Yes, the Anatomy of a Castle series is back. On visits to more castles than I like to think about over the last month, I was able to take photographs of things I’d read about, but couldn’t illustrate during the original run. In the case of the barbican, though, I have to admit that I’ve been labouring under a misapprehension for years. I thought that it was a bit of wall that was reinforced in some way. This is partly due to the definition of the term in A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases: “An external defence for castle or city; extra defence for a city gate or bridge”. Some of the castles I visited recently have barbicans and the penny finally dropped.
A barbican is indeed a special defence, but it’s a lot more than a bit of wall. It’s a high-walled funnel. The purpose of the barbican is to trap any attackers in a narrow space so that they can be picked off by the defenders in nearby towers and on the tops of the two walls forming the funnel.
The photograph at the top of the post shows the barbican at the North Gate of Sherborne Old Castle. This wasn’t the main gate, but it received supplies delivered to the castle by boat. Anyone attacking the castle by that entrance would have to go up a steep incline no more than two abreast. Probably uniquely, this barbican had a roof. To my mind, at least, that makes it less easy to defend. How would the defenders know what the attackers were up to while they were out of sight?
This is the barbican at Prudhoe Castle. It’s at the main entrance to the castle and is overlooked by the gatehouse. The defenders could stand on top of the barbican walls and shoot arrows down at the attackers. As at Old Sherborne Castle, the barbican is on an incline. It’s not as steep as the one at Sherborne, but it would slow down any attackers a little.
I took hundreds of photographs while I was away, so I’ve got a few more things to add to the Anatomy of a Castle series over the next few weeks.
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Cristopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Prudhoe Castle by Susie West
Sherborne Old Castle by Peter White