Trace the history of English and Welsh castles and castle building throughout medieval Britain.
Castles in England and Wales
BY DAVID ROSS, EDITOR
The Norman conquerors developed castle building into a fine art. They had to; it was such a turbulent and insecure period that defence was a necessity of life. When most people think of castles they tend to picture a massive stone structure, but before 1100 castles were primarily thatched wooden buildings on the motte and bailey plan.
Motte and Bailey Castles
Shell keeps, of which few survive, were set on artificial or natural mounds. Stone walls 8-10 feet thick and 20-25 feet high enclosed a circular or polygonal area of 40-100 feet in diameter. Within the walls residential buildings in stone and possibly wood were built. A stronger design was the square or rectangular Norman keep which developed mainly in the middle and late 12th century. These immensely strong keeps were too heavy for artificial mounds and had to be built on natural high points. The keep walls were 20 feet thick at the base, rising to over 100 feet in height. Bedchambers, garderobes (latrines), and passages were built inside the thickness of the walls. Corner turrets provided an unobstructed line of sight along each wall.
Concentric castles have no central strong point like a keep. Instead they rely on rings of walls, one inside the other, with towers along the length of the walls. Most Edwardian castles have three concentric rings of walls and towers. The central space was kept as an open courtyard around which were clustered separate domestic buildings. The outer wall was ringed by a moat with access over a draw bridge through a separate gatehouse or barbican. Several Norman keeps were converted into concentric castles. The central keep was retained for accommodation.
Palaces and Manors
Defensive needs declined in after the 14th century, and the invention of canons made castles less easy to defend in any case. Attention shifted from defence to comfort and accommodation. Large castles became palaces, and smaller ones became fortified manor houses.
Meals in the castle were held in the great hall, on long trestle tables. The lord's table was raised on a dais at one end of the hall. At the other tables guests were arranged by social standing. The lower classes were seated on the far side of the salt cellar ("below the salt"). Diners were often entertained by musicians seated in a gallery, or loft, overlooking the hall. Other entertainers were jugglers, acrobats, and troubadours. Troubadours might be retained by the lord, or they could be traveling musicians, spreading news and gossip as they travelled through the country. Their repertoire consisted of "chansons de geste", or songs of deeds, and "chansons d'amour", or songs of love.
Feudalism and Medieval Life
Contents © David Ross and Britain Express
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