Find more free software      A castle served as fortress, a residence for nobility and as a means of preserving the rigid social hierarchy of the Middle Ages.     

    

Castles in Medieval Times

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     Large stone castles were built in Europe from about the 1100’s to about the 1500’s. These huge buildings served not only to defend the country from foreign invaders but as the basic tool in preserving the king’s and the nobles’ power over the land. The social system was very rigid in the Middle Ages.
     Under Feudalism, the basic social structure in this time, all land was held by the king. The king gave pieces of this land to various high nobles, in return for their help in fighting his wars or in putting down rebellions. Not only did the higher nobles have to fight for the king themselves, they had to supply a certain number of lesser lords and other knights to help fight also. These higher nobles then gave some of their land to lesser knights, in return for their help in battle. Below all the knights were the serfs, who actually farmed the land. They gave a portion of their crops each year to the lord who ruled over them, in return for use of the land and protection.
     The king could not be everywhere in the country, especially with the poor roads and the limited transportation of the Middle Ages. The king’s vassals, the lords, however, could be all over the country, with their castles as symbols of their power for all to see.
     A man’s son inherited his lands and his obligations to fight. As time went on, inheritances became complicated, because there were lords who had no living children, who had only daughters as heiresses, and who split their inheritances among their sons (rarely daughters). When the daughter of a lord married the son of another lord, the young couple inherited land from both families. If the overlord from whom they got one piece goes to war with the overlord from whom they got the other piece—on which side did they fight? If there are two possible heirs to the throne itself, for whom do they fight? If a higher lord rebels against the king, does his vassal fight for the lord, or for the king? Who is closer, and more likely to take away his castle and his land? What will the other knights do? Which families is he allied to, by marriage or other bonds?
     The castle was both a residence for the lord and his family, and a fortification. It was a strong place for the lord to defend himself against his enemies (and the king’s enemies, and his overlord’s enemies), a safe place for him and his knights to return to, and a place to live which emphasized his power. A few heavily armed knights could control a large area, if there was no organized army to go against them. Not only did knights fight against foreign enemies, they fought a lot against each other, and they put down rebellions among the peasants. Showing that you had a lot of power sometimes made actual fighting unnecessary. In Britain, many of the castles are along borders, to stop raids by the Welsh and the Scots, and as a basis for raiding in return.
     Stone and wood were about the only building materials available. Slate and thatch (bundles of reeds or other plants in a thick bundle) were used for roofs, but not for walls. Fortunately, northern Europe had large amounts of both wood and stone. Wood didn’t last as long, but, worse, it could be set on fire by the other side. Stone is very strong in compression (stone can hold up a great deal of weight). Mortar and gravity kept the stones in place. Once a stone building is constructed, it needs very little maintenance and lasts a long time. It is not, however, very pleasant to live in—a stone castle is cold, damp and dark. Many pieces were added to improve the castle as a residence.
     Castles were built to keep out enemies. When an attack was expected, the drawbridge was raised, the gates and portcullis were closed, and archers were stationed on the towers. The walls were not only high, in a well-planned castle, but they were arranged as much as possible so that anyone climbing the walls could be shot at from two directions. Many castles have strange shapes because the castle was designed to accommodate the terrain, and to catch attackers in a crossfire.
     The castle’s defenses invited a great deal of ingenuity from the attackers. Rolling wooden towers, covered with thick hides to stop arrows and kept wet so they could not be set on fire, were brought up to the walls in an attack. Sometimes they even worked. Catapults threw heavy stones at the walls to make a breach or loads of rocks (or diseased livestock, or fire bombs) over the walls. The battering ram—generally used against a door—was an old favorite.
     Thoughts of these different ‘siege engines’ were always on the minds of the castles’ designers. The castle was often built on a raised platform. Roads to the castle angled and sloped to restrict the easy use of battering rams and the like. There was often also the traditional moat (left behind from digging out the earth to make the raised platform for the castle) and drawbridge, just to keep things interesting.
     Another method of defeating a castle was laying siege to it, by trying to starve out the inhabitants, or waiting until they ran out of water. If their water could be poisoned, they had to surrender. A good well was extremely important to a castle.
     The use of gunpowder made both castles and city walls much more vulnerable, because cannon could knock down the stone walls. Before gunpowder, about the only way to bring down a stone wall was the undermine it, that is, to dig a hole under it. This would cause a portion of the wall to collapse into the hole beneath it. This kind of digging was difficult, especially since the inhabitants of the castle would be fighting to keep their enemies from doing it. (Pouring boiling water on them, shooting at them with arrows, trying to set the shelter they had built over themselves on fire—the usual). Some castles, or parts of castles, were built on solid rock, so they could not be undermined. After gunpowder and cannons became available, there was less point to a castle as a fortification.
     A castle was both a fortress and a residence for the lord and his family. By means of a castle, the lord could extend his power out over the surrounding countryside. He offered protection to the peasants over whom he ruled, but he also exerted his power over them. In peace time, there might be only 10 or 12 knights and their horses staying in the castle, but when war threatened there would be many more.
     The knights and their servants and their mounts all had to eat, as did the lord, his family, and his servants and officials, and their families. Many castles grew certain types of food inside their walls, to add variety to the diet of those inside the castle, but it was not nearly enough to feed the people in the castle, much less their guests. Castles might have beehives, herb gardens, fruit trees or a fishpond. Because the land inside the castle walls was not enough to feed all these people, they got their food from the peasants who farmed outside, and from hunting. There were restrictions on hunting by the peasants, and sometimes it was forbidden entirely, so that the lord and his retainers would have plenty of game to hunt. Hunting was also a major recreation for the lord and his men.
     Part of the purpose of a castle was to be impressive, and to be an assertion of the lord’s power over the area. It also served as a warning to others who might want to take over that part of the land. Since a feudal lord was the vassal of the king, castles at key points in the landscape showed how powerful and in control the king was. Sometimes an entire castle was covered with a layer of whitewash to make it seem even more splendid, especially if it was on a hill, and seen from a distance. Pennants of bright colors, with the lord’s symbol, would fly over the towers. If a tournament or celebration was planned, bright flags might be hung from towers and doorways.
     Castles were usually on high ground, which was generally not flat, and there were differing risks of attack from different directions. Castles were often not symmetrical, because they were built according to an individual landscape, and the specific needs of the time. Each castle was arranged differently, and not all parts stayed as they were originally built. Successive lords, who might want more room, or a more impressive sight, added rooms, walls or towers, as they saw fit.

 

     


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