Before I get on to the physical structures of a castle, I wanted to touch on something that most of us forget when we see or visit one. Apart from tourists, most castles are empty ruins these days. When they were built, however, they were home to many people. They didn’t just house soldiers. It took lots of servants to run and maintain a castle, especially when the family of the man who had charge of it was in residence.
Castles were expensive and took a long time to build. At Guédelon in France there is a construction project in which a castle designed in a thirteenth-century style is being built using medieval methods. It’s a modest castle, but they’ve already been building for 20 years and it’s not finished. Partly that’s due to the number of people working on it. A medieval building-site would have had many more. They would only have worked a few months each year, though, covering the walls against the winter weather from September to May.
A castle was, therefore, the ultimate medieval home. It was a luxury residence for the fabulously wealthy. When you visit a castle, try to imagine it with paintings and designs on the interior walls. People of the fourteenth century loved colour and their taste often seems garish to our eyes, so think about colours so bright that they hurt.
Some walls would have been covered with tapestries, another luxury item. They served not just to show the wealth of the man who owned them, but also as decoration and insulation.
As well as having a military purpose, castles were often administrative centres. This meant that the households were large and included:
- The lord and his family
- Knights (usually young)
- The lord’s domestic servants
- Clerks (both priests and administrators)
- Stable lads
- Men for general labouring work
Such a large number of people would get through the resources of the surrounding area fairly quickly. This meant that the lord rarely spent more than a few weeks in one place. He would move between his estates with about 50 people, leaving a garrison of soldiers behind in the castle together with a few servants.
The next time you visit a castle see the soldiers training in the bailey; watch servants carrying water from the well to the kitchens; hear the dogs barking and the horses neighing; and smell the bread being baked in the bakery.
Castle – Marc Morris