

Chepstow Castle

Chepstow Castle, one of the first stone castles built in the UK

So let's get back to our question. What makes castles unique?

A European innovation, a castle is considered to be the private fortified residence of a lord or noble. The buildings contained within the castle walls were often multi-functional in design, and able to serve different purposes depending on need.

Most importantly, while castles had always some military aspects in their design, they also had to contain a practical and efficient household structure within their walls.

These aspects set them apart from other similar structures such as:

  • a fortress, which was not always a residence for a noble or lord
  • a fortified settlement, which was a public defense
  • a palace or a country house, which was not fortified

Nevertheless, over time many castles lost their fortifications, gradually evolving into grand palaces or country houses.

Two key elements to remember:

  1. While many castles had common elements, no two castles were alike, with each castle's design dependent on factors including the selected position, the landscape, and the amount of money the noble was willing or able to spend.

  2. Most of the castles developed over time. As a result, many primitive motte-and-bailey castles became the foundations for more impressive stone castles built on top of them.

    Alternatively, many stone castles that were built in the 10th and 11th centuries were later enlarged and renovated to turn them into more comfortable residences.

How did castles come to England?

That should be an interesting question as we know now that castles are not a British innovation. Despite that, Britain and Ireland have some of the most impressive castles in the world. So how, therefore, did castles arrive on British soil?

To answer that question we need to go back to 1066 when William the Conqueror led the Norman invasion of England.

William the Conqueror

William the Conqueror

As William advanced through England, he needed to fortify key positions to secure the land he had taken. To do this, he built cheap motte-and-bailey castles made primarily of timber and earth, that were relatively easy and fast to construct. These castles were used to guard against rebellion and control the surrounding area.

Each castle was given to a noble who was sympathetic to William, and in return for his loyalty, the lord could keep the castle which helped secure his power over the local lands.

William and his army then proceeded to capture new territories in England, Wales, and Scotland, and by 1072 William had consolidated his power over the British Isles.

After William's death in 1087, the Norman barons who owned these castles began to use them for private war and to even rebel against the crown. From the 12th century on, royal authority was strengthened and castles could only be constructed if a "License to crenellate" was granted by the King. All up, more than 1500 castles were built in England alone during the next 5 centuries.

Throughout our "castle-story" we will see how were castles built and how did castle-design evolve over time. Next, let's take a look at the Motte-and-Bailey Castles, the first-ever type of castle.


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