Castle Defenses

Castle Defense Architecture

The medieval castle was used as a weapon unto itself and its defending garrison of soldiers exploited every possible advantage. The castle's main weapon was obvious in its medieval architecture. Stone curtain walls that were constructed anywhere between 20 and 40 feet high and 7 to 20 feet thick were made more formidable with protecting. Curtain walls were raised even higher as improvements were made in medieval siege engines, but enemy miners could then attack the castle's foundation.

Medieval engineers were used during castle construction to design the stronghold to better prevent attacks from any blind angles or potential flanking positions. Attacking armies liked cover, so the surrounding land near the castle would often be cleared, and vulnerable approaches would be heavily fortified.

Most castles had unique designs and exploited their natural surroundings, and most Middle Age fortifications used a variety of architecture devices to improve their defense.

Towers were often the last section of a castle to fall during an attack, and defending garrisons protected them at all cost. Medieval castle towers came in several shapes: circular, semi-circular, and square. In addition to being prime lookout posts and firing positions for archers, these towers were used in other capacities, such as storehouses and prisons. Medieval towers were often constructed to include merlons, which are hollow spaces through which archers could fire arrows. Other weapons of choice included stones and Greek fire (which was a generic name for any burning liquid made from molten metal or oil), all of which could also be dropped on attackers. Returning crusaders brought back designs influenced by Moorish architecture, and by the late 1100s towers incorporated curved, Arab-like features. This curved architecture made it more difficult for miners to sabotage the foundation.

Castle moats could either be wet or dry. There were times when the unavailability of water or persistent droughts forced castle architects to build dry moats. Moats were used defensively from the earliest medieval castles throughout the Middle Ages. Using strategic moats were often the castle's first way of defending against an attacking army.

The castle's most vulnerable point was often the front door. Portcullises and castle drawbridges were used to provide defense. Made almost exclusively of wood, drawbridges could be removed by hand before an attack or pulled up by soldiers using either ropes or chains.

Gatehouses were impressive, and often rose several stories high. They also contained both living quarters for soldiers and the devices that controlled heavy, protective, grilled gates called portcullises. These sliding doors were usually made of thick timber, and when available, covered with some kind of iron plating. Defending armies were able to shoot arrows through the holes. Larger castles might feature several of these doors that would be used to trap attacking soldiers in narrow, winding hallways. From atop these passageways, the defending army would be poised to drop stones or Greek Fire, and launch arrows through hard to see "murder holes" carved in the ceiling.