Medieval Castles

Medieval castles were built for kings and nobles to show their superiority and wealth, to ensure that they have a place to hide in the case of attack, to protect important pieces of their land, and to live in them.

For local aristocrats, castles were permanent homes. For rulers, they were temporary residences. Either way, they were impressive buildings with lots of defensive features.

Castles were built for over nine centuries, and that’s why they had a lot of forms and distinct elements. However, medieval castles still have much in common. Their purpose was military, administrative, and domestic, and they had to be well protected.

Medieval times were turbulent, and the top requirement for the castle builders was to keep the enemies on the other side of the walls as long as possible.

How medieval castles were made through ages

Castles were expensive and hard to make – it often took years to finish one. Hundreds of skilled workers led by a master mason would work full-time for a long time; the material was costly, but the transportation of materials was the greatest expense.

At first, the builders relied on natural defense, but later they invented some great elements such as arrowslits and towers. Before the late 12th century, it was heavily important to build the castle on the top of a cliff or mountain, and some other unreachable place, such as a river meander or a lake. That way, three of four sides of the caste would already be protected.

First castles had the form of a plain palisade made of wood, with or without a wooden tower. The mote and bailey type of castle was developed that way. It had a wall that encircled a courtyard (bailey), a hill (motte), which was either natural or artificial and had a wooden tower, built at its center.

Later castles had an outer stone wall, known as a shell keep, on top of the motte. In the next stage, in the 12th century, the tower was made of stone as well, but it was no longer placed on the motte itself since it was too heavy.

The key elements of a medieval castle

There are many different medieval castles in Europe, and most of them share some common elements.


A moat was a protective ditch, usually filled with water, with steep sides. Moats had a similar function like natural lakes. They offered a defense, but they also served to stop mechanisms such as siege towers so that those wouldn’t reach the curtain wall undermine it. A drawbridge or a stone bridge was the only way to cross a moat.



A motte was a plane embankment made of soil that had been dug out to make a moat. It was usually supported by a keep, and its top was encircled by a palisade. In some castles, a motte concealed an older building (fortress or palace).



The barbican was invented later, and developed in the 13th and 14th centuries. It consisted of a rampart, ditch, and sometimes a tower, and it was the only way to approach the gate since it was placed in front of the gatehouse.


Bailey (ward)

A bailey or a ward was an additional courtyard and a building inside the walls of a castle. All stables, workshops, and the rest of the lord’s household was placed inside the bailey.


A keep was a tall stone tower, which was the strongest part of the castle, and it served as the last shelter when the outward defenses would fall. The castle-owner usually lived in a keep, and that’s where his guests and representatives usually stayed.

Curtain wall

High and dense curtain walls surrounded a bailey, and they were nearly impossible to climb using ladders. The base of a curtain wall sometimes had stone skirts around it, which protected the construction from undermining.


A gatehouse protected the entrance of a castle. It enabled the people inside the castle to control who (and when) goes in and out. A gatehouse had a number of defense tools, such as portcullises and arrowslits. The hallway through the gatehouse was usually long so that any attacker had to spend more time under fire without a possibility to strike back.


Why medieval castles were surrounded by lakes or moats?

It served as a natural (lake) or artificial (moat) protection.

What was the additional court inside castle walls, where most of the household was placed, called?

It was called the bailey.

What did medieval people use to control the entrance to the gate?

There was a gatehouse that protected the entrance.

What is keep?

It is a stone tower and the strongest place at the center of the castle.