Glossary: The Parts of a CastleMENU: Terminology |
Terms | Brief History
Terminology(Click on highlighted
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- 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.)
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
- 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
- Concentric Castle: Developed in the Crusades, this was the
provision of a castle with rings of defense, walls within walls, with
- 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
- 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Some architectural and other terms you will see in castle
- 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
- 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
- Mullion: The vertical divider of a window that's constructed
- 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
- 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 BritainCastles 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
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.