The word dungeon comes from the French "Donjon" which means tower. This means that, contrary to popular belief, dungeons were not located in the dark and cold basement of a castle, but regularly on the castle's highest tower. The reason for this is obvious - while hundreds of guards would be needed to properly defend a complete underground dungeon, only a dozen would be needed to protect a high tower since the narrow stairs made it possible.
Those who were confined in an underground dungeon, usually stayed there for their whole lifetime. Whilst the space in the high tower was limited and prisoners in a tower would be either executed or set free.
Castles, having been built so resistant, were frequently turned into prisons. Both the French Bastille and the English Tower of London served for that purpose over the years.
Dungeons were frequently host to many torture devices in which inmates would be either killed or heavily tortured. This was especially frequent after the XII century and even more during the inquisition.
After the XII century, many nobles sought to strengthen their castles to be effective against fire. This very often involved much work and in most cases the utter reconstruction of a castle for it to be strong from its roots which was extremely useful when defending against diggers.
As it can be noted in the castle timeline, castles were oftenly enlarged because they were highly effective against foreign invaders.
When the trebuchet was invented and introduced into medieval warfare, most castles were completely re-designed in order to be once again protective because the trebuchet was a completely devastating weapon. The same held true for other common siege weapons which were often improved such as the catapult itself which often threw normous projectiles which consisted of human beings to spread disease - reason for which every part of a castle had to be accessible by the defenders to avoid a rotting body in an unreachable position.
The changes that ocurred to castles were nothing compared to what happened after the first cannon was used against a castle.
I have written a very interesting article about the changes to medieval castles after the introduction of gunppowder here.
A resource that I highly recommend is the castle timeline which emphasizes everything I have previously written enormously.
Concentric castles were also a major improvement after the discovery of gunpowder. Having many lines of defense improved a castle's chance to withstand a siege. Nevertheless, older castles had their walls severely strengthened. Sometimes they doubled the width of a wall.
Archers were useless. In consequence, archer loops were changed in size (smaller) to make them fit for gunners. Castles usually had dozens of these loops; thus they could kill hundreds of invaders.
After all these improvements, it was also realized that the best defense against a cannon was another cannon. Round towers were shortened and on top of them, cannons were placed. The same principle that governs an arrow when fired from the top of a wall also applies to a cannon. The higher the cannon, the more damage it inflicts.
The downside for castles was that cannons began to be improved. Their caliber increased dramatically, and, after a few years; castles started to lose their newly acquired strength.
Constantinople was subject to these changes. Being a very fortified city itself, it was promptly destroyed by a combination of gunpowder and a much greater force in numbers. When it was besieged, an enormous cannon was used to destroy the walls which played a very important role in Constantinople's fall.
Moats also made climbing walls with gigantic ladders virtually impossible. Furthermore, their role in strengthening castle's defenses was fundamental.
The attackers would normally cut off any supplies to the castle (including rivers, commerce, farms). In addition to this, the invaders used catapults to throw dead bodies into the castle; spreading diseases. If a spy was captured outside the castle, he would normally be thrown alive as well.
Siege weapons were improved and widely used. Catapults were the most efficient siege weapons until trebuchets were introduced many years later. If a castle couldn't be besieged, the invaders used other methods to destroy or climb the castle's walls. The main method consisted on sending diggers who dug tunnels right beneath a wall (mostly corners since they were heavier). The tunnel would be strengthened with wood found from the surrounding area. After the tunnel was complete, the diggers would go to the surface. When they were all outside, fire was set to the wood; making the tunnel collapse. The walls were severely damaged when this method was employed.
To counterattack, the defenders would use water to see where the tunnels were being built. If a tunnel was found, the besieged army made another tunnel to intersect it. If such an intersection occurred, a fearsome struggle was bound to happen underneath the castle.
Archers were very ineffective if used from a lower height. Very big timber platforms were built in a matter of days to help the invaders gain some height for their archers; making them more effective. The crossbow was introduced in the XV century. It was so effective in killing people that the church prohibited its use for a brief period of time. Quarrels (crossbow's ammunition) could go from one side of a person to the other (even if he was wearing plate mail).
Making a castle surrender was a very difficult task. Sometimes months were not enough; which meant that an allied army could come to the defender's aid originating a double-front battle for the invaders.
Some of the most common ways to storm a castle were with the following devices:
The Battering Ram was mostly used against doors and thin walls. It consisted of knocking a chopped tree against its target with the strength of 6-10 men. Older Battering Rams had a roof made of iron to stop projectiles and boiling water.
Pickaxes were used against older castles in which the wall were very thin. They could make a hole through a wall in a matter of days. Even though effective against timber and thin stone, they were useless against bigger castles.
If a castle's door was made of wood, pickaxes could destroy it very hastily.
Diggers were used to destroy castle walls. Normally dug near a corner, the tunnel would be destroyed making the wall or tower collapse.
The most common and effective way to attack a castle was with siege. A castle would normally last many months. Food was the most common reason of the defenders' fall; many ways to preserve food were idealized. In some castles, the lord would get rid of all the women, old men and kids to preserve food. Usually they escaped through a tunnel, but sometimes no such tunnel existed and they had to stay inside the castle hoping for mercy.
The invaders surrounded the castle firing projectiles at the defenders.
Trebuchets and catapults were the most common ways to not only besiege a castle, but also spread diseases by firing dead bodies. Projectiles included: cows, huge rocks, dead humans and rotten meat.
Fire was very effective against timber castles. When stone castles started appearing, fire was practically useless. Attackers would shoot thousands of fire arrows in hope of burning anything inside (furniture, huts).
Also common, ladders were used against smaller castles. At a specific time, the attackers would send their army with many ladders hoping to climb the enemy's wall. This technique rarely worked since the defenders could throw objects--or boiling water--at their victims.
To conclude, attacking a castle was very difficult. Almost invariantly more attackers than defenders died because the castle itself was a formidable protection. Unfortunately for the defenders, food was scarce and they depended on a relieving force in order to survive.
Besieging a castle was a very difficult task and very frequently, a failed attempt. As castles evolved, so did their defense. When moats were introduced, invading a castle through force was a much harder task. Instead, besieging it was very common. Castle's walls were very effective in halting the invaders. Some walls were wider than 30 feet; thus destroying them was very hard, even after gunpowder was invented.
Even when the moat and the first line of defense were breached, most castles still had another two lines of defense including the keep which was the last defensible spot. Castles with more than two lines of defense are known today as concentric castles. Archers were situated on top of the walls, firing at their victims who took shelted behind trees or anything they could find in order to save their own lives. After bows, crossbows were introduced; severely improving the efficiency of a castle's defense.
Most castles used siege weapons to defend themselves. The most common was the catapult which was placed on a square or round tower to fire at the invaders who would also use siege weapons to destroy walls and launch dead animals to spread diseases to the defenders. Even though huge walls were needed to stop projectiles, there was even a bigger problem to worry about. Food was the biggest problem for the defenders for too much food meant spoilage whilst too few meant death. Most bigger castles had farming land in the interior, but the smaller ones had a very serious problem to worry about.
When there was not enough food, defenders would normally surrender or find another way out. Many castles had secret passageways which led to the exterior. They were normally used after the situation was critical due to the very big risk of leaving their only defense.
If, instead, support arrived when a castle was being besieged; the invaders would be in a very serious problem because of a double-front battle. Normally, the defender's army would attack at the same time as their relievers. Making the invaders in a serious disadvantage.
It is important to note that castles were normally built on top of a hill, near a river or on a very defensible position. They were additionally frequently built near an important town because of the castle's advantage of having an ongoing trade route and military support.
Castles were gradually useless when gunpowder was introduced. A very strong castle could last no more than a week when being subject to such devastating weapons. Still, we can see today the wonders of our ancestors and what they did to defend themselves.
Allures were implemented later on. Their invention meant that attackers could no longer climb castle walls easily because an allure was a passageway on top of a wall. This helped archers tremendously since there were virtually no blind spots after they were implemented. Battlements were invented a few years later. They consisted on making intervals of a wall in the allure; they were very helpful for archers since they could fire at the invaders with minimal risk of being fired back.
Archer loops were small holes placed on a wall giving an archer a very good advantage. They were normally placed on towers since the height also influenced the effectiveness of an archer. Different shapes were made to help the defenders have a better angle when shooting at their victims; additionally, the attackers could only fire arrows back because no other projectile could fit in the hole. Thus, its effectiveness.
Towers were very important in defending a castle. Their taller height helped the archers tremendously, they could fire easily at their targets; but their targets couldn't fire back.
Many different shapes existed. The most common ones were:
They were the stronger kind of towers. Their height averaged 80-120 feet; much bigger than a normal wall. Even though they were more expensive to build, they were stronger; thus their enormous use.
Square towers were somewhat cheaper to build. Nevertheless, they were considered to be much more decorative. Though strong, they were somewhat weaker than round towers because of their design.
When attackers would attempt to climb a wall, they would be met with all sorts of creative ways to stop them.
Defenders would throw boiling water at their victims; making the fall. This was a very deadly way to stop the invaders' progression; the only downside was that getting boiling water was not very easy. Fire was used and it took a while. If the invaders attacked continuously, the boiling water wouldn't last and other ways to stop them were used.
Allures usually contained great amounts of sand within them. When boiling water was over, defenders would throw sand at the invaders. Even though unbelievable, sand seldom made the attackers fall to their death. The effect of sand on an armor was incredible since it made it very uncomfortable.
Rocks would be thrown at attackers. Though not very useful, they could knock down an invader--or two.
When the attackers were still climbing the wall, and there were no other resources left; defenders would throw at them whatever they could find. This includes furniture, water, weapons, helmets, stones, animals and everything at the defenders' disposal.
As an additional resource, most castles had an enormous array of traps available to make the invader's job even harder. Such traps often inspired fear into the attackers who were skeptical about attempting to enter the castle itself.
What happened after a castle's fall?
Normally, if the defenders surrendered, the invaders would either take them prisoners, let them go to another province or simply kill them.
There are many records of invaders accepting to let the defenders go, just to kill them right after they leave the castle. Nevertheless, most of the time, invaders were nice by taking prisoners to be releazed after the battle was completely won.
The castle itself could be taken over by another lord, or it could be pillaged and abandoned. It was up to the army's commander to decide if the castle was suitable for his cause--or not. Normally, word would reach the country's king in a matter of days, and he'd send an army to take back the castle just before the invaders had a chance to strengthen it.
A castle is a fortification that was used in the Middle Ages to protect a territory against an invasion.
What were castles built for during the Middle Ages?
Castles had multiple purposes. Protecting peasants and nobles was the most important reason why castles were widely built. Additionally, many lords and kings did frequently construct castles for the sake of power - since it was realized that such a huge construction could show a lord's might throughout the kingdom.
When were castles built?
Castles started appearing in Europe in 1066. Their construction came to a halt when gunpowder was implemented many centuries later.
Who built the first castle?
The first castle was built by William the Conqueror of Normandy in 1066.
Which is the largest castle?
The largest castle in existence is the castle of Prague. It averages 570 meters in length and 130 in width. Thus, containing 74100 square meters.
Which was the first castle that William the Conqueror built?
William the Conqueror built 9 castles in London. The first one of them was Windsor Castle.
How long did it take to build a castle?
There were many factors that determined the time it took to build a castle. Some bigger castles took up to 20 years to complete (such as The Tower of London). At an average of 7-12 years, building castles was a very difficult task. Even when finished, many kings and nobles would still improve a castle by strengthening the walls and towers.
Were castles effective?
Timber castles were very effective against spears and arrows. Nevertheless, wooden castles were very weak against fire. Stone castles were implemented in the XII century. They were very effective to stop a siege.
How many lines of defense did a castle possess?
This varied from castle to castle. Earlier castles (those made of timber) had only one or two lines of defense. Concentric castles, built much later, had sometimes four or more lines of defense.
How did a castle resist a siege?
Most castles had an enormous amount of food stored in them. Bigger castles had a well inside making them much more resistant. Since castles were very strong, the only way to defeat the defenders was either by besieging them or destroying the castle directly. The second option rarely happened; thus besieging was very common.
How long would the food supplies last?
Some castles had farming land in their interior; even though they helped to feed the population inside the castle, the food they produced was very dim compared to what was truly needed. A castle would normally last a few months; when the food supplies were finished, villagers would eat their horses, birds and whatever they could find.
Bigger castles with a lot of farming land could last a lot more. Even though a lot of food was needed, having too much inside the castle would make it spoil. If the castle didn't have a well, generally it wouldn't last more than a week or two.
What was the most effective way to destroy a castle's walls?Diggers were very common. They would dig a tunnel right beneath a wall (usually a corner). When the tunnel was dug, they would destroy it. A castle's walls were severely damaged when this method was used.
Gunpowder was the ultimate way to destroy a castle's walls.
Why did castles stop being built?
With the introduction of gunpowder, castles proved to be useless. Even the mightiest of castles was no match against a cannon.
Which is the biggest inhabited castle in the world?
Windsor Castle. One of the three homes of the queen. It has been inhabited since it was built in the XI century.
How many people could live in a castle?
Depending on the castle, thousands of peasants could inhabit one.
What were the first castles made of?
Earlier castles were normally built of timber and earth. They were very hastily built, but their ineffectiveness was evident when fire was employed against them.
In which century was stone implemented?
In the XVII century, older castles were strengthened with stone.
Who built castles and for what purpose?
Castles were normally built by kings and lords. In the Middle Ages, there was a law that prohibited nobles from building them.
What happened to castles?
Some castles can be seen today. Nevertheless, most have been lost due to wars, etc. Many lords demolished castles so they could build themselves a palace with the stone retrieved. This happened very frequently, but even more frequently did nobles bought a castle and remodeled it.
What was the purpose of Feudalism?
Feudalism was a system supposed to beneficiate all.
Who was the king?
Information about kings can be read here.
Originally as a means of defense, castles were also meant to increased the power of a king or lord throughout the kingdom. When William the conqueror was Great Britain's king, his most notorious fortress was The Tower of London. Building it took more than 20 years and it can still be seen today. He built it, mostly, to show English citizens his supreme rule over England.
A town consisted of farmland, a chapel and a castle. In the Dark Ages, feudalism was a very common practice. Serfs worked for lords who in exchange worked for the king. The king offered protection to the serfs who paid taxes to their lords who protected the king. It was all a trade which benefited all but the serfs.
As the population grew, and more protection was needed, stronger and bigger castles were built. Earlier castles were made of timber and earth which made them very weak and flammable. Years later, stone was gradually incorporated and older castles were rebuilt with stone. Most castles took an average of 10-15 years to complete.
Castles were very effective from the X to the XV century. Castles notoriously changed the course of history since warfare was different than before. An open-field battle was very rare making conquering new land harder than before; thus the change of epoch was evident: the Dark Ages.
In 1346 came the Battle of Crecy; the first of the Hundred Years War between France and England. For the first time ever, cannon fire was used in open country against a castle. It was evident that even the mightiest of castles would prove to be useless against such devastating weapons. Castle walls were not enough to protect its inhabitants anymore. For this reason, new improvements for castles were idealized. Read more about this here.
When castles stopped being effective for defensive purposes, many lords, nobles and kings destroyed them to make themselves a palace with the newly-acquired stone and land. Many castles were rebuilt whilst others were totally demolished.
Even though many castles have been destroyed throughout the centuries, many can be seen today. In fact, some are so well preserved that it can be easily seen how they were 500 years ago! Nevertheless, more than half of the once-existing castles are gone by today.
Thousands of castles still exist, out of which the most remarkable are English, French, German, Irish, Italian, Scottish and Spanish
Attacking a castle was extremely difficult and could only be achieved after much preparation and with siege engines capable of destroying it (if chosen to). On the other hand, defending a castle was not so difficult but was more often deadly for the defenders who had almost no control over the situation and were forced to wait for relief. However, they often fought against the invaders from the castle's interior and building traps was very common to kill as many invaders as possible.
In the interim, inhabiting a castle was very difficult. Castles were not as luxurious as we imagine and life inside a castle was very undesirable. Acquiring food and maintaining it involved the work of hundreds or thousands of peasants and even then - it would often spoil spreading disease to a complete castle. Water was also difficult to replenish for some castles did not have a well and water had to be brought from the exterior.
Fortunately, it wasn't continuously undesirable inside a castle. There was plenty of entertainment to be had and kings very frequently celebrated with enormous feasts for almost any reason they pleased. Chess was new in the Medieval Times and as time passed it became much more popular - and chess wasn't the only board game played - there were many more.
Housing inside a castle was important because it was required by law in most castles that everyone had to have a place to live. Of course houses were common outside of the castle's wall as well. Unfortunately, the poor very frequently lived in a hut which was very seldom, if at all, cleaned. This led to many diseases which were spread throughout Europe making medieval health a topic of concern for the king - reason for which many doctor schools were opened and the church lost much of its power because of its unavailability to cure diseases.
Due to such conditions, many thieves existed inside a castle. To avoid them, the king set many standars and laws in which anyone who disobeyed was to be tortured or executed.
However, castles evolved throughout the years as it can be noted in the Medieval Timeline.
-Live in a Castle
-Frequently Asked Questions About Castles
The most common way to cause fear on an enemy army was to place a vast quantity of dry grass many yards away from the castle. Some oil was then spread over the grass to make it easy to burn - when an enemy army marched toward the castle, the defenders simply set the grass on fire with a fire arrow killing as many enemies as possible.
Caged animals were sometimes placed outside of the castle's walls. These contained an enormous rope from the cage itself to the castle so the defenders could uncage them easily without exposing themselves. When the invaders came in range, all the animals were uncaged and sometimes they spread diseases to the invaders.
When these traps failed, there were yet many more traps designed to kill as many invaders as possible. Gatehouses were especially designed to prevent enemies from coming in, but sometimes they would be made weaker for the sole purpose of letting the enemies in the gatehouse.
A secret door would then shut leaving many attackers trapped inside. Following resulted a massacre inside as the defenders placed many small holes in the gatehouse's entry from which they could easily kill any attacker with a spear without suffering any damage themselves. The gatehouse would be then repaired as soon as possible.
When the invaders opted to climb a castle's wall instead, the defenders threw them anything they could get their hands on. Oil was very commonly thrown at the invaders, but sometimes even boiling water could be as efficient. Of course the defenders imagination was enormous and they discovered that sand (yes sand) was even better as it would make many fall, it made the enemy's armor itchy, it was easy to keep; and even a kid could throw it at the invaders.
Inside a castle itself, traps were not as common mainly because they could be dangerous for the inhabitants themselves. However, when an army was about to breach the outer wall; the defender army had to make a brave stance because they didn't have any traps anymore.
For more information, read the following articles:
- Castle Attackers
-List of Castles
I once visited a castle's kitchen and I had a very odd sensation - I sensed it to be trembling. Of course, I later asked the castle's keeper about the feeling and he told me that it was rats causing that odd feeling.
With that information I can deduce that castle kitchens were of course full of animals which could sometimes spoil the food. I also noticed that the kitchen was actually not as pleasant as I had previously thought because it was pretty humid despite its central heating system. At least at the time it worked for its main purpose which was to distribute food among the castle's inhabitants, but there's no doubt as to why sanity was a major issue and health problems very common.
A concentric castle would very frequently have two or three walls around the keep. Additionally, some even had a moat for additional protection. Concentric castles were even more popular after the invention of gunpowder since they could withstand a siege whilst a regular castle could not.
If you wish to see how castles evolved from weak castles made of timber to very strong concentric castles, visit the Medieval Castle Timeline.
Archers were the key of concentric castles. An archer could very easily defend a castle by killing soldiers and receiving no damage at all. When a wall of a concentric castle fell, the castle would still have one or two more - giving a chance for archers to fire from atop the castle.
Another major advantage of concentric castles was the availability to have some farming land in the interior. This happened because the outer wall was not as expensive and strong as a normal castle's and thus; it could be bigger containing a well, farming land and houses.
Housing for concentric castles was also a major advantage. A concentric castle could be very easily defended and thus; many nobles would inhabit it. For the poor, having a house inside the castle was almost impossible unless the castle itself was very big - reason for which most medieval houses were built outside of a castle.
Obviously concentric castles were still castles and thus; everything else remained practically the same. Social behavior was very similar and the castle itself did not play an immense role in the way peasants behaved.
Gatehouses were built with many different materials. Wood was used at first, but later many other building materials were employed. Metals were used widely and this made gatehouses very strong against spears and arrows.
Bigger castles had up to two or three gatehouses in order to provide a much greater defense. In case one fell, the castle still had one or two remaining.
Gatehouses were also specially good for setting up traps inside of them. They would have small holes inside the walls for pike men to kill the invaders who came into the gatehouse - this was yet an additional way to defend a castle since the invaders were scared to enter a gatehouse after its fall.
In order to destroy a gatehouse, however, siege weapons were commonly employed. Battering Rams and other attacking weapons were commonly used in order to effectively destroy a castle's gatehouse.
When a moat separated the attackers from the defenders, the bridge would be another door for greater protection. Unfortunately, bridges were almost invariantly made of wood and thus; prone to fire. What attackers did in order to besiege a castle with a moat was to fill it with another material such as sand or wood for the attackers to finally destroy it with siege equipment.
Nevertheless, when a castle had a very good gatehouse what invaders sought more was to simply destroy another part of the castle's wall or let the defenders starve to death - this of course was the most common way to do it - but unfortunately, highly ineffective when in a hurry.
Larger castles were completely different. Castles built after the XII century were very big and thousands of people could inhabit them at a given time. If we only count the actual number of rooms inside a castle instead of the rooms in the huts, etc. there were in some cases hundreds of rooms.
There is not really a definition which states which castle is big and which isn't, so calling a castle "big" is a vague term because it cannot be expressed that way based on the number of rooms alone.
Unfortunately for older castles, diggers could very frequently destroy walls and towers in a couple of weeks of digging. Diggers were employed when storming a castle by a different approach was impossible - this happened very frequently because of a hurry as isolating a castle would take much more time.
Since digging could potentially destroy a huge castle wall, this method was avoided by the castle attackers because what they normally sought was to take the castle for themselves.
When digging did take place, the defenders had very little choices. The most common one was to make a counter-tunnel - this consisted in making a tunnel which would intercept the opponent. When such an interception did occur, a fearsome underground struggle would take place until the tunnel was itself destroyed and another one had to be built.
After the tunnel was built, the most common practice was to simply let it collapse along with the castle's wall.
Another way was to simply make a small tunnel and let the invaders enter from it (to avoid castle damage).
Either way was extremely feared by the defenders as they could only watch.
The defenders would do whatever they could in order to detect an enemy's tunnel. What was normally done was pretty simple - water was poured into the ground to see if it drained hastily. If it did, there very likely was a tunnel.
Unfortunately for the defenders, water was very often scarce and thus; another defending weakness.
Rain was the defender's best friend. It supplied them with water whilst potentially destroying any ongoing tunneler progress.
Of course, everybody loved rain - except the attackers that is.
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