A Brief History of Castles
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History Blog! For November’s theme week, I am focusing on castles across all of the social media channels. So, this post is going to be a brief history of European castles. Make sure to check out Instagram and YouTube for more castle fun!
What is a Castle?
Castles are a fortified structure that were used almost exclusively in the Middle Ages. In fact, they have become the symbol of that historical era. In general, castles were also used as residences for wealthy lords and military orders. But not all large residences are considered castles. They were mainly built between the 9th and 15th centuries, but there are a few outliers. In general, castles were constructed of stone, but there are records of timber used as well. With the advent of gunpowder and better weapons technology, the use of castles steadily declined. However, in the late 18th through the 19th centuries, there was a revival of castle architecture.
The earliest form of castle architecture is called a motte and bailey. Not only were they fairly easy to build, but they created an easy to defend fortress. Th
e first part of the construction is called the motte. This was a large platform (10-100 feet tall and 10-300 feet wide) surrounded by a ditch. In fact, this is where we get the word moat from! The top of the motte would be leveled off and the main living structure, called a keep, would be built. This gave the lord/commander the high ground, the best defensive position.
The bailey of this system refers to the courtyard down the hill from the motte. This is where the non elite members of the household lived and worked. The courtyard was surrounded by a large, thick fence called a palisade. Sometimes, there were two sets of baileys and palisades, depending on the defensive needs of the area. Typically, there was also a drawbridge, to control access to the complex.
A great example of an early castle is Cardiff Castle in Wales. It is the largest castle in the country! This castle was built by the Norman conquerors in the 11th century on the site of a 3rd century Roman fort. The motte is located in the corner, creating a massive bailey that is divided into two sections. This was excellent for defensive purposes. In fact, it was so defensible that it played a key part in multiple wars.
The Golden Age
Castles reached their peak around the 12th - 13th centuries. During this time, technological advances such as deeper moats, arrow slits, and curtain walls, allowed for better defensive structures to be built. Many of these inventions were created by the military orders created during the Crusades (Knights Templars, Knights Hospitallers, etc). When the men returned from the war, they brought these ideas with them and installed them in their own family castles. In addition, the buildings were also expanded to accommodate more people, including the noble families, soldiers, and workers.
Although the basic idea remained the same, more decorative elements were also added to castles at this time. This was done as a projection of both power and wealth. Both the interior and exterior were decorated with carvings, paintings, and other objects.
One of the most famous castles in Europe is Harlech Castle. It was built by King Edward I between 1282 and 1289. This castle complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its contribution to military and architectural history. Edward I ordered it built near the water and on top of a natural hill, providing it with excellent defensive position. The concentric design also had a double wall, meaning the enemy would have to work twice as hard to breach into the keep itself. In fact, it was so effective that Harlech Castle was an important castle utilized in the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War!
After the advent of gunpowder, castles slowly started to fall out of use. Military and domestic spaces also began to be separated, which led to the rise of manor houses and palaces. However, in the late 18th and 19th centuries, there was a romantic revival of castles. Stories of knights and chivalry, damsels in distress and true love, captured the public imagination. The wealthiest citizens were able to make these dreams a reality.
One of the most beautiful castles to come out of this was Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. It was built in the 19th century under the orders of King Ludwig II. The king was inspired by the romantic stories crafted by Richard Wagner, especially that of the Swan King, Lohengrin. Ludwig II identified with this character and had the castle designed to reflect that. It is a beautiful, soaring masterpiece, thought it likely wouldn’t have been very practical in a military effort. But, that wasn’t the point. One fun fact about Neuschwanstein Castle. It served as Walt Disney’s inspiration for Cinderella's Castle in Disneyland!
This was just a brief history of European castles. There are tons of resources out there if you want to take a deeper dive! One of my personal favorites is this video.
Make sure to follow the Accessible Art History on Instagram (@accessible.art.history) for a new castle each day!