Castles are perhaps the most iconic buildings of medieval Europe. These fortified structures began to be built in the 9th century by royals or wealthy nobles and would continue to be constructed for the next 900 years. Here are 10 facts about them.
The privy, or latrine, shared the same space as residents’ personal belongings in rooms called “garderobes”. Inside the garderobe was a toilet hole through which people released waste into a shoot. This shoot then fell into the moat surrounding the castle.
Clothes were kept close to the toilet in a bid to prevent insects from damaging them – the idea being that the odour would act as a deterrant.
It is true that one unpleasant way of breaking into a castle was by crawling through the waste shoot and into the garderobe. The most famous example of this allegedly took place during the siege of Chateau Gaillard in 1204.
According to legend, two soldiers climbed up the latrine chute and into the castle where they set light to the chapel. This then enabled the castle’s French attackers to infiltrate the building and take control of it.
A constant feature in the design of medieval castles was that staircases were built in a spiralling form and always turned clockwise. The reason for this was entirely practical, with stairs forming part of a castle’s internal defence system.
If incoming attackers were able to infiltrate a castle then the majority would struggle to use their sword arms as they ascended any staircase. Of course, this would have no impact on any soldier who wielded a sword in his left hand.
The leading water supply for a castle, wells were an incredibly vulnerable part of fortifications in the Middle Ages. During a siege, a castle’s well also provided water for citizens taking refuge inside the castle walls. Without clean water, the castle would be forced to surrender.
Windsor Castle, which is still used by the British royal family today, was originally built by William the Conqueror as a motte and bailey castle, and has subsequently been occupied by 39 reigning monarchs.
This list includes the medieval King Edward III, who established the Order of the Garter at Windsor, as well as his own Round Table. Under Edward, Windsor Castle hosted jousts, tilts and festivities to promote the popular cult of chivalry.
Many famous royals are buried at Windsor, including Henry VIII, his third wife, Jane Seymour, and Charles I, who was charged for high treason and executed in 1649.
The main secret entrance was known as the postern. Small and easy to defend, it was often secured with metal grates and protected by battlements above, while traditionally lying at the base of a castle’s walls.
But the secretive nature of a postern could also be exploited by invaders, as seen during the 1645 siege of Corfe Castle when Royalist officer Colonel Pitman colluded with one of the castle’s Parliamentarian attackers, a man named Colonel Bingham.
Pitman helped some of Bingham’s troops to enter the fortification in disguise, via its postern. The Parliamentarians then attacked the castle from both the inside and the outside simultaneously and the fortification soon fell.
Despite the elaborate design of castles and their impenetrable two-metre thick outer walls, the chosen location of a fortification was its most important form of defence and strategy.
Some castles were built close to the sea, a location that served two purposes: not only did it enable the sighting of any incoming naval invasions, but it was hoped that imposing clifftop stone fortresses would help to repel unwanted invaders by demonstrating strength.
Castles were also often built on hilltops. This ancient choice of location served the simple purpose of enabling its residents to see for miles around from a great height. Any attackers could be easily spotted and preparations for defence put into place.
Equally, if built at a great height, many castles would be logistically impossible to attack, for trebuchets could not force their way close enough to the castle walls. The Châteaux de Lastours complex in France was built within the mountains and remains difficult to access to this day.
During the Albigensian Crusades of the 13th century, the complex served as a place of refuge for the persecuted Cathars, who came from nearby Carcassone. In 1209, meanwhile, it consistently resisted the forceful attacks of Simon de Montfort, 5th Earl of Leicester.