Glossary: The Parts of a Castle

MENU: Terminology | Architectural Terms | Brief History | Links


(Click on highlighted entry in list for a low-resolution picture)
  • Arrow Slit: A vertical 'window', very narrow on the outside, spreading to a larger size one could stand in on the inside, out of which one shot, guess what, arrows. Later ones had a horizontal slot in the middle to give a wider angle of fire for crossbows.
  • Bailey: The courtyard of a castle, the word normally being used in conjunction with a Motte, which was the inner keep of a Norman castle. Larger castles had more than one bailey -- e.g., outer bailey, middle bailey, inner bailey. (Also called a Ward.)
  • Barbican: Additional defenses in front of a gatehouse whose purpose was to restrict access to the main gate. Often contained drawbridges and parapets from which defenders could shoot down into the roadway.
  • Bartizan: A projecting circular turret placed on top of a wall, usually at a corner (mainly Scots).
  • Battered Plinth: Lovely jargon. This refers to the base of a wall being provided with a widening slope, both to strengthen the bottom of the wall against undermining and to provide a ricochet surface for objects such as rocks being dropped down from machicolations that would bounce off horizontally and zap the attackers.
  • Battlements: The working defenses atop a castle wall, consisting of a Wall Walk fronted by a Parapet (crenelated), often corbelled out to allow for machicolations, or in earlier castles protected by a Hoarding.
  • Buttery: The "Butler's" room off the Great Hall. Wine cellar, serving room, silverware, etc. See also Pantry (I'm not sure how the allocation of functions between the buttery and the pantry were differentiated).
  • Concentric Castle: Developed in the Crusades, this was the provision of a castle with rings of defense, walls within walls, with flanking towers.
  • Curtain Wall: The defending wall of a castle.
  • Donjon: The French word for the Keep tower. Not a dungeon in the sense we know. Most castles had a miserable little place that was used as a prison, but they were for the most part punishment pits for one or two recalcitrants. After castles had lost their original purpose in the 17th Century, quite a few gatehouses were converted into prisons (why gatehouses, I'm not too sure).
  • Drawbridge: Everyone knows what a drawbridge is. There were basically three types: (1) a simple sliding platform over the ditch that could be pulled back, (2) a raising bridge pulled up by chains attached to the outer corners, and (3) a bridge with posts reaching out over the top, with the chains hanging vertically from the posts (this had 'leverage' advantages).
  • Enfilade: Describing the arrangement of Arrow Loops or Gun Ports whereby one could achieve a cross-fire and hit the enemy from the side.
  • Forebuilding: A sort of 'Barbican' for a Keep, it protected the entrance, which was usually on the second story, and contained a grand stair and additional chambers (often a chapel).
  • Garderobe: A privy or loo. Usually hollowed out of the wall in a tower. Some garderobes had a chute that went down into a sewer pit; others just dumped into the moat.
  • Gatehouse: The most important part of a castle as far as its defense was concerned, the entry being the weakest point. Older ones were little more than a strong arch with heavy iron-bound wooden gates and drawbars and a guard chamber on top or to the side. Later on, flanking towers were added to the gateway, and Portcullises and Drawbridges. Whereas the Keep was a passive defense, the gatehouse was right up in front, and became the most elaborate building in the later castles.
  • Great Hall: The main chamber of the castle. Here is where the all the business and social activity of the castle was conducted. A great hall usually had a Solar, Buttery, Pantry, and kitchen attached to it.
  • Gun Port (Loop): The replacement for the Arrow Slit in the later Middle Ages as the use of gunpowder became more widespread. These tended to be horizontal rather than vertical.
  • Keep: The central refuge of last resort. In Norman castles, usually a very large square or round tower. The lord's accommodations were usually inside the keep.
  • Hoarding: A wooden gallery built out from the Battlements that provided additional protection and fighting space at the wall top; replaced in later castles by a Machicolated stone Parapet.
  • Machicolation: The projection of the parapet over corbels so that slots could be provided that faced straight down to the bottom of the wall and one could fire at, or pour boiling water or oil on, attackers who had reached that point.
  • Moat: The ditch surrounding a castle, filled with water when the castle was on a stream or river, but most often just a dry ditch. When wet, they did not contain alligators, but there was other revolting stuff in them.
  • Motte: An artificial round mound on which in the original Norman castles a wooden (later, stone)Keep tower was constructed. Outside of this was an embanked Bailey containing the Great Hall, stables, chapel, kitchen, etc. These were easily and cheaply constructed (they conscripted the local peasants to do the digging) by the Normans to subdue the native populace after the Conquest.
  • Mural Chamber: A small room hollowed out within a wall.
  • Murder Hole: A hole in the ceiling of a gate passage through which you could pour boiling oil or whatever (see Machicolation).
  • Pantry: Associated with the Buttery in the Great Hall complex. I'm not sure what its function was as differentiated from the former.
  • Parapet: The crenelated wall protecting the soldiers on the Wall Walk.
  • Portcullis: A metal or iron-bound wooden grating that slides down in slots in front of a gateway.
  • Shell Keep: The old motte-and-bailey castles were generally wooden stockades. As power was consolidated, the richer Norman lords built round stone walls on top of their mottes which were thus rendered fireproof. (At the same time, the Bailey curtain wall was also built up in stone.)
  • Solar: The lord's private room behind the Great Hall. The ladies' room.
  • Tower: Defensive towers were placed at strategic places along the curtain wall (corners, changes of direction, mid-wall) to provide flanking protection; at first mostly square, they were built round as time went on with a resulting better field of fire. The D-shaped tower was even superior, with a defensive round side facing the field, and a square side (which allowed for more convenient rectangular rooms) facing the Ward.
  • Turret: A small tower; more specifically the buttressed corner of a keep that provided extra protection to a most vulnerable part of the building. (A corner, if 'blind' to the field, could be undermined and bring down parts of two walls.)
  • Wall Walk: The fighting platform atop the Curtain Wall
  • Ward: Another term for a castle courtyard (see Bailey).

Some architectural and other terms you will see in castle guidebooks

  • Ashlar: Square-cut masonry.
  • Buttress: A square projection of masonry on the outside or corner of a wall that provides extra strength for some internal feature such as a roof beam or an arch.
  • Chamfer: The cutting of stone at an angle to give expansion to a window or door rather than leaving just a squared-off opening (i.e., planed-off edges).
  • Corbel: A stone bracket projecting from the wall used to support an overlapping parapet or a roof or floor beam.
  • Crenelation: The characteristic top of a castle wall where open spaces for shooting arrows or guns alternate with higher projections (Merlons) behind which soldiers could take shelter while reloading.
  • Dog-leg: A right angle in a passageway (for example, garderobes usually had a dog-leg approach so that the air from the privy pit would not blow back directly into the room).
  • Dog-tooth: Zig-zag carving around an archway, typical of the Normans.
  • Mullion: The vertical divider of a window that's constructed in panels.
  • Piscina: The holy water basin in a chapel.
  • Plinth: A widening at the bottom of a wall.
  • Rubble: Stone construction using irregular stones imbedded in mortar.
  • Spiral Stair (Corkscrew, Turnpike): A circular staircase -- the most economical, if not the most convenient to use, method of accessing upper floors in a vertical tower; also, easier to defend.
  • Spur: A triangular buttress used to strengthen the bottom of a round tower (giving it a square base).
  • Transom: The horizontal divider of a window that's constructed in panels.
  • Vault: A stone arched ceiling. (A Barrel Vault was round rather than pointed in the Gothic style.)

A Brief History of Fortification in Britain

Castles are a limited subset of fortification in general. Apart from the large royal fortresses such as Dover and the Tower of London, they were for the most part private holdings of feudal lords rather than common public defenses. The earliest fortifications in Britain were the Neolithic (Stone Age) ring forts -- large earthen embankments enclosing a common refuge (such as the old hill fort at Uffington White Horse). The warlike Celts who took over Britain in the Iron Age, roughly a thousand years from 500 BC to the Dark Ages, with the Roman interregnum, built hill forts of a similar but more elaborate nature, with complicated arrangements of multiple banks and ditches (the most famous being Maiden Castle in Dorset). Rome, of course, built legionary fortresses in a regulated fashion and the great walls in the north (Antonine and Hadrianic); these were purely military public works as were the town walls of the great cities of York, Chester, and London.

When the Saxons overran Roman Britain, defending Celts refurbished the old hill forts, such as Cadbury Castle (Camelot). The Saxons themselves, never ones for fortifying previously (except for the Northumbrians, who established a quasi-Celtic stronghold at Bamburgh), built "Burgs" or fortified towns, under Alfred the Great, as a defense against the Danes and Vikings. Wareham is a fine surviving example.

Castles as we know them were imported by William the Conqueror. The king built up great national fortresses such as Dover and London, but for the most part castles were the headquarters of the imposing feudal land barons consolidating their hold over the local populace. At first these were easy-to-build motte and bailey arrangements (like Totnes), not that much different in concept than the cavalry forts erected in Injun territories by the US in the 1800's. Later on, as they became richer and more secure, the lords fancied up their castles with stone walls and elaborate keeps and great halls. (The best of these, best seen in ruinous state, not messed up by later restoration, are castles like Warkworth and Raglan.) In the meantime, under the early Henry's and Edward's, royal and warlord castles of advanced design (learned from the Crusades) were built in the March, or Border, areas of Scotland and Wales and Ireland, where there was a constant imperialistic movement to expand the kingdom. These (Harlech, Caernarfon, Carlisle, Trim, Kildrummy, etc.) are the most famous and 'typical' castles known today.

In the later Middle Ages, the great land barons built up their old patrimonial castles into very fine and elaborate constructions, such as Kenilworth, Warwick, and Alnwick. Oliver Cromwell put an end to that very definitively, brooking no private sub-kingdoms independent of Parliament. But before that even, Henry VIII had started up a government-sponsored program of national defense (financed by the dissolution of the church properties). Hence the proliferation of made-for-artillery castles along the English Channel.

And now we are on the subject of modern fortification, which I don't really want to get into here, because it goes beyond castles as we think of them. There were times when castles as lordly estates became fashionable again, especially during the Victorian era, when places such as Windsor, Arundel, Cardiff, and the great Scottish castles were 'fixed up' in a way that would be unimaginable today.

Castles also went through some very bad periods in the last 300 years, so that there are very few that can be seen in their original state, apart from those that were restored (Windsor, for example) or never destroyed (Tower of London) or never bothered with (Appleby?). They are for the most part stately ruins, now well maintained -- in a sense pickled -- which we all love to visit. For the most part, however, Britain has nothing comparable castlewise to France's Loire Valley or the German Rhine gorge upstream from Cologne. Edward I's Welsh castles, however, are magnificent, as are the dozens and dozens of smaller Scottish Baronial castles and tower houses. And as imposing or formidable or romantic as some British castles are, not a one is any longer threatening as Dracula's Castle would still be.

Why are castles ruinous?

"Whatever is built by man for man's occupation must, like natural creations, fulfil the intention of its existence or soon perish."

Most castles, except the ones still used by the military, or the ones that are still lived in (however uncomfortably), have no use any more, if it weren't for their attractiveness to visitors and seekers of the picturesque. We are lucky that so many survived the iconoclastic years of the Commonwealth and 18th Century and even luckier that the later Victorians got into preservation and restoration, otherwise nearly every castle in the country would have been dismantled for house walls and the mortar rubble converted to gravel for road paving. Windsor and the Tower of London could have ended up as the only castles to speak of if shopping malls and motorways proliferated a hundred years ago.

Internet Links (Castles & Fortification)

All very random from a great selection of related web sites. On revisiting sites I had bookmarked but not gone to for while in order to create this page, I was upset to find so many URL-not-founds. That's the sad state of the Internet. On the other hand there are dozens of NEW sites just as good, although there is a lot more commercialism now (banner ads, etc.) than a couple of years ago in the more carefree days of the WWW. That is why I am consolidating my Castle links on this page rather than interspersing them throughout my own castle pages. Having this here as an addendum to the Glossary page is an interim measure until there's time to get my act together. -- Grobius (Dec. 1998)






Other Links of an Ancillary Nature

Home Page