For centuries children across Europe and North America have been entertained with tales of heroic knights, damsels in distress and formidable castles. Lacking medieval fortifications of their own, many North Americans do not understand how the castle, as it is seen now, came to be. The most basic definition of a castle is that it “was the fortified residence of a Lord…” (Gibson, 8), and “The most accurate definition of a castle would be a fortification of the High Middle Ages that was characterized by high walls, usually a moat, and towers, regardless of whether it was a private residence or not” (Kaufmann, 21).
Since the beginnings of settled civilizations, towns and cities have been fortified. Alfred the Great (849 -899) and his children built burhs to protect Britain from the Danes (Gibson, 36). According to the Fighting Elite by Christopher Gravett, it was not until the ninth century that castles emerged, possibly due to the collapse of the Carolingian Empire, and the invasions of the Vikings, Magyars, and Moslems. Two of the earliest surviving stone castles are the towers at Dove-la-Fontaine (circa ninth century) and Langeais (late tenth/early eleventh centuries) in northern France (4). During the medieval period castles built near a town added to its security, while those built in conquered lands reminded everyone who was in charge (Gravett 4).
With pillaging tribes and aggressive armies a near constant threat, permanent protective structures became a necessity (Gibson, 120). Castles were often placed for strategic purposes. Roads and rivers, especially junctions of two or more, often served as trade routes, and subsequently, targets for bandits and invaders (Gravett, 3). Castles on major trade routes and navigable rivers were used to enforce payment of tolls and duties, while castles near towns had income from taxes on both the local residents and visitors who were typically pilgrims and traveling merchants. Beyond their defensive purposes, castles also served as symbols of “naked aggression”, “firm bases from which to dominate the landscape, as well as a secure assembly point and springboard for an incursion into enemy territory, or a link in the logistical chain of an advancing allied force” (Gibson, 41).
Castle builders tried to maximize the natural defenses of the area. Crags, cliffs, and escarpments were preferred because they reduced access to the structure, and the access points could be protected by arrow or missile fire. Lakes, rivers, and seashores were popular also. Large bodies of water could often keep projectile siege weapons out of range (Gravett, 3). An added bonus to building a castle near water meant the possibility of resupply/re-enforcement, especially if the attacker lacked the naval forces for a blockade (Gravett, 3).
The early form of the medieval European castle was the motte and bailey. It was often seen in France and Normandy in the 11th and 12th centuries. The structure consisted of a motte (a large...