Anatomy of a Castle

Anatomy of a castle

I’ve been thinking about, and visiting, castles recently. There’s nothing like going to a medieval building to give you ideas to put into a novel. When I went to Old Sarum on a very wet day, I almost slipped over in the mud. On the drive home I thought about how dangerous a medieval castle could be in the rain. There are slippery external staircases without handrails; uncovered wells surrounded by mud; and bridges across moats. I could picture one of my characters being held prisoner in a castle, his long-planned escape attempt thwarted by rain and mud.

I thought it would be useful to get to grips with some of the terms used about parts of a castle and the structures that might be found within the walls.

Castles were introduced into England by the Normans. Although some Norman allies of Edward the Confessor, the last Saxon king of England, built three or four castles in England in the middle of the eleventh century, it was William the Conqueror who had castles built all over the country to subdue his new subjects.

Early castles were of the motte and bailey type. The motte was a (usually man-made) mound of earth upon which a wooden tower was built. Typically there was a wooden palisade around the tower and another around the base of the mound. The area encompassed by the palisade was the bailey. A castle provided protection for the people within it, but also gave them a base from which they could go out and subjugate the local population.

It wasn’t long before castles and walls were being built in stone. The exterior walls of most castles were whitewashed. Instead of seeing grey stone looming on the horizon, you should picture something white and impressive. The idea of a castle was to demonstrate to the Saxons that they were a defeated people. Over time, however, castles were used less to oppress the people living around them and more to protect them.

Castle and outer bailey

Portchester Castle and Outer Bailey

In my diagram above, I’ve included most of the things that you’d expect to see in a castle. Some buildings are missing, such as kitchens, bakeries and stables, but we’ll come to these later. Not all castles have all the parts, as it were. Some castles don’t have moats and some don’t have keeps. Some have complicated defences, others are more straightforward.

Castles vary greatly in size and some buildings that call themselves castles aren’t, being fortified houses. Stokesay Castle, for example, which I visited last year, is a fortified manor house.

I’ll go into more detail in future posts, but these are the bare bones of a castle:


Early castles were more or less wooden keeps on a hill surrounded by a tall fence. By the fourteenth century they were made of stone and were the last line of defence within a castle.


Moats were deep ditches, some filled with water, some not. They could go round the outer walls, as in the diagram above, or they could be within the outer bailey.

Outer Bailey

Not all castles had an outer bailey. It was the area outside the inner walls, but within the outer walls.

Inner Bailey

The open area inside the inner walls.


An external defence.

Great Hall

The largest enclosed space in a castle, where the household ate and, for the most part, slept.


A defensive feature on the outermost walls.

Postern Gate

A small side door to the castle.

Curtain wall

Outside wall of a castle between two towers.

Over the next few weeks we’ll look at each feature to see how important, or otherwise, they were to a castle.



Castle – Marc Morris

Capture the Castle – Sam Smiles, Tim Craven, Steve Marshall, Anne Anderson, Andy King


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Castle, Fourteenth Century

40 responses to “Anatomy of a Castle

  1. I found this very interesting April as it reminded me of the various historical sites we had visited. One Keep that comes to mind is the one in Wiltshire. You are right about the dangers of walking around back in the hey day!!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The postern gate was put there for fiction writers, so they could send a kitchen boy out during a [fill in the blank with a form of crisis] to run some essential errand and speed the plot along. Or to go see a girlfriend and speed the plot along. I’m in Edinburgh as I type this, looking up at the back end of the castle, and I can’t help tracing a path up the rock and wondering where the path is that leads to the postern gate and what happens next.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I visited Raby Castle a couple of weekends ago, which is still intact, still in use, and absolutely beautiful. All the stairs have handrails 🙂 Looking forward to the rest of this series.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. A super feature. I look forward to more

    Liked by 1 person

  5. lydiaschoch

    I had no idea that castles were painted white. They must have been very eye-catching!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Very interesting, April. I look forward to the next installments.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I do believe there is no better setting for a story than a castle. Hidden passages, defensive towers and the postern are gems. I just posted a little story about a renaissance wall and the city gate. Your posts are inspiration. Thanks for sharing. 👍

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I really appreciate this. There are books in the library that describe castle architecture, but not through the eyes of a writer who needs to know the nitty-gritty details for plot lines and character development.

    With your experience, we can expect to visualize real castle life. And knowing you, we’ll see early castles, tiny ones, complex ones, and lots of “What, really?” eye openers.

    Another promising journey begins! You are so thorough & interesting!
    Thank you!

    And for everyone — I like your comments. Just can’t “like” them!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. I had hoped to get round more castles during the summer, but it’s been too hot. The point I’d really like to make over the next few weeks is that people lived in castles and called them home. They weren’t the empty ruins we see today, but places where people lived and worked.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Yay! I can like your reply! Wish I could like your article! 😦

    Yes, this summer was one for the books! Really hope you’re feeling relief
    soon. Have a great week!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Castles were whitewashed! I never knew that. It must have really boosted their visibility, particularly at night. I enjoy exploring castles, but their steep and narrow stairs present a bit more of a challenge each year. I marvel at the thought of fit young things dashing up and down them in bygone days.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Great post, April. One of my favourite past times is exploring castles. I live very close to Kenilworth Castle and often sit and write in the grounds!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I too love castles April, they are so interesting and steeped in History. I love to imagine the people who lived there; what they were wearing, who was their King or Queen at the time; what did they do within the castle…Such an interesting post April. An apology too, because I hadn’t realised I was actually following your blog – I am now! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  13. I found great info from the English Heritage website, and made a copy of Kenilworth floor & ground plans. Perhaps EH will allow you to share some of their maps, etc. If you’ve already explored this, chuck my idea under the desk.

    Despite the complexity of Kenilworth, it still had all the features you described in all the proper places!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I look forward to the coming posts detailing the parts of the castle. Keep up the good work!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. And speaking of those open stairs without railings, I encountered those at Rumeli Hisari (Roman Castle), the 15th C. Ottoman castle built in their successful effort to take Constantinople (now Istanbul).

    When I lived there, some years ago, none of the historical or archaeological sites I visited had any added safety features for visitors (which would be so very different if those places existed here in litigious USA), so it was climb at your own peril. It gave a really good insight into what life must have been like back then.

    I imagined running up the steps inside the walls at speed and fully armed in all kinds of weather–scary indeed, especially considering how very narrow those steps are!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Pingback: Medieval Musical Instruments Part Five | A Writer's Perspective

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